By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
It’s time for the latest in our series of ‘month’ poem compilations. This time: November, the month of much darker evenings, colder nights, and barer trees – the last of which being something Thomas Hood’s poem, included below, captures very effectively. Here, then, are some of the very best poems about the month of November.
1. Robert Burns, ‘To a Mouse’.
Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen …
Probably the most famous poem about a mouse ever written. But did you know this is a poem whose origins lie in an event that occurred one November? The full title of this poem is ‘To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785’.
That full title explains what the poem is about – and it was probably based on a real event, when Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest while ploughing a field.
2. John Clare, ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar: November’.
The landscape sleeps in mist from morn till noon;
And, if the sun looks through, ’tis with a face
Beamless and pale and round, as if the moon,
When done the journey of her nightly race,
Had found him sleeping, and supplied his place.
For days the shepherds in the fields may be,
Nor mark a patch of sky – blindfold they trace,
The plains, that seem without a bush or tree,
Whistling aloud by guess, to flocks they cannot see …
Clare (1793-1864) is one of English literature’s greatest nature poets – indeed, according to some, the very best.
In these posts detailing the best poems for a particular month, we often include something from Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar, and his evocation of the month of November definitely deserves its place on this list: ‘Thus wears the month along, in checker’d moods, / Sunshine and shadows, tempests loud, and calms; / One hour dies silent o’er the sleepy woods, / The next wakes loud with unexpected storms …’
3. Thomas Hood, ‘November’.
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
This poem by the poet best-known for two other poems, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ and ‘I Remember, I Remember’, uses the first two letters of the month of November as a jumping-off point for the bareness and absence which mark this cold, late autumn month.
4. Thomas Hardy, ‘At Day-Close in November’.
The ten hours’ light is abating,
And a late bird wings across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting,
Give their black heads a toss.
Beech leaves, that yellow the noontime,
Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time,
And now they obscure the sky …
Hardy (1840-1928) is one of English literature’s best-known pessimists, so it’s not exactly a surprise to find this poem ends up musing upon oblivion and death: ‘And the children who ramble through here / Conceive that there never has been / A time when no tall trees grew here, / A time when none will be seen.’ Beautifully put in Hardy’s straightforward, heartfelt but nevertheless tight-lipped style.
5. A. E. Housman, ‘The night is freezing fast’.
The night is freezing fast,
To-morrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
And chiefly I remember
How Dick would hate the cold …
As it’s set on the eve of December, this poem only just qualifies for our compilation of the best November poems. The cold weather is coming in and this prompts Housman to remember an old friend of his who died. He hated the cold, but now the cold doesn’t – cannot – bother him.
6. Walter de la Mare, ‘Autumn (November)’.
Nought warm where your hand was,
Nought gold where your hair was,
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was …
In this November poem, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) picks up on the theme of absence which Hood’s poem captured, but here there’s the added suggestion of a lost love.
7. Amy Lowell, ‘November’.
The vine leaves against the brick walls of my house,
Are rusty and broken.
Dead leaves gather under the pine-trees,
The brittle boughs of lilac-bushes
Sweep against the stars …
When Ezra Pound left Imagism, the short-lived poetic movement he’d founded in 1912, fellow American Amy Lowell duly took over as leader of Imagism (or ‘Amy-gism’ as Pound disparagingly referred to it thereafter).
As we’d expect from an imagist poem, ‘November’ is short, written in free verse, and offers a matter-of-fact depiction of the November landscape. Bonus points to Lowell for getting a cat in there too: ‘Even the cat will not stay with me, / But prefers the rain / Under the meagre shelter of a cellar window.’
8. Adelaide Crapsey, ‘November Night’.
Crapsey (1878-1914) is not much remembered now, but she left one important poetic legacy: the cinquain, or five-line unrhymed stanza form, modelled on the Japanese haiku. Like Lowell, Crapsey was influenced by the short Japanese form, although she wasn’t an Imagist as such. A number of her cinquains touch upon autumnal themes, and ‘November Night’ is the finest of these.
The dying fall of the cinquain is brilliantly capitalised on here with the use of the very word ‘fall’ in the final line to describe the falling leaves: ‘The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees / And fall.’
9. Edward Thomas, ‘There’s Nothing Like the Sun’.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang …
‘There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies’, begins this poem by one of the early twentieth century’s greatest nature poets. considers the beauty of the late autumn sun in the month of November: ‘November has begun, / Yet never shone the sun as fair as now…’
10. Rita Dove, ‘November for Beginners’.
A fine poem from one of America’s greatest contemporary poets, ‘November for Beginners’ explores the ‘right’ way to do November, in a poem that is at once witty and moving.