The poem ‘Night of the Scorpion' has been taken from Nissim Ezekiel's collection of poems entitled 'The Exact Name', published in 1965. The poem reads like a story. In ‘Night of the Scorpion' Ezekiel recalls the behaviour of 'the peasants', his father, his mother and a holy man when his mother was poisoned by a scorpion's sting. Here the aim is to find poetry in ordinary reality as observed, known, felt, experienced rather than as the intellect thinks it should be. While the peasants pray and speak of incarnations, his father, 'sceptic, rationalist', tries 'every curse and blessing, powder, mixture, herb and hybrid' and a holy man performs a rite. After a day the poison is no longer felt and, in a final irony, his mother, in contrast to the previous feverish activity centred upon her, makes a typical motherly comment:
My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
and spared my children.
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
and spared my children.
The 'Thank God' is doubly ironic as it is a commonplace expression of speech in contrast to all the previous religious and superstitious activity. Ezekiel's purpose is not, however, an expression of scepticism but rather the exact notation of what he saw as a child. The aim is not to explain but to make real by naming, by saying 'common things'. The poem is a new direction, a vision of ordinary reality, especially of Indian life, unmediated by cold intellect. The new purpose is seen in the poem's style, unrhymed, with line lengths shaped by natural syntactical units and rhythm created by the cadences of the speaking voice into a long verse paragraph, rather than the stanzaic structure used in earlier poems.
In his poetry there is the truth of acknowledging what is felt and experienced in its complexity, contradictions, pleasures, fears and disillusionments without preconceived ideas of what poetry should say about the poet and life. Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Night of The Scorpion’ is much appreciated by the critics and it has found place in many anthologies for as excellence, Critics, commenting on its aesthetic beauty expressed different views. In their critical sweep, they brought everything from superstitious ritualism to modern rationalism. One can find that in the poem superstitious ritualism or sceptic rationalism or even the balance of the both with expression of Indian ethos through maternal love in the Indian way, is nothing but scratching the surface.
The poem has something more gigantic than its face value, which as I find is the symbolic juxtaposition of the forces of darkness and light that is intrinsically centripetal in the poem. It is ‘Night’ of The Scorpion’ with the first word absorbing accent. It seems to have been implicitly contrived here that ‘Night should stand as a symbol of darkness with the ‘Scorpion’ as the symbol of evil. Such ingenuity in craftsmanship takes the poem to the higher level of understanding. Prof. Birje Patil is right in putting that in “Night of The Scorpion”, where evil is symbolized by the scorpion, The reader made to participate in the ritual as well as suffering through’ a vivid evocation of the poison moving in the mother’s blood’. And evil has always been associated with darkness, the seamy side of our life, in human psyche. It has always been the integral part of theology, in whatever form it has manifested that suffering helps in removing that darker patch in human mind, he patch that has been a besetting sin of man’s existence.
May the sum of evil
Balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain, they said
These lines amply testify that the poem aims at achieving something higher than its narrative simplicity. The choric refrain ‘they said’ in the chain of reactions made by the village peasants is undoubtedly ironic, but the poet hasn’t as much to stress the concept of sin, redemption or rebirth as he has to insinuate the indomitable force of darkness gripping the minds of the unenlightened. Going through the poem attentively more than once, it can’t fail catching our notice that modern rationalism is also equally shallow and perverse. It is also a road leading to confusion where through emerges scepticism, the other darker patch on our modernized existence. The image of the father in this poem speaks volumes for this capsizing modernism which sandwiches in its arm- space the primitive and the perverted. The “sceptic rationalist’ father trying ‘powder, mixture, herb and hybrid’ bears upon human primitivism and when he experiments with ‘a little paraffin upon a bitten toe and put a match to it he becomes a symbol of perversion in the modern man’s psyche.
Christopher Wiseman puts it, “...a fascinating tension between personal crisis and mocking social observation”” ; neither there is any personal crisis. On the other hand there is spiritual compassion and an intense urge for getting rid of this psychological syndrome that the whole modern world has been caught, the slow-moving poison of this syndromic scorpion into the very veins of creation, the image of the mother in agony nullifying the clear vision of human thought and enveloping the whole of humanity In the darker shades of confusion more chaolic, troubles the poet as much sharply as the sting of the poisonous worm. There is crisis, but it is the crisis of human existence that needs lo be overcome. The poet, though a distant observer, doesn’t take a stance of detachment. On the exact opposite, he watches with curiosity “the flame feeding on my mother’, but being uncertain whether the paraffin flame would cleanse her of the ugony of the absorbing poison, he loses himself in a thoughtful trance.
