In Burning the Midnight Oil, word-wrangler extraordinaire Phil Cousineau has gathered an eclectic and electric collection of soulful poems and prose from great thinkers throughout the ages. Whether beguiling readers with glorious poetry or consoling them with prayers from fellow restless souls, Cousineau can relieve any insomniac's unease. From St. John of the Cross to Annie Dillard, Beethoven to The Song of Songs, this refreshingly insightful anthology soothes and inspires all who struggle through the dark of the night. These "night thoughts" vividly illustrate Alfred North Whitehead's liberating description of "what we do without solitude" and also evoke Henry David Thoreau's reverie, "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake." The night writers in Cousineau's vesperal collection range from saints, poets, and shamans to astronomers and naturalists, and tells of ancient tales and shining passages from the most brilliant (albeit insomniac) writers of today. These poetic ponderances sing of the falling darkness, revel in dream-time, convey the ache of melancholy, conspire against sleeplessness, vanquish loneliness, contemplate the night sky, rhapsodize on love, and languorously greet the first rays of dawn. Notable night owls include Rabandranath Tagore, Mary Oliver, Manley Hopkins, Jorge Borges and William Blake.
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Read an Excerpt
Night Walk in Manila by Pico Iyer
I fly and fly, across the largest ocean in the world, over ice floes or tropical islands, far from any season I know, and get out in an airport that dissolves all sense of time and place. Long corridors, panels of glass, screens above every door, clicking over. Men in suits disappearing down this escalator, appearing from that one, drifting away along that moving ramp.
I walk and walk as if across a screen myself, and at another gate, more men in black waiting to disappear into a hole, a stranger comes up to me and says, “Excuse me. Are you Pico Iyer?” I don’t know what to say, but the safest answer seems yes, and he places a book of poems in my hands, stands beside me as a flashbulb pops and then is gone again.
We go up into the sky once moresix miles above the earth now, and darkness everywhereand when we descend, a few hours later, the pilot welcomes us to Ninoy Aquino International Airport, named after the opposition leader who was killed on this very tarmac not long before. The night is very dark, and my body, up now for twenty-five hoursor forty, by my watchis full of life, ready to walk out into the morning.
I get into a car and we drive down Roxas Boulevard, sudden fireworks of silent lights around the gaudy discos and the karaoke parlors, and then the dark returning all around. I put my things in a hotel and go out again, with a new-day briskness, to get my bearings in this foreign place. Men appear in front of me talking about this girl, that club. Music thumps out of a darkened doorway. Faces are peering out at me as the door opens, and as I take shelter in a beer garden (2:00 a.m. now for the people around me, eleven in the morning for me), I see rats scuttling under the chairs where young girls, alone, eyes closed, are singing last year’s love songs.
I get up and walk, to ground myself, to try to imprint on my floating mind something solid and substantial, and as I do I pass a young girl, sitting up abruptly on the sidewalk, and starting to pass a comb through her long, straight hair. She couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen, and yet she gets herself ready for bed as if in a Manhattan duplex, and then lies down again, on the street, and pulls a sheet of cellophane above her.
Around her, all around, whole families are sleeping. Children are huddled on the main divider of the street, and parents, who look as if they expected a future not so different from mine, are stretched out in careful patterns beside the streaking taxis. I walk among these outstretched figures in the dark and another woman smiles out at me from the bushes. She is very young, and very pretty. She says how warm it is tonight, and lonely. She smiles at me in the dark.
I walk and walk, to try to get back what I knew this morning (or was it last night? Two days ago ?), but whatever I thought I knew has been effaced, by everything around me. In the casino on the main drag3:00 a.m. nowthere are so many bodies I can hardly move, the lights from the chandeliers catching the excited faces as figures press and shout above the spinning wheel. I step out and go exploring in the beauty salon next door, climbing the grand staircase of an old colonial mansion, and finding, at the top, girls recumbent in the hair-cutting chairs, too poor, I assume, to have real homes in which to sleep. In one room, no less mysterious, a Japanese boy lying flat out on a treatment table, a young woman coming in now and the to adjust the sheet above him, beneath which his feet protrude.
