By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
From rainbows and glorious cerulean blue during the day to blackness and bright stars at night, the sky has provided poets with plenty of inspiration over the centuries. Here are five of the very best sky-themed poems.
William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die …
This simple nine-line poem describes how the poet is filled with joy when he sees a rainbow, and that he has always felt this way, since ‘my life began’; he hopes he will always keep that sense of enchantment with the natural world.
The poem contains Wordsworth’s famous declaration, ‘The Child is father of the Man’, but it’s also noteworthy for its joyous opening line about the way one’s heart skips a beat when one encounters something beautiful or sublime in nature.
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Brain is wider than the Sky’.
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do …
‘The brain is wider than the sky’: the mind and all that it can take in – and imagine – is far greater than even the vast sky above us. This is the starting point of one of Emily Dickinson’s great meditations on the power of human imagination and comprehension.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Starlight Night’.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize …
In this poem, one of many sonnets Hopins (1844-89) wrote, he coins the wonderful term ‘fire-folk’ (reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon kennings) to describe the stars in the night sky. Hopkins also likens the stars to the eyes of elves and to diamonds, with the phrase ‘diamond delves’ comparing the stars in the night sky to diamonds in dark mines or caves.
W. B. Yeats, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light …
The gist of this poem, one of Yeats’s most popular poems, is straightforward: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you. But I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
T. E. Hulme, ‘The Embankment’.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie …
In just seven lines, the father of English modernist poetry, T. E. Hulme, captures the mood of a ‘fallen gentleman’ sleeping rough by the Thames. Looking up at the beautiful night sky, the homeless and hapless man longs to grab the ‘star-eaten blanket of the sky’ and wrap himself in it for warmth.
A sort of reversal of Oscar Wilde’s famous line, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’: here, we can all look at the stars, but some of us are in the gutter…
Discover more classic poetry with these football poems, this pick of the best poems about sports, these classic baby poems, and these John Clare poems. For more classic poetry, 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, and list the best books for the poetry student 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.