The finest poems about labouring and jobs selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Work is a big part of our lives – like sleep, and love, and eating – yet it doesn’t strike us, perhaps, as immediately ‘ripe’ material for poetry, perhaps because we like to view poetry itself (wrongly, in the main) not as ‘work’ but as a ‘calling’ or a ‘hobby’. Yet many of the great and the good from English-language poetry have treated the subject of work in their poems – below are ten of the best.
Anonymous, ‘The Blacksmiths’.
Swarte-smeked smethes, smattered with smoke,
Drive me to deth with den of here dintes:
Swich nois on nightes ne herd men never,
What knavene cry and clattering of knockes!
The cammede kongons cryen after ‘Col! Col!’
And blowen here bellewes that all here brain brestes.
‘Huf, puf,’ saith that on, ‘Haf, paf,’ that other …
We begin our rundown of the greatest poems about work with this little-known fifteenth-century poem satirising the trade of blacksmiths. Through extensive use of alliteration and onomatopoeia, the anonymous medieval poet evokes the sounds of the smithy as the blacksmith goes about his job.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Work Without Hope’.
All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing …
‘All Nature seems at work’, as Coleridge declares at the beginning of this poem. Composed on 21 February 1825, this late Coleridge poem looks like a sonnet – it has 14 lines – but its rhyme scheme doesn’t resemble any recognisable sonnet form. This sonnet-that-can’t-be-bothered-to-be-a-proper-sonnet neatly reflects the theme of Coleridge’s poem: while all of nature is busy working, Coleridge himself is drowsy and lackadaisical.
Thomas Hood, ‘The Song of the Shirt’. First published in 1843, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ takes its title from the song the woman sings to herself as she works hard at her stitching, making shirts from dawn till – well, beyond dusk. ‘Work! work! work! / While the cock is crowing aloof! / And work — work — work, / Till the stars shine through the roof!’ All day, every day, the woman slaves away at her stitching, yet she remains in ‘poverty, hunger, and dirt’. Given the exploitation of cheap labour still occurring around the world, this poem remains all too topical.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Work’.
What are we set on earth for? Say, to toil –
Nor seek to leave thy tending of the vines,
For all the heat o’ the day, till it declines,
And Death’s mild curfew shall from work assoil.
God did anoint thee with his odorous oil,
To wrestle, not to reign; and He assigns
All thy tears over, like pure crystallines.
For younger fellow-workers of the soil
To wear for amulets …
‘What are we set on earth for?’ asks Barrett Browning in this sonnet. ‘Say, to toil’ is the answer. Work is godly: God made us to work, to ‘wrestle’ rather than to ‘reign’, and working is mutually beneficial for mankind. This is the central message of this little-known Barrett Browning poem extolling the virtues of hard work.
Matthew Arnold, ‘Quiet Work’.
One lesson, Nature, let me learn of thee,
One lesson which in every wind is blown,
One lesson of two duties kept at one
Though the loud world proclaim their enmity –
Of toil unsever’d from tranquility!
Of labour, that in lasting fruit outgrows
Far noisier schemes, accomplish’d in repose,
Too great for haste, too high for rivalry …
Another sonnet, from another Victorian poet. Although Matthew Arnold is best-known for ‘Dover Beach’, he also wrote a number of other classic poems, and was an important figure in Victorian literature and culture. ‘Quiet Work’ is a less famous poem, but its theme is a compelling one: all of nature seems to be able to reconcile work with tranquillity, so why can’t man? Work should be free from haste and rivalry, and done in peace and ‘repose’.
Emily Dickinson, ‘It is easy to work when the soul is at play’. Work is easier when we’re happy and at ease. When your soul is in pain, it’s like a gimlet or screw being turned into your very nerves – and work becomes impossible. As so often, Emily Dickinson offers her own idiosyncratic take on work, but in such a way that strikes home.
A. E. Housman, ‘Yonder see the morning blink’. Getting up every morning and going to work can seem like a drag sometimes (often?), and where does it get you? ‘Ten thousand times I’ve done my best / And all’s to do again’ is the grim assessment of the wonderfully lugubrious A. E. Housman.
Dylan Thomas, ‘On No Work of Words’. This poem might have featured in our list of the best poems about the act and process of writing, since it’s about sitting down and working at the craft of writing. Thomas bemoans the fact that, although he has much to write about, he cannot seem to get in the right frame of mind to work. Work is good for man, because it means you can die happy, knowing you’ve done the work you were made to do.
Philip Larkin, ‘Toads’. This classic Larkin poem is a cry of frustration: Larkin laments having to devote his entire day to work, just so he could have an evening (as he put it in the 1982 South Bank Show special about him). He has to give up ‘six days’ of his week to the toad work, which seems ‘out of proportion’ for what he gets in return. Yet he ends up concluding that work is probably something he is well-suited to, and he wouldn’t want to be one of those people who live without it. For he, too, is ‘toad-like’.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’. A poem about family, the difference between the generations, the changing history of Ireland, and even the differences between manual labour and an altogether more ‘white-collar’ kind of ‘job’ such as writing, ‘Digging’ is one of Seamus Heaney’s most celebrated poems. Whereas Heaney’s father and grandfather dug in potato fields for a living, young Seamus will undertake a different kind of work: digging or excavating his past, and the history of Ireland, by writing poetry.
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: Art installation of Philip Larkin as a toad for Larkin 25 (author: Paul Harrop, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.