On the street again, by the cloud-covered ocean, the first fathers and their children are beginning to extend their rods into the water as the sun comes up and the traffic begins to intensify behind them. In the grand hotel down the road, which remembers Marcos and MacArthur, sweepers are making the halls immaculate and uniformed workers pass through the dining-room like ghosts. The first elderly couples are out now in the park, whole clusters of them, skittering, and flashing their bright skirts like tropical birds as they practice ballroom dancing.
I go back to my hotel, ready for a good night’s sleepit’s coming on for 9:00 a.m.and when I awaken again, it’s dark, the traffic beginning to subside outside my window, the roar of the vacuum cleaners outside my door long gone. The streets are beginning to empty out as I go out into the dark, the men, the women, beginning to congregate in the shadows. But everything is less strange now because I know the routine in some way, half expect that whisper behind the trees. Very soon I won’t make out the people sleeping in the streets. Very soon the shock of the poverty will have become part of the daylight world for me, something I could take for granted.
Pico Iyer, journalist and travel writer
“Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle;
Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.”
Francis Quarles, Emblemes, 1635
“Learn to reverence night to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity.”
“In the light, we read the inventions of others; in the darkness we invent our own stories. ”
“Night time is the right time,
to be with the one you love.”
The mammoth steel presses bellowed, the praying mantis-like stamping machines screeched. Forklifts hummed across the factory floor carrying pallets of coiled steel wire. The midnight coal train clacketed down the tracks behind the factory on its way to the River Rouge Plant, in the burning bowels of Detroit. The moment the whistle blew to signal the end of my ten-hour night shift at the steel factory, I hustled over to the time clock. Quickly, I punched my time card and slipped it back into the long metal card rack on the wall. As I turned to leave, I noticed some newly scrawled graffiti on the cement brick wall:
“It takes all day to get up and all night to get down.”
To this day I don’t know who wrote those pugnacious words, but I’ve never forgotten them. I still marvel over how well they captured our defiant factory rat spirit during my four benighted years at the factory. Hardly a day went by without someone groan about how tough it was to get up every day for work. Then again, hardly a night went by especially when the weekends rolled around without hearing somebody boast about how they were going to get down as soon as they got off work. The street jive insinuated a night of hard drinking, heavy gambling, skirt chasing, or drag racing down Woodward Avenue. But it was more than braggadocio. It was a riff on Night Time is the Right Time, the Ray Charles song that was playing on the radio in those years because whatever happened after midnight was our time. If we could “get up,” we could get to work on time; but if we could “get down,” we might get to that place beyond time that exists in the shadows of the night.
“Somewhere,” said night shift foreman one night, “the real life is waiting for us.”
For the handful of us who were working our way through college, getting down meant pulling all-nighters in the hope we might catch up with whatever courses we’d fallen behind in during the week. After slaving away through those long night shifts and then doing homework until three or four in the morning it was wrenchingly difficult to get up for class. For me, the sound of an alarm clock going off, especially during the dark dawns of winter, was like an ice pick in my ear. So I was never on time for my 8 a.m. journalism class twenty miles away, at the University of Detroit.
One miserable morning during my senior year, my professor, Judy Serrin, noticed my bleary-eyed expression as I slunk in an embarrassingly twenty minutes late. It may have been the oil stains on my hands or the smell of factory phosphate on my clothes, but a look of concern crossed her face as I passed by her desk. “It looks like you’ve been burning the midnight oil,” she whispered with unexpected compassion.
It was very Detroit of her to say so.
Burning the midnight oil. My grandparents had used the expression to describe how late they were forced to work, night after night, during the stark years of the Depression. My first newspaper editor had employed the phrase as a warning when he hired me to work the graveyard shift. But there was something else, something shiver-inducing in my professor’s voice.
Rust Belt respect is what it was.
In those years, in those factories and shops, people took pride in how hard and long they worked. You worked at whatever task you were engaged in churning out steel nuts for the car companies, or churning out essays in college until you were done, even if you had to burn the midnight oil. No excuses, no whining, no cheating.
“Cold fact,” sang Sixto Rodriquez, the legendary Detroit songwriter, who was working night shifts down at Dodge Main my last year in the factory. “Just a cold fact.”
You had to burn the midnight oil to do anything worthwhile.
Until the early seventeenth-century the word for working late into the night was elucubrate, which was defined by Henry Cockeram in The English dictionarie, or an interpreter of hard English words, "to doe a thing by candlelight." In 1635, the English novelist and poet Francis Quarles wrote a poem called Emblemes that featured the first reference we have for another way to elongate our days:
“Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle;
Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle.”
