Stuck for a bit of festive-themed poetry this Christmas? Let us help. Here are our 10 quick holiday recommendations. These are, we reckon, 10 of the greatest poems for the Christmas holidays. They’re all quite short and make for ideal festive reading, so we’ve provided links to each of the poems, too. If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a book-lover and enjoy this post, we have lots more literary interestingness in our bargain book, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Oxen‘. Written in 1915 during WWI, this poem shows a yearning for childhood beliefs which the adult speaker can no longer hold. In other words, it highlights the yearning to believe, even – or perhaps especially – when we know that we cannot bring ourselves to entertain such beliefs. (Hardy had lost his religious faith early in life.)
Anonymous, ‘I syng of a mayden‘. If, like Philip Larkin, you prefer the Christmas of the illuminated manuscripts and books of hours to the Christmas of Dingly Dell, you might enjoy this short lyric. This medieval poem or carol dates from around 1400, so is roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the birth of modern English poetry. Written in Middle English, the poem tells of the Annunciation and Virgin Birth. (We have more great medieval poems, which make for fabulous Christmas reading, in a separate post.)
Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘. We couldn’t compile a list of great Christmas poems without including this! Although more famous as a Christmas carol, the poem stands by itself, too. It was published in the January 1872 edition of Scribner’s Monthly, having been commissioned by the editor of that magazine. Rossetti reportedly earned £10 for the poem – not a bad sum in those days for a single poem.
John Betjeman, ‘Christmas‘. This poem forms an intriguing pair with Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’, but where Hardy longed to believe but could not, Betjeman – an Anglican – had belief in God but seemed to exist in a continual state of doubt. ‘Christmas’ beautifully reflects this doubt-within-faith.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Journey of the Magi‘. Written by T. S. Eliot in 1927, supposedly in one Sunday morning (and with the help of half a bottle of gin), this poem was the first piece Eliot wrote following his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. It takes the form of a dramatic monologue told by one of the Magi (or ‘Wise Men’) travelling to see the infant Christ. What is noteworthy, though, is that Eliot elides the Nativity scene and ends by sounding a negative note which ponders death, rather than birth or life.
Wendy Cope, ‘A Christmas Poem‘. This brief poem by one of the greatest living exponents of light verse addresses what Christmas can be like for people not fortunate enough to be basking in the warm glow of a romantic relationship – but Cope puts it better than that.
John Milton, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity‘. This ode, written in December 1629 when Milton was still in his early twenties, is about – well, the title says it all, really.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Balloons‘. Although Sylvia Plath is not known for cheery poems, and this one was written near the end of her life, ‘Balloons’ shows a slightly lighter side to Plath, even if it acknowledges that balloons are destined ultimately to burst, like a bubble of optimism being popped.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ring out, wild bells‘. Taken from the long elegy In Memoriam, published in 1850, this poem virtually concludes Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died suddenly in 1833. It shows the poet regaining his faith and overcoming his grief when hearing the bells ringing in Christmas Day. This poem also features in our pick of the best poems for New Year.
Clement Clarke Moore, ‘A Visit from St Nicholas‘. Although the authorship of this poem has been disputed, what is certainly true is that its influence and popularity have both been considerable, since it was first anonymously published in 1823. As well as giving us the names for nearly all of Santa’s reindeer, it also popularised the idea of St Nick flying through the night skies on a sleigh. Altogether now: ”Twas the night before Christmas…’
Looking for more Christmas poems? We recommend Christmas Please!: 100 Poems on the Festive Season, an excellent anthology of 100 classic Christmas poems accompanied by beautiful watercolour illustrations. And you can continue your festive odyssey with our post about the origins of the best Christmas carols.
Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now in paperback, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
Image: ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ manuscript by Clement Clarke Moore, Wikimedia Commons.