Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously we’ve offered ten great green poems. Now it’s the turn of the colour black. What are the greatest poems about blackness, about black America, about black things ranging from blacksmiths to blackberries? Here’s our selection.
Anonymous, ‘The Blacksmiths’.
Swarte-smeked smethes, smattered with smoke,
Drive me to deth with den of here dintes:
Swich nois on nightes ne herd men never,
What knavene cry and clattering of knockes!
The cammede kongons cryen after ‘Col! Col!’
And blowen here bellewes that all here brain brestes.
‘Huf, puf,’ saith that on, ‘Haf, paf,’ that other …
We begin our rundown of the greatest poems about all things black with an old, anonymous poem about … blacksmiths. Specifically, this little-known fifteenth-century poem satirises the trade of blacksmiths. Through extensive use of alliteration and onomatopoeia, the unknown medieval poet evokes the sounds of the smithy as the blacksmith goes about his job.
John Donne, ‘O My Black Soul’. This is one of John Donne’s finest sacred poems. It is also, perhaps, one of the finest and most powerful deathbed poems in all of English literature. The sonnet sees Donne addressing his own blackened and degraded soul near the time of his death:
Oh my black Soul! Now thou art summoned
By sickness, death’s herald, and champion;
Thou art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he is fled …
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–such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends in life’s long darkling way.
What could be blacker than a shadow? Here, ‘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 …’ A fine sonnet 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.
William Blake, ‘The Little Black Boy’.
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light …
This poem is spoken by the African boy mentioned in the poem’s title. The little black boy’s mother then tells him that, after death, the ‘cloud’ masking God (the sun) from our vision will be cleared away, and like frolicking lambs these children will be in Heaven, around God. Or, to borrow a line from the Bible, now they see through a glass, darkly; but after death, the little black boy will see God face-to-face.
A. E. Housman, ‘Now Hollow Fires Burn out to Black’. This short poem that comes towards the end of Housman’s popular 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad more than earns its place on this list, for its stark depiction of blackness and night:
Now hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go …
Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. One of the key ideas underpinning many of Wallace Stevens’s best poems is perspectivism, the notion that it’s important in art to look at the same thing from a variety of points of view. The title of this, one of Stevens’s most famous poems, neatly highlights the importance of perspectivism to his work, as he views the blackbird from thirteen different perspectives. Unlucky for some, but luckily here, the making of a classic example of what we might call American imagism.
Langston Hughes, ‘Lullaby (for a Black Mother)’. Of course, no selection of poems about blackness would be complete without a poem about being black or African (or African American), and although we’ve had Blake’s classic poem about the little black boy, here we have the authentic voice of ‘Harlem Renaissance’ poet Langston Hughes (1901-67), writing a lullaby for a black mother to sing for her ‘little dark baby’.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Crossing the Water’. The water being crossed in this poem is, first and foremost, the boundary between the United States and Canada – but the poem is also suffused with images of darkness and blackness which suggest that another boundary, between life and death, is also being summoned. Here, we get a black lake, a black boat, black people – so this fine Plath poem really needs to be in this list of the best poems about blackness …
Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’. A poem at once about the remembered experience of picking blackberries every August and, on another level, about the loss of childhood innocence and the onset of adulthood (with all of the harsh realities and disappointments adulthood brings with it), ‘Blackberry-Picking’ remains one of Heaney’s most popular poems.
Michael Donaghy, ‘Black Ice and Rain’. This is a long poem, but well worth taking five minutes to read (or hear read aloud here). Taking the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by a man who gets talking to a girl at a party while they both hide away from the other guests, it takes in everything from religious belief to personal tragedy, using a car crash caused by ‘black ice and rain’ as the focus.
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.