“My most intense memory of such an October twilight is of criss-crossing misted lakes in south Holland in late afternoon, my expert friend guiding our little powered boat through the leaf-strewn waterways of Leiden as evening came on, seeing a whole city of lighted rooms from the water, seeing the houses on the quays from the canal, as their architects had intended them to be seen.”

This simply expressed, yet curiously resonant observation is typical of Peter Davidson’s  276-page ramble through twilight and what the half-light of evening has inspired through the decades in art and architecture, in literature and ways of living.

He looks - in brief, accessible glimpses, thankfully  - at the effect of twilight in the work of the poets AE Housman, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Louis McNeice, WH Auden, and contemporary poets such as Peter Levi, Geoffrey Hill,  Sean O’Brien and  Simon Armitage. There is no long dissertation about individual writers, and the author is tactful about moving on and not getting too entrenched. While in formal terms he is in fact a Fellow of Campion Hall, University of Oxford, Davidson is, of course, a bit of a poet himself (albeit in prose.) “Winter skies of ivory and umber, streetlamps and bare trees, city sunsets of smoke in stained, freezing air.”  

The book carries a range of illustrations relating to the subject in hand, and the appealing visual works reproduced include mezzotint, etching and drypoint by the nineteenth century British artist, Samuel Palmer. The work of European artists such as Michiel Sweerts (born Brussels, 1618), Tiepolo and Poussin are also part of Davidson’s far-reaching brief, but, once again referred to briefly and in passing (in the best sense). A particularly beautiful oil on canvas is Riders in the Snow in the Haagse Bos, executed by Anton Mauve in 1880, and reproduced within.

Geographically speaking, there are different gradations of twilight which came as news to this reviewer. Civil twilight lasts all night at midsummer, at 60 degrees (seen in the Shetland isles in fact). Nautical twilight endures throughout the midsummer night at 54 degrees north over Newcastle and the Scottish borders, as Davidson points out, while astronomical twilight can be experienced at 48 degrees north. The genial author writes:  “when the sky grows dark on midsummer night over London, it is actually astronomical twilight.” A treasure of a book, in fact.

Paddy Kehoe