By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Houses and homes are not featured so prominently in poetry as, say, fields, hedgerows, or the moon, but they’re obviously important in their lives, and many poets have sought to reflect our feelings about home, and our attitudes to houses of all kinds.
Here are ten of the finest poems about houses and homes – from the humblest abodes to the stately homes of England.
Andrew Marvell, ‘Upon Appleton House’.
Within this sober Frame expect
Work of no Forrain Architect;
That unto Caves the Quarries drew,
And Forrests did to Pastures hew …
The longest poem on this list is ‘Upon Appleton House’, which is an example of a ‘country house poem’. Marvell wrote the poem for Thomas Fairfax, the father of the girl he was tutoring in the early 1650s, just after the end of the English Civil War, and the poem reflects many of the contemporary political issues of the mid-seventeenth century. ‘Appleton House’ is the Nun Appleton estate belonging to Fairfax in Yorkshire.
John Clare, ‘Home’.
Muses no more what ere ye be
In fancys pleasures roam
But sing (by truth inspir’d) wi’ me
The pleasures of a home …
This wonderful little-known poem from one of English literature’s greatest nature poets isn’t available online anywhere, so we’ve reproduced it in the hyperlink above.
In the poem, Clare (1793-1864) extols the virtue of home as a place to return to at the end of a hard day, a place of comfort and belonging. The poem’s form deftly reflects this, with the last line of each stanza returning to home – i.e. by ending on the very word ‘home’.
Felicia Dorothea Hemans, ‘The Homes of England’.
The Stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand!
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
O’er all the pleasant land …
‘The Stately Homes of England, / How beautiful they stand!’ These are among the most famous lines penned by the nineteenth-century poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835), who was born the same year as John Clare.
The vogue for visiting the grand houses of England began surprisingly early: the pioneering female travel writer Celia Fiennes did so in the late seventeenth century. But it was Hemans who best expressed the glory of England’s stately homes in this, one of the greatest poems about houses and homes in all of English verse.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Haunted Houses’.
All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors …
‘All houses wherein men have lived and died / Are haunted houses’, according to Longfellow (1807-82) in this poem. These ‘inoffensive ghosts’ surround us as we dine, and the hall is filled with them.
Longfellow’s poem explores the links between the temporal and ethereal, the present and the past – arguing that a ‘bridge of light’ connects the seen and unseen worlds.
George MacDonald, ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’.
This is the shortest poem included in the New Oxford Book of Victorian Words, and in fairness one would be hard-pressed to find a shorter one: it’s just two words long. ‘Come / Home.’
Since fifty per cent of the poem proper consists of the word ‘home’, we felt that, despite its brevity, the poem earns its place on this list as one of the classic poems about home.
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Props assist the House’.
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
This poem uses the idea of a house and its scaffolding as a metaphor for life: we need support when starting out, but over time we become self-reliant and even come to forget that we ever needed supporting.
Robert Frost, ‘Mending Wall’.
One of Frost’s most famous poems, ‘Mending Wall’ is about the human race’s primitive urge to ‘mark its territory’ and our fondness for setting clear boundaries for our houses and gardens.
Whilst Frost believes that such markers are a throwback to an earlier stage in mankind’s development, his neighbour believes that ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
Wallace Stevens, ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’.
As you’re reading this, the chances are that you know what it’s like to stay up reading late into the night, and this is, in essence, what this Wallace Stevens poem is about, and how the act of reading, the quiet of the house, and the solitariness of the house-dweller intersect.
T. E. Hulme, ‘Image’.
Like the MacDonald poem above, this is another brief one, running to just eight words:
Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.
As we’ve revealed elsewhere, part of what gives this little fragmentary musing on the passage of time its poetic power is the subtle play of sounds: ‘old’ and ‘scaffolding’, ‘were’ and ‘workmen’, for instance. And the fact that the poem manages to be a memento mori of sorts without ever mentioning death, or old age, is quite a feat.
Philip Larkin, ‘Home Is So Sad’.
This short poem was completed on New Year’s Eve 1958, while Philip Larkin was staying at his mother’s house in Loughborough during the Christmas holidays. Larkin was often inspired to write some of his most moving poems about home while visiting his mother, and this is one of his clearest poems written on this theme.
The use of caesura in the poem’s final line, and the simple symbolism of the poem’s concluding two words, make this a moving and powerful poem about home.
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.