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All Through the Night: Night Poems and Lullabies

Marie Heaney (ed)
Poetry Ireland
All Through the Night: Night Poems and Lullabies


From the Introduction

We incline to think of night as a time of peace, rest and relaxation: a time that brings freedom from the cares of the day, a time to dream, to make love and to embrace blessed sleep which, in Shakespeare's words, knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care. And this is, indeed, a reality; but night can bring with it other, less benign experiences. With darkness can come sleeplessness and its attendant sadness, anxiety and guilt, emotions that are often more intensely felt at night than during the day with all its distractions. A time when, to borrow a phrase from Keats, conscience burrows like a mole and we are haunted by fears and regrets. Both these aspects of the night, happiness and sadness, are explored by the poems in this collection.

Lullabies, quiet songs to lull a child to sleep and other poems relating to children, form the opening section. The poems in the second part of the collection celebrate the various night-time pleasures as well as giving voice to the anxieties that beset us during the night.

Even in lullabies, there are traces of anxiety. Fears for the wellbeing of the child and the future that lies ahead of it are recurring themes. In 'Connemara Cradle Song', a mother soothes her child but her concern for the safety of the child's sea-faring father creeps into the song. Tennyson's song 'Sweet and low' echoes the preoccupations of these lullabies in the folk idiom.

In 'Seoithin Seo Ho', a lullaby in the Irish language, the parent is guarding the child from the Sidhe (known in English as the fairies), who in the folklore tradition were believed to abduct human children and bring them to the world they inhabited, under the lakes and mounds and fairy thorn trees that were scattered over the landscape. And there are the beautiful lines spoken by the fairies from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to lull Titania to sleep.

In the Christian lullabies it is angels who are invoked to watch over the sleeping children, though in some of them, notably 'The Castle of Dromore', Christian beliefs and pagan Celtic beliefs are enmeshed.

As any parent will tell you, children do not always respond to the soothing words designed to send them to sleep. This finds expression in the poems written for children, in the voices of children, by Robert Louis Stevenson, a master of this genre. Two of his poems give expression to a child's unwillingness to go to bed. And William Blake's unexpectedly joyful poem 'Nurse's Song'gives happy consent to that wilfulness.

Poems concerning birth and babies might be seen as the domain of mothers, and there are poems about this primal relationship, but I'm happy to include a number of poems, welcoming the newly born, from fathers and grandfathers.

The natural world, its flora and fauna, permeate many of the poems in this collection but it is particularly prevalent in the lullabies and the other poems concerning children. However, I have also included a number of lullabies set in urban environments. Sylvia Plath's 'Alicante Lullaby', a poem full of noise, is a fine example, and there are other poems set in Belfast, Dublin, London and America where local concerns add authenticity and interest to the material.

The poems in the night poems section are very wide-ranging in both emotional expression and subject matter, and they bring the reader to unexpected places. However, unsurprisingly, sleep is still a preoccupation - praise for it, the need for it, the desire for it and the lack of it - and is the subject matter of a number of these poems. The adult's fear of insomnia replaces the child's reluctance to go to sleep. Even Wordsworth, in his gentle poem, 'To Sleep', admits to counting sheep to no avail. Other poets are disturbed by the prospect of the trials that a sleepless night can bring.

However, for some poets even sleeplessness has its rewards: the scent of flowers, intensified by the night air, the birds that are still awake and singing, the beauty of the night sky. The moon comes in for special praise. Walter de la Mare in his famous poem 'Silver' and Ted Hughes in the poem about his daughter, 'Full Moon and Little Frieda', bring the moon to life to great effect.

Night brings blessings, other than rest and sleep, not least lovemaking, and there are a number of tender, sensual poems by modern poets on that subject. I have included two iconic poems, WH Auden's love poem 'Lullaby' and Sir Thomas Wyatt's 'They Flee From Me Who Sometime Did Me Seek', an angry poem about love betrayed, written in the seventeenth century.

The collection closes with poems that, in Matthew Arnold's words, 'bring the eternal note of sadness in'. There is an elegiac tone to these last poems as the poets mourn the loss of their youth, the death of loved ones, and turn to face, in their characteristic ways, the prospect of that last long sleep that awaits us all.