By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Flowers are a perennial theme of poetry. Indeed, the word for a book of poems, ‘anthology’, even comes from the Greek for ‘flower’.
Given how many classic poems have been written about flowers, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just ten of the best flowery poems – but that is nevertheless what we’ve tried to do below, offering a range of poems (comic, celebratory, romantic, carpe diem) from different periods of English literature.
1. George Herbert, ‘A Wreath’.
A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise,
Of praise deservèd, unto Thee I give,
I give to Thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live,—
Wherein I die, not live ; for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to Thee,
To Thee, who art more far above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicity…
In this poem by one of English literature’s greatest devotional poets, Herbert creatively suggests the shape of a wreath through the rhyme scheme of his poem.
George Herbert (1593-1633) was one of the greatest poets of the seventeenth century and one of a group that Samuel Johnson identified as the ‘Metaphysical poets’. Yet his poems almost died with him in 1633, and it was only thanks to his friend’s sound judgment that they saw the light of day. In this post we sketch out a very brief biography of George Herbert: one of the greatest religious poets of any age.
The progression of the lines in this poem, and its rhyme scheme, both reflect the wreath’s circularity, a symbol of totality and connection. So the movement from one line to next forms a chain: the first line ends with talk of ‘deservèd praise’, so the second line begins by talking about ‘praise deservèd’; this second line in turn ends ‘unto Thee I give’, leading into the third line which begins ‘I give to Thee’; and so on, until we end up where we started, with ‘a crown of praise’ returning us to the first line of the poem, ‘A wreathèd garland of deservèd praise’.
A good poem, all round, we might say. Follow the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
2. William Wordsworth, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought…
Often known simply as ‘The Daffodils’ or ‘Wordsworth’s daffodils poem’, this is also one of the most famous poems of English Romanticism, and sees Wordsworth (1770-1850) celebrating the ‘host of golden daffodils’ he saw while out walking.
The poem was actually a collaboration between Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy (whose notes helped to inspire it), and Wordsworth’s wife, Mary. Follow the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
3. Percy Shelley, ‘The Flower That Smiles To-Day’.
The flower that smiles to-day
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright.
This is a poem about the brevity of all things – all hopes, desires, and delights the world has to offer are short-lived and doomed to die. Everything is fleeting and transitory. This argument had been made before Shelley made it: consider Robert Herrick’s famous seventeenth-century poem ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’.
Indeed, Shelley’s opening lines seem to be a conscious reworking of Herrick’s: where Shelley writes ‘The flower that smiles today / Tomorrow dies’, Herrick had written that ‘this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.’ See the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
4. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Flower’.
Once in a golden hour
I cast to earth a seed.
Up there came a flower,
The people said, a weed…
A rather Blakean poem, this: a sort of parable in quatrains. Tennyson’s speaker tells how he planted a flower, but other people cursed him and his flower, dismissing it as a weed. However, when the flower grows tall, thieves make off with it. See the link above to read the poem in full.
To paraphrase the meaning of Tennyson’s poem, he’s attacking those critics who scorn his work – likening it to useless and unwanted ‘weeds’ rather than beautiful flowers – because he feels that such critics have forgotten that he was the one who showed so many others how to write poetry.
And yet, does the poem have to be just about poetry itself? Tennyson is using the metaphor of the flower to suggest other forms of creativity: somebody creates something, others criticise it, and yet those same people still learn from what that artist created and copy it, often producing inferior results.
5. A. E. Housman, ‘The Lent Lily’.
And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.
And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil…
Another daffodils poem, ‘The Lent Lily’ is from Housman’s popular 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, which focuses on the daffodil or ‘Lent lily’, so named because it ‘dies on Easter day’. Housman’s poem is shot through with regret and nostalgia, and this poem neatly encapsulates his trademark style and tone. Follow the link above to read the poem in full.
6. Edward Thomas, ‘Tall Nettles’.
This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
Nettles get a bad press from poets, and aren’t as obviously ‘poetic’ as, say, roses or daffodils. Yet in this short poem, Edward Thomas (1878-1917) addresses the hidden beauty and poetry to be found in the tall nettles growing by the tool-shed. See the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
7. Robert Frost, ‘Flower-Gathering’.
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century.
And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.
In this short poem, Frost – a friend and encourager of Edward Thomas – addresses his wife, who was pregnant with their first child at the time, musing upon the times when he had to leave her at home while he went and gathered flowers for her.
8. William Carlos Williams, ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a prolific American poet whose poems range from the short imagist lyrics which are among his best-known works to longer, more ambitious projects.
As Ann Fisher-Wirth has remarked, this long 1955 poem is a fine affirmation of ‘the power of love in – and against – the nuclear age’. A meditative poem, J. Hillis Miller has called it the ‘extraordinary love poem of Williams’ old age’.
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘Tulips’.
The life – and death – of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) can sometimes appear to eclipse her poetic achievement, as well as her achievement in fiction (she wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, as well as a collection of short stories). But this is partly because so much of her work drew on her life for its subject-matter, especially her unflinching analysis of her own struggles with her mental health.
This poem was written in March 1961, apparently after Plath was admitted to hospital for an appendectomy. The view of the world Plath describes in ‘Tulips’ is based around ideas of blankness and emptiness: Plath has, she tells us, given up her clothes to the nurses, her history to the anaesthetist, and her body to the surgeons. Running through the poem is the image of the tulips.
10. Wendy Cope, ‘Flowers’.
This concluding poem on this list of the best flower poems is as much a love poem as it is a flower poem, and is as much a comic poem as it is a love poem. The contemporary comic poet Wendy Cope (b. 1945) is very good at sending up the love poem – and perhaps nowhere better than here, where Cope congratulates her lover for … nearly buying her some flowers. If we are supposed to say it with flowers, what did Cope’s lover manage to say here? The thought was there …
And yet the clever thing about this poem is that it remains ambiguous: are we being invited to take the female speaker’s words at face value? In other words, is the fact that the thought was there enough, or is she mocking her other half for his failed attempts at romance and his pathetic excuses for why he never treats her to anything?
The final image in the poem, of those flowers he nearby bought (but didn’t) lasting all this while, can arguably be read as both touchingly forgiving and bitingly judgmental.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. Continue to explore our poetry selections with these classic poems about fruit, these great bird poems, and these poems about roads.
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.