Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Explication of "Twilight" by Fitz-Greene Halleck

One of the things that Fitz-greene Halleck was most well-known for was his ability to write romantic verse. This particular skill is evident in the lines of “Twilight” and the title itself speaks to the elevated nature of the poem. The title “Twilight” immediately evokes imagery of nostalgic golden light and the transition from the bright summer afternoon to the dimly-lit evening. The use of a single word in distinguishing the poem immediately sets an atmosphere of mystery and vague imagery. Throughout the poem, this imagery of transition and light throughout the day is reinforced through the comparison of the light of day to the emotional investments experienced throughout man’s lifespan. As the poem progresses, the reference to twilight is consistent and ties up the thematic elements of the poem. The reader’s attention is effectively directed to the deeper metaphor of twilight in the poem as a comparison between the light of day and the vitality of man’s life.

The poem is largely descriptive, void of a detailed plot line; however, it does have a chronological element as the speaker refers to the different phases of day and the transitions between them. In Virginia Lucas’s version of the poem, there are four stanzas, the third of which is split, continuing into a new column because of a lack of space at the bottom of the page. Because of these alterations, Virginia Lucas’s version of the poem has 53 lines (as opposed to the original 40) and for the purposes of this analysis, the 53-line version is used in order to maintain some of the particular charm the transcribed, scrapbook version holds.

The meter is regular throughout the poem, consisting of lines written in iambic pentameter (a series of five unstressed-stressed feet) with the exception of the last line in the first three stanzas which end with a line of iambic hexameter (a series of six unstressed-stressed feet). When reading the poem, this means that the emphasis is on the second syllables as evidenced in the example, “There is an evening twilight of the heart” (line 1). The italics represent stressed syllables. By writing in iambic pentameter and keeping the rhythm regular throughout the poem, Halleck adds to the dreamy and nostalgic quality of the poem since it is read somewhat like a lullaby. The rhythm lulls the reader into comfortable regularity as the poem continues, allowing the reader to focus more heavily on the emotion and imagery of the words as opposed to the cadence in which they must be spoken. The final line of the final stanza ends with iambic pentameter, causing the poem to come to an unexpectedly resolved end. As opposed to the budding tension and slight rush to finish the thought of the stanza present in ending lines of the previous stanzas written in iambic hexameter, ending the poem with the predominant five-foot meter allows the poem to easily and quietly resolve itself.  By doing this, Halleck slowly and gently brings the poem to a close, which is in line with the imagery of the poem’s ending.

The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEE / FGFGHIHIJJ / KLKLMNMNOO / PQPQRARATT, with each stanza consisting of two quatrains followed by a couplet. In the first stanza, the speaker begins by describing the twilight of the human heart, immediately introducing the metaphor by saying that its “wild passion waves are lull’d/to rest” (line 2-3). The allusion to the human experience within the description of twilight continues into the next line as “the eye sees life’s fairy scenes depart,” beginning to draw the connection between the light of day and the humanity (line 4).  Halleck details the feelings that accompany both the twilight of day and the twilight of life. It is with a “nameless feeling of regret” that we watch the “day beam” fade in the “rosy west,” just as it is with an inexplicable longing we watch the dawn of our youth disappear into the horizon (lines 5-7).

The inverted syntactic style of “Twilight” is evidenced in many of the lines, such as line 11 when Halleck writes “Dear are her whispers still, though lost / their early power;” this has the effect of making the reader slow down as they read. The less familiar structure of the sentence requires more focus in order to extract meaning from it. Causing the reader to slow down and enunciate the sounds of the poem creates an elevated and dreamlike effect. The rhythm is soft, but pulses on a word every now and then to simulate a breathy, dreamy cadence. In conjunction with the powerful and romantic diction woven into the poem, this lilting meter becomes even more prominently featured as an element of attracting attention to the smaller, more pleasant aspects of a peaceful existence.

Throughout the poem, there are many instances of voiced consonant phrases, with many “l,” “t,” and “b” sounds (i.e. “Life’s little world of bliss was newly born,” line 20). The choice of words is deliberate—these sounds enhance the atmosphere of the poem and force the reader to enunciate the words with care. Because of this extra consideration, the poem becomes more dramatic as more emphasis is needed to do the recitation of the poem justice. Halleck also employs the use of wide vowels in order to give the poem’s spoken appeal a sense of loftiness (“Was Heaven’s own music, & the note of wo,” line 17). The use of vowels in this way mimics the sounds made when singing the notes of a song. Consequently, these lines seem almost like a Gregorian chant in their song-like inclination.

Halleck also uses the literary device of personification (“With dancing heart we gazed on the pure sky,” line 23) in order to heighten the emotionality of the poem and dramatize the beauty of nature spoken about throughout the poem. More than just appreciating nature and using the formal elements of the poem to reinforce the emotion evoked by it, however, Halleck creates a metaphor for the way humans experience life and the feelings that are dealt with in the quiet, transitional moments between the major stages of our lives; the moments when one can be truly present, observing the twilight hour. He backtracks slightly in the chronology of the poem in the second stanza, stating that “In youth the cheek was crimsoned with [the whispers of moonlight hours]/Her smile was loveliest then, her matin song,” alluding to the early day as a representation of the exuberance of youth (lines 13-16). The cheeks tinted red with the sun’s rays and Heaven’s music heard among the sunny bowers paints a picture of early summer or spring, when the earth is just beginning to enter its fullest, most vivid blooming period.

The imagery of youth is further reinforced as the metaphor carries into the next lines with Halleck detailing that this feeling of bliss is “newly born” and that he “knew not, cared not, it was born to die” (line 20). The climax of youth is illustrated with a smug mockery made against the “passing clouds that dimm’d [the sky’s] blue/like our own sorrows then as fleeting & as few,” emphasizing the bold and audacious nature of youth (lines 24-26). However, the tone of the poem quickly begins to change: youth was the climax, but now readers will delve into the decline of vitality and daylight.

The third stanza starts with the strong imagery of manhood being affected by the “sway” of the daylight and atmosphere (line 27). There is a caesura present here, which prevents the reader from easily flowing into the next line and effectively creates a dramatic pause on the phrase it precedes—“on the eye” (line 27). This caesura is what catalyzes the rapid change in tone. The pace of the poem speeds up and the diction becomes more striking and more powerful. The imagery depicted in this stanza is not the sunny whispering tree bowers of before, but rather “red lightning” and dreams that “burst bright” (lines 28-31). The tense of the poem changes to include past tense lines describing how life’s “promised bower of happiness seem’d nigh,” and, yet, the reader is firmly seized by the action described. The sensuality of the heat and “balmy” breath of “life’s noontide” wherein she is most clearly seen weighs more heavily than the aforementioned breezy atmosphere of the “matin song” (line 35). Life’s “summer green,” her robe, is the first definitive seasonal time-frame given in the poem, but the emotion and experience of the natural beauty of summer is timelessly communicated to the audience.

There are many instances of enjambment (the continuation of a single, unbroken phrase into the next line) throughout the poem, but the final stanza uses this literary device to a greater degree than the previous stanzas. The pace is drawn out as the poem begins to wind down. Though life is less dazzling in her “twilight dress,” there is a stronger sense of “Heaven’s pure beam about her” than there was before because of that “tranquil loveliness” which acknowledges that the end is near (lines 38-41). The warmth of twilight is comparable to life’s smile which brightens the “dim evening star” pointing to a “destined tomb” until the “faint light of life is fled afar” (line 45). This allusion to the North star, which remains constant in the sky as a symbol for one’s destination after death, is further fortified by the voiceless sounds exhibited in the word choice in this stanza. There are many “f,” “r,” and “m” sounds in the last five lines of the poem, adding to a sense of hushed, prolonged existence. The words are gently drawn out as the poem closes with reflections on the “faint light of life” and the “meteor bearer of our parting breath.” The final line brings both life and the day to its metaphorical end by describing the last light of day (and the last breath) as a “moonbeam” at midnight.

The metaphor between the light of day and life is so artistically intertwined that it is difficult to tell them apart in some instances. The microcosm of a lifetime represented in the different atmospheres throughout the day is a powerful image seen in other works of the time. However, Halleck’s romantic and thoughtful verses offer a subtlety and mastery of formal elements which make his poem uniquely striking. Throughout the poem, the audience moves through and processes the emotions of change and contentment, of sorrow and loss, and of fear and tranquility. The experience and feelings of an entire lifetime are squeezed, not only into the progression of one summer day, but into the space of four stanzas. Halleck’s delicacy and sensitivity to twilight emphasizes the strength of emotion with which he experienced life. The emotions evoked by the small moments of daylight he captured in his poem are of the same caliber of emotion with which life should be lived.

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