Sylvia Plath

The Night Dances by Sylvia Plath

In ‘The Night Dances’, Plath reflects on the fleeting human experience and the inevitability of death and emptiness.

The Night Dances by Sylvia Plath

Published in 1965 by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘The Night Dances’ laments the idea of eternal darkness that comes after the fragile, fleeting beauty of the human experience.

The Night Dances by Sylvia Plath


Summary

The Night Dances‘ by Sylvia Plath explores the fragility of human existence.

‘The Night Dances’ follows Plath’s perspective on the play of her second child, Nicholas, and reflects on how fragile and precious human life is. Moreover, the poem laments the inevitability of death and disappearance.

Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme

‘The Night Dances’ is a 28-line poem separated into 14 stanzas, each consisting of 2 lines. The poem has neither a set rhyme scheme nor a consistent meter – it is written in free verse.

Themes

In ‘The Night Dances,‘ Plath explores the themes of motherhood, fragile human experience and humanity as a whole, intense emotions and their fragility, vastness of existence, and the lack of permanence.

The entire poem is a carefully curated collection of allusions and metaphors that create an immersive experience for the reader.

Literary Devices & Punctuation

Literary & Poetic Devices

  • A metaphor is a poetic device that creates a comparison without prepositions. Plath uses metaphors throughout the poem to reference her feelings.
  • Parataxis is a literary device that favors short, simple sentences without conjunctions. Plath uses parataxes throughout the poem for emphasis. Parataxis may be used interchangeably with asyndeton, a literary technique that omits conjunctions in a phrase or sentence.
  • An allusion is a poetic technique that refers to an object without direct mention. Plath uses allusions in combination with metaphors to describe her feelings and experiences.


Punctuation

  • Enjambment is the continuation of a phrase or sentence across multiple lines or stanzas, done through lack of punctuation.
  • Caesura is the use of punctuation in the middle of the line for purposes of repetition, emphasis, or rhythm break.
  • An anacoluthon is a technique in which punctuation is used in lieu of conjunctions.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

A smile fell in the grass.

Irretrievable!

‘The Night Dances’ begins with a metaphor. ‘Smile’ personifies a certain movement of Nicholas that made Plath happy. Plath’s use of ‘a’ instead of ‘the’ is not only deliberate but effective; the use of the article signifies that despite happiness being fragile, it is one of many. The natural imagery of ‘grass’ is compelling. Everything natural is connected in some way: everything decays and returns to life. The use of a full stop at the end of the line reflects the finality and adds to the melancholy tone of the stanza. Despite the smile not being the final smile that Plath will receive, she will never get that particular smile back.

The second line of the stanza is a single-word sentence ending with an exclamation mark. The construction of the sentence is deliberate: Plath aims to emphasize the importance of passing moments in motherhood.

Stanza Two

And how will your night dances

Lose themselves. In mathematics?

In the second stanza of ‘The Night Dances’, Plath introduces the intended reader: she is talking to her newborn son, Nicholas. Night Dances is a metaphor for Nicholas’s movements as he explores the space around him. Night Dances is not only an effective metaphor but also an effective use of pathetic fallacy: the night is a set time where everything quiets down. The world becomes more acute to sensory input: noise, light, and movement are amplified in the dark. Plath shares some of the most precious moments of motherhood in the dark: just her and Nicholas, no other stimuli.

Plath’s use of enjambment is effective: she frequently lets the phases run over lines and even stanzas, creating a fluid, prosaic poem hence inducing a storytelling tone.

Plath is certain that she will lose the innocent, fragile being that is her son; therefore, she uses the full stop after ‘themselves.’ She refers to Nicholas’s antics as ‘dances’, consequently suggesting that there are multiple ways in which she will lose her son. Plath suggests that his exploration and self-expression will be lost in the cold world of numbers and calculation. Putting physical creativity (dance) alongside mental rigidity (mathematics) is a compelling oxymoron.

Stanza Three

Such pure leaps and spirals ——

Surely they travel

In the third stanza of ‘The Night Dances’, Plath explores the physical movement done in dance: she creates a captivating image of beautiful physical self-expression. The use of the adjective ‘pure’ emphasizes the innocence of Nicholas’s childhood: he will move in the way that he feels compelled to, in the way that feels good, rather than the way that was instilled into him by society.

