The Moon as a Recurring Image in Poetry
The moon had captured the imagination of earth-dwellers perhaps since the first night of the first humans. Back in the days wherein there was no availability of artificial light, the moonlight is the only source of illumination for our ancestors during the darkness bestowed by night time. Our early ancestors probably had nothing to do each of their nights but stare at the moon. With that, it is just understandable that they were amazed by the moon’s unearthly presence and beauty. That amazement and appreciation for the beauty of the moon was passed to generations and generations even up to our time. Some cultures even had come up with rituals, superstitions, mythology and folklore, and practices that incorporate the moon. Even world religions were influenced by the moon like Islam and Judaism. Others even go to the extreme of worshiping the moon as a divine being. No one can deny the influence of the moon to humanity’s collective subconscious. Humanity’s seemingly innate fascination with the moon as an image is popularly expressed through art especially in poetry.
The image that we are talking about is not just the picture of the moon. It is a literary device that poets employ to their works to convey a certain experience of an object. Image has to engage at least one of the primary human senses, not just provide a visual of the object in a poem. (Pound 198-206)
The moon is earth’s satellite, meaning the moon revolves around the earth, which also means that the earth and moon are inseparable. It is the most observable object in the night sky, not to mention it has a hypnotizing luminous glow. The moon also seemingly has its own personality, that is considered an interesting one because the moon has different phases within the month that changes its appearance and overall presence. Those are just some of the reasons why so many poets, if not all, are inspired by its enthralling presence. In his poem aptly given the title “A Moon Poem,” Edgar Allan Poe had expressed his awe of the presence of the moon “by thee [the moon] and by the poetry of thy presence” (Poe).
In so many occasions, the moon was used in poetry as an image. There is a wide range of diversity in which the moon was used as an image. That is just understandable because after all, the whole world is writing poetry that uses the moon as an image. As we know it, diversity is an appropriate term to describe humanity in general. There is a wide range of diversity of cultural differences on a worldwide level. That doesn’t include the fact that within those groups called cultures, the individuals within the group also has dissimilar and contrasting ideas about something. This adheres to the popular notion that every human being is intrinsically special and unique, that human beings will always have different opinions regarding certain topics. With that being said we can already conclude that human beings will always have a wide range of diversity in terms of our takes on the moon. That is interestingly ironic to think because all of us view the moon from the same vantage point, here on earth. With that being said, it is needless to say that that wide range of diversity had generated tons of productions of poetry about the moon. Here is an example of an old prose poem from China that is translated to English, the original author is anonymous:
“How often does the bright moon come
with wine I ask of the blue sky
in the heavily palaces
I wish to return there riding the wind
but fear that in the high places of jade halls and eaves
I can’t fend off the cold rising to dance with my clear shadow
scarcely possible that I among men
turn around the red lacquered pavilions
dip below the silken-curtained windows
shine on the sleepless” (Phelan 32)
I dare say that to anthologize all of the poems about the moon would produce one of the world’s largest collection somewhere near in rank with poems that talks about abstractions like love. Even in the simple subdivisions poetry, the image of the moon is being employed as a topic for the poem just like in this nursery rhyme, the author is also anonymous
“I see the moon
the moon sees me
God bless the moon
and God bless me” (Peters 65)
The anonymity of the authors of these poems is a testament that poems that uses the moon as image are circulating throughout the entire globe through constant publication and word of mouth.
The Moon’s image as a woman
Probably the most popular renditions of the moon as an image are either alluding to a woman or the mystical. Many poets had expressed their views about a woman, women in general, and womanhood through using the image of the moon.
Symbols are perhaps the most basic and commonly used device used in the world of literature. Poetry is known for being an art form that utilizes symbols to hide meanings for the purpose of achieving aesthetic effects. It is very important to delineate symbols from metaphors as they’re definition intersects in many points that it makes them hard to distinguish from one another. Symbols work in two different ways: one is that the object used as a symbol talks about itself or oneself, and second is that the object used as a symbol is used to pertain to other concepts other than itself. On the other hand, a metaphor deals with comparing two different things as having similarities somehow. The moon is quite frequently used as a symbolism for a woman. There will be buzzwords that pertain to a woman like woman’s intuition, beauty, womanhood, and in some cases lunacy. The moon is actually regarded as a symbol for women and all feminine aspects since the earliest of times as opposed to the use of the sun as a symbol for men and all masculine aspects. The use of the moon as a symbol for women serves as a guide for interpreting images wherein the moon is portrayed. The moon has become a prevalently used symbolism for women in many poems ranging from classics to contemporary poems.
The Latin American poet Federico Garcia Lorca had written a poem entitled “Ballad of the Moon.” In this poem, the poet had utilized the image of the moon to describe a woman’s fragility “moon, moon, moon, run / if the gypsies come / they will use your heart / to make white necklaces and rings” (Lorca, lines 31-34) Fragility of the woman is just an interpretation that is already on the surface of the poem, but if the readers will dig deeper into the poem they would notice that even though the poem speaks of fragility of a woman, it also talks about how women are prized “they will use your heart / to make white necklaces and rings” (Lorca, lines 33-34). It can also talk about how women are being abused due to their fragility. Moreover, the poem could also be interpreted as alluding to the rendering of women as accessories. Because just like jewels, in some ways women make men appear better in public just as the moon makes the night sky a pleasant sight to view.
