Night Sweat Poem by Robert Lowell Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


Robert Lowell’s poem “Night Sweat” is an exquisite piece of poetry. The speaker’s cause for having night sweats is unclear. “My stalled equipment” is a metaphor that indicates the speaker is experiencing writer’s block. His past bias and declining abilities are preventing him from penning that “one writing.” Nonetheless, the poet claims that his wife’s presence brightens his thinking in the following section of the poem. Her charm is so endearing that it even brings joy to the little items in his room. Finally, he asks his beloved wife to, like she has done in the past, deliver him from his agony and fury.

About the Poet

American poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) was a titan of the genre, known for his honest, reflective writing and for having started the confessional poetry movement. He delves deeply into personal themes, candidly addressing issues of faith, family, mental illness, and mortality. A turning point came when he adopted a raw, confessional approach for his 1959 collection Life Studies, which revealed his personal troubles and family life.


Robert Lowell wrote two sonnets in “Night Sweat.” Shakespearean sonnet form is used for the first, and Petrarchan sonnet form is used for the second. Each line has ten syllables in total, and the entire poem is written in iambic pentameter with a few changes. The poem contains trochaic, pyrrhic, and spondee variations.


Work-table, litter, books and standing lamp,

plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom---

but I am living in a tidied room,

for ten nights now I've felt the creeping damp

float over my pajamas' wilted white . . .

Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,

everything streams and tells me this is right;

my life's fever is soaking in night sweat---

one life, one writing! But the downward glide

and bias of existing wrings us dry---

always inside me is the child who died,

always inside me is his will to die---

one universe, one body . . . in this urn

the animal night sweats of the spirit burn.

Behind me! You! Again I feel the light

lighten my leaded eyelids, while the gray

skulled horses whinny for the soot of night.

I dabble in the dapple of the day,

a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering,

I see my flesh and bedding washed with light,

my child exploding into dynamite,

my wife . . . your lightness alters everything,

and tears the black web from the spider's sack,

as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.

Poor turtle, tortoise, if I cannot clear

the surface of these troubled waters here,

absolve me, help me, Dear Heart, as you bear

this world's dead weight and cycle on your back.

Robert Lowell’s “Night Sweat” opens with a description of the things the eminent poet finds in his chamber while he tries to compose a poem. A standing lamp, books, litter, and the work table are among the basic objects that he can see. Like the “old broom” set to one side, his “stalled equipment,” or the pen on the table, appears to have lost its usefulness. Here, the poet gives readers comfort by saying that he lives in a “tidied room” where everything has a home and isn’t strewn about. The poet then talks about his physical state. He had spent the last few nights experiencing some sort of mental upheaval. He’s experiencing “night sweats.” It gives him a spooky feeling.

The speaker in this passage from Robert Lowell’s “Night Sweat” uses an oxymoron to describe how he feels like salt is all over his flesh. He has a moist head. Several ideas cross his head. He’s not sure which, though, to write about. The poet continues, saying that his “life’s fever is soaking in night sweat.” The poet’s physical perspiration seemed to be seeping into his imagination.

 The poet also yearns to write the one piece that every artist hopes to complete in their lifetime. However, because of his mind’s ingrained prejudice and the downward spiral of his imagination, his imagination is barren or unproductive. To put it plainly, the poet is at a loss for words.

The next section of Robert Lowell’s “Night Sweat” represents the poet’s mental state. The spirit of the child has died in his imagination. What’s left is likewise in danger of being extinct. Aside from that, the poet employs anaphora to highlight the point being expressed here. In addition, the poet asserts that a person only has one life to live out his or her dreams and that there is no other “universe” or world. The poet describes how his spirit burns with cravings, causing him to sweat like an animal at night. By the end of the first sonnet, the poet begins to overcome his mental block in this way. 

The poet gains insight from the wife’s presence in the passage that follows. She provides him with consolation and hope in his life, especially for his darkened eyes. Here he is alluding to the antics of the gray-headed horses that cry out in the nighttime. The horses appear to be a metaphor for his mind’s attempt to stop him at such a depressing place.

Because his wife is there to help, Robert Lowell’s poet feels as though he is experimenting in the daylight in this portion of “Night Sweat.” In this passage, the poet’s sense of harmony is reflected in an internal rhyme that is created by the recurrence of the “d” sound. In addition, the poet notices that everything appears to be brighter because of her brightness. Now that the darkness has passed, the sun of his life is beginning to rise. The dead child inside of him is waking up like a dynamite blast.

He then thanks his wife for being his wife. He claims that she rips the “black webs,” which stand in for his mental barriers. Furthermore, the “subconscious mind” is referenced in the “spider’s sack.” In addition, the poet likens her to a hare to capture her vitality and spontaneity.

Robert Lowell calls his wife a “poor turtle” in the final few lines of “Night Sweat” and asks her to release him from this staleness. In addition, the poet equates the tortoise’s carapace to obligations, calling it a “dead weight.” She contributes without hesitation. The poet relies on her during his difficult periods because of this.


Robert Lowell addresses creation and mortality worries in “Night Sweat,” fusing bodily misery with deep questions about existence. The speaker’s internal conflict is reflected in the poem’s two contrasting movements.

There is a lot of gloom and misery in the first movement. Phrases like “wilted white pyjamas” and “creeping damp” evoke a feeling of mental and physical immobility. The “child who died” stands for unrealized potential, while the “animal night sweats” are a metaphor for an ongoing creative battle. A victim of “one life, one writing,” the speaker yearns for a breakthrough while lamenting “the downward glide / and bias of existing wrings us dry.”

The second movement opens with “you,” who is most likely the speaker’s wife, shining brightly. “Light” and “dapple of the day” bring hope and rejuvenation in place of the prior gloom. With her “hopping heart,” the wife’s image represents love and vitality that gives life. She “alters everything,” pulling the depressing “black web” apart.

The speaker’s optimism is still brittle, though. He describes himself as a “heap of wet clothes,” frail and trembling. The recurrence of his fear of drowning in “troubled waters” suggests that his newfound hope may not be secure.

In the end, “Night Sweat” is a poem about being vulnerable and strong. It delves into the depths of hopelessness and the frantic pursuit of purpose. The reader is left with a painful and uncomfortable question: can the speaker “clear the surface” and find peace in the face of his struggles? The ending leaves open-ended questions, yet love and the act of reaching out for aid offer a ray of hope.