The cool new moon

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Moonlight is a favourite topic for poets, romantic song writers and Gothic novelists. Usually, it’s the bold, bright, full moon that grabs their attention – and that’s understandable. I love the full moon, too, but I’m equally attracted by this poem from D.H. Lawrence’s 1929 collection, Pansies.


The new moon, of no importance
lingers behind as the yellow sun glares and is gone beyond the sea’s edge;
earth smokes blue;
the new moon, in cool height above the blushes,
brings a fresh fragrance of heaven to our senses.


These lines invite us to consider, instead, the refreshingly understated new moon. I like it when people notice things that are thought to be ‘of no importance’ compared with more spectacular beauties.

When Lawrence talks about a ‘new moon’, like most of us, he probably means a waxing crescent moon, because a true new moon is the moment when the moon is dark, showing no reflection at all from the sun. But when he chooses the words ‘lingers behind’, he’s exactly right – and he knows more than I did. A waxing crescent moon, I’ve just discovered, rises at the same time and place as the sun, follows it across the sky (invisibly, of course, overwhelmed by sunlight), and simply comes into view once the sun has dipped below the horizon and the sky darkens (http://earthsky.org/moon-phases/waxing-crescent).

Lawrence paints a colourful scene, contrasting the heat of the dying day with the coolness of the emerging moon. The glaring yellow of the sinking sun is obviously a hot colour, and the ‘blushes’ that Lawrence mentions must be, I guess, the warm pink-tinged sky at sunset. But what about the words ‘earth smokes blue’? We usually think of blue as a ‘cold’ colour, so how does that fit the picture?

Well, there is a shade of blue seen at dusk, sometimes, that has a smoky quality about it, tinting the earth as well as the sky. Something else to understand, though, is that Lawrence himself doesn’t associate blue with the cold. In another poem, he writes of the chaotic geological age when sapphires were being formed:

… crushed utterly, and breathed through and through
with fiery weight and wild life, and coming out
clear and eternally blue!

For him, ‘fiery weight’ and blueness go together.

Finally, the pale crescent moon brings us ‘a fresh fragrance of heaven’. It’s easy to feel the cool evening breeze blowing through this line of the poem, but what kind of fragrance might it evoke? Again, in an earlier poem, Lawrence describes a moon ‘as small and white as a single jasmine blossom’ – but jasmine has a heady floral scent, not ‘fresh’ at all.

Until a month ago, I would not have considered the scent that I’m now imagining. After having a single snowdrop in a small vase attached to the warm air vent in my car for several days, I noticed that the air was faintly scented with a delicate sappy perfume. The snowdrop – first spring flower to emerge from the winter earth – seems to fit well with the crescent moon newly revealed in the sky.

The new moon may be of no importance, but it’s none the less beautiful.

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