Wrinkle on twilight twinkle

The Invention of Evening
April 13, 2007

In his book on the "literary history of evening" or the "poetics of evening", Christopher Miller argues boldly that evening is the "invention" of the Romantic poets. He proposes that evening is linked to lyric poetry and to the aesthetics of sensibility, and that the "poetry of evening" can be understood as a genre that involves a certain conception of the self and of temporality.

Poised as it is between day and night - defined indeed by that liminality - evening is for Miller characterised by a heightened perception of time, of time passing and of temporal "lapses". While he glances at the historical and cultural changes that produce this invention, including the "secularisation" of time and the decline in the use of the curfew, his larger purpose is to study the "formal shapings" of poets' engagements with evening, that "privileged time of utterance and perception".

One of the most striking things about this engaging and scholarly book is the way that it draws to the reader's attention just how many major poems of the late 18th and early 19th century (and beyond) are indeed set in or focused around the crepuscular time of evening. Both William Collins and Joseph Warton wrote odes to evening; the fourth book of William Cowper's The Task is devoted to a winter evening; William Wordsworth's first volume was titled An Evening Walk , and in his sixties he published a series of poems under the title "Evening Voluntaries" (lyrics that are themselves said to betray a kind of twilight of poetic greatness); and according to Miller, canonical works such as Coleridge's conversation poems, Shelley's "Alastor", "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills" and Adonais , and Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" and "To Autumn" are all identifiably and interestingly evening poems, as are later poems by Tennyson ("Mariana"), T. S. Eliot ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"), and Wallace Stevens ("An Ordinary Evening in New Haven").

Occasionally Miller stretches his point - when he discusses Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" as a poem that is "an evening poem without any obvious indications of being one", for example, on the grounds that the poem develops the "temporal and perceptual language" of the earlier An Evening Walk . And Miller's enthusiasm for the poetics of evening can seem a little overstated (is the "temporal wrinkle" involved in the fact that Shelley's Adonais spans not one but two evenings really what is at issue in this elegy?). There are problems of definition that are not fully resolved: comments on crepuscular light seem to pertain as much to dawn as they do to dusk (there is much talk of twilight here as if it were restricted to evening and not also a morning phenomenon); and Miller rarely engages with the question of the relationship between evening and night (Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" is taken as an "oblique" evening poem despite the fact that it was written in the morning and set at midnight).

And one cannot avoid being struck by the fact that Miller's evening poems almost all pertain to the warmer and lighter months. For Miller, evening involves "temporal dilation" and "becalmed, breathless pause". But even Cowper seems uncertain about winter evening: "Return sweet ev'ning, and continue long!", he asks of it, as if it might not be able to oblige, since as he says "the night/ Treads on thy sweeping train".

Andrew Bennett is professor of English, Bristol University.

The Invention of Evening: Perception and Time in Romantic Poetry

Author - Christopher Miller
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 262
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 521 86382 1

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