The best new year poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Seeing in the New Year is a time-honoured tradition, so it should come as little surprise that many of the greatest poets have written about the New Year in their work. Below is our pick of ten of the best New Year poems, along with some information about each poem.
Anonymous, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. We’re kicking off this list of the best New Year poems with a long narrative poem from the fourteenth century, partly because it features the earliest known instance of the phrase ‘New Year’s Eve’ (as ‘nweȝerez euen’) and partly because the poem opens on New Year’s Eve at Camelot (during the feast at Arthur’s court) and ends on New Year’s Day a year and a day later. The perfect medieval New Year poem.
Robert Burns, ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s perhaps inevitable that this poem (more properly a song) would appear in a list of the best poems for the New Year. Although it’s often attributed to Burns, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (i.e. ‘old long since’ or ‘a long time ago’) was based on a traditional song which Burns wrote down, in an attempt to preserve the traditional oral culture of his country. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is among the most recognisable poems or songs written in English, thanks to its popularity at New Year celebrations around the world. (We’ve compiled our pick of Burns’s best poems here.)
John Clare, ‘The Old Year’. Most of the other poems on this list are about ushering in the new year, but this poem is more about bidding farewell to the old. The stanza form is strikingly similar to Thomas Hardy’s later poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ (see below): did Hardy have Clare’s poem in mind when he wrote his 1900 New Year meditation?
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ring out, wild bells’. This is one of the last poems in Tennyson’s long masterpiece, In Memoriam (1850), his elegy for his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam. It’s also one of the finest New Year poems in all of English literature. Tennyson calls on the church bells to ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’, and to rid the world of the bad things that have occurred and to usher in a newer, brighter world.
Christina Rossetti, ‘Old and New Year Ditties’. What will the new year bring – good things or bad? And are we glad to say goodbye to the year we’re leaving behind? This is what Rossetti (1830-94) wonders in this little-known New Year poem, which also contains a touching religious sentiment: ‘Watch with me Jesus, in my loneliness: / Though others say me nay, yet say Thou yes; / Though others pass me by, stop Thou to bless.’
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Darkling Thrush’. Composed on the last day of 1900 – and also, therefore, on the final day of the nineteenth century (if you follow the convention that the twentieth century began in 1901, that is) – ‘The Darkling Thrush’ takes a single frost-ridden scene, a moment of wintry wonder, and meditates upon its meaning as Hardy, and the world, teeter on the edge of a new year, and a new century.
A. E. Housman, ‘New Year’s Eve’. As in Tennyson’s poem above, the bells ring out for the New Year in this poem from A. E. Housman (1859-1936). But unlike Tennyson’s poem, here they are ‘ringing no tune’ and ‘dead knells’. The poem doesn’t reflect new beginnings but rather the death throes of an old order: old religions, old kingdoms, old empires.
W. H. Auden, New Year Letter. This long 1940 poem sees Auden meditating on a range of themes, not least the Second World War, which had broken out a few months earlier in September 1939 (also the subject of an Auden poem). Click on the poem’s title above to read an excerpt from the longer poem.
Sylvia Plath, ‘New Year on Dartmoor’. This short poem is about newness of two kinds: the start of a new year down among the Devon countryside in England, and a baby’s new experience of that landscape. Plath wrote the poem about one of her own children. Given the poem’s description of the snow-laden scene and the newness of this landscape to the child, the poem might be productively compared to Philip Larkin’s poem about lambs first experiencing the snow.
Richard Wilbur, ‘Year’s End’. In ‘Year’s End’, the American poet Richard Wilbur (b. 1921) puts the preceding twelve months in the context of all of human history – and, indeed, prehistory: the destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD, the woolly mammoths long since extinct.
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.