By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best children’s poems in all of English literature? Every reader will have their own firm favourites that bring back fond memories of those carefree and innocent days, but we’ve tried to select ten of the very finest classic poems for children for this post. For classic nursery rhymes, check out our pick of the best children’s nursery rhymes in a separate post.
1. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’
So begins this glorious nonsense poem for children, often mistakenly called ‘The Jabberwocky’ (the Jabberwock is the monster, so the poem is ‘Jabberwocky’). It was included in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 follow-up book to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, although the first stanza was actually written and printed by Carroll in 1855 in the little periodical Mischmasch, which Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) compiled to entertain his family.
Focusing on the slaying of a fearsome monster, the titular Jabberwock, the poem is renowned for the inventiveness of its language: it gave us almost literally dozens of new words, including some now in common use: the words ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’.
2. Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
This charming poem about the love story of the owl and the pussycat – unlikely partners, perhaps – has been interpreted in various ways (is the cat the female in the relationship?), but perhaps this is all beside the point. What matters is the wonderful picture of a fantasy world Lear creates in the poem. Like ‘Jabberwocky’, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is a classic of nonsense literature.
The word ‘runcible’ was a coinage of Edward Lear’s for this poem, and is up there with Lewis Carroll’s coining of ‘chortled’ and ‘galumphing’. Yet nobody is sure what ‘runcible’ actually means. (It’s defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as simply ‘A nonsense word originally used by Edward Lear’.) Lear didn’t help matters: as well as applying the word to a spoon, he went on to use ‘runcible’ to describe his hat, a wall, and even his cat! Follow the link above to read the full poem – and to learn more about it.
3. Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘From a Railway Carriage’.
Taken from Stevenson’s 1884 volume A Child’s Garden of Verses, this Victorian classic describes a train journey and the fast-moving panoramic view witnessed from the train window:
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by …
The poem’s rhythm and syntax establish the speed and exhilaration of a railway journey, while the poet looks out of the window at the fast-moving array of images outside: a boy gathering blackberries or brambles, a tramp standing and gazing, a man with a cart in a road, a mill, a river, and so on.
The world whizzes past with great speed, almost like a magic lantern show (the forerunner to the modern cinema), which Stevenson would have been familiar with. You can read the full poem by following the link above.
4. Hilaire Belloc, ‘Matilda’.
One of Belloc’s cautionary rhymes, which in many ways prefigure Roald Dahl’s writing for children, ‘Matilda’ is a classic children’s poem with a very dark subject: the titular heroine, because of the lies she tells, ends up being burned to death. But the poem has a light, humorous tone, despite its cautionary nature, since Belloc thought that making children laugh could also make them think.
5. A. A. Milne, ‘Buckingham Palace’.
This poem by the author of Winnie-the-Pooh is a great place to begin introducing children to poetry: each stanza begins with the same two lines, and ends with the same two words. It’s about Christopher Robin, owner of Winnie the Pooh, going to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace because Alice is marrying one of the guards.
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’.
As well as writing such modernist poems as The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’, T. S. Eliot also wrote a book of nonsense verses about cats for his godchildren. (Eliot himself owned numerous cats.) Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was later turned into the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Cats.
This poem follows Macavity, who is loosely based on Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories (of which Eliot was a devoted fan). He’s a master of disguise, a ‘cat-burglar’ in the most literal sense of the term, and a criminal who covers his (paw-)tracks with skill. According to Stephen Tunnicliffe, ‘Macavity’ is particularly good reading for 11- and 12-year-olds.
7. Allan Ahlberg, ‘Please Mrs Butler’.
This poem appeals to both children and teachers alike, thanks to its structure: the odd stanzas are spoken by a particularly talkative child complaining about what other children are doing, and the even stanzas comprise the teacher Mrs Butler’s responses to the child’s requests, with mounting frustration.
Anyone who’s endured a particularly fraught and annoying class at school (and let’s face it, which of us hasn’t?) will find something that strikes a chord here.
8. Michael Rosen, ‘Chocolate Cake’.
Michael Rosen is one of the leading poets for children writing today, and ‘Chocolate Cake’ is enormous fun. He starts off by discussing his love of chocolate cake as a young boy, and how one night he crept downstairs to eat a bit of the chocolate cake in the kitchen – and ended up wolfing down the whole lot. Rosen’s poetry works particularly well when read aloud, and you can watch Michael Rosen reciting his poem here in this YouTube video.
9. Roald Dahl, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.
One of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes – his verse retellings of classic fairy tales – this one is particularly good fun. Dahl offers us not the meek Little Red Riding Hood of nineteenth-century fairy stories but a plucky, resourceful, and brave girl who pulls a pistol out of her underwear to protect herself from the Big Bad Wolf. Revolting, horrific, and funny too – as we’d expect from the fascinating mind of Roald Dahl.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’.
A poem about overcoming fear and not allowing it to master you, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ is the perfect poem for children if you want to teach them about self-belief and the importance of facing their fears. Angelou lists a number of things, from barking dogs to grotesque fairy tales in the Mother Goose tradition, but comes back to her mantra: ‘Life doesn’t frighten me at all’.
We’re especially fond of Angelou’s image of walking the ocean floor and never having to breathe (a fine metaphor – though in reality, don’t try doing this without breathing apparatus).
Continue to explore the interesting world of children’s literature with our pick of the best children’s novels, these classic fairy tales, these fascinating facts about children’s books and our collection of interesting Harry Potter facts. Alternatively, sit back and enjoy our pick of classic baby poems or head to school with these classic poems about schooldays, teachers, and classrooms. For a good collection of children’s poetry, we recommend 100 Best Poems for Children (Puffin Poetry).
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.