The best poems for Easter selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
As it’s Good Friday, we feel it’s time to celebrate Easter with ten classic poems about the Easter season. Whether you’re thinking about the Passion of Christ or tucking into chocolate Easter Eggs, or simply looking forward to returning to those things you’ve given up for Lent, we hope you enjoy this pick of the greatest poems about Easter.
William Dunbar, ‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’. This poem, by the medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar (c. 1465-c. 1530), boasts one of the finest opening lines in all medieval poetry. The rest of the poem is pretty good, too. It takes as its theme the Resurrection, and casts Christ as a crusading knight.
Edmund Spenser, ‘Easter’. ‘Most glorious Lord of Lyfe that on this day / Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin’: so begins the sonnet ‘Easter’ by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99), which is the 68th poem in his sonnet sequence Amoretti. The poem is a joyous celebration of the Easter festival and the meaning behind it.
John Donne, ‘Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’.
Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey …
Donne (1572-1631) may be travelling westward in this Easter poem (he was riding from Warwickshire to Wales), but the day of his journey – Good Friday – reminds him of the East, and the place where Jesus Christ was sacrificed on a Good Friday long ago.
George Herbert, ‘Easter Wings’. George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote a number of poems for Easter – others include ‘Easter’ and ‘Easter Song’ – but this is his most celebrated Easter poem. The first thing that strikes the reader about it is its shape, with the words arranged on the page to resemble the shape of birds’ wings.
Matthew Arnold, ‘The Forsaken Merman’. This isn’t an ‘Easter poem’ in the same sense as the other poems on this list, but it earns inclusion here thanks to the glorious line, ‘’Twill be Easter-time in the world’. Matthew Arnold was a fine Victorian poet and critic who also wrote the classic poem ‘Dover Beach’.
Christina Rossetti, ‘Good Friday’.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
So begins this poem is about Christina Rossetti’s struggle to feel close to Christ and the teachings of Christianity, and to weep for the sacrifice he made. Rossetti regrets the fact that when she stands and looks up at a depiction of Jesus Christ being crucified, the sight does not move her to tears. Rossetti concludes ‘Good Friday’ by entreating Jesus Christ to continue to try to reach her with the power of his sacrifice, likening him to a shepherd who needs to find her, one of his lost sheep.
Oscar Wilde, ‘Easter Day’.
The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome …
Wilde is not now principally known for his poetry (indeed, it might be said that he is still less famous for his writings than he is for … having been Oscar Wilde), and his one enduringly famous poem is ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. However, early in his career he wrote more poetry than anything else, and this is one of his finest verses – a nice sonnet about Rome on Easter Day.
A. E. Housman, ‘Easter Hymn’.
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man …
So begins this fine poem from A. E. Housman (1859-1936), who became an atheist while he was a teenager. This hymn, like Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’, shows the unbeliever longing to believe, if given good reason to. The alliteration in Housman’s final line is especially nicely done.
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’. The Easter theme of this, the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets, is especially prevalent in the fourth section, a short lyric which casts Christs as a ‘wounded surgeon’ – wounded because of the Crucifixion, but a ‘surgeon’ who carries the cure for all of humanity’s ills. Eliot wrote ‘East Coker’ in 1940, against the background of the Second World War and the Blitz.
Claude McKay, ‘The Easter Flower’. Festus Claudius McKay (1889-1948), better known as Claude McKay, was a Jamaican-American writer and an important poet in the Harlem Renaissance which also included Langston Hughes. Like Housman, McKay is another unbeliever (‘a pagan’, as he himself puts it), who enjoys the scent of the Easter lily though he cannot believe in the Easter story.
Discover more about Easter with our post about surprising and interesting words related to the Easter season.
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.