The best happy poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously we’ve offered ten of the most powerful poems about depression. Now, to complement that post, here are ten of the very best poems about being happy. Hurrah! If you’re after more classic poems about happiness, we recommend the wonderful anthology, Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems, edited by Wendy Cope, which includes some of the poems listed below.
Anonymous, ‘Pangur Bán’. This Old Irish poem was written by a monk in the ninth century – about his cat. It features in our pick of the best cat poems, but it’s also a gloriously happy poem (well, cats bring so much happiness, after all), with its talk of delight, merriment, and bliss. (Pangur Bán is the name of the monk’s cat.) Describing the life of the monk in his study with his cat as his happy companion, ‘Pangur Bán’ has everything for the cat-lover and book-lover. Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice.
Edward Dyer, ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’.
My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such present joys therein I find,
That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind:
Though much I want that most would have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave …
This poem by Sir Edward Dyer (1543-1607) might be regarded as the Elizabethan version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’: the poem extols the virtues of a clean conscience and resisting the temptation to take delight on other people’s misfortune. Well, we say this poem is by Edward Dyer; it used to be unquestionably attributed to him, but doubt has been cast over Dyer’s authorship, with some instead crediting Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
Edmund Spenser, from Amoretti.
Oft, when my spirit doth spread her bolder wings,
In mind to mount up to the purest sky;
It down is weighed with thought of earthly things,
And clogged with burden of mortality;
Where, when that sovereign beauty it doth spy,
Resembling heaven’s glory in her light,
Drawn with sweet pleasure’s bait, it back doth fly,
And unto heaven forgets her former flight …
This poem, beginning ‘Oft when my spirit doth spread her bolder wings’, is part of Spenser’s sonnet sequence Amoretti. In summary, Spenser says that when he wishes to think of higher things, his mind is bogged down by thoughts of mortality; but he comes to the conclusion that the way to ensure happiness is to find heaven among earthly things.
William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud’.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Given that the daffodils in this famous Wordsworth poem lift the poet’s spirits when he is feeling a little lost or thoughtful, and fill his heart with pleasure, we feel it deserves its place among this pick of the greatest happiness poems. On 15 April 1802, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were walking around Glencoyne Bay in Ullswater when they came upon a ‘long belt’ of daffodils, as Dorothy put it memorably in her journal. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote of the encounter with the daffodils, ‘we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing.’ The influence of this passage from Dorothy’s journal, recalling this happy event, can be seen in Wordsworth’s poem.
Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me …
‘My heart is like a singing bird’: right from this poem’s opening line, the mood is joyful. One of the most famous happy poems to feature on this list, ‘A Birthday’ is about ‘the birthday of my life’ arriving to the speaker, because her ‘love is come to me’. A fine poem by one of the Victorian era’s greatest poets.
Emily Dickinson, ‘How Happy Is the Little Stone’. In this short poem, Emily Dickinson (1830-86) considers the simple life of the small things in nature – specifically, the little stone whose ‘coat of elemental brown / A passing universe put on’. Much like Wordsworth in his ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’, Dickinson ponders the simple happiness that we get from observing nature.
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Happy Thought’. This poem from Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) is only two lines long, so is worth quoting in full here:
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
E. E. Cummings, ‘i thank You God for this most amazing’. This idiosyncratic take on the Shakespearean sonnet form is the perfect poem to read on a day when you feel almost deliriously happy and glad to be alive, and your eyes and ears seem attuned to the world around you to an unusually high degree (something Cummings’ concluding couplet captures wonderfully).
Philip Larkin, ‘Coming’. One of Larkin’s earliest mature poems was called ‘Going’; this poem, written a few years later when the poet was still in his twenties, might be viewed as a companion piece to that other poem. Unusually for the lugubrious Larkin, ‘Coming’ is about how the coming of spring makes the poet feel almost inexplicably happy.
Jenny Joseph, ‘The Sun Has Burst the Sky’. ‘The sun has burst the sky / Because I love you’: so begins this wonderfully joyful poem about being in love, from the poet who also gave us ‘Warning’, about growing old and wearing purple. This poem doesn’t feature in the Heaven on Earth anthology, but is too joyous a happy poem to be omitted from this list.
For more classic poetry, we also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here, and list the best books for the poetry student here). Discover more great poems with these great poems about kissing, these classic poems for daughters, and our pick of the best poems about clothes.
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 (top): Cat beating cymbal, from Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts, public domain.