»  Frances Cornford's "At Night"


At Night

by Frances Cornford, 1886-1960


•  Background

It is fitting that Charles Darwin, who so much improved our understanding of the Tree of Life, had a fascinating and busy family tree himself. The Darwin-Wedgwood family tree is one of the wonders of genealogy, containing an extraordinarily high proportion of brilliant and useful people.

Included there is a rather good poet, Frances Cornford. She was the daughter of Darwin's third son, Francis. (To further confuse the issue, she married a man named Francis, a professor of classics at Trinity College, Cambridge.) Here is the note on her from the 1950 edition of Louis Untermeyer's excellent anthology Modern British Poetry:

Her first volume, Poems (1910), though unaffected, showed little trace of individuality. With Spring Morning (1915) a much more distinct personality expressed itself. Hers is a firmly realized, clean-edged verse, with a clarity of utterance which is also found in the more suggestive Autumn Midnight (1923). Her later verse in Different Days (1928) is no less spontaneous than the simple "A Wasted Day," the acute and onomatopoetic "The Watch," and the delightfully mocking triolet "To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train." It is, however, more measured; gravity has been added without the loss of charm. Whether grave or mocking Mrs. Cornford's tone maintains a quiet distinction.

One of Cornford's strengths is the teasing out of unusual reflections and feelings from very ordinary experiences. In this poem, the ordinary experience is the longing for untroubled sleep after a busy day — a longing every human being experiences hundreds or thousands of times. By applying one simple metaphor, Cornford raises that longing into poetry.


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•  Text of the poem

My brain is like the ravaged shores — the sand
Torn cruelly by footsteps from the land.
O hushing waves; O profound sea of sleep,
Send your curved ripples surely-lapping. Creep,
Pour on the scarrèd surface of my brain;
With your vast pity, wash it smooth again.