White is the colour of purity and innocence, death-stricken pallor, and many other associations, including the blank white space of the page the poet attempts to fill with their words. Below, we’ve picked ten of the finest poems about the colour white in some way – whether it’s white flowers, the white moon, or whiteness of some other kind.
Emily Dickinson, ‘It sifts from leaden sieves’. There were several wonderful poems about whiteness by Dickinson we could have opted for here – ‘Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?’ was another contender – but instead we’ve opted for her wonderfully evocative description of the way snow renders everything strange in its coat of whiteness. Who but Dickinson would have thought to describe snow as ‘alabaster wool’? The poem doesn’t actually use the word ‘white’ or the word ‘snow’, but then it doesn’t have to. ‘It ruffles wrists of posts, / As ankles of a queen, — / Then stills its artisans like ghosts, / Denying they have been.’
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Moonrise’. This poem is subtitled ‘June 19 1876’. It’s not one of Hopkins’s best-known poems, and may have been left in fragment form; alternatively, it can be read as a short complete poem: ‘I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning: / The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle, / Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless, / Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain …’
A. E. Housman, ‘White in the Moon the Long Road Lies’. In this poem, A. E. Housman (1859-1936) writes about leaving his beloved, with the road lying white in the moonlight, the road ahead of him that ‘leads me from my love’. And although he trusts that the same road will eventually lead him back to his love, first he must travel far, far away. ‘White in the moon the long road lies, / The moon stands blank above; / White in the moon the long road lies / That leads me from my love …’
Arthur Symons, ‘White Heliotrope’. Symons (1865-1945) is an underrated English poet whose verse of the 1890s, influenced by French Symbolists such as Baudelaire, was among the first English poetry to point the new way towards what would achieve full realisation in the poetry of modernists like T. S. Eliot. In ‘White Heliotrope’, Symons uses the scent of the flower white heliotrope as a touchpoint (or ‘smellpoint’, perhaps?) for the memories yet to be born, involving the ‘feverish room and that white bed’ he shares with a woman: ‘This (need one dread? nay, dare one hope?) / Will rise, a ghost of memory, if / Ever again my handkerchief / Is scented with White Heliotrope.’
Robert Frost, ‘In White’. This poem is a sonnet, but one which seeks to rhyme ‘white’ (which ends the poem’s opening line) with all but four of its 13 ensuing lines. Opening with a description of a white spider on a white Heal-all plant – a spider holding up a moth like a piece of white satin or a paper kite – the poem tries to ground this curious triangulation of whiteness in deeper meaning, with glorious results.
Edward Thomas, ‘Snow’. ‘In the gloom of whiteness, / In the great silence of snow, / A child was sighing / And bitterly saying: “Oh, / They have killed a white bird up there on her nest …”’ Many of Edward Thomas’s poems, like Lawrence’s (see below), are associated with the Georgian Poets active in the second decade of the twentieth century. And many of Thomas’s poems also confront the brutalities of nature, before Ted Hughes put his stamp on the brutal side of nature poetry later in the century. This poem, for all its talk of the whiteness of the snow and the white bird, is dark.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘A White Blossom’. This four-line poem by the prolific poet and novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) is short enough to be given here in full:
A tiny moon as small and white as a single jasmine flower
Leans all alone above my window, on night’s wintry bower,
Liquid as lime-tree blossom, soft as brilliant water or rain
She shines, the first white love of my youth, passionless and in vain.
Philip Larkin, ‘Symphony in White Major’. An oddly cryptic poem in Larkin’s oeuvre, and surprisingly – like Symons’s ‘White Heliotrope’ above – betraying the influence of Symbolist technique. Larkin describes making a gin and tonic with wonderful and delicious attention to detail, before raising the drink in ‘private pledge’ to ‘the whitest man I know’. But is this man himself, or some unknown other? The poem takes a surprising turn in the final line which only deepens the enigma.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Tulips’. ‘Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.’ This poem also features on our pick of the best red poems, but it deserves its inclusion here because, as well as containing the deep red flowers, the poem also describes the whiteness of being inside a mental hospital – the unsettling setting for this poem.
Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘White Comedy’. Zephaniah (b. 1958) is one of the most famous black British poets writing today, and as the title of this poem suggests, Zephaniah uses wit and irony to turn the tables on ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ here: why do we talk of black magic but not white magic, and why are people blackmailed but not whitemailed?