The longer em dash is designed to separate pieces of information- it is an anacoluthon in this stanza.

Stanza Four

The world forever, I shall not entirely

Sit emptied of beauties, the gift

The third stanza of ‘The Night Dances’ is a continuation of the previous stanza. By implementing enjambment, the sentence ‘travels’ not only across lines but across stanzas. Plath is convinced or trying to convince herself that the fleeting beauty of motherly experience will not abandon her. Those moments will travel and remain somewhere else but not disappear forever.

Stanza Five

Of your small breath, the drenched grass

Smell of your sleeps, lilies, lilies.

The fifth stanza of ‘The Night Dances’ is once again a continuation of the fourth stanza, achieved through enjambment. Plath’s use of punctuation effectively creates a fluid, prosaic poem.

Plath considers the effortless actions of her son a ‘gift’ – his breath is precious to her. Like any mother, she cherishes everything her newborn does, trying to capture every moment in her memory. The adjective ‘small’ emphasizes how fragile her son is. He does not yet breathe deeply and loudly, like adults; instead, his inhales and exhales are barely audible. This adds to the sensory profile of the poem: only Plath can hear his breathing in the night; there is nothing to distract her from it.

Natural Imagery

Natural imagery makes a comeback in this stanza. The repetition of grass and lilies effectively creates a visual for the reader. The grass is ‘drenched’, which adds a sensory component to the phrase. The reader wonders: is the grass drenched from the rain? Maybe from Plath’s tears due to the fear of losing her precious moments with Nicholas?

Plath touches on a motherly subject of sleep. Many mothers claim that sleep, especially the sleep of their newborn children, has a particular smell. Plath draws on that memory and creates another feeling for the sensory profile of the poem. Moreover, she connects the drenched grass to the smell of sleep.

Additionally, Plath uses natural imagery when talking about lilies. The flower symbolises purity, fertility, and rebirth, which seems relevant to the poem. The anaphora of lilies is important as in the following two stanzas, she mentions various types of lilies.

Stanza Six

Their flesh bears no relation.

Cold folds of ego, the calla,

In the sixth stanza of ‘The Night Dances’, Plath describes the calla lily. Moreover, the first line of the stanza refers to the differences between the lilies, comparing them to the differences between mother and child. Even though the calla lily and tiger lily are the same species of flower, they are profoundly different; just like mother and child are from the same family, they too are profoundly different. Plath reflects on the different paths that same family members take: they may be drastically different in appearance, hence the phrase ‘flesh bears no relation.’

The description of the calla lily is compelling: it is beautiful yet emotionlessly folded. Despite the outward attractiveness of the flower, it has not been tended to and cared for, unlike the process of motherhood. Plath personifies the flower; it now has an ego. The flower seems to know it is beautiful yet does not care for it.

Stanza Seven

And the tiger, embellishing itself ——

Spots, and a spread of hot petals.

In the seventh stanza of ‘The Night Dances’, Plath contrasts the images of the calla lily with a tiger lily. The connotation of this flower is drastically different. The calla lily is white and pristine, symbolizing innocence and birth, whereas the tiger lily is a much more vibrant flower, having connotations of passion, love, and energy. The use of ’embellishing’ is effective: while the calla lily has a subtle beauty, the tiger lily does not shy away from attention. It has multiple patterns, as well as being brightly colored.

The tiger lily symbolizes Plath’s fierce love for her son. She feels the flower represents the passion and emotion she feels with Nicholas. Moreover, the intricate patterns of the tiger lily are a metaphor for the path of motherhood. Just as every child-mother relationship is different, so too are the patterns different on every tiger lily.

The ‘spread of hot petals’ is another metaphor for Plath’s emotions towards her child. She has spread (opened) herself up to love and motherhood. The emotions she feels are ‘hot,’ meaning intense and almost overwhelming.

Stanza Eight

The comets

Have such a space to cross,

In the eighth stanza of ‘The Night Dances,’ Plath uses a metaphor to describe the fleeting human experience. She uses ‘comets’ to reflect on the fragility and momentary pleasure of the emotions she feels throughout motherhood. A comet is an object that travels through space and heats up when coming close to a source of heat, for example, the Sun. It releases gas near the heat, producing a visible atmosphere known as a coma. This is an effective comparison as Plath’s emotions, like the comet, light up when near a source of heat, namely Nicholas.

