By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Looking for classic poems based on a woodland theme? In this post we’ve selected ten of the best poems about trees and forests, written by some of the most famous poets in all of English literature. They range from poems set in symbolic gardens to poems about very specific trees that have been felled, to poems about trees which prompt thoughts of mortality and the brevity of life.
1. William Blake, ‘A Poison Tree’.
And I watered it in fears.
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles.
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine …
Blake originally gave ‘A Poison Tree’ the title ‘Christian Forbearance’. The speaker of the poem tells us that when he was angry with his friend he simply told his friend that he was annoyed, and that put an end to his bad feeling.
But when he was angry with his enemy, he didn’t air his grievance to this foe, and so the anger grew. The implication of this ‘poison tree’ is that anger and hatred start to eat away at oneself: hatred always turns inward, corrupting into self-hatred. The brooding enmity and resentment borne by both parties not only diminish the other party but rebound upon the bearer: hatred eats away at us as much as it affects our foes.
The fact that the speaker has ‘sunned’ his tree with smiles (because we talk of sunny smiles, and both the sun and smiles being beaming, etc.) implies that putting on a friendly front and being two-faced towards our enemies grows this poison-tree in ways we can barely understand …
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Binsey Poplars’.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank …
So begins this touching poem about the felling of beloved trees. Hopkins (1844-89) was moved to write this poem after hearing about the felling of some poplar trees in Oxford in 1879. By the end, the poplars were all gone: ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’.
‘Binsey Poplars’ was not published until 1918, like so much of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s work. Shortly afterwards, the poplars were replanted. In 2004 they were felled again, only to be replanted. As the Bodleian website notes, ‘The poem formed part of the successful campaign to replant the trees.’ The poem is one of Hopkins’s more popular poems, perhaps because, relative to many of his other great poems, it is easy to follow its main message.
The end of this poem reminds us a little of the song-like quality of some of Christina Rossetti’s verse; it’s not often that Hopkins reminds us of Rossetti, but there is something in the repetition of phrases and movement of the lines which evokes the song as much as the poem here.
3. A. E. Housman, ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more …
So begins one of A. E. Housman’s most widely anthologised poems, which sees the speaker reflecting on the fact that, aged 20, he only has 50 of his threescore years and ten remaining. Because time is short, he will appreciate the cherry blossom while he’s around to do so.
The poem’s setting of Easter time (‘Eastertide’) reminds us of the springtime when the cherry comes into blossom, but the whiteness of the cherry trees (wearing white at Easter is a Christian tradition; here nature seems to have adopted the custom) also suggests purity, fresh beginnings, and rebirth, things associated with springtime (and rebirth obviously being a central part of the Easter story).
This poem is from A. E. Housman’s first, self-published volume, A Shropshire Lad (1896).
4. Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Way through the Woods’.
They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones …
This poem sees a road through the woods being rediscovered, and the old significance of it being unearthed. Kipling’s poem is laden with symbolism: does this woodland road suggest a link to our own past (and our childhood), or to a collective past, which can now barely be revisited? Part of the poem’s power lies in its ambiguity.
5. Robert Frost, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.
One of Frost’s best-loved poems if not the best-loved, ‘Stopping by Woods’, like Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, takes a wintry evening as its setting but goes further into the woods than Hardy did (who was merely leaning ‘upon a coppice gate’).
Frost passes some woods one evening during winter, and tells us that he thinks a man who owns the woods lives in the village some distance away. So the owner will not notice Frost stopping by to observe the snow falling upon the trees. Everything is silent, apart from the soft wind and the slight sound of snowfall.
The poem seems to remind us that even our most seemingly pure encounter with the realness of nature is one mediated through an equally real world of economic and legal arrangements: these woods are not just ‘nature’, they are owned by someone who has every legal right to consider Frost a trespasser.
We’ve analysed Frost’s poem in detail here.
6. Edward Thomas, ‘Aspens’.
The title of this poem tells us what it’s about – specifically, the way aspen trees sway side to side day and night, whatever the weather. Thomas identifies in the trees’ continuous movement a metaphor for human endeavour – like the aspens, we have no choice but to go on. It features the wonderful lines:
The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,
A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room …
Edward Thomas wrote ‘Aspens’ in July 1915 and sent it to his friend and mentor, the American poet Robert Frost. Although the poem is ostensibly about aspens, one of the things which make Thomas’s poetry so rewarding to revisit is the way he subtly includes hidden meanings, barely acknowledged depths, to what appear very straightforward nature poems. What does it mean, for instance, for Thomas to say of the aspens, ‘while they and I have leaves’. They and I?
7. H. D., ‘Oread’.
Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who published under the initials H. D., was once described as ‘the perfect Imagist’, and embodied the key tenets and manifesto of the short-lived Imagist movement in poetry.
An Oread is a nymph of the mountains and valleys, and in this short masterpiece by H. D. the Oread is the speaker of the poem, romantically (erotically?) inviting the sea to ‘whirl up’ and wash over the mountains and rocks. The speaker gives the sea trees, as it were: she asks the sea’s ‘pointed pines’ to whirl up over the rocks, just as those ‘pools of fir’ belong to the sea, rather than to the conifers already on land. Trees become the sea, and the sea trees. The union between water and land that the speaker desires has, in her mind and in her images, already happened.
8. Joyce Kilmer, ‘Trees’.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray …
Kilmer (1886-1918) is best-remembered for this short poem, with its famous opening couplet: ‘I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.’ But ‘Joyce’ was actually a man, whose full name was Alfred Joyce Kilmer; he was killed at the Second Battle of Marne in July 1918, aged just 31.
The tone of Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees’ is light-hearted, as the final couplet makes clear: poems are foolish things next to nature, but nature – embodied in the poem by the tree – is superior because it is the work of God. God is mentioned several times in Kilmer’s poem: ‘only God can make a tree’, but earlier, ‘A tree that looks at God all day’. God and Nature are in harmony; poems and poets are trivial things by comparison.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘The Trees’.
This first appeared in Larkin’s final volume, High Windows, in 1974. As well as his trenchantly sardonic poems about aspects of modern life, Larkin was also a great nature poet, and ‘The Trees’ is a fine brief lyric about the cycle of the seasons but also the sense that each spring is not just a rebirth, but also a reminder of death. A tree’s age is ‘written down in rings of grain’, after all.
After all, the trees only seem to say something: Larkin knows (he is, as the title of one of his earlier poetry volumes has it, the Less Deceived) that he is projecting human attributes onto the non-human trees, and that he sees in them a symbol for human attitudes to dying, mortality, and perseverance despite the knowledge that we are all ageing, one year at a time.
We have analysed this poem here.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘Winter Trees’.
In this poem, Plath looks out and observes the trees in winter, envying their uncomplicated lives (especially their sex lives: ‘abortions’ and ‘bitchery’ are unknown to them, and they reproduce with ease) and yet finding no comfort or relief from her own troubled life by watching them. A fine, bleak poem, this.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. Continue to explore the world of poetry with our tips for the close reading of poetry, these must-have poetry anthologies, and these classic poems about gardens.
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.