Below, you will find a part of an analysis of the poem Night Sweat by Robert Lowell. Lowell explores the themes of mortality, illness, and the fragility of life through vivid and haunting imagery. The poem describes the experience of being awoken in the middle of the night by a feverish nightmare and the sense of disorientation and vulnerability that follows.
Throughout the poem, Lowell’s use of language is both raw and deeply introspective, inviting the reader to explore their own fears and anxieties about mortality and the unknown. The poem is a powerful meditation on the human experience and the ways in which we grapple with the fragility and transience of our existence.
Night Sweats: Night sweats are a medical condition, where the body sweats so much that the person’s clothes and bedding become soaked. Typically the condition is caused by anxiety and worry.
Wilted: Faded, softened and withered, as in old petals or steamed leaves.
Embalms: The purpose of embalming is to prevent decomposition; in ancient times, it consisted primarily of wrapping the body with bandages and spices. The speaker most likely employs this word to describe how his nocturnal sweat (and his drenched sheets and clothes) surround him, while these morbid overtones enhance his later references to death.
Bias: In this instance, the term ‘bias’ refers merely to a physical angle or slope. The speaker compares the experience of presence to a surface that draws him down and saps his strength.
Urn: An urn is a big vase-like container often used to hold cremated remains. In the poem, the persona uses “this urn” as a metaphor for his body, in which “the animal night sweats of the soul burn,” its particular deathly implications underline the speaker’s “desire to die” in the preceding lines.
Leaded: The adjective ‘leaded’ denotes an object that has been made heavy, as if it is made out of the metal lead.
Dapple: The speaker explains how the early light (“the day”) produces a dappled patchwork pattern on the bed.
Seamy: Contemptible, disreputable, or morally tainted. The spider’s sack: The spider’s sack is the webbed pouch where female spiders lay their eggs. This statement is a metaphor for the speaker’s uneasiness; when his wife “rips the black web from the spider’s sack,” this implies that she may alleviate some of his concerns.
Absolve: To absolve someone is to release them from guilt. In this passage, the speaker asks his wife for forgiveness for overloading her with the consequences of his creative worry.
STORY + SUMMARY
I’m thinking about all the clutter in my house: work-table, litter, books and standing lamp, basic things, my stalled equipment, the old broom – but right now I’m living in a tidied room, for ten nights now I’ve felt the damp creeping up on me, I’ve felt it float over my pajamas, and turn their colour to a wilted white… Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet, everything streams around me and tells me that this is right; my life’s fever is soaking in night sweats— one life, one writing! But the downward glide and bias of existing wring us dry— the child who I used to be is constantly inside me, even though he died a long time ago – his wish to die always remains inside me too— one universe, one body… in this urn burn the animal night sweats of the spirit. Behind me! You! Again I feel the light lighten my leaded eyelids, while the gray skilled horses whinny for the soot of night. I try to exist in the patchy sunlight of the day, waking up in a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering, I see my flesh and bedding washed with light, my child exploding into dynamite, my wife… your lightness alters everything. It tears the black web from the spider’s sack as your heart hops and flutters like a hare. Poor turtle, tortoise, if I can’t clear the surface of these troubled waters here, absolve me, help me, Dear Heart (my dear wife), as you bear this world’s dead weight and cycle on your back.
SPEAKER + VOICE
The persona in the poem “Night Sweat” by Robert Lowell is a man. The poem is written in first person, so the speaker is presumably Lowell
himself. The poem is about the speaker’s experience of waking up in night sweats, which were likely a symptom of his manic depression. The
the speaker struggles with the fear and anxiety that come with this disorder, and he describes the experience candidly and matter-of-factly. He does not identify himself as the poem’s persona but simply as “I.” This allows the poem to be open to interpretation, which enables it to make more general comments on the uncomfortable experience of night sweats, which are a physical illness derived from a psychological condition. Ultimately, the speaker’s experience is universal and can be understood by anyone who has experienced the anxiety and fear of mental illness. It is unclear why the speaker has night sweats. The symbolism of the phrase “my stalled equipment” implies that the speaker is experiencing writer’s block, and is unable to write clearly. In the next portion of the poem, however, the persona states that his wife’s presence brightens his thoughts. She has such a vibrant personality which creates a ‘lightness’ over everything; even the mundane items in his room are improved by it. Finally, he asks his beloved wife to rescue him from his agony and fury, as she has before – if he himself ‘cannot clear / the surface of these waters’, then he begs her to ‘help’ and ‘absolve’ him – to both support him but also forgive him for the stress and suffering that he causes her.
Thanks for reading! Find more of our English Literature and Language courses on the links below: