‘‘A Nocturnal Reverie’’ is a fifty-line poem describing an inviting nighttime scene and the speaker’s disappointment when dawn brings it to an end, forcing her back to the real world. It is written in iambic pentameter, a meter that consists of five feet (or units), each containing an unstressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Moreover, it is written in heroic couplets—two lines of rhyming verse in iambic pentameter, usually self-contained so that the meaning of the two lines is complete without relying on lines before or after them.
The poem’s opening phrase is repeated three times over the course of the poem, and originates in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It becomes a sort of refrain that pulls the reader through the poem. The speaker describes a night in which all harsh winds are far away, and the gentle breeze of Zephyr, Greek god of the west wind, is soothing. The other winds are characterized as louder; therefore, the speaker is subtly making a comparison. She does this in other ways throughout the poem, contrasting the near-perfection of her surroundings with other, lesser settings. It communicates the idea that she is in the most perfect place on earth. The song of a nightingale (Philomel) is heard, along with the sound of an owl. Both sounds are inviting and cheerful. Bird sounds at night are familiar and something to which the reader can readily relate. This makes it easier for the reader to surrender to the imagery of the poem. More birds will enter the sense imagery of the poem, but not until near the end.
Clouds pass gently overhead, at times allowing the sky to shine through to the speaker. The distant night sky is depicted as enigmatic and elusive. There is a river with large trees hanging their leaves over it, and as it flows, its surface reflects the leaves and the moon. The reflections have movement, which simultaneously brings the moon and the leaves to life while also reminding the reader of the aforementioned breeze. The leaves shake partly because of the flow of the river, but also because the leaves themselves are moving with the wind.
Fresh grass stands strong and upright, suggesting that this poem takes place during spring. The grass seems to be freshly grown and maybe even recently rained upon. The grass invites the speaker to rest in it on the banks of the river. Various plants and flowers, including woodbind, bramble-rose, cowslip, and foxglove, grow there. The speaker describes the plants and flowers as not only being colorful but also as almost having personalities and interactions with one another. The images of the trees, the descriptions of overgrown foliage, and the mention of flowers being sheltered indicates that this is a shady area during the day, meaning it is especially cozy at night.
The speaker then notices that glowworms have appeared during the twilight hour, and she comments that their beauty can only last a limited time because they rely on the dark to show their light. The speaker then mentions a lady named Salisbury (who is believed to have been a friend’s daughter), whose beauty and virtue are superior to the glowworms because they hold up in any light.
The speaker’s senses next pick up certain aromas that are not present during the day but only waft through the night air. It is as if they were waiting for just the right air for their arrival. Again, Finch enlivens nature through personification. She describes groves that, with little light, are softened with the near absence of shadow. In the distance, she hears a waterfall.
A large edifice seems menacing in the darkened setting, and unshaded hills are hidden. In a field, there are haystacks and a horse grazing.
The horse’s slow pace across the field seems sneaky and his large shadow frightening, until the sound of his eating grass sets the speaker at ease. She suggests that the darkness sometimes makes people fearful of what they cannot see, but once she recognizes it is only a horse, her fear vanishes. She next mentions sheep grazing and cows chewing their cud without being bothered by anyone at all, and then she turns her attention to what the birds are doing. She hears the curlews.
The partridge calls out for her young. All of this sound she considers celebratory noise carrying on while men sleep; at night, nature is free of man’s rules and domination. She also remarks that the nighttime celebration does not last long. The speaker contemplates the relaxation and contentment of the setting, which is free of strong and piercing light.
The speaker describes how the scene inspires silent, peaceful musings about profound things that are hard to put into words. In fact, according to the speaker, it is impossible in such a setting for a person to hold onto anger. The serenity and seriousness of her spirit embraces the charm and joy of nature in such a way that her very soul is engaged.
As the poem draws to a close, the speaker longs to stay in the nighttime world of nature until morning comes and forces her back into her world of confusion. In the daytime, in man’s world, there are the worries of everyday life, the complications of living in society, work that must be done, and sounds that are not relaxing; however, she adds that people continue their pursuit of pleasure in the day. Because the poem’s title refers to a reverie, the reader is left wondering if the entire experience was a dream, or if her musings on the river bank were the dreamy state to which it refers.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Anne Finch, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009