By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The English countryside is a perennial theme in English poetry, so choosing ten of the greatest poems about England’s green and pleasant land is not an easy task. But one must start somewhere, so here is our suggestion for ten of the best poems about the English countryside, from Shakespeare to Philip Larkin. What would make your list?
We’ve tried to avoid making this list a simple rundown of pastoral favourites, and to think more widely about what we mean by ‘England’ and ‘the English landscape’. We hope you find something of interest among our list.
William Shakespeare, John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England …
Okay, so this is a pretty obvious choice, but we didn’t feel we could leave out such an iconic speech about England – even if Gaunt’s eloquent rant isn’t so much a ‘poem’ as a speech from a play.These few dozen lines gave us so many new epithets for England – like a nervous but endlessly inventive slogan-maker for a medieval ad agency – that we need to start with this speech about ‘this sceptred isle’.
William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’.
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
This poem, which is actually part of a much longer work by Blake titled Milton A Poem, was famously set to music by Hubert Parry during the First World War, becoming the anthem for the Women’s Institute and one of England’s unofficial national anthems. It earns its place on this list because of its evocation of industrialisation in the phrase ‘dark satanic mills’ and the famous final line: ‘Englands [sic] green and pleasant land’.
William Wordsworth, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
Wordsworth’s poem, commonly known as ‘Daffodils’, is a wonderful example of English Romanticism and a memorable evocation of the English countryside. Follow the link above to learn more about the poem, and the curious story surrounding its composition.
John Clare, ‘On a Lane in Spring’.
A Little Lane, the brook runs close beside
And spangles in the sunshine while the fish glide swiftly by
And hedges leafing with the green spring tide
From out their greenery the old birds fly …
The title of this poem by one of Romantic literature’s overlooked greats, John Clare (1793-1864), says it all: Clare describes the things he sees on a country lane during springtime, his observations tumbling out into the poem in gleeful abandon and apparent spontaneity.
Robert Browning, ‘Home Thoughts, from Abroad’.
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
Better-known by its opening line, ‘Oh, to be in England’, which is apt given that this poem is about homesickness and the way we often only manage to pin down what we love about our home country when we’re out of it: Browning spent much of the 1850s living in Italy, with his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This poem has become one of the most celebrated poems about the English countryside, so had to feature here!
Christina Rossetti, ‘The Lambs of Grasmere’.
Its title referring to the Lake District, that area of England forever associated with Wordsworth and Romantic poetry, this little-known Rossetti poem focuses on what she calls the ‘pastureless wet pasture ground’ and the lambs which are saved from starvation by the shepherds, who come each day with bottles of milk to feed them.
Thomas Hardy, ‘Wessex Heights’.
One of Hardy’s finest poems about the English landscape, ‘Wessex Heights’ sees him reflecting on his life and his lost loves, and embracing the heights around the West Country as refuges from the world and places where he can be alone and enjoy some peace and quiet in which to think and contemplate.
A. E. Housman, ‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’.
Like the fiction of Mary Webb or the great weird horror writer Arthur Machen’s remarkable 1890s novel about Wales, The Hill of Dreams, ‘On Wenlock Edge’ (later set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams) imagines the life of a Roman soldier who trod the same land in west England as he now treads, but in the times of Roman occupation.
The poem captures the Roman history of England through its contrast with Housman’s present-day existence and the life of the imagined inhabitant of Uriconium.
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’.
Although T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was born in the United States, he lived in England from 1914 and adopted British citizenship in 1927. ‘East Coker’ is unusual among Eliot’s poems in focusing on the English countryside.
Detailing a visit to his ancestral home, the small Somerset village of East Coker, and dwelling on the Tudor communities who once inhabited the land, ‘East Coker’ is the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets and a great modernist poem about the English countryside.
Philip Larkin, ‘Going, Going’.
Written about a vanishing idea of a romanticised England –with its ‘guildhalls’ and ‘carved choirs’ – ‘Going, Going’ laments the auctioning off of the English countryside to the highest bidder, with its title summoning, without quite being able to complete, the auctioneer’s cry: ‘Going, going, gone’. Rather than linking to a text version of this poem, we’ve linked to a YouTube recording of Larkin reading ‘Going, Going’ above.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
Enjoyed this pick of the finest poems about the English countryside? Continue to explore the English landscape with our pick of the best London poems and check out our pick of the greatest bird poems and this fine posy of poems about flowers.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.