Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Rainbows, like many beautiful natural sights and phenomena, have provided poets with colourful material – quite literally – for centuries. Below, we’ve chosen ten of the very best rainbow poems for your enjoyment.
James Thomson, ‘The Rainbow’.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze.
In his poem Lamia, John Keats famously lamented the fact that Isaac Newton’s work with prisms had managed to ‘unweave a rainbow’; here, though, James Thomson (best-known as the author of the long poem The Seasons) celebrates Newton’s discoveries. (The word ‘awful’ here means ‘inspiring awe’.)
William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’. In this short poem, which embodies many of the features and qualities associated with Romanticism, Wordsworth observes a rainbow in the sky and is filled with joy at the sight of a rainbow: a joy that was there when Wordsworth was very young, is still there now he has attained adulthood, and – he trusts – will be with him until the end of his days. If he loses this thrilling sense of wonder, what would be the point of living? In summary, this is the essence of ‘My heart leaps up’.
Thomas Campbell, ‘To the Rainbow’.
Triumphal arch, that fill’st the sky
When storms prepare to part,
I ask not proud Philosophy
To teach me what thou art; –
Still seem; as to my childhood’s sight,
A midway station given
For happy spirits to alight
Betwixt the earth and heaven …
Campbell (1777-1844) was a Scottish poet and one of the initiators of a plan to found what later became University College London. We love his description of a rainbow as a triumphal arch made by nature.
Charles Lamb, ‘The Rainbow’.
After the tempest in the sky
How sweet yon rainbow to the eye!
Come, my Matilda, now while some
Few drops of rain are yet to come,
In this honeysuckle bower
Safely sheltered from the shower,
We may count the colours o’er …
Lamb (1775-1834) is perhaps best-known for his essays, and for co-authoring the Tales from Shakespeare with his sister, Mary. But he was also a perfectly good poet, as this rainbow poem demonstrates.
Felicia Dorothea Hemans, ‘The Rainbow’.
But mark! what arch of varied hue
From heaven to earth is bowed?
Haste, ere it vanish, haste to view
The Rainbow in the cloud …
Hemans (1793-1835) is remembered for two poems: the poem which begins ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’ and ‘The Stately Homes of England’. But she was a fine Romantic poet, as this rainbow poem demonstrates.
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Rainbow Never Tells Me’. Another poem in which the rainbow is a gateway to truth and even revelation, and short enough to include in full here:
The rainbow never tells me
That gust and storm are by,
Yet is she more convincing
My flowers turn from Forums—
Yet eloquent declare
What Cato couldn’t prove me
Except the birds were here!
Emily Dickinson, ‘On this long storm the Rainbow rose’. Dickinson wrote so well about rainbows that she gets two poems on this list. Again, this beautiful rainbow poem is short enough to be quoted in full:
On this long storm the Rainbow rose—
On this late Morn—the Sun—
The clouds—like listless Elephants—
The Birds rose smiling, in their nests—
The gales—indeed—were done—
Alas, how heedless were the eyes—
On whom the summer shone!
The quiet nonchalance of death—
No Daybreak—can bestir—
The slow—Archangel’s syllables
Must awaken her!
W. H. Davies, ‘The Kingfisher’. Best-known for his poem ‘Leisure’, W. H. Davies also penned a number of other fine nature poems. Here, although it’s the kingfisher that Davies is eulogising, he does so by drawing on rainbows, seeing the kingfisher’s colourful appearance as inspired by the rainbow:
It was the Rainbow gave thee birth,
And left thee all her lovely hues;
And, as her mother’s name was Tears,
So runs it in my blood to choose
For haunts the lonely pools, and keep
In company with trees that weep.
Go you and, with such glorious hues,
Live with proud peacocks in green parks;
On lawns as smooth as shining glass,
Let every feather show its marks;
Get thee on boughs and clap thy wings
Before the windows of proud kings.
Nay, lovely Bird, thou art not vain;
Thou hast no proud, ambitious mind;
I also love a quiet place
That’s green, away from all mankind;
A lonely pool, and let a tree
Sigh with her bosom over me.
Les Murray, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’. Focusing on a man crying in the middle of the street, and exploring how various people turn from their daily lives to watch him, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ is absolutely not an ordinary rainbow poem. Instead, it’s an extraordinary poem about masculinity and human empathy, and the only rainbow that appears is in the form of a simile. Still, this poem seems like the perfect one to conclude our pick of the best rainbow poems, given its emotional power.
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.