The comparison effectively links the eighth stanza to the seventh, therefore creating a more fluid rhythm and adding to the storytelling effect.

Plath points out that comets have immense space to cross, just like Nicholas has a myriad of things to learn. Moreover, this is a reflection of the memories that Plath will have of these fleeting moments. A comet may travel for thousands of kilometers, only lighting up for a few minutes, akin to Plath’s memories of fleeting moments remaining for the rest of her life.

Stanza Nine

Such coldness, forgetfulness.

So your gestures flake off ——

In the ninth stanza of ‘The Night Dances,’ Plath alludes to the vastness of the physical and metaphysical worlds. She uses the nouns to connect the two worlds and reflect on the experiences of motherhood. The ‘coldness’ refers to the lack of warmth when those hot, bright moments she describes just a couple of stanzas ago inevitably pass.

Moreover, the ‘forgetfulness’ is a crucial connection between the physical world and her personal experiences. Humans relentlessly try to hold onto memories. As a species, humankind is obsessed with history. Archaeology and history are the studies of the past, something that is only applicable to mankind. No other species, alive or extinct, has ever concerned itself with what was before them. The natural world always forgets species, places, and natural disasters, and humans are the only ones desperately trying to hold onto something long gone.

Plath is terrified of losing the connection to Nicholas, yet she fears it is inevitable. One way or another, his ‘night dances’ will be forgotten, both by him and her. Moreover, Plath fears that the things that meant a lot to both her and Nicholas will begin to wear off. Once crucial to their relationship, the’ gestures’ will start to ‘flake off’- lose their importance and eventually dissipate.

Stanza Ten

Warm and human, then their pink light

Bleeding and peeling

In the tenth stanza of ‘The Night Dances,’ Plath continues describing the ‘gestures’ that will inevitably flake off. By using an anacoluthon in the form of an em dash, she effectively resumes her sentence in a different stanza. Plath personifies the gestures, giving them temperature, quality, and color, therefore presenting them almost as sentient beings, separate from the constructions of time and space.

Plath affectionately describes the gestures as warm and human, effectively alluding to not only her love for Nicholas but the boy himself. He, too, is warm and human, growing up and changing too fast, ridding himself of the comfortable ‘pink light.’ Plath’s use of color and temperature throughout the poem not only effectively adds to the sensory profile but creates a subtle yet coherent underlying theme. She adds light and warmth in one stanza and takes them away in the next, fabricating a contrasting atmosphere throughout the poem, making it very engaging for the reader.

The ‘pink light’ isn’t taken away suddenly; instead, it slowly peels and bleeds away. This is a compelling allusion to the loss of childhood and memories of it. A child doesn’t suddenly grow up, going from being 5 to 30 in a minute. In lieu, they slowly change and morph into an entirely different individual. Plath uses grotesque descriptions to emphasize the motherly pain at the inevitability of their child growing up.

Stanza Eleven

Through the black amnesias of heaven.

Why am I given

In the eleventh stanza of ‘The Night Dances,’ Plath uses a juxtaposition to describe the contrasting sides of adulting. When thinking of heaven, one tends to think about light colors and a serene, calming atmosphere. Instead, Plath collocates heaven with something dark and ominous. There is no more pristine white; it is replaced with darkness. There is no more clarity and eternal understanding; instead, there is irretrievable disappearance of memories and experiences. Plath’s use of an oxymoron is incredibly effective.

Plath’s choice of ‘amnesias’ is compelling: amnesia is a medical condition in which people lose memories and experiences. This is a multi-level allusion. Firstly, Plath describes her fear of losing the memories she has made with Nicholas, as well as Nicholas growing up and forgetting them himself. Secondly, this alludes to the infinitely vast time and space: nothing is permanent, and everything will someday be forgotten. Thirdly, Plath reflects on heaven, a religious sanctum for those who have passed. Once someone dies, they lose all their experiences and memories: someone in heaven is devoid of any mention of their past life.

The second line of the stanza is a beginning of a question that continues in the next stanza. Plath has effectively used enjambment to create fluid sentences that transcend the structure of stanzas.

