Poems about light selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Randall Jarrell once said that a good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning 5 or 6 times. And many poets have ‘seen the light’, and written about it: whether a sudden flash of light like a lightning bolt, or a deeper, more enduring, contemplative ‘light’ pointing to a spiritual experience. Here are ten of the very best poems about light.
1. John Milton, ‘When I Consider How My Light Is Spent’.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask …
When John Milton completed his most famous work, Paradise Lost, in the 1660s, he was completely blind, and had to dictate the rest of the poem to a series of secretaries (including his daughters). This sonnet, sometimes titled ‘On His Blindness’, is about the process of going blind and the ‘light’ fading: ‘“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” / I fondly ask.’
Milton laments that he is losing his sight when he is barely halfway through life, with much of his important work still to be done. How can he complete his work, which God has given him the talent to do and which God expects him to complete, if he is deprived of his sight? He asks the question to himself, whether God expects him to work even when he has gone completely blind? Patiently, he answers himself: God does not require work or gifts from mankind, because God is a king.
2. Henry Vaughan, ‘They Are All Gone into the World of Light’.
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove …
The Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1621-95) is best known for his 1650 collection, Silex Scintillans (‘Sparks from the Flint’), which established him as one of the great devotional poets in English literature. ‘They Are All Gone into the World of Light’ is about death, God, and the afterlife, and the poet’s desire to pass over into the next life – the ‘World of Light’ – to join those whom he has lost.
3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Sudden Light’.
This poem was written by Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882; pictured right) in the early 1850s, and published in the 1863 volume Poems: An Offering to Lancashire. The poem addresses the topic of déjà vu and sudden realisation – that moment when the ‘lights’ go on:
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore …
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’.
This poem focuses on the way that sunlight in the winter is oppressive and weighs down on us, making us feel low, unhappy, as if visited by a ‘Heavenly Hurt’:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are …
5. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Light’.
A joyous celebration of light and the delight it brings to one’s life, by the first Indian poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
6. Edward Thomas, ‘Lights Out’.
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn’s first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink …
One of Edward Thomas’s most popular poems, ‘Lights Out’ is one of several ‘forest poems’ Thomas wrote, though the forest described is really a metaphor for sleep, the desire to ‘lose my way / And myself’. But is the sleep that poem calls for actually what Hamlet called ‘that sleep of death’?
7. Dylan Thomas, ‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines’.
This was Thomas’s breakthrough poem, published in The Listener in March 1934 when Thomas was only nineteen years old. Such was its immediate impact that it attracted the admiring attention of T. S. Eliot, as well as numerous complaints for its ‘obscenity’. The poem appears to describe the act of conception in highly charged terms, though only very obliquely (although ‘candle in the thighs’ is perhaps a more obvious hint at the poem’s subject-matter).
8. William Stafford, ‘The Light by the Barn’.
A wonderful poem about light: the image of the light by the barn might be regarded as a metaphor for deeper consciousness and understanding. The fact that the light shines all night until dawn suggests keeping something alive while the world sleeps.
9. Anthony Hecht, ‘More Light! More Light!’
Taking its title from the supposed last words of Goethe, ‘More Light! More Light!’ juxtaposes two bitterly tragic and horrific moments from history: the martyrdom of a Protestant during sixteenth-century England and the treatment of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps. A very dark poem, but a moving one too.
10. Denise Levertov, ‘Bearing the Light’.
From its opening description of raindrops as ‘Rain-diamonds’, this short poem is the perfect note on which to end this pick of the best poems about light. These raindrops bear the light beneath the clouds, leading the poet think about the ‘indivisible shared out in endless abundance’.
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.