The whole poem abounds with these two symbols of darkness and light. In the very beginning the poet has ushered in this symbolic juxta position and then as the poem advanced, built upon it the whole structure of his fascinating architecture in the lines. Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice parting with his poison - flash of diabolic tail in the dark room he risked the rain again.
The incessant rain stands for the hope and regeneration where with is juxtaposed the destructive hurdles to fruitfy that hope. But the constructive, life giving rain continuoues and the evil, having fulfilled its parts, departs. Then afterwards other hurdels more preying than the first, come in. More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours more insects, and the endless rain My mother twisted through and through groaning on a mat. The symbols of light and darkness, candles lanterns, neighbours and insects and rain again are notworthy. But the force of light gains a width handover the evil force and life is restored once again in its joyous stride and this life long struggle between forces of darkness and light reaches a crescendo when - after twenty hours It lost its sting. Here, In the above lines, lies the beuaty of the poem, when the ascending steps of darkness, being chased by the force of following light are ripped down; when at last on the peak the chaser wins and the chased slips down.
The man who has not understood what motherhood is. might be taken in by such expression of motherly love. But I convincingly feel that any woman would have exclaimed the same thing as the mother in this poem did. In my view, it would have been truly Indian had the mother in her tortures remembered her children and though helplessly, had she desired to protect them lest the scorpion might catch them unawres. Anyway, the beauty of the poem remains- unmarred by such revision. The poem is a thing of beauty par excellence.
The poem "Night of the Scorpion" can be classified as poetry of situation - an art in which Browning and Robert Frost excelled. It presents a critical situation in which a mother is bitten by a scorpion. It involves a typical Indian Situation in which an entire village community identifies itself with a sad domestic happening. It pictures the traditional Indian society steeped in ignorance and superstition.
The poem is set against the backdrop of Indian rural setting. The rural habit of Storing rice in gunny bags is referred to in the phrase, " a sack of rice". The rural practice of building huts with mud walks is captured in the phrase "mud backed walks". The absence of rural electrification in Indian villages before independence is hinted at in a string of images, "dark room" and " Candles and linters". "Darkness" has the extended meaning of Indian villages being steeped in ignorance.
The situation of a scoipion-stung mother is encountered in different ways of prayer, incantation and science. Not one stays at home when the peasants hear of a mother bitten by a scoipion. They rush buzzing the name of God times without number. With candles and lanterns, they search for him. He is not found. They sit on the floor with the mother in the centre and try to comfort her with words of philosophy. Their prayer brings out their genuine concern for the suffering mother. The father, through a skeptic and a rationalist, does not differ in the least from the ignorant peasants. He tries both medicine and "mantra" drugs and chants as seen in the phrase "trying every were and blessing". A holy man is brought to tame the poison with an incantation.
It is the belief of the village community that buzzing " the name of God a hundred times" will bring about relief to the mother stung by the scorpion. The action of the rural folk brings out their firm faith in God and in the efficiency of prayer. It is the belief of the rural community that the faster the scorpion moves, the faster the poison in the mother's blood will move. In equating the movement of the scorpion and that of the poison in the blood stream, the peasant betray their superstition.
The peasants sit around the mother groaning in pain and they try to console her offering remedial advice of a strong ritualistic and faith - healing kind. Some peasants say that as she has suffered now, in the rent birth she will experience less troubles. She will now be in a balanced state whereby her body is ridden of device and her spirit of ambition. The incantatory utterances made by the peasants smack of their belief in the Hindu law of "Karina", in the Hindu doctrine of rebirth and in the 13 Hindu concept of the world as one of illusion and the physical suffering bringing about spiritual rejuvenation.
The poem is remembered particularly for its 'memorable close' - me last three lines:
My Mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my childred.
The use of the restricted adverb 'only' distinguishes the mother from the peasants, the father and the holy man. The, other does not blame God but she thanks God because the scorpion stung her and spared her children. Her agony would have been greater if any of her children were bitten. Ultimately, it assumes universal dimensions. The poet throws light on the selfless lore of the Indian mother.