The greatest dark poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poetry isn’t all sweetness and light, of course. In fact, much of it is concerned with the darker aspects of the natural world, whether it’s the mystery or solemnity of night-time darkness or some other, more abstract or metaphorical kind of darkness (‘O dark dark dark’, as T. S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets). Here, we offer ten of the best poems about darkness of various kinds.
1. Charlotte Smith, ‘Written near a Port on a Dark Evening’.
All is black shadow but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Misled the pilgrim …
This sonnet was written by one of the great proto-Romantic poets of the second half of the eighteenth century. Smith’s sonnets anticipate Romanticism partly because nature in her poetry is so often feared with an awesome power that verges on the terrifying: ‘life’s long darkling way’ is brooding and full of menace here.
2. Lord Byron, ‘Darkness’.
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day …
This poem was inspired by a curious incident: the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which drastically altered the weather conditions across the world and led to 1816 being branded ‘the Year without a Summer’. The same event also led to Byron’s trip to Lake Geneva and his ghost-story writing competition, which produced Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein.
For Byron, the extermination of the sun seemed like a dream, yet it was ‘no dream’ but a strange and almost sublimely terrifying reality.
3. Robert Browning, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’.
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be …
A grotesque quasi-medieval dramatic monologue detailing the quest of the titular Roland, this poem was produced in an attempt to overcome writer’s block: in 1852 Browning had set himself the New Year’s Resolution to write a new poem every day, and this vivid dreamscape is what arose from his fevered imagination.
Browning borrowed the title from a line in Shakespeare’s King Lear; the character of Roland as he appears in Browning’s poem has in turn inspired Stephen King to write his Dark Tower series, while J. K. Rowling borrowed the word ‘slughorn’ from the poem when creating the name of her character Horace Slughorn.
4. 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 Good bye –
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.
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Darkling Thrush’.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom …
This classic Hardy poem captures the mood of a winter evening as the sun, ‘the weakening eye of day’, sets below the horizon and gives way to dusk on New Year’s Eve. Hardy hears a thrush singing, and wonders whether the thrush is aware of some reason to be hopeful for the coming new year, some reason of which Hardy himself is unaware.
In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ itself we are given clues that religion is on the speaker’s mind. In the third stanza, when the thrush of the title appears (‘darkling’ is an old poetic word for ‘in darkness’ – it also, incidentally, echoes Matthew Arnold‘s use of the word in his famous poem about declining faith, ‘Dover Beach’, published in 1867), its song is described as ‘evensong’, suggesting the church service, while the use of the word ‘soul’ also suggests the spiritual. (Such a religiously inflected analysis of Hardy’s poem is reinforced by ‘carolings’ in the next stanza.)
6. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay …
One of Hopkins’s ‘Terrible Sonnets’, this poem is one of the finest evocations of a sleepless night that English poetry has produced. When we wake to find that it’s not yet morning but we are still surrounded by darkness, and undergo some sort of ‘dark night of the soul’, we often feel as Hopkins describes here. For him it is a spiritual battle as well as a mere case of insomnia.
As so often with Hopkins, the spiritual and psychological are experienced as a vivid visceral force that is physical as well as metaphysical: his depression and doubt weigh upon him like heartburn or indigestion (‘heartburn’ picking up on the poet’s more abstract address to his ‘heart’ in the third line of the poem, but also leading into the ‘blood’ mentioned a couple of lines later).
7. Carl Sandburg, ‘Moonset’.
This short poem is almost actively ‘unpoetical’ in its imagery, and offers a fresh look at the moon. The poem’s final image of ‘dark listening to dark’ is especially eye-catching.
8. Edward Thomas, ‘The Dark Forest’.
Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead
Hang stars like seeds of light
In vain, though not since they were sown was bred
Anything more bright …
This poem from the wonderful nature poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) begins by describing a forest at night, above whose trees the stars shine like ‘seeds of light’.
9. Joseph Campbell, ‘Darkness’.
One of the first ‘modern’ poems written in English, this short lyric by the Irish-born poet Joseph Campbell (1879-1944) shares affinities with the poems of T. E. Hulme, and seems in some respects to prefigure the ‘bog’ poems of Seamus Heaney. You can read Campbell’s ‘Darkness’ by clicking on the link below, which will also take you to three other short poems by Campbell.
10. Philip Larkin, ‘Going’.
Philip Larkin never learned, in Sigmund Freud’s memorable phrase about King Lear, to make friends with the necessity of dying. ‘Going’ is an early example of Larkin’s mature engagement with the terrifying realisation that death will come for us all.
In ten unrhymed lines, ‘Going’ explores death without ever mentioning it by name, instead referring to it, slightly elliptically, as ‘an evening’ that is ‘coming in’. Larkin uses the metaphor of the coming evening – an evening which ‘lights no lamps’ because there is no hope of staving off this darkness, the darkness of death.
Continue to explore classic poetry with these short poems about death and dying, our pick of the best poems about eyes, and these classic poems about secrets. 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).
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.