An Analysis of Wole Soyinka’s ‘Night’

Wole Soyinka’s ‘Night’ appeared in A Selection of African Poetry edited by Kwadzo Senanu and Theo Vincent, published in 1988. The poem can be read as an ode to Night, which is personified throughout the poem. ‘Night’ is organised in five stanzas of three lines per stanza. Hence, the poem is written in tercets. The poem is written in free verse but one which has the rhyme scheme ABA and makes use of enjambment, whereby not only do we have one line flowing into another, but also a stanza flowing into another stanza in some cases.  

The first stanza of the poem reads: ‘Your hand is heavy, Night, upon my brow,/I bear no heart mercuric like the clouds, to dare/Exacerbation from your subtle plough’. In this stanza, the persona renders Night as an individual, an existential force and a temporality that induces sleep. There is personification in the first line of the stanza where Night is described as having a hand which presses down on the persona’s brow, which suggests sleepiness on the part of the persona. The remaining lines in the stanza depict the night’s power over the persona as well as his inability to resist the urge to sleep. There is simile in the second line of the first stanza in the expression, ‘I bear no heart mercuric like the clouds’. The imagery conjured up in the expression is visual and organic. The expression implies that the persona’s heart is not as strong and resistant like that of mercury which would have enabled him resist Night’s pull to sleep. The stanza has tropes like alliteration, metaphor, imagery, symbolism, simile and personification. Alliteration is seen in Line 1 in the words ‘hand’ and ‘heavy’ in which the sound /h/ is repeated. The word ‘Night’ is a written as a proper noun which suggests personification and a metaphor for sleep and its temporality.

The word ‘mercuric’ serves to highlight the durable and resistant nature of mercury either as a chemical element or as the closest planet to the sun. However, since the persona’s heart is not as strong as that of mercury, it cannot resist the pull of Night towards sleep. The word ‘Exacerbation’ means the process or the act of making something worse and, in the poem’s context, implies that though the persona is naturally predisposed to sleep, the coming of night makes it inevitable and irresistible. The expression ‘subtle plough’ is an implied metaphor drawn from farming; it is used to denote Night as a farmer and to demonstrate the wily ways that Night uses to induce the persona to sleep. In the poem, Night symbolises sleep or its force. On the whole, the first stanza of the poem demonstrates the synonymy of night and sleep and how naturally the individual is predisposed to fall asleep when Night comes.

The second stanza of the poem reads: ‘Woman as a clam, on the sea’s crescent/I saw your jealous eye quench the sea’s/Flourescence, dance on the pulse incessant’. In this stanza, the persona identifies as a woman, traditionally denoted as the weaker sex and/or gender, and goes on to compare herself to a clam which is a marine bivalve molluse with shells of equal size. The expression ‘sea’s crescent’ denotes waves. Within the context of the poem, the persona deploys sea imagery to describe the effect of sleep on the individual. The words ‘woman’ and ‘clam’ describe positions of Otherness in relation to the Night and its agent, sleep. The expression ‘I saw your jealous eye quench the sea’s/Flourescence’ describes the idea that Night does not only affect human beings, it also affects the sea and whatever is in it, where ‘jealous eye’ exemplifies personification, ‘eye’ exemplifies synecdoche while the expression ‘quench’ is an implied metaphor, as it signals Night as water that extinguishes the sea fire or light seen in the word ‘Flourescence’. The word ‘dance’ denotes kinetic imagery and speaks to the action of Night on the sea waves.

The third stanza of the poem reads: ‘Of the waves. And I stood, drained/Submitting like the sands, blood and brine/Coursing to the roots. Night, you rained’. It should be noted that this stanza is a continuation of the second stanza. The stanza depicts how the persona confesses his inability to resist the influence of Night and sleep, drawing imagery from different sources to portray how he falls asleep. In other words, the persona uses sea imagery and metaphors to describe the effect of Night and sleep on him. There is simile in the second line of the stanza in the expression ‘submitting like the sands’. The expressions ‘blood’ and ‘brine’ exemplify alliteration and when combined with the expression ‘Coursing to the roots’, suggests the total or complete effect of sleep on the persona’s being.

The fourth stanza of the poem reads: ‘Serrated shadows through dank leaves/Till, bathed in warm suffusion of your dappled cells/Sensations pained me, faceless, silent as night thieves.’ This stanza exemplifies the rich array of imagery deployed in Soyinka’s ‘Night’. Again, the stanza flows from the third stanza and in it the persona directly addresses Night and its influences on ‘dank leaves’. The word ‘dank’ means unpleasantly damp or cold. Thus, one of the effects on Night is that it brings cold to nature’s vegetation. The expression ‘serrated shadows’ could be a metaphor for the dew that falls on leaves at night while ‘dappled cells’ describes the residue of water left on the leaves after rainfall. But this is equally the experience of the persona because the Night affects him as well. Sleep is described as a sensation that brings pain and renders the individual faceless, implying not being conscious of one’s identity and place, as well as a distortion or disruption of one’s physical state. There is simile in the expression, ‘silent like night thieves’. This expression suggests that night is usually the time for thieves to act, as it provides a cover for them.  

The fifth and final stanza of the poem reads: ‘Hide me now, when night children haunt the earth/I must hear none! These misted calls will yet/Undo me; naked, unbidden, at Night’s muted birth’. In the stanza, night is depicted as a refuge for the fugitive soul. Given the poet’s life experiences, I would interpret the metaphor of night children who haunt the earth as agents of dictators in postcolonial spaces. Hence, the persona is seeking refuge in night, perhaps, pursued by his enemies. The expression ‘I must hear none!’ is an existential cry for help against the evils of night. The expression ‘These misted calls will yet/Undo me’ suggests the call to sleep, including its laden dangers, as sleep signals loss of consciousness and lack of alertness.  

In all, Soyinka’s ‘Night’ is a poem that depicts the shades of influences of the night, the fact that it brings about sleep, provides cover for agents of evil as well as a refuge for those haunted by their enemies, among others. The preponderance of pauses (caesura) within the lines of the poem serves to punctuate the rhythm of the poem’s lyrics, letting readers stop and reflect on the poet’s musings. The caesuras also imbue the poem with its narrative texture, creating dramatic stops to make the reader pause and wonder at the poet’s words. Another element that contributes to the rhythm and general musicality of the poem is the rhyme, both end rhyme and internal rhyme. End rhyme is seen in lexical pairs like brow/plough, crescent/incessant, drained/rained, leaves/thieves and earth/birth, while internal rhyme is seen in the pair dance/fluorescence. The highest level of success the poet records in ‘Night’ is in the area of diction and imagery. The poem mostly draws from visual and kinetic imagery, which elicit tropes such as simile, metaphor, personification and synecdoche, among others.

The themes raised in the poem include night as a powerful personality and an existential force, the inevitability of sleep, the need for human beings to rest after a hard day’s work, the effects of night on human beings and the ambivalent possibilities that night portend in the human world.

Wole Soyinka’s ‘Night’

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