This poem was first published in Cor Cordium in 1913, and also appeared in Selected Poems.
Cor Cordium was Alfred's fourth book of poems. It was mostly a collection of love poems, and although this is ultimately a love poem too, it is generally considered one of his finest nature poems.
It was described as "almost flawless" by Alfred's biographer, Leonard Clark.
A song of the same name appears as part of John Cullimore's album, The Hammerman, the composition based on slight variations of the opening four lines of verses one, four and five.
All things delight in sleep,
Morning to eve inclines,
Slowly the purple-woven shadows creep,
And heaven moves onward with its myriad sign
Above the watery deep.
At noon among the hils,
The shepherd makes complaint
At even, to the murmur of soft bells,
Leads his flocks downward to the valleys faint
With blowing daffodils.
A thousand minstrels throng
Daily amid the wood.
At eve the burden of incessant song
Fails to the minute note of solitude
The dropping shades among.
The bird is in the nest,
The lamb is in the fold,
The day is crimson-cradled in the west,
And all the argent heaven o'ershot with gold,
Only within my breast.
Love, like a fury, wakes
The secret hidden fires,
That waste me till the rosy goddess breaks
In virgin purity o'er Eastern spires
And silver-crested lakes.
This carefully turned poem is composed in Sicilian quintains (which typically rhyme abABa), as a sequence of five stanzas with two short lines (hexasyllabic or with six syllables), in three iambic feet (with a da dum rhythm to them - plus two long lines (decasyllabic, except maybe fourth and 14th, depending whether heaven is pronounced as one or two syllable), then a last closing, rounding short line in the same meter as the first two.
The cadence is songlike and knitted to a variegated effect, with the long lines lightening the beat, more so thanks to the adaptations in the length and stress pattern of the feet.
This goes perfectly in tune with the content of those longer lines; the murmur of bells, like the incessant or trailing song of birds, the movement of the heavens and the flocks, the spread of purple and gold in the sky, all take a longer sweep in their lines, and suitably so.
In the final stanza, the wasting of the lover in his passion and the - again in antithesis- pristine brightness of dawn are made to be felt the more pungent as the pace slows down through them. The first line of the last stanza has a changed accentual pattern, but rather than disrupt, it links it to the previous line as they in fact belong together in sense.
The sound texture of the poem is intrincate and delicately woven. In the firtst stanza, for instance, the humming of nasals m and n, labial approximate w and liquids s and l lull with a soothing flow, before bringing us to a stop at the lip-closing of p at the end of the first, third and fifth lines, suitably suggesting the closure brought by sleep. This type of contrast is also very clear in the fifth and last stanza, where the end k sounds of wakes, breaks, lakes all smack, short and sharp, against the opening stretch of the final diphthong in fires and spires.
Why would a shepherd make complaint? Wages? Well, maybe, but here Williams is borrowing from the bucolic or pastoral tradition which began with Theocritus (a Greek poet of the third century BC, who in turn drew in part from ancient Greek oral tradition). The implication is the literary topic of shepherds lamenting their lovesickness in the solitude of their day's work. It may not sound realistic to us in a world of office jobs and technology-ridden life, but our mechanised, synthethised mode of life is only a recent development in the history of humanity. And who are we to deny that shepherds may have troubled hearts and the lyrical skills to express it? (I have known at least two myself!)
Further classical references are to be found in the last stanza, where love is likened to a fury (the mythological goddesses of vengeance on crime, also called the 'daughters of the night'), and dawn is referred to as the rosy goddess in virgin purity (I can't help visualising Boticelli's Birth of Venus here).
The running motif is that night brings a break from the toil, physical and emotional. Even the valleys are "faint with blowing daffodils", daffodils swaying in the breeze - also daffodils that resemble blowing trumpets. Valleys "faint" with tiredness, and their colours "faint" or fade in the dusk.
At a time when agriculture was organic by necessity, and pesticides had not caused a drastic decline in the bird population, the voice of many birds would certainly have thronged the woods. Alfred's attentive ear has followed the songs trickling down to the single last note as the evening grew dim and yearned for the easy repose nature falls into.
The weave of alliteration - minstrels, amid, minute, among - enhanced with the additional nasal echoes of n, and the sibilant s (highlighted in incessant song) sustain the subtle sound texture of the first stanza. Night is a promise of calm, refuge and comfort, but not for Alfred.
The penultimate stanza bends the stress layout ever so subtly, by muffling the middle strong beat to weak. Preconditioned by this pendulum sway of rhythm between monosyllables bird-nest and lamb-fold, crimson-cradled is a happy invention; it rocks its kr consonant cluster to and fro, alludes to babies (in parallel with lambs) being sent to sleep, and televises the twighlight horizon before dark in full technicolor for us.
All Things Delight in Sleep might echo All things have rest from The Song of the Lotos-Eaters by Tennyson, but the theme of desired respite takes quite a different turn; this is a solitary, privately owned storm, and it is not a drug-induced detatchment that relieves the sufferer, but the clean new day, breaking on spires and lakes - maybe a reference to peace found in the spiritual and nature?
Introducing Cristina Newton
Alphabetical list of poems online