Why are so many poets inspired by moonlight? Shelley, Whitman, Stevenson, Dickinson, e.e. cummings, a few that come to mind.  

Does moonlight affect our emotions? Can it bring joy and calm?

In 1869, Paul Verlaine was so moved by the effect moonlight, he wrote the poem Clair de Lune to express this journey of finding his soul. In his idea of the “Moonlight”, there is a picturesque landscape full of singing and dancing, “playing the lute” in “fanciful costumes”. His soul becomes eased with the sound of melody “singing together in a minor key which melts into the lunar beam” (French Poems, 399).

In Verlaine’s quiet moonlight, triumphant love is celebrated; love songs are lifted into air. We become “moonstruck” by this love, a term for insanity which comes from the Latin Luna, a moon goddess. The Japanese believed that the Moon was a god with powers to announce the future. Think of the power of the moon over werewolves!

In contrast, sunlight represents light, life force, knowledge, divinity in poetic verse. The sun has been worshipped, feared, revered, harnessed; sunlight helps boost serotonin in our brains which give us more energy and helps us stay calm, positive and focused. “Things will look better in the morning”. We spend most of our “waking” hours in the daytime, or when the sun is “up”. We sleep during the night, when the moon is up. According to meteorologists, we have more energy during a full moon than any other phase.

Moonlight can also be “sad and beautiful” as we see in Verlaine’s final stanza, which describe the alluring beam of moonlight lulling the birds to the land of dreams. Moonlight brings melancholy. Just as in Shelley’s To The Moon, the moon symbolizes loneliness and unrequited love:

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,–
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy.

One of my favorite classical pieces is Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which was inspired from Paul Verlaine’s poem. Verlaine’s Lune is featured in Debussy’s 1890 Suite bergamasque. I prefer the orchestral arrangement of the conductor Andre Kostelanetz in Lure of France who emphasizes strings in keeping with the French theme over the typical arrangements of Debussy which focus on the piano.

[I found the 1957 Lure of France album in Paris at the Gibert Jeune Librairie a few years back for one euro! A great treasure.]

I keep this on my daily playlist! As part of my research of Verlaine’s poem Clair for this post, I listened to Kostelanetz’s arrangement while standing outside in the “moonlight”.

Kostelanetz creates a romantic mood which brings a sense of peace. As I am “gazing” at a full moon tonight, I am reminded that the moon cannot generate its own light—it reflects the sun’s light. So, in effect, we are gazing at the “sun’s reflected light” when we look at the moon. I am also keenly aware of a calm silence…no birds chirping, no wind in the trees, little traffic on the street. The only activity I am aware of is the twinkling of the surrounding stars! I am imagining Kostelanetz composing Clair de Lune and choosing various stringed instruments to represent this calm, quiet mood; alternating with rising, vibrant stanzas. A lovely experience! Enjoy Verlaine’s expression of “Moonlight”.

Clair de Lune

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

My English Translation:

Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

In the calm moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And in their polished basins of white stone,
The slender fountains sob among the marble statues.

Work Cited

Canfield, Arthur G., and Patterson, W.F. French Poems. New York: Holt & Co. 1941.