The best and the shortest of Victorian poems – from Tennyson to Charlotte Brontë
The Victorians often liked their poems much the way they liked their novels: the bigger the better. And yet, just as there are some great Victorian short stories (they helped to pioneer the ghost story and the detective story, for instance), so there are some short poetic gems to be found among Victorian poetry anthologies. Robert Browning gave us the vast The Ring and the Book but he also gave us the two-line poem included below; Tennyson devoted several thousand lines to his Idylls of the King but also penned the six-line classic ‘The Eagle’. The ten Victorian poems that follow are all no longer than ten lines, and one is only two words long.
1. Tennyson, ‘The Eagle’. Subtitled ‘Fragment’, this brief piece was written in the early 1830s and published in 1851, the year after Tennyson’s annus mirabilis. (We’ve analysed ‘The Eagle’ here; in another post, we picked our ten favourite Tennyson poems.)
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
2. Christina Rossetti, ‘One Sea-Side Grave’. Written by one of the Victorian era’s greatest poets in 1853 and published in 1884, this little poem contains many of the features and themes we find in Rossetti’s poems elsewhere: mourning, death, remembering, love.
Cold as the cold Decembers,
Past as the days that set,
While only one remembers
And all the rest forget, –
But one remembers yet.
3. Robert Browning, ‘Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of “The Judgement of Paris”‘. Despite its long title, this is one of the shortest poems to appear in this list. Not published until 1925 but written in around 1872, this very brief Robert Browning poem runs to just two lines and utilises just four different words:
He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,
Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.
Things couldn’t be much simpler than that! Or could they? The next poem is just two words long.
4. George MacDonald, ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’. We have discussed MacDonald’s poem in our post about the close reading of poetry, in an attempt to show how any poem can be subjected to close analysis, no matter how small, short, or slight. ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’ features just two lines and, indeed, two words:
There is a sense of longing behind these two words, enacted by the gulf between the first and last words of the poem; a sense of something not being right, suggested by the near-rhyme (and near-miss) of ‘Come’ and ‘Home’. (Compare Wilfred Owen’s masterly use of pararhyme in his poetry.)
5. John Clare, ‘The Thunder Mutters’. This little poem from one of England’s foremost nature poets was written in 1845, so although Clare is often associated more with the Romantics than the Victorians, this poem arose out of the Victorian era. The poem is just nine lines long:
The thunder mutters louder & more loud
With quicker motion hay folks ply the rake
Ready to burst slow sails the pitch black cloud
& all the gang a bigger haycock make
To sit beneath – the woodland winds awake
The drops so large wet all thro’ in an hour
A tiney flood runs down the leaning rake
In the sweet hay yet dry the hay folks cower
& some beneath the waggon shun the shower
Like a number of Clare’s poems, it ends without a full stop, and shuns punctuation, with the exception of the dash that appears at exactly the halfway point.
6. Lewis Carroll, ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’. First published in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, this little piece of nonsense from Lewis Carroll is twenty lines shorter than his masterpiece, ‘Jabberwocky’, and much, much shorter than his ‘nonsense epic’, The Hunting of the Snark.
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!
How about some more nonsense?
7. Edward Lear, ‘There Was an Old Man Who Supposed’. Along with Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear was the chief Victorian nonsense-maker. He was also a pioneer of the limerick form, and helped to popularise it in his 1846 Book of Nonsense. Here is one of his finest five-line bits of nonsense – actually arranged by Lear himself into just four lines:
There was an Old Man who supposed,
That the street door was partially closed;
But some very large rats, ate his coats and his hats,
While that futile old gentleman dozed.
Unlike many of Lear’s limericks, this actually uses a different rhyme for that final line (many of them repeat the word used in either the first or second line).
8. Charlotte Brontë, ‘The House Was Still’. This little fragment of a poem is remarkable for the way in which it anticipates Emily Dickinson’s distinctive poetic style. (The two poets cannot have known of each other’s work: Brontë’s poem was only first published in 1915, and much of Dickinson’s poetry was only published in 1890, when both women were dead.)
A free bird on that lilac bush
Outside the lattice heard
He listened long – there came a hush
He dropped an answering word –
The prisoner to the free replied
But sadly, what he replied we will never know. The poem breaks off there.
9. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Moonrise June 19 1876’. Here is another Victorian poem that was only published long after the author’s death. Although dated 1876, ‘Moonrise’ only appeared in the twentieth century, following Robert Bridges’ publication of Hopkins’s poems in 1918. (We have more about the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins here and have selected ten of his best poems here.)
I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
10. Ernest Dowson, ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’. ‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter’, begins this poem – and nor is this little Dowson classic. Ernest Dowson was a fascinating poet of the 1890s, and his own life would prove short-lived.
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
So there we have it: ten great Victorian poems that are not longer than ten lines. What are the best Victorian poems, in your book? Learn more about the history of poetry with our history of English poetry told through 8 short poems and check out our selection of Robert Burns’s greatest poems. For more Tennyson, see our analysis of his classic poem ‘Break, break, break’. We’ve also analysed one of the Victorian era’s great poems about religion, ‘Dover Beach’.
The best anthology of Victorian poems is, in our opinion, The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (Oxford Books of Prose & Verse), edited by Christopher Ricks. It contains many of the short poems quoted above, along with some of Victorian literature’s essential longer poems.
Image (top): Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866), public domain. Image (bottom): Portrait of Charlotte Bronte by J. H. Thompson, c. 1839, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.