We tire the night in thought; the day in toil.
In other words, it takes all day to get up, all night to get down.
The poet’s archaic but discernable language opens a window onto the seventeenth century with the advent of street lamps and longer burning lights in the home, which liberated people from the tyranny of darkness.
Originally referring to the actual act of burning oil in lamps for light and safety, the expression has come to mean any practice that allows us to stay up later, see better, push the natural rhythms, work overtime, even unravel the mysteries of the impenetrable darkness. Ever since I have equated it with working late, working hard, working it, as in working the system, using every ounce of strength and wit to get through life. And to do that you had to burn the midnight oil.
This was a sea change in the way people regarded the night, which for centuries had been dreaded and even avoided by sleeping and waking early. The night was dangerous; the night was cruel. It demanded respect and even avoidance, usually by way of sleep. The development of powerful oil lamps brought a sea change in the way people experienced the dark, and with it developed the belief in a strange beauty after dark, like the chiarascuro of Rembrandt, or the shadow-strewn world of The Maltese Falcon, or the radiant photographs of distant galaxies coming back from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The Darkness that Heals
Part I: The Twilight Zone
But I Sleep Alone, Sappho
Fireflies, Rabandranath Tagore
Acquainted with the Night: Robert Frost
We Grow Accustomed to the Dark, Emily Dickinson
Snowy Night, Mary Oliver
Afterwards, Thomas Hardy
The Times Are Nightfall, Gerard Manley Hopkins
Baruch Spinoza: Jorge Borges,
Blue Mosque Reverie, Phil Cousineau
A Hymn to the Night, Novalis
Each Breath of Light, Annie Dillard
Songs of Owl Women
The Last Prince of Thormond, P. J. Curtis
Last Night in Santorini, Edward Tick
The Tiger, William Blake
Mother Nursing Milky Way: Antler
Among the Sounds of the Night: James Agee
Take That Ride, R. B. Morris
Sunset on the Serengeti, Huston Smith
Coltrane Twilight, Erin Byrne
A Little Night Music, Linda Watanabee McFerrin
You Have Opened a Secret Tonight, Mevlana Rumi
Love at the Edge of the Grand Canyon, Jane Winslow Eliot
Their 50th Anniversary, James Botsford
The Story of King Shadyrar and Sheherazada, Richard Burton
Part II: Nighthawks
Night Song, Sappho, Willis Barnstone
A Letter from Galileo, Galileo Galilee
A Page from Galileo’s Journals, Galileo Galilee
Alone with the Stars, Rachel Carson
Glaciers by Starlight, John Muir
Alone in the Arctic Night, Richard E. Byrd
A Night in an Igloo, Georgia Hesse
Edward Hopper: The Nighthawk, Alexander Eliot
Café de Nuit, Erin Byrne
The Domain of Night: The Darkroom: Stuart Balcomb
Light and Shadow, Joanne Warfield
Dead Air / Night Radio, Richard Beban
Night Gigs in Motown, Chris Bakhridge
Miles of Country Roads, Miles Davis
Amsterdam, R. B. Morris
West with the Night, Beryl Markham
Zorba’s Fire, Nikos Kazantzakis
Night Train, Georgia Hesse
Drinking Alone by Moonlight: Li Po
Night Game, William Haney
Pitch Dark, Phil Cousineau
Hares at Play, John Clare
The Cry of the Peacock, Flannery O’Connor
Every Evening I Stroll, Eugene Delacroix
Walking Walden, Henry David Thoreau
Wandering at Night, Walt Whitman
San Francisco Nights, James Norwood Pratt
Elastic Midnight, MIkkel Aaland
Now as the Ancient Night, R. B. Morris
The Night I Drove Kerouac Home: Phil Cousineau
Walking Manila, Pico Iyer
I Walk the City at Night, Mevlana Rumi
The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel
Part III: A Hard Day’s Night
Curfew: A European Folk Tale
Insomnia, Abu ibn al-Hammarah
All Night I Could Not Sleep: Zi Ye
Winter Night: Yang-ti
Night is Forever:Zi Ye
Untouched by Sleep: Ovid
The Seems: Samuel Coleridge
