The Shadows Deepen: Insights Into a 19th-Century Poem about Light

Poetry and Balmy Light

This morning I am going to talk about the poem “Let the Light Enter,” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911). Her bio is beyond the scope of this entry, but I encourage you to follow the link and check her out. Get a little perspective on life today by reading a paragraph about this amazing human being and poet.

Harper’s poem, “Let the Light Enter,” depicts light in an interesting and fresh way, fresh still, even 100 years after her death. Poetry, generally speaking, is like a vast collection of opportunities to learn about yourself and the world in which you live. I invite you to take a minute to read “Let the Light Enter.”

Let the Light Enter

The Dying Words of Goethe

Window Light
The play of sunlight through a window.

“Light! more light! the shadows deepen,
And my life is ebbing low,
Throw the windows widely open:
Light! more light! before I go.

“Softly let the balmy sunshine
Play around my dying bed,
E’er the dimly lighted valley
I with lonely feet must tread.

“Light! more light! for Death is weaving
Shadows ‘round my waning sight,
And I fain would gaze upon him
Through a stream of earthly light.”

Not for greater gifts of genius;
Not for thoughts more grandly bright,
All the dying poet whispers
Is a prayer for light, more light.

Heeds he not the gathered laurels,
Fading slowly from his sight;
All the poet’s aspirations
Centre in that prayer for light.

Gracious Saviour, when life’s day-dreams
Melt and vanish from the sight,
May our dim and longing vision
Then be blessed with light, more light.

The very interesting case with this poem is that it uses light NOT as a metaphor. It’s so traditional that it’s painfully cliched to use light as a metaphor for, say, “gifts of genius” and “thoughts” that are “grandly bright,” to use Harper’s words. This poem, however, flips the cliche on its head by taking us to a deathbed scene. The man on the deathbed (Goethe, we learn from the opening dedication) is uninterested in worldly things. “All the aspirations” that “the poet” has had during his life fade away. He doesn’t care about “laurels”; his “aspirations” don’t mean anything to this “dying poet.”

He just urgently wants to watch the “balmy sunshine/ Play around” his deathbed. He just wants to experience the sensation of light doing it’s thing. “More light!” he demands. It strongly suggests that appreciating and enjoying the beauty of light is what Goethe, a lifelong thinker and poet who lived from 1749 to 1832, finds most worthy of his final precious minutes. That’s a big deal. In choosing between the pleasure of thoughts and the pleasure of the material world, he chooses the latter. It’s like all the things that seem to separate us from the natural world are shown to be false in the final moments. Think of a dog lying on a rock in the sun. Maybe that’s the purest state of being, just lying there, not thinking much, and enjoying the pleasure of the light, the sound of a brook. And maybe that’s why Goethe wants to pass away in such a state.

I wonder if Harper’s poem could be modernized so that the dying character appreciates a light source other than the sun. How would it change the poem if Goethe, in his final minutes, took to enjoying the play of light and shadow created by a string of holiday lights, for example? It’s tempting to think the poem wouldn’t work and that it’s the feel of sunlight that pleases Goethe so much. In this scene full of gravitas, the sunlight might make him feel connected to some kind of origin, like he’s part of something infinite and extraordinary.

Still, there’s an insight to be gleaned about artificial lighting and the pleasure it can give. Good lighting provides pleasure. And safety. And comfort. And wonder. Aren’t these things that are also more important than “laurels” or “aspirations?” What do you think?

Share anything that strikes you about the poem, or about the mid-season finale of Mad Men! Happy Friday! Make this weekend a great one and focus on the best things in life! (Hint: They will be free.)

Tom Sowders

After majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. I live in the Raleigh-Durham area with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.