By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Weather is a perennial theme of poetry, and not just nice weather: more violent and extreme weather, such as storms, thunder, and lightning, has produced some classic poems, as this list of the best storm poems aims to highlight.
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei’.
Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.
The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat …
The rather less-than-catchy Latin title of this wonderful poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), a pioneer of English poetry in the Renaissance, translates as ‘my enemies surround my soul’ and is sometimes known by its first line, ‘Who list his wealth and ease retain’.
But the poem is better-known for its use of another Latin phrase, the refrain ‘circa Regna tonat’: ‘it thunders around the realm’. It is thanks to this powerful thundery metaphor that this poem is included here.
2. John Clare, ‘The Thunder Mutters’.
The thunder mutters louder & more loud
With quicker motion hay folks ply the rake
Ready to burst slow sails the pitch black cloud
& all the gang a bigger haycock make
To sit beneath …
This little poem from one of England’s foremost nature poets was written in 1845, so although Clare is often associated more with the Romantics than the Victorians, this poem arose out of the Victorian era.
3. Emily Dickinson, ‘A Thunderstorm’.
The wind begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low, –
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky.
The leaves unhooked themselves from trees
And started all abroad;
The dust did scoop itself like hands
And throw away the road …
This is the second version of a poem which Dickinson wrote in two different drafts in 1864. This version opens, ‘The wind begun to rock the Grass’, and describes the chaos that a storm wreaks upon the world. Worth reading for the following two lines alone: ‘The Dust did scoop itself like Hands / And threw away the Road.’
4. Augusta Webster, ‘Circe’.
The sun drops luridly into the west;
darkness has raised her arms to draw him down
before the time, not waiting as of wont
till he has come to her behind the sea;
and the smooth waves grow sullen in the gloom
and wear their threatening purple; more and more
the plain of waters sways and seems to rise
convexly from its level of the shores;
and low dull thunder rolls along the beach:
there will be storm at last, storm, glorious storm …
Webster (1837-94) is a forgotten name among Victorian poets. In her dramatic monologue ‘Circe’, she depicts the goddess from Greek mythology as a wild but complex female figure. This poem contains the stormy (and storming) line, ‘storm at last, storm, glorious storm’, but really the whole thing is wildly turbulent.
5. W. H. Davies, ‘Thunderstorms’.
My mind has thunderstorms,
That brood for heavy hours:
Until they rain me words,
My thoughts are drooping flowers
And sulking, silent birds.
Yet come, dark thunderstorms,
And brood your heavy hours;
For when you rain me words,
My thoughts are dancing flowers
And joyful singing birds.
Davies (1871-1940) is best-known for the poem ‘Leisure’, with its opening lines, ‘What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.’
But this fine poem is altogether less placid than ‘Leisure’: it uses the thunderstorm as a metaphor for the mind’s turbulence and tumult. The ‘message’ of the poem appears to be that the poet would not renounce his darker, wilder moods, because they help him to write (raining down words, as he puts it), and that, in turn, makes him happy.
6. Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), ‘Storm’.
H. D. was called ‘the perfect Imagist’ by Glenn Hughes, and her short poems of the 1910s embodied many of the key tenets of Imagism in a vivid and striking way. ‘Storm’ is one such example, especially in the description of the falling heavy leaf as a ‘green stone’.
7. T. S. Eliot, ‘What the Thunder Said’.
This is not a poem in itself but rather the fifth and final section of the longer poem, The Waste Land. Eliot’s speaker (speakers?) interpreting the rumble of thunder as a divine message (variously interpreted to mean ‘give’, ‘sympathise’, or ‘control’) fits in neatly with the poem’s wider interest in interpretation, divination, and prognostication (seen in Madame Sosostris the ‘famous clairvoyante’ and the Cumaean Sibyl from the poem’s epigraph).
Shades of the Gothic are introduced in this section of the longer poem – shades which are echoed by the bats with the baby faces in the chapel. We are also in the realms of Arthurian myth here, and the Grail quest: the Chapel Perilous was the place, in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, where Lancelot was tempted – as with ‘The Fire Sermon’, temptation re-emerges as a theme. Can one remain spiritually pure and focused, or will the lure of the body become too strong?
Then, finally, rain comes to the land, and there is a thunderclap …
8. Jean Toomer, ‘Storm Ending’.
Toomer (1894-1967) was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and ‘Storm Ending’ is a wonderful brief poem about thunder which celebrates the thunderstorm as something ‘blossoming’ above the speaker’s head and describes the clouds as flowers, flourishing and letting their rain fall down on the land.
9. Theodore Roethke, ‘The Storm’.
This is a powerful description of a storm, but some of its finest details relate to the dead calm within the house containing the people sheltering from the storm: the spider lowering itself from the lightbulb is an especially fine touch.
10. Philip Larkin, ‘Mother, Summer, I’.
In this poem, Larkin reflects how his mother is suspicious of a nice summer’s day in case it is secretly harbouring thunderstorms; Larkin concludes that he has inherited his mother’s suspicious attitude towards perfect weather (and, by extension, perfection in general), and prefers the arrival of autumn as a time when expectations are lowered.
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.