By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best poems about the night in all of English literature? Below we offer ten suggestions for classic night poems from the last few centuries of English verse.
Robert Herrick, ‘The Night Piece: To Julia’.
Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee,
The shooting stars attend thee;
And the elves also,
Whose little eyes glow
Like the sparks of fire, befriend thee …
Glow-worms, shooting stars, and elves: it’s all in this charming poem (and that’s just the first three lines). The last line invites a sexual reading, another sign of the eroticism that pervades the Julia poems. (Though here we might add foot-fetishism as well.) From one of the seventeenth century’s finest English poets.
Edward Young, from Night Thoughts.
By Nature’s law, what may be, may be now;
There’s no prerogative in human hours:
In human hearts what bolder thought can rise,
Than man’s presumption on tomorrow’s dawn?
Where is tomorrow? In another world.
For numbers this is certain; the reverse
Is sure to none; and yet on this perhaps,
This peradventure, infamous for lies,
As on a rock of adamant we build
Our mountain hopes; spin out eternal schemes,
As we the fatal sisters would outspin,
And, big with life’s futurities, expire …
A hugely popular poem in its day, The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality (to give it its full title) by Edward Young (1683-1765) is a long blank-verse meditation on death, set over the course of nine sections or ‘nights’. The poem may well have originated the phrase ‘procrastination is the thief of time’, which appears in it.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’.
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully …
Written in 1798, the same year that Coleridge’s landmark volume of poems, Lyrical Ballads (co-authored with Wordsworth), appeared, ‘Frost at Midnight’ is a night-time meditation on childhood and raising children, offered in a conversational manner and focusing on several key themes of Romantic poetry: the formative importance of childhood and the way it shapes who we become, and the role nature can play in our lives.
Robert Browning, ‘Meeting at Night’.
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand …
This short Robert Browning poem about a lover travelling for a nocturnal tryst with his beloved contains some interesting and sexually suggestive imagery to describe the ‘pushing prow’ of the boat as it enters the cove…
Emily Dickinson, ‘We grow accustomed to the Dark’.
We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –
A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect …
The first line of this poem also provides the poem with its main theme: the way our eyes adjust to the darkness, just as our minds adapt to the bleakness of life and contemplation of the ‘night’ that is death.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Starlight Night’.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies …
In this poem, one of many sonnets Hopkins (1844-89) wrote, he coins the wonderful term ‘fire-folk’ (reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon kennings) to describe the stars in the night sky. Hopkins also likens the stars to the eyes of elves and to diamonds, with the phrase ‘diamond delves’ comparing the stars in the night sky to diamonds in dark mines or caves.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’.
The words to this poem provided the inspiration for the popular song ‘Memory’ from the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Cats, which adapted Eliot’s book of cat poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, for the stage.
But ‘Rhapsody’, which appeared in Eliot’s first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), offers a Baudelaire-influenced picture of the urban night, with its visions of a ‘crowd of twisted things’, mysterious women loitering in doorways, and the cat flattening itself in the gutter.
W. H. Auden, ‘Night Mail’.
Thanks to the classic film which featured it – and for which it was specially written – ‘Night Mail’ remains one of Auden’s best-known poems. The film in which it features, about the night train carrying mail from London to Scotland, remains a classic of British documentary filmmaking; you can watch the excerpt from the film featuring Auden’s poem here.
Philip Larkin, ‘Sad Steps’.
One of Larkin’s later poems, ‘Sad Steps’ (1968) sees the poet contemplating the moon one night having groped his way ‘back to bed after a piss’. From this seemingly unpoetic start, the poem rejects various conventional poetic depictions of the moon before arriving at a bleaker conclusion – the sort that tend to come more easily in the middle of the night.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Words, Wide Night’.
A short poem, this, to conclude our selection of the finest night-time poems. This poem takes one of Carol Ann Duffy’s most important themes: how to use language to express our feelings to another (see ‘Text’ and ‘Syntax’ for two other prominent examples). If you’ve ever lain awake at night and longed to address an absent lover (or would-be lover), this poem will surely strike a chord.
If you enjoyed these classic nocturnal poems, you might also enjoy these poems about sleep, these classic moon poems, and these evening and sunset poems. 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.