The best school poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Whether it’s Wordsworth recalling his schooldays in The Prelude, or Shakespeare’s Jaques describing the schoolboy ‘creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school’, poets have often written about school, whether fondly or critically, from the teacher’s or the pupil’s perspective. Here are ten of the finest poems about school and schooldays, teachers and pupils, classrooms and chalkboards.
Oliver Goldsmith, ‘The Village Schoolmaster’. Goldsmith’s depiction of a genial village schoolteacher, who is viewed by the locals as a kind of demigod, is not one that has lasted, alas, into the modern age. But when Goldsmith was writing, learning and literacy were looked up to, and the man who possessed their gifts was revered: ‘And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew, / That one small head could carry all he knew.’
W. B. Yeats, ‘Among School Children’. Inspired by a visit the 60-year-old Yeats made to a convent school in Ireland, ‘Among School Children’ is considered one of his finest late poems. Visiting the school prompts an extended meditation on the passage of time, on his great muse Maud Gonne, and on Yeats’s own life.
Langston Hughes, ‘Theme for English B’. Hughes (1901-67) was one of the leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. This poem is about the experience of being a black boy – the only one in his class – at a New York School in the early twentieth century. Hughes writes that his experience of the world will be different from his white peers, and yet they – and their white teacher – are united by being American. This acknowledgment of what brings them together, but also what marks them out as different, underpins this poem.
Vernon Scannell, ‘Ageing Schoolmaster’. This views the start of another school year in September from the schoolmaster’s perspective, rather than his pupils’. He associates the chalk and the board and the classroom with his own mortality, with each September bringing him closer to the grave – and this feeling is only made more piquant by gazing out upon all the ‘April faces’ of the young schoolchildren, who have their whole lives ahead of them.
Philip Larkin, ‘The School in August’. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that Larkin (1922-85) really began to find his own voice as a poet, but of the poems he wrote in his early years, ‘The School in August’ (1943) is one of the best, written when he was still in his early twenties. In a way the poem, which describes a school in the quiet summer holidays when it is left empty and unused, anticipates Larkin’s later work, with its emphasis on the brevity of life, the sense of time slipping away from us, youth turning quickly to maturity and then age.
Roger McGough, ‘First Day at School’. This poem by one of the Mersey poets of the 1960s captures the bewilderment and confusion of a first day at school: being unsure what to make of the other children, wondering what the railings are for, what a lesson (or ‘lessin’) is.
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.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Death of a Naturalist’. ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – the title poem from Heaney’s first collection of poems, published in 1966 – is a poem about a rite of passage, and realising that the reality of the world does not match our expectations of it. Here, specifically, it is sexuality which is the theme: the speaker is appalled and repulsed by the reproductive cycle of frogs, which doesn’t quite tally with the view of nature offered by his teacher, Miss Walls.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’. There aren’t many modern or contemporary poems which recall schooldays with affection, but ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ does just that. Duffy paints a fond picture of her time at primary school and on the brink of adolescence, powerfully suggested by the poem’s final image of the sky breaking into a thunderstorm.
Simon Armitage, ‘You May Turn Over and Begin’. This poem is about sitting the General Studies A-Level exam, and how the young speaker’s thoughts become side-tracked by thoughts of girls and the desire to lose his virginity. ‘You May Turn Over and Begin …’ is a quintessentially Armitigian piece, blending humour, verve, and a darker meaning about coming of age.
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.