The best short poems to commit to memory, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
We’ve recently been reading Simon Armitage’s wonderful anthology, Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems (Faber Poetry), and reading his selections inspired us to put together this list of ten of the best short poems from the history of English literature (and by ‘English’ we mean ‘originally written in the English language’). And by ‘short poems’ we mean very short poems: we’ve limited ourselves to no more than nine lines per poem. We hope you enjoy our choices. Some of these are included in Armitage’s anthology of short poems, but some are not – but we recommend getting hold of Short and Sweet if you’re a fan of the short poem.
Anonymous, ‘Fowls in the Frith’. This poem, which is around 800 years old, is ambiguous: the speaker ‘mon waxë wod’ (i.e. must go mad) because of the sorrow he walks with, but what causes this sorrow? The last line is ambiguous, too: does ‘beste’ mean ‘beast’ or ‘best’? The spelling reveals nothing, and in the context of that final line it could be either. If the sorrow is a result of the ‘best of bone and blood’, it could refer to a woman (who is the best living thing in the world, according to the poet) or, as has also been suggested, Christ (a divine being in human form). So, the poem can be read either as a love lyric or as a religious lyric. ‘Fowls in the frith’, by the way, means ‘birds in the wood’, though the latter sounds less haunting and beautiful.
John Donne, ‘A Burnt Ship’. This is not one of John Donne’s best-known poems, but it’s a little gem, bringing home the horror and near-certain death that attended a ship’s catching fire.
George MacDonald, ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’. We have discussed MacDonald’s poem in our post about the close reading of poetry, in an attempt to show how any poem can be subjected to close analysis, no matter how small, short, or slight. ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’ features just two lines and, indeed, two words:
There is a sense of longing behind these two words, enacted by the gulf between the first and last words of the poem; a sense of something not being right, suggested by the near-rhyme (and near-miss) of ‘Come’ and ‘Home’.
Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’. This nine-line poem was supposedly the inspiration for the title of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and lends a curiously apocalyptic meaning to Game of Thrones. Will the world end in fire or ice? These images suggest various things – fire suggests rage, war, passion; ice suggests cold indifference and passivity – and can be interpreted in a number of ways, which lends this classic short poem an ambiguity and deep symbolic quality.
Edward Thomas, ‘Thaw’. This four-line lyric is about nature’s superior sensitivity to the signs of the passing seasons, a sensitivity that surpasses that of mankind. We may be aware of the snow half-thawing, but the rooks see deeper than us, and notice the subtle and ‘delicate’ signs of spring’s imminent arrival.
T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’. Hulme (1883-1917) may well be the first truly modern (or modernist) poet writing in English. He composed ‘Autumn’ in 1908, using the new vers libre (‘free verse’) of French Symbolist poets and likening the moon to something down-to-earth and unexpected: the ruddy face of a farmer. English poetry (and our perception of the moon) would never be the same again…
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Pound arrived at this two-line poem in 1913, after writing a much longer draft which he then cut down, line by line. The poem, which is often cited as the archetypal Imagist poem, describes the sight of the crowd of commuters at the Paris Metro station, using a vivid and original image. We’ve offered a close analysis of ‘In a Station of the Metro’ here.
Marianne Moore, ‘A Jelly-Fish’. Moore (1887-1972) was one of the American modernist poets who stayed in America, unlike Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot who moved to Europe. This poem might be said to be somewhere between H. D.’s ‘The Pool’ and Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poems about animals. In a few lines, Moore captures the quivering movement of the jellyfish.
Stevie Smith, ‘Pad, Pad’. One of our favourite poems by one of the twentieth century’s most eccentric poets. ‘Pad, Pad’ is spoken by someone whose lover sat down and told her he didn’t love her any more. The animal suggestion of ‘padding’ rather than walking, as well as the ‘tigerish crouch’ of the departed lover, are trademark Stevie Smith touches, and make this poem all the more affecting.
Charles Causley, ‘I Am the Song’. Causley (1917-2003) was a Cornish poet, and was influenced by traditional forms, such as folk tales and ballads. This short poem has the force of a mantra and an epigram: one can imagine it being chanted. It seems like a fine place to conclude this whistle-stop tour of some of the finest very short poems in English.
If you enjoyed this selection of extremely short poems, we heartily recommend Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems (Faber Poetry). You might also enjoy these very short poems by women and these short unsentimental wedding 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.