As sure as the sun will rise

A truly spec­tac­u­lar sun­rise or sun­set is one of Na­ture’s great­est achieve­ments. Jay Grif­fiths ex­plores our time­less de­sire to cap­ture them in words, mu­sic and paint

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Jay Grif­fiths ex­plores our time­less de­sire to cap­ture sun­rise and sun­set in words, mu­sic and paint

That the sun will rise: this is the most pre­dictable thing we know on Earth. the timings, an­gles and de­grees of its course have an ut­ter pre­ci­sion and the sun, un­like hu­mans, can­not mis­fit its time or place as it runs in unswerv­ing ser­vice to the of­fices of its hours. and yet the oc­ca­sions of its ris­ing or set­ting—af­fected par­tic­u­larly by cloud for­ma­tions—are un­pre­dictable. a splen­dour of wild­ness writes its sig­na­ture across the skies; it eclipses its own stric­tures into a world of sheer imag­i­na­tion.

twice a day, we all be­come pre-coper­ni­can. the sun ‘rises’ and ‘goes down’ we say, as if lan­guage re­fuses to re­lin­quish the in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence of the senses and we can­not be­lieve it is oth­er­wise. In the un­furl­ing mo­ments of day­break or dusk, the senses are ex­tra-sen­si­tive and artists, po­ets and mu­si­cians seem com­pelled to re­spond. In what a. E. hous­man called the ‘valiant air of dawn’, the sky be­comes a paint­ing; rose is both colour and verb. Day breathes in. Colour surges for­ward—li­lac, crim­son, orange and tawny— and sun­rise is as ea­ger as the open­ing ra­di­ance of a daisy, whose name comes from the sun, the ‘day’s eye’.

Paint­ing de­picts sun­rise or sun­set, restor­ing it to sight with dili­gent bril­liance. Wil­liam ascroft, painter of sun­sets in the 1880s, sug­gested an al­most sec­re­tar­ial role, say­ing he ‘could only se­cure in a kind of chro­matic short­hand the heart of the ef­fect’. If paint­ing de­scribes, then lit­er­a­ture must trans­late it from light to word, from colour to thought. how­ever, mu­sic, per­haps be­yond any other art, must re-cre­ate its soul-mean­ing right in the heart of the lis­tener; the com­poser must play cre­ator.

haydn’s Sun­rise string quar­tet (1796–7), al­though not con­sciously in­tended to al­lude to dawn, earns its ap­pel­la­tion from the quick­en­ing, as­cend­ing phrases grow­ing in voice, vari­a­tion and vol­ume, as the very word ‘crescendo’ is from crescere, to grow. the mu­sic opens sky-wide and yet is as in­ti­mate as a gar­den, all life wak­en­ing to warmth, and sug­gests ev­ery­thing that the sun shines on: the cre­ation, in­deed.

In Nielsen’s He­lios Over­ture (1903), the mu­sic de­scribes the sun it­self, how, out of dark­ness, it swings up—clear, sin­gu­lar and pure—a huge gong of gold. Else­where, in

‘is The sky be­comes a paint­ing; rose both colour and verb’

Grieg’s Morn­ing Mood, the mu­sic shows the sun­rise within the hu­man spirit, the peer­less, day­bright melody glint­ing like sun on wa­ter as Peer Gynt is in the sun­rise of his life, the happy-go-lucky folk-tale hero set­ting out into his own dawn.

Both im­mense in size and ephemeral in time, part of the ap­peal of sun­rise or sun­set is its very tran­sience—the work of artists is to trace its van­ish­ing re­splen­dence as it races across a fugi­tive sky. In Monet’s work, this fleet­ing­ness hints of loss, a sad­ness for a world al­ways on the point of dis­ap­pear­ing—in Le Soleil Le­vant, even as he tried to paint the ris­ing orange sun, his eyes were drawn in­eluctably to the blues. As Robert Frost wrote: ‘So dawn goes down to day. Noth­ing gold can stay.’ The crim­son-and-yel­low sun­set of San

Gior­gio Mag­giore at Dusk ac­corded Monet one gasp of rap­ture—colour, he said, was his ‘ob­ses­sion, joy and tor­ment’—that could never last: the pos­si­bil­ity of light is barred by the fact of dark.

Vin­cent van Gogh painted sun­rise as if the sun, like him­self, was an­guished by its own en­ergy: En­closed Field with Ris­ing Sun (1889) sug­gests what it might be like to be that sun, each pulse of en­ergy per­fect, nec­es­sary and po­ten­tially fa­tal. Ev­ery scrap of sun­light speaks in a streak of flam­ing lan­guage, as if van Gogh can’t help but hear the ‘in­stress’, as his con­tem­po­rary the poet Gerard Manley Hop­kins termed it—the im­pulse that car­ries the ex­act im­pres­sion of a par­tic­u­lar thing.