Edgar Allan Poe had also employed the moon as an image in his poem aptly titled “A Moon Poem.” Here is an excerpt from the last lines of the poem “in the sad silent watches of my night / while even in the meridian glare of day / I see them still-two sweetly scintillant / venuses unextinguished by the sun” (Poe) In that poem by Edgar Allan Poe, the persona had called the moon as one of the “Venuses” that the persona is currently looking at. The use of the name “Venus” could mean that the persona regards the moon, presumptively a woman, as a beautiful being. As we know from Greek literature, Venus is the goddess of beauty. All the poem may have wanted to say could have simply been that the persona or the author is currently looking at two women with such beauty as a goddess. The poem could also be open to the interpretation that the persona is having a problem of having two women as a choice for a partner. It can be assumed that the poem may have wanted to challenge the idea of monogamy as the persona is fixated at more than one woman. That topic is rather offensive for some, if not many women.
Perhaps one of the most recognized poems that employ the moon as its controlling image is the sonnet of Charles Best that is given the title “Sonnet of the Moon.” The sonnet is regarded by many poetry enthusiasts as one of the best representation of a woman through the use of the moon’s image. Charles Best starting line was “look how pale the Queen of the silent night” (Best, line 1) Note the use of the word “Queen,” a word of high femininity. The word was even capitalized for the purpose of emphasis. Then it would be followed by the lines: “doth cause the ocean to attend upon her / and he, as long as she is in sight / with his full tide is ready here to honor” (Best, lines 2-4) The poem displays high reverence to the image of the moon that also reflects reverence to a woman. The persona of the poem expresses his joy when seeing the moon in the last lines of the sonnet “so as you come and as you depart / joys ebb and flow within my tender heart” (Best, lines 13-14)
The Moon’s image as a representation of the mystical
The diverse renditions of the moon’s image had generated symbolisms that are seemingly inseparable to the register of the idea of the moon. The moon is commonly connected with ideas that talks about the mystical things. This would include concepts like woman’s intuition, illusions, dreams, visions, clairvoyance, lunacy, death among many other things that can only be classified as mystical. Even in Tarot cards, the moon represents poetry and great creativity.
Many poets had incorporated the mystical aspect of the moon in their poetry. These kind of poems about the moon were received well by both poets and critics. This is probably because these poems could provide us with some sort of tentative answers to our queries about the mystical world that because science and logic can’t provide them.
Yeats had used the moon in a very complex and technical manner in his poem “Lines Written In Dejection.” He starts the poem with a query about the moon “when have I last looked on / the round green eyes and the long wavering bodies / of the dark leopards of the moon” (Yeats). In Yeats’ poem, the moon was used as an image for what the persona is yearning. For the persona, the moon is the only one that can save him from the tyranny of the sun.
Hayden had used the moon as a symbol to display his devout faith. He ended his poem “Full Moon” with the lines “and spread its radiance on the exile’s path / of Him who was The Glorious One / its [the moon’s] light made holy by His holiness / already a mooted goal and tomorrow perhaps / an arms the full moon dominates the dark” (Hayden). Hayden is not actually talking about the moon but only about how its [or His] light empowers his faith through the night that is also a symbolism for dark times in life.
Another beautiful rendition of the image of the moon as a representation of the mystical is Carl Sandburg’s much acclaimed poem entitled “Under The Harvest Moon.” The poem relates death to the image of the moon. The describes death being exposed under the illumination of moonlight “under the harvest moon / when the soft silver drips / over garden nights / death the gray mocker / comes and whispers to you / as a beautiful friend / who remembers” (Sandburg, lines 1-8) The effect of the poem is quite creepy not just because of the character of death but also because of the moon’s image having fixed registers of being mystical in the minds of the readers.
All in all, Moon as a recurring image is definitely not something new to the world of poetry. The image of the moon is definitely a favorite subject by poets from around the globe. My assumption is that the moon is the only celestial body that the human vision could observe so well. We can’t observe the sun by staring at it because it would fry our eyeballs. The stars are just too far and from here on earth they are just specks of light. But the moon is very different to other celestial bodies, it seems that her gentle radiance is welcoming us to observe her. She welcomes the thought of being stared upon and observed. Poets, with their heightened senses and sensitivity, are mostly compulsive observant. Therefore, the moon’s welcoming to observe and the poet’s wanting to observe blend in well together.
The image of the moon had simply become a symbolism for women because the moon and women share the same intrinsic trait which is beauty. On the other hand, the image of the moon hand simply became the representation of the mystical the moon is something man have to observe from a distance. All we can do is assumptions and those assumptions lead to the being mystical of things. Moreover, the moon is the epitome of the unknown as it only reveals to us only one side of her.
The moon is earth’s satellite, meaning the moon revolves around the earth, which also means that the earth and moon are inseparable just like poetry and the image of the moon.
Best, Charles. Sonnet of the Moon
Hayden, Robert Earl. Kaleidoscope; Poems by American Negro Poets. Harcourt, Brace & World. 1967
Phelan, Carolyn. “Florian, Douglas. Comets, Stars, the Moon and Mars.(Brief
article)(Children’s review)(Book review).” Booklist 103.15 (April 1,
2007): 50(1). General OneFile. Gale. Winter Park High School. 26 Mar. 2008
Peters, John. “Reaching for the stars.(PICTURE BOOKS).” Teacher Librarian 35.3 (Feb
2008): 49(1). General OneFile. Gale. Winter Park High School. 26 Mar. 2008
Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Poetry (Chicago) 1 , pp. 198-206.
Lorca, Federico. Florit, Eugenio. Introduction to Spanish Poetry. Courier Dover
Poe, Edgar Allan. A Moon Poem
Sandburg, Carl. Under the Harvest Moon
Yeats, W. B. Lines Written In Dejection