The best night poems in English selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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’. 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. 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’. 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’. 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’. 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’. 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.