Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
If red is the colour of passion and anger, and green is the colour of spring and the world of nature, what does the colour yellow symbolise? Poets writing about yellow things have often focused on the yellow leaves of autumn, or the yellow hair of a beautiful woman, among other things. Below are ten of the greatest poems about the colour yellow.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang …
This is Shakespeare’s finest poem about autumn, with the leaves turning yellow. He tells the addressee, the Fair Youth, that he can see in the poet a reflection of the autumnal and wintry time of year, when yellow leaves, or none, or few, hang upon the trees.
John Clare, ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’. This poem from one of England’s greatest nature poets shows Clare’s wonderful sensitivity to vowel sounds, as he explores the patterns found within nature by focusing on the nest of the bird, which is described as ‘poet-like’:
Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells –
They are the yellowhammer’s …
William Cullen Bryant, ‘The Yellow Violet’.
When beechen buds begin to swell,
And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
Peeps from last-year’s leaves below …
Bryant (1794-1878) was an American Romantic poet, and this poem shows his talent for capturing the details of nature – here, the yellowness of the violet …
Robert Browning, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. Like the Yeats poem below, this classic poem focuses on yellow hair. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is one of Browning’s most famous dramatic monologues, spoken by a (possibly mad) murderer who kills his paramour – with her own yellow hair:
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me …
George Meredith, Modern Love XI.
Out in the yellow meadows, where the bee
Hums by us with the honey of the Spring,
And showers of sweet notes from the larks on wing,
Are dropping like a noon-dew, wander we.
Or is it now? or was it then? for now,
As then, the larks from running rings pour showers:
The golden foot of May is on the flowers,
And friendly shadows dance upon her brow …
Meredith was a noted novelist as well as a poet, whose innovations with the sonnet form were brilliantly displayed in his 1862 sequence Modern Love, about the breakdown of his own marriage. This yellow poem is taken from that sequence: ‘Out in the yellow meadows, where the bee / Hums by us with the honey of the Spring, / And showers of sweet notes from the larks on wing, / Are dropping like a noon-dew, wander we …’
Emily Dickinson, ‘Nature Rarely Uses Yellow’.
Nature rarer uses yellow
Than another hue;
Saves she all of that for sunsets, –
Prodigal of blue …
As Dickinson reminds us in this charming poem, yellow is most often the colour used by poets to describe sunsets, but apart from that how common is it? Personifying nature as female here (Mother Nature, after all), Dickinson uses a number of terms associated with money (‘Spending’, ‘scantly’) to describe nature’s frugality with the colour yellow.
Oscar Wilde, ‘Symphony in Yellow’.
An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge …
Wilde is best-known for being Oscar Wilde: one of the first modern celebrities, with his lifestyle and his witty pronouncements becoming legendary. Then, he’s known for his plays; then his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. But Wilde began as a poet, and ‘Symphony in Yellow’ is a fine aesthetic appreciation of the colour yellow: ‘Big barges full of yellow hay / Are moored against the shadowy wharf, / And, like a yellow silken scarf, / The thick fog hangs along the quay.’
W. B. Yeats, ‘For Anne Gregory’.
Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair …
The speaker of this poem tells Anne that she is doomed to be loved for her yellow hair rather than for her charming personality or overall beauty: her hair is a sort of curse. Anne finds this prospect so terrible that she threatens to dye her hair, so it doesn’t possess its yellow allure any more.
Carl Sandburg, ‘Theme in Yellow’. This isn’t a top ten list of the best poems spoken by pumpkins, but if it was (and if such a post ever exists), this poem would top the list. The Chicago-born Sandburg (1878-1967) focuses on the yellowy-orange hues of autumn, homing in on the pumpkins used by children to fashion jack o’ lanterns from.
Jack Kerouac, ‘Haiku (The Low Yellow)’. Of course, it’s not just sunsets that can be yellow: the moon can be as well, when it’s not being white or silver. In this very brief poem – as the first part of the title we’ve given here mentions, it’s a haiku, so just three lines long – the author of On the Road considers the yellow moon above a house …
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.