Poetry is something that people often turn to for relaxation, and poets have frequently sought out calm, rest, and tranquillity so they can find inspiration for their poetry, or find time to think and write. For William Wordsworth, poetry was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Below, we introduce ten of the very best poems about rest and calm.
1. John Donne, ‘The Calm’.
Our storm is past, and that storm’s tyrannous rage,
A stupid calm, but nothing it, doth ’suage.
The fable is inverted, and far more
A block afflicts, now, than a stork before.
Storms chafe, and soon wear out themselves, or us;
In calms, Heaven laughs to see us languish thus …
So begins this poem from the great metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631), whose work combines intellectual and emotional power. This late Elizabethan descriptive poem complements Donne’s other work ‘The Storm’, which focused on tempestuous energies found in nature, especially at sea. Now, it’s the turn of calm and peace: the storm has passed …
2. John Dryden, ‘Calm was the Even, and Clear was the Sky’.
Calm was the even, and clear was the sky,
And the new budding flowers did spring,
When all alone went Amyntas and I
To hear the sweet nightingale sing;
I sate, and he laid him down by me;
But scarcely his breath he could draw;
For when with a fear, he began to draw near,
He was dash’d with A ha ha ha ha!
So begins this delightful pastoral song from the seventeenth-century English poet John Dryden (1631-1700). The calmness of this rustic scene involving two lovers is disrupted by a fit of the giggles …
3. William Cowper, ‘Retirement ’ from Olney Hymns.
Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem, by Thy sweet bounty made,
For those who follow Thee …
The Olney Hymns were written in Buckinghamshire (in the village of Olney, just a few miles north of the new town of Milton Keynes) in the 1770s, with John Newton providing the music and the poet William Cowper writing the lyrics. This poem offers a beautifully calming picture of retirement in a Christian framework.
4. William Wordsworth, ‘It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free’.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity …
We could have chosen a number of Wordsworth poems about calm for inclusion here: ‘Calm is all nature as a resting wheel’ is another candidate. But ‘It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free’ is perhaps the Romantic poet’s best-known – and best – meditation on the power of calm serenity, specifically at evening on a beach. Wordsworth appears to have had a specific ‘Child’ in mind later in the poem: his own daughter, whom he addresses towards the end of the poem.
5. Percy Shelley, ‘Ye gentle visitations of calm thought’.
Ye gentle visitations of calm thought –
Moods like the memories of happier earth,
Which come arrayed in thoughts of little worth,
Like stars in clouds by the weak winds enwrought, –
But that the clouds depart and stars remain,
While they remain, and ye, alas, depart!
6. Christina Rossetti, ‘Twilight Calm’.
But evening now is done
As much as if the sun
Day-giving had arisen in the East:
For night has come; and the great calm has ceased,
The quiet sands have run …
Another poem about the pleasant calm of the late evening as the day ends, giving way to night.
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’
Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
7. Wallace Stevens, ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’.
Stevens is one of the great American modernist poets of the twentieth century. This poem is about the intersection of different sensory experience, and how their combination creates a particular mood or moment. It’s also about how the act of reading, the quiet of the house, and the solitariness of the house-dweller intersect.
‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’ is a lyric poem reflecting on an experience that will be familiar to many readers of poetry (and readers of this blog): reading late into the night. The house in which this solitary reader reads their book is quiet, and the whole world seems calm. Of course, seems is the key word, but Stevens doesn’t use it: for him, or for the book-reader in the poem, the world was calm. Subjective personal experience appears objectively real.
We have analysed this poem here.
8. William Carlos Williams, ‘Peace on Earth’.
This poem from another of America’s greatest modernist poets looks to the stars for its subject – and, specifically, the constellations. Whilst Orion’s sword glistens and the serpent writhes, all is peaceful and calm on earth.
The poem, with its recurring refrain to ‘sleep safe till tomorrow’, might be thought of as a lullaby.
9. Sara Teasdale, ‘Peace’.
Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American lyric poet whose work is often overlooked in discussions of twentieth-century American poetry. Yet at its best, Teasdale’s work has a lyricism and beauty which can rival that of many poets of her time. Here she meditates on the calm that a deep peace brings:
Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It ebbs not back like the sea …
10. Langston Hughes, ‘Sea Calm’.
Sometimes calm can be anything but soothing: it can seem unnatural, even ominous. The finest poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes (1902-67) often writes about the lives of African Americans living in America, especially in New York, in the early twentieth century, but he also wrote well about nature. This short poem uses simple language to capture the calm of the sea.