By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve considered the best children’s poems which we think everyone should read. In this post, we turn our attention to the best poems about childhood – childhood, youth, and that innocent time when our whole lives stretch ahead of us like the beginning of a warm summer day full of promise (sigh)… These poems range from the seventeenth century to contemporary poetry – we hope you enjoy them.
1. Henry Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’.
Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space,
Could see a glimpse of His bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity …
So begins this long meditation on childhood. Henry Vaughan (1622-95) was a Welsh Metaphysical Poet, although his name is not quite so familiar as, say, Andrew Marvell. His poem ‘The Retreat’ (sometimes the original spelling, ‘The Retreate’, is preserved) is about the loss of heavenly innocence experienced during childhood, and a desire to regain this lost state of ‘angel infancy’.
2. William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’.
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety …
This simple nine-line poem describes how the poet is filled with joy when he sees a rainbow, and how he hopes he will always keep that sense of enchantment with the natural world. The poem contains Wordsworth’s famous declaration, ‘The Child is father of the Man’, highlighting how important childhood experience was to the Romantics in helping to shape the human beings they became in adult life.
This is the beginning of the nineteenth-century worship of the child (a form of veneration arguably still with us), which will lead to Victorian literature’s Golden Age of children’s literature and also a shift in the way the concept of ‘childhood’ and ‘the child’ is viewed by society (leading to reforms in child-labour, for instance, some of these changes influenced by literature, such as Kingsley’s The Water-Babies).
3. Thomas Hood, ‘I Remember, I Remember’.
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away …
So begins this famous poem recalling childhood days. Thomas Hood (1799-1845) is best-remembered for ‘The Song of the Shirt’, one of the most famous poems about the Industrial Revolution, and ‘I Remember, I Remember’, in which he recollects his childhood. Like Vaughan, he feels that he is ‘farther off from heaven / Than when I was a boy.’
Of course, this is a Christian idea: it was the Tree of Knowledge, after all, that God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from in the Garden of Eden. But in many nations and many cultures and traditions, ignorance and innocence are held up as virtues. ‘I Remember, I Remember’ is a sentimental but eloquent expression of the same idea.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Child’s faith is new’.
This poem explores the wide-eyed innocence that a child has when they first look out on the world, which eventually gives way to a more jaded cynicism involving a lowering of expectations, especially towards our fellow human beings.
Wide-eyed, we are alive to the wonders of the world around us: seeing the sunrise for the first time, and believing in everything which is false or fake (because we are innocent and don’t know any better). Caesar, in comparison with the child’s perceived dominion over the world, was a mean and empty ruler: the child feels in their heart that the whole world has been laid out specifically for them.
The poem begins:
The Child’s faith is new –
Whole – like His Principle –
Wide – like the Sunrise
On fresh Eyes –
Never had a Doubt –
Laughs – at a Scruple –
Believes all sham
But Paradise …
Follow the link above to read the full poem and to learn more about it.
5. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Discord in Childhood’.
Within the house two voices arose in anger, a slender lash
Whistling delirious rage, and the dreadful sound
Of a thick lash booming and bruising, until it drowned
The other voice in a silence of blood, ’neath the noise of the ash …
Lawrence’s poem offers a less rosy view of childhood, focusing on the wildness of nature which the child senses beyond his bedroom window, and the sound of his parents arguing within the house.
Childhood was not all bad for D. H. Lawrence, at least in his own view. In 1909, when he began work on the poem that became ‘Discord in Childhood’, Lawrence viewed his childhood as having been a combination of harmonies and discords, as the title of this poem implies.
6. Dylan Thomas, ‘Fern Hill’.
In this, one of Thomas’s best-loved poems, he revisits his childhood, using his visits to his aunt’s farm as the subject-matter. It was written in 1945, just after the end of WWII. ‘Fern Hill’ contains some of the most arresting images in all of Thomas’s poetry (and he was a master of the arresting image!). Look at the ‘fire green as grass’, for instance. Listen to Thomas read the whole poem here.
7. Philip Larkin, ‘I Remember, I Remember’.
Its title a pointed riposte to Hood’s poem, Larkin’s ‘I Remember, I Remember’ inverts the idea of recalling a happy childhood through rose-tinted spectacles. Instead, Larkin reflects matter-of-factly upon his ‘unspent’ childhood where he didn’t do all the usual things associated with growing up.
8. 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.
9. Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’.
This classic Heaney poem, published in his first published volume, the 1966 book Death of a Naturalist, is simultaneously about picking blackberries in August and, on another level, about a loss of youthful innocence and a growing awareness of disappointment as we grow up. Growing up is about reconciling ourselves, with our hopes and expectations, to the realities of the world, and ‘Blackberry-Picking’ addresses this theme.
It’s a rite of passage that we all go through, though it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when disillusionment begins to cloud our clear and sunny skies of hope.
10. 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.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best childhood poems, you might also enjoy these timeless nursery rhymes and these classic poems about schooldays. Alternatively, check out our pick of the greatest ever fairy tales. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. For a change of pace, see our selection of the best ‘so bad they’re good’ poems.
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.