Home  »  The Poems of Matthew Arnold  »  A Summer Night

Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems

A Summer Night

[First published 1852. Reprinted 1855.]

IN the deserted moon-blanch’d street

How lonely rings the echo of my feet!

Those windows, which I gaze at, frown,

Silent and white, unopening down,

Repellent as the world:—but see!

A break between the housetops shows

The moon, and, lost behind her, fading dim

Into the dewy dark obscurity

Down at the far horizon’s rim,

Doth a whole tract of heaven disclose.

And to my mind the thought

Is on a sudden brought

Of a past night, and a far different scene.

Headlands stood out into the moon-lit deep

As clearly as at noon;

The spring-tide’s brimming flow

Heav’d dazzlingly between;

Houses with long white sweep

Girdled the glistening bay:

Behind, through the soft air,

The blue haze-cradled mountains spread away.

That night was far more fair;

But the same restless pacings to and fro,

And the same vainly-throbbing heart was there,

And the same bright calm moon.

And the calm moonlight seems to say—

Hast thou then still the old unquiet breast

That neither deadens into rest

Nor ever feels the fiery glow

That whirls the spirit from itself away,

But fluctuates to and fro

Never by passion quite possess’d

And never quite benumb’d by the world’s sway?

And I, I know not if to pray

Still to be what I am, or yield, and be

Like all the other men I see.

For most men in a brazen prison live,

Where in the sun’s hot eye,

With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly

Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,

Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.

And as, year after year,

Fresh products of their barren labour fall

From their tired hands, and rest

Never yet comes more near,

Gloom settles slowly down over their breast.

And while they try to stem

The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,

Death in their prison reaches them

Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.

And the rest, a few,

Escape their prison, and depart

On the wide Ocean of Life anew.

There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart

Listeth, will sail;

Nor does he know how there prevail,

Despotic on life’s sea,

Trade-winds that cross it from eternity.

A while he holds some false way, undebarr’d

By thwarting signs, and braves

The freshening wind and blackening waves.

And then the tempest strikes him, and between

The lightning bursts is seen

Only a driving wreck,

And the pale Master on his spar-strewn deck

With anguish’d face and flying hair

Grasping the rudder hard,

Still bent to make some port he knows not where,

Still standing for some false impossible shore.

And sterner comes the roar

Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom

Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom,

And he too disappears, and comes no more.

Is there no life, but these alone?

Madman or slave, must man be one?

Plainness and clearness without shadow of stain!

Clearness divine!

Ye Heavens, whose pure dark regions have no sign

Of languor, though so calm, and though so great

Are yet untroubled and unpassionate:

Who though so noble share in the world’s toil,

And though so task’d keep free from dust and soil:

I will not say that your mild deeps retain

A tinge, it may be, of their silent pain

Who have long’d deeply once, and long’d in vain;

But I will rather say that you remain

A world above man’s head, to let him see

How boundless might his soul’s horizons be,

How vast, yet of what clear transparency.

How it were good to sink there, and breathe free.

How fair a lot to fill

Is left to each man still.