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.
Henry Howard, ‘Set Me Whereas the Sun Doth Parch the Green’. 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’.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 33. This poem 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.
John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’. In this poem, 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.
Walt Whitman, ‘O Sun of Real Peace’. 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.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose’. This poem can be divided into two halves: an eight-line section 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. 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.
A E Housman, ‘How clear, how lovely bright’. 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.
Edward Thomas, ‘There’s Nothing Like the Sun’. ‘There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies’, 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…’
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.
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.
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 ‘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.