Stanza Twelve

These lamps, these planets

Falling like blessings, like flakes

The twelfth stanza of ‘The Night Dances’ starts with a continuation of a question. Despite the question structure being clearly implemented, the question lacks a question mark. This is done to further emphasize that Plath intended it to be a rhetorical question: not only does she not expect it to be answered, but she also has no one to ask.

Plath lists two objects: a lamp and a planet. Despite not being direct opposites, they are chosen deliberately to create a juxtaposition. Plath has chosen a lamp to add to the poem’s sensory profile and highlight how commonplace the object is. Every household has a lamp, but every lamp will be different, which is precisely the case with families and relationships. Plath effectively uses a metaphor to reflect on her personal experience as a mother and wife.

Subsequently, Plath mentions planets. Planets are incomprehensibly large objects, too big for someone to grasp. A planet is another metaphor for Plath’s experience as a mother and her feelings for her children. While seemingly easy to comprehend, they are too complex to grasp and convey, so describing them as a planet seems appropriate.

The ‘planets’ and ‘lamps’ are akin to ‘blessings’: they fall all around her. The imagery of ‘flakes’ is effective: the reader immediately imagines snowflakes falling around Plath. The use of flakes is clever and once again emphasizes the individuality of each family experience. Just as snowflakes are largely similar, but in detail, all uniquely different, so too are families much the same, and yet nothing alike.

Stanza Thirteen

Six sided, white

On my eyes, my lips, my hair

The thirteenth stanza of ‘The Night Dances’ is a continuation of the twelfth. Plath confirms that the flakes she mentioned in the previous stanza are indeed snowflakes. The color imagery is compelling: white symbolizes hope, innocence, and birth. While falling, snowflakes are pristine, not yet tarnished by the dirt and dust of the physical world. The snowflakes never fall as only a couple; snowfall may last for hours, wherein several hundred thousand snowflakes will descend. In the poem’s context, the snowflakes are akin to Plath’s experience of early motherhood: she is flooded with new memories, sensations, and feelings. These experiences surround her; her mind is swimming with the abundance of new information. Plath effectively lists the features of her head as that is where the memories will be stored until they inevitably dissipate.

Stanza Fourteen

Touching and melting.

Nowhere.

The fourteenth and final stanza of ‘The Night Dances’ effectively culminates the poem. Plath makes the ending allusion to her feelings and experience as a mother. The snowflakes are landing on her, touching and melting. This is an incredibly compelling metaphor: a snowflake will melt eventually regardless of how warm the object they land on is. However, from the previous stanza, it is clear to the reader that Plath herself is the hot tiger lily. The use of a full stop after ‘melting’ is compelling as it symbolizes the irretrievability of the snowflake. Just like memories can only be recalled but not recreated, so too will a snowflake never exactly match any of those that came before or will come after it.

The last line of the poem is a single-word sentence followed by a full stop. A full stop is intentional: it symbolizes finality and completion. Just as the memories, experiences, and life as a whole come to an end, so too does the poem.

Plath’s finish of the poem directly mirrors the beginning. At the start of the poem, a smile falls into the grass, and in the end, the snowflakes fall onto her. The contrast of the seasons is effective: at the beginning, it is a spring or summer season, and the ending is set in the winter. The poem mirrors life: from birth to childhood to adulthood: Plath uses seasons, temperatures, and colors to immerse the reader into the poem.

FAQs

When was the poem ‘The Night Dances’ published?

The poem was published as a part of the anthology Ariel in 1965.

Whom is the poem ‘The Night Dances’ about?

Sylvia Plath wrote the poem shortly after giving birth to her second child Nicholas.

Who published ‘The Night Dances’?

The anthology Ariel, which included the poem, was published by Sylvia Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, after inheriting all of her written work.

What is the poem ‘The Night Dances’ about?

In the poem, Plath explores the contrast between intense but fleeting emotions of motherhood and the eternal darkness that everything eventually succumbs to.


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The Night Dances by Sylvia Plath
Ekaterina Kazantseva Poetry Expert
About
Having obtained the International Baccalaureate diploma, Ekaterina is currently in university. She has 6 years of experience in poetry writing and 5 in academic poetry analysis.
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