The best short poems by women writers – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The first named writer in world history was a woman, Enheduanna. Below are ten of the best short poems by women poets from over three centuries of English poetry (and by ‘English’ we mean ‘written in the English language’ – several of the names on this list are American). We’ve interpreted ‘short’ here to mean very short: only one is as long as 14 lines, and many of the others are no longer than ten lines, which we feel is pretty short for a poem. We hope you enjoy this selection. Follow the title of each short poem to read it.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘A Summary of Lord Lyttleton’s “Advice to a Lady”’. Montagu (1689-1762) was not just a leading female poet of the Augustan era in English poetry (which is most famously typified by the work of Alexander Pope): she also helped to introduce a process of inoculation against smallpox, decades before Edward Jenner’s more successful breakthrough with vaccination. Her poetry is frequently witty and urbane, as this rhyming couplet (the form of choice for the Augustans) neatly demonstrates. Montagu reduces the advice of Lord Lyttleton (in a poem instructing a ‘Belinda’ how to behave), and many other men opining on women’s correct conduct, to just two pithy lines, in order to poke fun at it:
Be plain in Dress and sober in your Diet;
In short my Dearee, kiss me, and be quiet.
Emily Brontë, ‘I know not how it falls on me’.
I know not how it falls on me,
This summer evening, hushed and lone;
Yet the faint wind comes soothingly
With something of an olden tone.
Forgive me if I’ve shunned so long
Your gentle greeting, earth and air!
But sorrow withers even the strong,
And who can fight against despair?
The author of Wuthering Heights also wrote some of the finest short poems of the Victorian era. This eight-line lyric, which concludes our pick of eight short Emily Brontë poems in the link provided, is about feeling miserable and despairing, and then feeling guilty about feeling miserable and despairing, because it’s a lovely day and the weather’s fine and you know you should be glad of such things.
Christina Rossetti, ‘What Would I Give’.
What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through,
Instead of this heart of stone ice-cold whatever I do!
Hard and cold and small, of all hearts the worst of all.
What would I give for words, if only words would come!
But now in its misery my spirit has fallen dumb.
O merry friends, go your own way, I have never a word to say.
What would I give for tears! Not smiles but scalding tears,
To wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years,
To wash the stain ingrain, and to make me clean again.
Rossetti (1830-94) is often a master of rhyme, and this nine-line poem is a wonderful example of how she used rhyme to generate a powerful emotional response in the reader (especially in the internal rhymes of the poem’s final line). Like a number of her poems (see ‘Twice’ for a comparable case), the speaker appears to be a fallen woman, longing to be made clean again, and to be able to feel the way she used to feel. It’s emotional, but the formal restraint prevents it from lapsing into sentimental excess.
Emily Dickinson, ‘That it will never come again’. ‘That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet’: so says Emily Dickinson (1830-86) in this poem about life as the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime experience. Dickinson wrote some of the best short poems of the nineteenth century, and this one is just eight lines.
Mary E. Coleridge, ‘No Newspapers’.
Where , to me, is the loss
— Of the scenes they saw — of the sounds they heard;
A butterfly flits across,
— Or a bird;
The moss is growing on the wall,
— I heard the leaf of the poppy fall.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861-1907) was a novelist and poet, who taught at the London Working Women’s College from 1895 until her death in 1907. A prolific poet, she was the great-grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the great niece of Sara Coleridge. ‘No Newspapers’ is a very short lyric.
Charlotte Mew, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’.
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I …
So begins this wonderfully touching poem about a lost lover. Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was a popular poet in her lifetime, and was admired by fellow poets Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy, among others; the latter helped to secure a Civil List pension for Mew in 1923. ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ was published in Charlotte Mew’s 1916 volume The Farmer’s Bride. The French title of this poem, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’, translates as ‘what good is there to say’. Follow the link above to read the poem and learn more about it.
H. D., ‘The Pool’. Any list of the best short poems by female poets should include at least one by the Queen of Imagism, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). Quite what this five-line poem refers to (possibly the poet coming face-to-face with her own reflection in a rock pool, although one reader of this blog once suggested persuasively that the poem might be a reference to the tragedy of a lost child) remains unknown. Even H. D. doesn’t appear to know – hence the use of question marks. H. D. was once described by Glenn Hughes as ‘the perfect Imagist’, and ‘The Pool’ shows why.
Stevie Smith, ‘I Remember’. Like many of Stevie Smith’s poems, this one is a little unusual, and all the better for it. The speaker is an old man remembering his wedding night during the Blitz, when he married ‘a girl with t.b.’
Sylvia Plath, ‘Poppies in October’. Many of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems are longer than 14 lines, but ‘Poppies in October’ comes in under this upper limit. Although this poem gives a nod to Plath’s own suicide attempts (the last of which, of course, tragically, was successful) in its reference to a woman in an ambulance whose heart is likened to the flowering poppies, it is, first and foremost, a poem in celebration of the bright red flowers.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Text’. This poem, written by the UK Poet Laureate, is about text-messaging; aptly, it’s short and telegrammatic, like a text message (with even the shape of the poem suggesting the format of a text message on a mobile phone). It’s also a touching poem, marked by that quiet desperation of something lost or unattainable, a quality which characterises much of Duffy’s greatest work.
This concludes our 300-year selection of ten of the best short poems by female poets. Are there any you’d add to the list? You can continue to explore the world of female poets with our pick of the best English sonnets by women writers.
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.