By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve offered our pick of the best morning poems, evening poems, and night poems. What does that leave? Well, afternoon poems, for one! Below are ten of the finest poems for afternoon, poems about the afternoon, or poems which might, for one reason or another, be described as ‘afternoon poems’. Enjoy.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’.
‘In the afternoon they came unto a land / In which it seemed always afternoon.’ In this classic poem, Tennyson describes the journey of Odysseus/Ulysses and his fellow mariners who come upon the land of the lotos plant, which, when eaten, induces a dreamlike state.
Emily Dickinson, ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’.
‘There’s a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons – / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes –’: many of Emily Dickinson’s poems take something rather specific and peculiar and show how pervasive and universal such an experience, or a feeling, is.
‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ is an especially fine example of this, focusing on the way sunlight on a winter afternoon is oppressive and weighs down on us, making us feel low, unhappy, as if visited by a ‘Heavenly Hurt’.
C. P. Cavafy, ‘The Afternoon Sun’.
Constantine Peter Cavafy (1863-1933) was an Egyptiot Greek poet who left just 154 complete poems – but what poems. In ‘The Afternoon Sun’, Cavafy reminisces about the room – now part of an office complex – that was once a home, concluding poignantly: ‘. . . One afternoon at four o’clock we separated / for a week only. . . And then – / that week became forever.’
Edward Thomas, ‘Adlestrop’.
The origins of the poem lie in an event that took place on 24 June 1914, while English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was on the Oxford to Worcester express train. The train made an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop (formerly Titlestrop) in Gloucestershire, a tiny village in the Cotswolds with a population of just over 100. Thomas took the opportunity to fill his notebook with his observations of the place before the train started up again.
The poem, then, had its origins in an unexpected event, a chance occurrence, that occurred one summer’s day in 1914. Thomas would later write up his observations into this fine, understated poem, which has since become a national favourite.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Last Lesson of the Afternoon’.
‘When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?’ Many schoolchildren have doubtless asked this question while enduring a slow afternoon class, but in this poem, Lawrence draws on his experiences as a schoolteacher.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Afternoon’.
Unpublished until 1996 over 30 years after his death, this early T. S. Eliot poem focuses on ladies who are interested in Assyrian art and gather ‘in the hall of the British Museum’ on a Sunday afternoon.
Pierre Reverdy, ‘Afternoon’.
One of the leading lights of early twentieth-century French avant-garde poetry, Reverdy wrote this prose-poem, ‘Afternoon’, describing the sounds and sights of the day, as a traveller wanders through the landscape and the sun brightens in the afternoon.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Afternoon on a Hill’.
‘I will be the gladdest thing / Under the sun!’ Millay’s speaker announces in this wonderful poem in quatrains. One of the finest afternoon poems in this list, if only for its beautiful imagery.
Dorothy Parker, ‘Afternoon’.
Of course, ‘afternoon’ doesn’t have to refer just to a time of day: it might, by extension, be used to describe the period of late middle age before old age (or the evening of one’s life) sets in. This is the case with this Dorothy Parker poem, in which she laments the fact that her days of old age are closer than she’d wish them. You can listen to Parker herself reading this poem here.
Philip Larkin, ‘Afternoons’.
This poem perfectly captures the unsatisfactoriness of postwar Britain and the age of austerity, through its depiction of young mothers at the local park pushing their children on slides and swings in the afternoon. But it also turns into a meditation upon the way that one generation soon succeeds another, and (as in many of Larkin’s poems) everyone grows old, ultimately reaching ‘the only end of age’ (as he puts it in another poem, ‘Dockery and Son’).