The best childhood poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
Henry Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’. 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’.
William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’. 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.
Thomas Hood, ‘I Remember, I Remember’. 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.’
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.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Discord in Childhood’. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Image: D. H. Lawrence aged 21, author unknown, Wikimedia Commons.