The Quiet Hour, Jonathan David – an Analysis


I’m drawn to this because I’m expecting a fellow insomniac coming out to play in the wee small hours.

Gut Reaction
My gut reaction is confusion. Is this an insomniac watching their partner sleep whilst they cannot, or someone watching their loved one die in their sleep?

What does it all mean?

When the hour is hushed and you lie still,
This feels like every night I’ve shared a bed with someone and jealously watched them sleep.

So quiet is the room about me
It seems perhaps that you are gone,
Sunken to a marble sleep.

The person sleeping is still as a ‘marble’ statue. Well, so long as they’re actually breathing, I’d take that silence over a snorer, wouldn’t you?
If the morbid in me takes a view of this as a person watching someone on their deathbed, I can’t help but wonder if the watcher at this point thinks the end has now arrived.

I hear no sound; my quiet will,
Frustrated insomniac with not even background noise for company and yet still unable to sleep? Repetition of the obvious because they can’t believe the person before them has ‘gone’?

I hear no sound; my quiet will,
Passive as the lambs at rest,
Stirs not the quaint forgetfulness
But only murmurs, “Sleep is strange!”

I like this stanza. That feeling of willing yourself to sleep, or willing someone else awake, either in the literal sense or the hopeless wish of someone feeling alone following a death, I’m sure is one we all know.
‘Passive as the lambs at rest’, there’s the reference to lambs which automatically makes me leap to ‘counting sheep’ to help you sleep, and ‘passive’ itself suggests ineffectiveness to rouse, whether from slumber or death.
Is ‘quaint forgetfulness’ a metaphor for sleep? If so that would make sense – me watching you sleep is not going to make you wake up, no matter how hard I stare, now is it? (I might scare you a little if you wake up at this point but… hey. When did we get all intimate? Um. Don’t mind me….!)
As an insomniac I completely relate to the ‘sleep is strange’ comment, because I just don’t get it when people bemoan how a lack of sleep effects their lives. I have had this frequently throughout my life, so I can function zombielike; it is my norm. I’ll not apologise for my strangeness when your normal is so odd to me 😉

The low moon at the lattice going
Is our insomniac watching the moon through a latticed window? Low suggesting the passage of time?
I wonder if the lattice window can be used to date the poem (or at least its intended age)?

Rests no more quietly than you at peace.
I’m sure the moon moves pretty noisily at close proximity but from this distance, yes, pretty quiet. Our sleeper is still not stirring then, huh? Sleeping like the dead would be my go-to phrase but it might not be, um, kind, here…

Hushed is the candle; the hour is late,
The candle is probably flickering low, the wax spent following a long night. It’s later than the beginning of our story (obviously… but I’m picturing a shiny new candle melting down to its base… such is the length of this sleepless night…) so sleep has not yet come for our observer.

And I, poor witness of extreme change,
A little self pity observing the passage of the night whilst sleep happens for all but them, or the slow decay of the body before him? I’m still on the fence…

I think perhaps then heaven opens
Like the unfolding of your hand in sleep—
Your cold white hand—to close again—
While I sit staring at the marble gate.

I’m still undecided.
‘…Perhaps then heaven opens…’ is this the actual moment of death anticipated all evening, the hand of the now-deceased giving a final twitch of movement. It ‘feels’ like it could be a death because I hear ‘cold white hand’ and that is kind of where I go. The watcher is shut off from the ‘sleeper’s’ new existence past heaven’s gate, left behind to feel abandoned and alone.
Or, if we’re going with the insomniac-being-melodramatic thought, which, knowing what I get like at 4am when sleep just hasn’t happened at all, are we still watching this prose form move in their sleep (…did you leave/open a window and the breeze has disturbed them?) and feel excluded from their ‘existence’ in the land of nod? As an afterthought… if this poor sleeping thing is really just sleeping, why are you letting their hands get so cold and white, meanie? Tuck them in!!! The cold will not make them wake, and if they’re sleeping through you staring at them they’re likely a duvet stealer too, so you’re about to be cold, as well as awake…

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Four stanzas of four lines, masculine and feminine rhyme, run-on and end-stopped lines. Some use of imagery, I’m wondering if the long ‘-‘ serves as caesura and am reading it aloud as such.
The poem follows the story of either an insomniac watching their partner sleep or someone watching another slip away into death.

Wistful, full of longing.

Suggested rhyme scheme

Brackets show partial rhyme.

Similes and metaphors
Marble statue – deathly/unmoving/quiet sleep?
Passive as the lambs at rest – with ‘passive’ a metaphor for the inability to change the situation (sleep? Death?) and ‘lambs’ a link to the proverbial counting of sheep to help you sleep.
Quaint forgetfulness – sleep?

Author’s relationship with their subject
Again, I suppose this depends on which way you read the poem. There’s some kind of feeling for the prone form but I’m still undecided as to what that feeling is.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
Didly squat. I can find very little. However, since this was published (apparently) under the pseudonym of Jonathan David by Stanley Johnson as part of the short-lived Fugitives in the 1920s, I suppose it isn’t any wonder.
As for the lattice window, if I’m reading too much into this (won’t be the last time) then the lovely Tewkesbury Council dates the poem (or points the poem) at pre-16th century. Which would be odd, since it was written in the 1920s. However. If we can paint a historical picture with paint and ink then why not one with words? Poetic licence in all its glory!

Signing off
I… don’t know. I really don’t.
The writer appears to be highlighting their feeling of isolation and helplessness. They are excluded from something and can do nothing about it. Sleep or death. I have no idea.
However. Since insomnia has been my companion more this past week than I’d like (hey…insomnia can have its uses…have you heard of Coursera?!), I’m going with that. The frustration and frankly nonsensical thought patterns after a continued spate of not sleeping is agony whilst it’s happening, and something embarrassing and worth forgetting once sleep has been had. Insomniac buddy, you have my sympathy…

Jonathan David
The Fugitives

When I read this I think of the song… Inappropriate, unrelated, but hey, this is where my head went! Brain Stew


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