The greatest poems about the moon selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In this post, we offer our pick of ten of the best poems about the moon in the English language. As symbols go, the moon has been a firm favourite with poets down the ages, representing everything from unrequited love to a realisation of approaching old age, from motherhood to … er, a farmer’s red face. Read on to discover what we think are some of the best moon poems out there…
1. Anonymous, ‘Mon in the Mone’.
Mon in the mone stond and strit;
On his botforke his burthen he bereth.
It is muche wonder that he na doun slyt;
For doute leste he valle he shoddreth ant shereth.
When the forst freseth muche chele he byd.
The thornes beth kene, his hattren to tereth …
So begins this medieval poem dating from the early fourteenth century – which is, of course, ‘The Man in the Moon’ in modern English. It’s an example of medieval comedy: it is located in a manuscript, known as the Harley manuscript, alongside various satires and comic pieces from the Middle Ages. The poem features a rustic speaker addressing the folkloric figure of the ‘man in the moon’ and wondering about the life he leads.
2. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 31 from Astrophil and Stella.
Then, even of fellowship, O moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?
‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st in the skies’: with this remarkable opening line, the 31st sonnet in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (c. 1582) – the first substantial sonnet sequence written in English – begins. It’s an example of apostrophe – of addressing someone or something absent – which, in this case, is the moon. Sidney, reflecting on the hopeless love he feels for Penelope Rich (who could have been his wife, but he foolishly turned her down), wonders if the moon shares his lovesickness. This is one of the greatest poems about the moon in all of English literature (in our opinion).
How serious is Sidney being when he offers up this rather romanticised conversation between the poet and the moon? Is he sending himself up? Sidney is aware of how ridiculous love can render us, even while that love is felt sincerely and keenly. But courtly love, of course, was several centuries old when Sidney was writing, and so the idea of admiring an unattainable woman from afar needed to be explored with an awareness that these tropes were already familiar to many readers, especially the educated readers who would have read Sidney’s sonnets when they were circulated in manuscript.
3. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘Hymn to the Moon’.
Montagu (1689-1762) was a remarkable woman: as well as her writing, she is also celebrated for introducing smallpox inoculation to Britain, half a century before Edward Jenner developed vaccination against the disease. ‘Hymn to the Moon’ is a wonderful short poem about the moon. It begins:
Thou silver deity of secret night,
Direct my footsteps through the woodland shade;
Thou conscious witness of unknown delight,
The Lover’s guardian, and the Muse’s aid!
By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,
My friend, my goddess, and my guide …
4. Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To the Moon’.
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
Similar to Sir Philip Sidney over two centuries before, Shelley addressed the moon in this short Romantic lyric, and sees the moon’s pallor as the possible result of its sorrow at having to climb the sky alone and look down on the Earth. One of the best-known moon poems.
But the similarities don’t end there. Sidney and Shelley both observe the pallor of the moon – as you might expect – but they both also remark on the sad or weary way the moon climbs the night sky. They both point out that the moon is solitary, and they both ask questions of the moon, the chief of which concerns constancy and hopeless love. (Shelley’s moon cannot find a companion that will be true to it.) Is Shelley consciously and deliberately engaging with Sidney’s poem here, and recasting it in a more Romantic light? It’s certainly possible.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Moon was but a chin of gold’.
The Moon was but a Chin of Gold
A Night or two ago—
And now she turns Her perfect Face
Upon the World below—
Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde—
Her Cheek—a Beryl hewn—
Her Eye unto the Summer Dew
The likest I have known—
Her Lips of Amber never part—
But what must be the smile
Upon Her Friend she could confer
Were such Her Silver Will …
So begins this gloriously evocative poem. Emily Dickinson was never going to write a conventional poem about the moon (or about anything), and the images she uses to describe the moon in this poem are striking and idiosyncratic: a ‘chin of gold’, for starters, but then who else but Dickinson would describe the universe as ‘Her Shoe’?
6. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Moonrise’.
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quit utterly …
‘Moonrise’ is subtitled ‘June 19 1876’, and sees Hopkins observing the crescent moon in the sky one midsummer’s night (or rather ‘not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning’). The association between the moon and a fingernail is surprising and memorable, as is the poem’s use of long lines and Hopkins’s distinctive ‘sprung rhythm’.
Another image for the crescent moon, that of the ‘paring of paradisaïcal fruit’, summons the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, which, although traditionally interpreted as an apple, is sometimes named as a banana. This makes the poem vivid and unusual in its description of the appearance of the moon.
7. T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’.
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer …
Hulme (1883-1917) may well be the first truly modern (or modernist) poet writing in English. He composed ‘Autumn’ in 1908, using the new vers libre (‘free verse’) of French Symbolist poets and likening the moon to something down-to-earth and unexpected: the ruddy face of a farmer. English poetry (and our perception of the moon) would never be the same again…
8. Carl Sandburg, ‘Moonset’.
This short poem is almost actively ‘unpoetical’ in its imagery, and offers a fresh look at the moon. The poem’s final image of ‘dark listening to dark’ is especially eye-catching.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Sad Steps’.
Larkin’s poem, written in the late 1960s during the high point of the counterculture and the sexual revolution, was a response to Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet discussed above – as the title of Larkin’s poem, taken from the opening line of Sidney’s, makes clear. Larkin rejects all of the conventional Romantic and Symbolist labels attached to the moon, and instead sees its ‘wide stare’ as a reminder that he is getting old, his passions cooled.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’.
Plath, as is well known, was plagued by depression and ended up taking her life (in an apartment where fellow poet W. B. Yeats once lived) in 1963. In this haunting poem, Plath uses the moon as a symbol for both her melancholy and for her mother, with the yew tree taking on the masculine role of her father.
The moon is often feminine in poetry: it is connected with fertility, the sea (another feminine symbol), and motherhood. This is especially true of Plath’s poetry, since Plath was heavily influenced by The White Goddess, the 1948 ‘grammar’ of poetic myth written by Robert Graves, which argued that all Western poetry was inspired by the figure of the Triple Goddess, a female deity associated with the moon.
Sylvia Plath wrote ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ in 1961 while she was suffering from writer’s block. Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, suggested that she write a poem about the view outside their bedroom window. Hughes later recalled that, from the window of their house in Devon, they could see a yew tree in the churchyard to the west of their house. On the morning in question, the full moon was visible just behind the yew tree, and Hughes gave Plath the idea of writing about the scene.
If you enjoyed these classic poems about the moon, you might also enjoy this pick of the best poems about the sky, these classic poems about the night, our pick of the best poems about the sun and these classic poems about the stars. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
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.
Image (bottom): Harvest moon (2007), via Khayman and Roadcrusher on Wikimedia Commons.