By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Dawn, morning, sunrise: these are perennial themes of English poetry. From beautiful aubades to morning prayers, English literature is ready to rouse us from slumber with cheering, inspiring, moving, and thought-provoking poems about the dawn.
So let’s rise and shine with some of English literature’s best poems about the morning, the finest poems about dawn, the most classic poems about sunrise. We’ll start by travelling back more than half a millennium…
1. Anonymous, ‘A Medieval Morning Prayer’.
Let’s begin our whistle-stop tour of the best morning poems in the fifteenth century, with a prayer thanking the Lord for seeing us through the night all right and keeping us away from the Devil:
Jesu Lord, blyssed thou be,
For all this nyght thou hast me kepe
From the fend and his poste,
Whether I wake or that I slepe …
If you enjoy this medieval prayer, you might also like this one, from the same site.
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 33.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy …
The sonnet by Shakespeare which begins ‘Full many a glorious morning have I seen’ is a touching evocation of lost love: the Fair Youth, many commentators say, has gone off Shakespeare, and the worldly ‘sun’ only shone brightly and favourably on the Bard for ‘but one hour’. Now the clouds have come over and the Youth’s love for Shakespeare has cooled.
The opening lines describing the sun arriving on the scene of a morning earn this sonnet its place in this list.
3. John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’.
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Its title sometimes still rendered in the original spelling as ‘The Sunne Rising’, this is one of Donne’s most celebrated poems, and it’s gloriously frank – it begins with Donne chastising the sun for peeping through the curtains, rousing him and his lover as they lie in bed together of a morning. This is one of the first great morning poems in all of English literature, written around the same time as Shakespeare was penning his Sonnets.
Look at the way Donne goes on to take the idea of being blinded by staring at the sun and turns it on its head, saying that the sun itself may well be blinded by looking upon the eyes of his beloved – they’re that dazzling and beautiful. It’s impossible to be blinded by beauty, of course, but the cleverness of the conceit transforms it from clichéd declaration of love (‘I’m blinded by your beauty’) into something more affecting because, as T. S. Eliot observed, thought and feeling were united in Donne’s poetry.
4. William Wordsworth, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning …
This sonnet, written in 1802, praises the beauty of London in the early morning light, as the poet stands on Westminster Bridge admiring the surrounding buildings.
London, even by the early nineteenth century, was a world of industrialisation, smog (that is, smoky fog, created by industrial activity), as well as the centre of government and empire, two things that came under heavy scrutiny by the early Romantic poets. Yet the London of early morning is serene and still, and it is this quiet scene that Wordsworth praises here.
5. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Dawn’.
Day’s sweetest moments are at dawn;
Refreshed by his long sleep, the Light
Kisses the languid lips of Night,
Ere she can rise and hasten on …
This short poem is worthy of inclusion here simply for its description of the dawn as the moment when Light ‘kisses the languid lips of Night’. Quite. A tender depiction of the moment daylight begins to take over from the darkness of night, ‘Dawn’ is a little gem of a morning poem.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘Spring Morning’.
Star and coronal and bell
April underfoot renews,
And the hope of man as well
Flowers among the morning dews.
Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter’s pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains …
Like many of the short poems of A. E. Housman (1859-1936), ‘Spring Morning’ features a hopeless lover; it also includes some striking and evocative descriptions of dawn. Tinged with pessimism and poignancy like so many of Housman’s best poems, it strikes a bittersweet note, and does so beautifully. The poem is taken from Housman’s second poetry collection, Last Poems (1922).
It’s a perfectly crafted poem, with the sting in the final two lines neatly judged, held off amidst the hope of a more upbeat ending, until the arrival of that deadly ‘Though’ puts paid to such hopes.
‘Spring Morning’ keeps in balance the sense of promise and new hope which both springtime and the dawning of a new day bring: although as we grow older our sense of boundless optimism becomes a little less unbounded, there are pleasures enough remaining to make it worth our while to go on making the best we can of living.
7. T. S. Eliot, ‘Morning at the Window’.
This early Eliot poem, written in 1914, presents a series of miniature observations about modern urban life: the sound of dirty plates being rattled in basement kitchens, the housemaids hanging around outside the properties where they are employed, the brown fog of London. Over a century on from Wordsworth’s Romantic view of London at dawn, Eliot offers a far more gritty and less rosy view of a London morning.
8. William Empson, ‘Aubade’.
Empson (1906-84) was Donne’s great heir in the twentieth century, and used many contemporary scientific theories and discoveries in his slim poetic oeuvre. One of the hallmarks of Empson’s distinctive poetry, much of which was written in the late 1920s and 1930s, is terse, almost aphoristic lines of poetry which he repeats throughout the poem (unsurprisingly, he wrote a number of villanelles).
The most resonant line from ‘Aubade’, describing an affair with a Japanese girl whom Empson knew in the early 1930s while he was teaching in Japan and the sense of impending war between China and Japan, is ‘The heart of standing is we cannot fly.’
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’.
Stephen Fry chose this poem as one of the two poems he likes to reread when he’s depressed, because, oddly, Larkin’s poem helps to cheer him up, despite its bleak message. Larkin’s poem is about waking at four o’clock in the morning and being kept awake by the horrifying realisation that he is going to die, and that each morning brings him closer to death.
But what is so affirming about Larkin’s poem, Fry says, is that it reassures him – and us – that great art can come out of very dark moods and thoughts. It’s certainly true in Larkin’s case: this was the last great poem he wrote. It’s not the cheeriest morning poem, but it’s one of the best poems ever written about the morning.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘Morning Song’.
This poem is about a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby, and so doesn’t celebrate the beauty of the sunrise or an aesthetically pleasing landscape as seen at dawn, like some of the poems on this list. Instead, we have Plath’s speaker (based on Plath, herself a mother to a small child when she penned this poem) stumbling out of bed ‘cow-heavy and floral’ in her Victorian nightgown.
What for your money is the best morning poem in all of English literature? We welcome your recommendations in the comments below. And continue your poetry odyssey with our selection of the best poems about evening and sunsets and our pick of the greatest poems about the moon. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.