By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
From sunsets to twilight and dusky moments, poets have often focused on that time of day when the light is fading, and mused upon the significance of it. Below are ten of the best evening poems, anti-aubades (aubades, from the French for dawn, are poems about the other end of the day), whether literal or metaphorical evenings.
The finest poems about the evening often consider both the literal evening and the broader significance of such a time of day. So, as the light is fading, let us begin …
1. William Wordsworth, ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea …
Is there a more calming and uplifting opening line in all of English poetry for recalling when outside on a lovely evening? This sonnet by Romantic poet Wordsworth (1770-1850) would take some beating, we reckon – it’s one of the best evening poems in the language.
Wordsworth praises the beautiful evening for its calm and quiet. It’s as if the whole world is hushed with admiration for the beauty of nature, much as a nun is rendered breathless and speechless with her admiration for God. Even the sun seems to be setting more out of a glorious lethargy and relaxation than because it’s what it does every evening …
2. Emily Brontë, ‘I know not how it falls on me’.
I know not how it falls on me,
This summer evening, hushed and lone;
Yet the faint wind comes soothingly
With something of an olden tone …
This short poem is about the summer evening falling upon the poem’s speaker, and sees her making her peace with nature and the elements, having overlooked their healing and uplifting powers for so long. We’ve probably all felt that way at some point, especially on a warm summer evening.
We include this poem in our pick of the best short Emily Brontë poems – follow the link above and scroll down to number 8 on the list.
3. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Sunset of Romanticism’.
The nineteenth-century French poet Baudelaire’s description of the sunset as ‘like a throbbing heart’ (as it is rendered in the English translation we’ve linked to) at first strikes us as run-of-the-mill Romanticism, until Baudelaire – he who wrote a volume of poems titled Le Fleurs du mal, or ‘the flowers of evil’ – gives the evening scene a darker edge.
An ‘odour of the tomb’ is in the air, and we are far away from the ‘beauteous evening’ of Wordsworth.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘An Ignorance a Sunset’.
Emily Dickinson often provides an idiosyncratic look at the world of nature – well, the world in general – and this poem of hers about the evening sun is a prime example of her eccentric talent. Her description of the sunset as an ‘Amber Revelation’ is especially striking. The poem is short enough to be quoted in full here:
An ignorance a Sunset
Confer upon the Eye —
Of Territory — Color —
Circumference — Decay —
Its Amber Revelation
Exhilirate — Debase —
Of Our inferior face —
And when the solemn features
Confirm — in Victory —
We start — as if detected
In Immortality —
An angel is everywhere
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Darkling Thrush’.
I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires …
This classic Hardy poem captures the mood of a winter evening as the sun, ‘the weakening eye of day’, sets below the horizon and gives way to dusk on New Year’s Eve.
The poem’s speaker leans upon a woodland gate and views the land around him as a symbol of the events of the nineteenth century, the ‘Century’s corpse outleant’; the speaker is made a part of the scene, not just a detached observer, as ‘outleant’ echoes the speaker’s own action at the start of the poem (‘I leant upon a coppice gate’).
A thrush appears, and sings so joyfully that the speaker is convinced that the bird knows something he does not – that the thrush singing in the twilight knows of brighter days to come.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘How clear, how lovely bright’.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
Okay, so the first two stanzas of this poem address the morning and daytime, but it’s for the sublime final stanza that we’ve included this poem here. The last line of the poem gave Colin Dexter the title of his final Inspector Morse novel, The Remorseful Day; in the books, Housman is Morse’s favourite poet.
However, Housman seems to have borrowed the phrase from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘The gaudy, blabbing, and remorseful day / Is crept into the bosom of the sea’) – but what he does with the phrase is quite arresting and memorable here.
7. T. E. Hulme, ‘A City Sunset’.
Along with his more famous poem ‘Autumn’, this was one of the first two poems T. E. Hulme wrote as an illustration of what he thought modern English poetry should be, following the French vers libre (or free verse) model.
Few poets before Hulme had thought to compare the red sunset to the naked flesh of a mistress of King Charles II, but the unusual simile only makes his poem all the more arresting and his description of the evening sunset – as seen by a London-dweller – even more visceral and vivid.
The poem is short enough to be reproduced in full here:
Alluring, Earth seducing, with high conceits
is the sunset that reigns
at the end of westward streets. …
A sudden flaring sky
troubling strangely the passer by
with visions, alien to long streets, of Cytharea
or the smooth flesh of Lady Castlemaine. …
A frolic of crimson
is the spreading glory of the sky,
heaven’s jocund maid
flaunting a trailed red robe
along the fretted city roofs
about the time of homeward going crowds
— a vain maid, lingering, loth to go …
8. Robert Frost, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.
One of Frost’s best-loved poems if not the best-loved (the rival would be ‘The Road Not Taken’), ‘Stopping by Woods’, like Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, takes a wintry evening as its setting but goes further into the woods than Hardy did (who was merely leaning ‘upon a coppice gate’). This is one of the most perennially popular evening poems, so had to be included here!
Frost called this poem ‘my best bid for remembrance’. It seems a rather straightforward poem, but, as with that other Frost poem, its simplicity is only on the surface, and is belied here by several things, including the sophisticated rhyme pattern Frost employs.
We have analysed this beautiful evening poem here.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Going’.
This short, unrhymed poem by Philip Larkin was called a ‘belated Imagist’ piece by the noted Larkin critic and biographer James Booth. It’s a good description: Larkin’s likening of the evening to approaching death, and the comparison of both to a silken bedsheet or piece of clothing, make for a memorable poem – and that’s to say nothing of the questions with which the poem ends.
We have analysed this poem here.
10. Anne Sexton, ‘The Fury of Sunsets’.
Sexton (1928-74) was an American confessional poet, a contemporary of Sylvia Plath; she also, like Plath, took her own life. But Sexton’s work is distinct from Plath’s, and hers is a distinctive voice.
‘The Fury of Sunsets’ is a wonderfully raw and angry poem, containing the wonderful lines ‘All day I’ve built a lifetime and now the sun sinks to undo it.’ Who hasn’t felt like that some evenings?
That concludes our pick of ten of the greatest evening poems. What wonderful paean to sunsets would you add to our list?
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). You might also enjoy our pick of the best morning poems, our poems for night-time, and our poems about the sun and sunsets.
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.