The greatest woodland poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
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’.
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.
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’). This is one of the most perennially popular evening poems, so had to be included here!
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.