The best sun poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve offered up some classic summer poems, but in this post we’re specifically interested in classic poems about the sun, that wonderful ball of hydrogen and helium that makes life on Earth possible and allows us to get a decent suntan for six days of the year. Each of the ten following poems describes or uses the sun in some way – sometimes to explore other themes, sometimes simply to praise the sun for its warmth and light.
1. Henry Howard, ‘Set Me Whereas the Sun Doth Parch the Green’.
Set me whereas the sun doth parch the green
Or where his beams may not dissolve the ice;
In temperate heat where he is felt and seen;
With proud people, in presence sad and wise;
Set me in base, or yet in high degree,
In long night or in the shortest day,
In clear weather or where mists thickest be,
In lost youth, or when my hairs are grey …
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47) invented the English sonnet form, adapting the Italian form and rhyme scheme to create the blueprint that Shakespeare, among many others, would later use. In this sonnet, Surrey adapts an Italian poem written by Petrarch, and essentially says, ‘Put me wherever you like, in the warmest sun, in youth or in old age, in earth, heaven, or hell, but I’ll still love you the same’. The poem earns its place on this list for its opening four lines, describing the sun’s ‘temperate heat’.
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 33.
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
So ends this classic poem, which shows Shakespeare’s love affair with the ‘Fair Youth’ in difficulty: we like Don Paterson’s suggestion, in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, that Sonnet 33 should be read as a rather paranoid interrogation of ‘I’m ironing my ruff tonight’ – Shakespeare is reading too much into a perceived slight by the Fair Youth, and fears that this spells the end of their relationship (if they ever had such a thing). But the poem’s references to the ‘sun’ have also been interpreted as punning allusions to the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, in 1596. We’ve compiled more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets here.
3. John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’.
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time …
This is the arresting opening stanza of a glorious poem, in which the master of metaphysical poetry John Donne chastises the sun for peeping through the curtains in the morning and disturbing him and his lover from sleep, rousing them from their beds and telling them to get up. Note the way Donne takes the idea of being blinded by staring at the sun and turns it on its head, saying that if the sun may well be blinded by looking upon the eyes of his beloved – they’re that dazzling and beautiful.
4. Walt Whitman, ‘O Sun of Real Peace’.
O sun of real peace! O hastening light!
O free and extatic! O what I here, preparing, warble for!
O the sun of the world will ascend, dazzling, and take his height—and you too, O my Ideal, will surely ascend!
O so amazing and broad—up there resplendent, darting and burning!
O vision prophetic, stagger’d with weight of light! with pouring glories!
O lips of my soul, already becoming powerless!
O ample and grand Presidentiads! Now the war, the war is over!
This paean to the sun by one of American poetry’s great pioneers is written in Whitman’s distinctive free verse, and is a celebratory poem in more ways than one: as well as singing the praises of the sun, it also celebrates the end of the American Civil War.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’.
I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time –
The Steeples swam in Amethyst –
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –
The Bobolinks – begun –
Then I said softly to myself –
‘That must have been the Sun!’
This poem can be divided into two halves: an eight-line section (quoted above) describing the sunrise, and an eight-line section, introduced by the turn on that word, ‘But’, describing the speaker’s lack of knowledge of the sunset. Contrasting with the joyous picture of the sunrise in the first stanza we have something more subdued when we come to Dickinson’s description of the sunset. From the soft violet colour of the ‘Amethyst’ sunrise, we move to a darker ‘purple stile’, denoting a boundary – perhaps, here, suggesting the horizon, that boundary between land and sky. The yellow children, bathed in the fading glow of the sun, are climbing this stile, only to be met on the other side by a clergyman or ‘Dominie’ clothed in drab grey (the grey suggesting dusk but also, perhaps, clouds).
But the poem also resonates with religious meaning, given the references to a clergyman leading his ‘flock away’. The poem thus combines description of the sun with deeper theological questions.
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.
Although this poem doesn’t mention the word ‘sun’, for us it’s one of the greatest poems about the sun by one of the best ‘non-great’ poets in English verse. We can ‘non-great’ because Housman’s range is often considered too narrow to warrant the term ‘great’; however, he uses language beautifully, especially in this moving poem about the rising, noonday, and setting sun (treated respectively in each of the poem’s three stanzas). The final line gave the crime author Colin Dexter the title of his last Inspector Morse novel.
7. Edward Thomas, ‘There’s Nothing Like the Sun’.
There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow
Whether on mountains side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang …
So begins this poem by one of the early twentieth century’s greatest nature poets. Rather than dealing with the summer sun, Thomas considers the late autumn sun: ‘November has begun, / Yet never shone the sun as fair as now …’
8. Louis MacNeice, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’.
Like many of Louis MacNeice’s greatest poems, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ focuses on one moment, in an attempt to ‘cage the minute’ when the sunlight falls on the garden. This poem demonstrates MacNeice’s skilful use of form, with the rhyme on the first and third lines of each stanza providing the sounds for the beginnings of the second and fourth lines.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Solar’.
One of Philip Larkin’s most lyrical poems, ‘Solar’ – as the title suggests – celebrates the sun as a force of energy giving us life and light. ‘You give for ever.’ (Physicists would quibble over that ‘for ever’, since the sun will eventually run out of fuel, but we get Larkin’s point.) Many who accuse Larkin of being grumpy and anti-social might find this laudatory lyric a surprise – and it shows just how many strings Larkin actually had to his poetical bow.
10. Jenny Joseph, ‘The Sun Has Burst the Sky’.
‘The sun has burst the sky / Because I love you’: so begins this wonderfully joyful poem about being in love, from the poet who also gave us the far more famous poem ‘Warning’, about growing old and wearing purple. Because of its opening line, this beautiful love poem earns its place in our list.
We also 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). Continue to explore the heavens with some of the best sky poems, these classic poems about the stars and these great moon poems. Alternatively, check out our pick of the best birthday poems or these poems for fathers.
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.