Van Gogh painted as if he were the yel­low and the gold: in Sower with the Set­ting

Sun, the huge sun cra­dles the hand of the sower in its gen­er­ous arc and both are com­pre­hended by the painter, hand-rounded in reck­less em­pa­thy.

Would it be true to say that com­posers, in their cre­ations, favour sun­rise and artists, des­per­ate to de­pict it be­fore it fades, tend to favour sun­set? Per­haps the visual dex­ter­ity of colour and its gen­er­ally greater com­plex­ity at sun­set of­fers a greater depth to a painter’s eye. Few of them achieve its com­plex rep­re­sen­ta­tion as J. M. W. Turner did, let­ting light stream like liq­uid thought, each colour lus­trous and back­lit by an in­ten­sity of gold.

‘It swings up– clear, sin­gu­lar and pure–a huge gong of gold’

Turner pro­duced those sun­sets. Those sun­sets also pro­duced Turner’

In Sun Set­ting Over a Lake (1840), gold seems more than a paint—it seems to be­come the pre­cious metal. The Lake, Pet­worth:

Sun­set, a Stag Drink­ing (1829) rings out a peal of bells for its world of sky, lake, trees and swans, which can be­come once more—for just one gilded mo­ment—the Age of Gold. Turner pro­duced those sun­sets. Those sun­sets also pro­duced Turner—but why those ones?

In 1815, Mount Tamb­ora in In­done­sia erupted, cast­ing frag­ments into the at­mos­phere and caus­ing spec­tac­u­lar sun­sets for some years across the world. This vol­canic erup­tion in­ten­si­fied the very sub­ject of Turner’s work: light and colour it­self. The ash caused dark days across Europe as By­ron’s poem

Dark­ness at­tests and cre­ated the Year With­out a Sum­mer of 1816, which, in turn, caused wide­spread crop fail­ure and star­va­tion. Only in 1819 were there good har­vests again and a true warmth in the sun, which Keats evoked in Ode to Au­tumn, writ­ten in that year.

The erup­tion of Kraka­toa in 1883 caused sun­sets that were al­most apoc­a­lyp­tic, with ‘clouds like blood and tongues of fire’, wrote Ed­vard Munch. The erup­tion made the loud­est sound ever recorded on Earth, heard across al­most a tenth of the planet. ‘I felt a great, un­end­ing scream pierc­ing through na­ture,’ Munch con­tin­ued—he made that howl­ing dis­so­nance vis­i­ble in The Scream.

Ascroft, mean­while, painted the sun­sets over Chelsea in the years af­ter Kraka­toa as if in as­tounded dis­be­lief at the sky-theatre —more than 500 of his paint­ings were ex­hib­ited as a me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal record at the Sci­ence Museum. Those sun­sets were also metic­u­lously ob­served in a se­ries of articles by Manley Hop­kins, po­etry in prose, not­ing the mal­low, li­lac and sand, the ‘livid green’ and ‘frown­ing brown’. They were pub­lished in the sci­ence jour­nal Na­ture and were, to­gether with a few mi­nor po­ems, the only work he had pub­lished be­fore his death.

Sun­set is, in Old English, sun­nansetl­gong, sug­gest­ing the go­ing down of the sun that set­tles it­self into evening. ‘It is a beau­teous evening, calm and free,’ wrote Wordsworth. And the day breathes out. The sun­set set­tles birds, colours, chil­dren and flow­ers; the daisy closes with the set­ting sun, the glo­ri­ous lit­tle com­moner rhyming it­self—from its yel­low cen­tre and petal-rays of light—with the cos­mic divin­ity of the sun.

In the sun­set of his own life, Turner’s last words were said to be: ‘The Sun is God.’ Walt Whit­man wrote of sun­set as ‘cor­rob­o­rat­ing for­ever the tri­umph of things’. Sun­set can elicit a depth-charge of soul-val­ues, the ca­dence of evening har­monies, a soften­ing de­crescendo —a qui­eted credo of tran­quil­lity.

Colour surges for­ward: sun­rise over Pev­eril Cas­tle in the Hope Val­ley, Der­byshire

‘It is a beau­teous evening, calm and free’: sun­set over Rose­berry Top­ping, North York­shire

‘Clouds like blood and tongues of fire’: Ascroft’s paint­ings af­ter the erup­tion of Kraka­toa were ex­hib­ited as me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal records

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