The American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is not usually lauded as a great poet. Indeed, quite the opposite: in his The Joy of Bad Verse, a glorious celebration of ‘good bad poetry’ in English, Nicholas T. Parsons includes a chapter on Wilcox, discussing the bad reception her poetry received among American soldiers during the First World War. However, Wilcox could write not just good bad poems, but passably good ones: see her popular poem ‘Solitude’, for instance. And then there’s the less well-known poem ‘Dawn’. A tender depiction of the moment daylight begins to take over from the darkness of night, ‘Dawn’ is a little gem of a morning poem.
Day’s sweetest moments are at dawn;
Refreshed by his long sleep, the Light
Kisses the languid lips of Night,
Ere she can rise and hasten on.
All glowing from his dreamless rest
He holds her closely to his breast,
Warm lip to lip and limb to limb,
Until she dies for love of him.
The slow, languorous language of ‘the Light / Kisses the languid lips of Night’, with its rhyme and alliteration, summons the softness of the early dawn light. Painting Day and Night as lovers romanticises the dawn, and ‘romanticises’ in both senses: it is a mingling and meeting-point of the two. Day kisses Night, keeping her to him; he glows brightly, spreading daylight through the world, holding Night so closely to him that she is overpowered. She ‘dies’ – in other words, night fades and gives way (a loaded phrase, that) to Day.
Is there a faint sense of the alternative meaning of ‘die’ meaning ‘orgasm’? Is Night caught in a moment of sexual bliss? Perhaps. The poem certainly echoes the elaborate conceits favoured by the early modern metaphysical poets such as John Donne. ‘Dawn’, whilst not as finely developed or as complex as a John Donne poem (such as ‘The Sun Rising’, for instance), is still a fine morning poem.