The Fore-Shift, Matthew Tate
I Can See in the Midst of Darkness: Mahatma Gandhi
The Origins of Our Fear of the Dark: Bruce Chatwin
Silent Night in No Man’s Land: Stanley Weintraub
Nhac Sanh, Dr. Edward Tick
In My Own House I am a Stranger at Midnight, Fr. Gary Young
The Dangers of Reading All Night, Phil Cousineau [or to intro]
Noche de Los Muertos: Linda McFerrin
Advancing on the Dark: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Trade Noctem: Kent Chadwick
The Pains of Sleep: Samuel Coleridge
In a Dark Time: Theodore Roethke
Do Not Go Gentle Into the Dark Night: Dylan Thomas
He Watched Her While She Slept: James Joyce
Lying Awake, May Sarton
A Victim of Insomnia, Loren Eisley
Greek epitaphs, Michael Wolfe
Drunk at My Father’s Grave, Phil Cousineau
The Night Will Pass: Mevlana Rumi
IV: The Dream Factory
I Fell Asleep, Ono no Komachi
Night Song, Sappho
Chanzu Tzu’s Dream, translated by Sat Hon and Alicia Fox
A Dream of Mountaineering, Po-Chui
Let Not Sleep Come Upon Thine Eyes, Pythagoras
Thoughts for Bed, Epicurus
The Benefits of the Dark, Leonardo da Vinci
Golden Slumbers, Thomas Dekker
Those Who Do Not Feel This Love, Mevlana Rumi
Windows and Doors, Phil Cousineau
The Midnight Guest, Anacreon
Sonnet XXVII, William Shakespeare
Looking at my Children Asleep, Sharon Olds
Kant’s Critique of Pure Sleeping, Thomas de Quincey
A Dream Within a Dream, Edgar Allan Poe
The Land of Nod, Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sentinel in Love, Farid ud-Din Attar
Postcard from the New Delhi Night, James Botsford
Sonnet 43, William Shakespeare
The Vision to Elektra, Robert Herrick
Last Night, Proserpius
Dreaming of Kubla Khan, Samuel Coleridge
Dreaming While I Drive, R. B. Morris
A Renaissance Remedy for Sleep, Marsilio Ficino
Before Turning Out the Lights, Brother David Steindl-Rast
The Mystery of Jet Lag, Pico Iyer
Part IV: Morning Has Broken
End of the Party, Sappho
An Greeting to the Day, Orpingalik
It Gave Me the Daring, Lalla
To Tan Ch’iu, Li Po
In the Axe-Time, An Ancient Viking Tale
The Night at Zensho-ji Temple, Basho
Was I Changed by the Night? Lewis Carroll
Wake! Omar Khayyam
The Throat of Dawn, Mark Nepo
My Immortal Beloved, Ludwig von Beethoven
Speak to Us of Beauty, Kahil Gibran
Waking in the Monastery, Fr. Gary Young
Each Soul Must Meet the Morning Sun, Ohiyesa
Zero in the Dark, Verlyn Klinkenborg
The Night View of the World, Howard Thurman
I Have Been Tricked, Mevlana Rumi
Delta Dawn, Dr. Edward Tick
The Spirit of St. Louis in the Coming Dawn, Charles Lindbergh
Lying Single in Bed, Samuel Pepys
Our Lives Are Rounded by Sleep, William Shakespeare
The Old City Before Dawn, Pico Iyer
The Blind Watchmaker, Phil Cousineau
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I’m a “night” person. I stay up late and sleep in. I don’t understand it, nor did I really care. It was just as I was. I never really observed what it meant. This book did all of that for me. And I learned I really do prefer nighttime to daytime. This book is filled, page-to-page, from writers ranging from Sappho to Dickinson to Miles Davis. Every aspect of night is handled in this book, from twilight to dawn. A great companion for those late nights ahead.
I am a big fan of Phil Cousineau and have read four of his other books. "Burning the Midnight Oil" is a gorgeous gallery of inspirational readings. I really resonated to PIco Iyer's piece as well as jazz great Miles Davis and Phi's own writing sings off the page. I give this my highest recommendation and I urge you to give it a read or a listen on audio. I admit I also burned a little daytime oil with this book, too!
I just came upon this book while searching for something new. I love all the different writings by author who wrote hundreds of years ago and more recent. I read a couple each day and find them very inspirational and spiritual.