Analysis: What’s Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
"Already with thee! tender is the night.
… But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways."
– Ode to a Nightingale
As we discuss in our "What’s Up With the Title?" section, the epigraph contains several lines from the fifth stanza of John Keats’s 1884 poem "Ode to a Nightingale." One such line contains the novel’s title, Tender is the Night. We also discuss the word "tender" as representing the modernism of the novel, that is, the fragile fractured nature of the characters, and the post-World War I setting of the novel. Similarly, the word "night" speaks to the surrealistic aspect of the novel, that is, it’s explorations of the characters’ subconscious, and the characters’ obsession with night.
An ode is a lyric (think singing) poem, dealing with serious matters, with a precise structure. The Modernists sought out new forms and structures that would represent the fractured state of the post-World War I world. The epigraph is actually missing two lines – it is broken apart to properly serve the novel. How do we feel about that? Isn’t poetry supposed to be sacred? Can we just chop up a poem as we like? Perhaps the Modernist would argue that all bets were off after the war and that anything we could use to express our painful, fractured world was fair game. Maybe Keats would say, "Hey, Fitzgerald, step off my poem." It’s something to ponder, isn’t it? But for now let’s examine what we have to work with. What does the epigraph tell us about the novel’s exploration of love, madness, and ambition against the conflicting and overlapping landscapes of glamour and the destruction from war?
First, what is a nightingale? The word means a "female night singer," but it’s actually the male birds that sing, frequently at night, but also during the day. Symbolically, the nightingale represents a creature that has conquered the need for sleep (like the characters in this novel, right?), and also lovers who die for love (does this apply, perhaps, to Dick and Nicole, and other characters?).
In the case of this novel, the line speaks to its surrealistic aspect. Surrealists believed that poetry was the highest form of art, and that all other forms should aspire to that perfection. And that speaks to the ambition of the characters in the novel. Many of the characters want to elevate everything – everything from love, to wealth, to art, to partying – to it’s highest form, and to do so, in part, by conquering the need for sleep. Think of the only time the nightingale is mentioned in the novel. It’s just before the duel between Albert and Tommy. When Abe North asks Rosemary what she’s doing up at 4am, she laughs and says she just woke up. He says, "plagued by the nightingale, probably plagued by the nightingale," suggesting that the nightingale is that voice in our heads that keeps us from sleeping, that drives us to go out into the night and live. The word "plagued" suggests that it might be a little irritating to be so driven to experience life.
The next line, "but here there is no light," speaks again to the difficulty of casting "light" on a world torn apart by war, and also, on a woman torn apart by her father. How does one represent such shattering in art? This is an underlying question of the novel, and of modernism, and takes us a long way toward appreciating Tender’s nonlinear or "broken" narrative structure.
Some kind of an answer to the question of representation is provided in the third line of the epigraph, which claims that there is, in fact, light at night – a special light, blown down from heaven on the breeze. This suggests that earthly light is not enough to understand the shattering, and that we must look deeper and reach farther to do so (we just can’t get away from ambition here, can we?).
But how does that light, blown from heaven on the breezes reach us? Well, "through verdurous glooms and mossy ways." Thanks for clearing that up Shmoop, but what the heck are verdurous and mossy ways? The Oxford English Dictionary defines "verdure" as, "the fresh green colour characteristic of flourishing vegetation; greenness." And mosses are small soft plants that grow without seeds in damp forested areas. You’ve probably seen them growing in clumps on rocks or trees.
Where do we see verdurous and mossy ways in the novel? Why, in Nicole, for one. She’s constantly associated with gardens, with blooming, and with growing things. For a longer discussion of Nicole and gardens, check out Nicole’s "Character Analysis." But just to get the idea, let’s look at a few lines: "I can remember how I stood waiting for you in the garden—holding all my self in my arms like a basket of flowers." This is Nicole talking to Dick, right before their first kiss. Of course, the garden she’s talking about here is the one at the Swiss psychiatric clinic, where she was committed and where she met Dick. How about this line: "When Tommy drove up at one o’clock she had made her person into the trimmest of gardens." Can’t get more verdurous than that, can you?