The finest fruity poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Many poets have written lyrically about fruit over the years, whether it’s apples, cherries, oranges, or figs. Here are ten of the very finest poems about fruit in all of English literature.
Thomas Campion, ‘Cherry-Ripe’.
There is a garden in her face
Where roses and white lilies blow;
A heavenly paradise is that place,
Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow:
There cherries grow which none may buy
Till ‘Cherry-ripe’ themselves do cry …
We’ll begin our rundown of the best fruit poems with this lyric from one of the greatest composers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Campion describes a beautiful young woman, comparing her to a garden full of cherry trees. We won’t dwell too long on the significance of the word ‘ripe’ in relation to the young woman…
Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
‘Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy …’
The fruit in this classic 1862 poem has been interpreted in various ways: critics have long seen the eroticised description of the exotic fruit as symbolic of (sexual) temptation, with the poem’s protagonist Laura as the fallen woman who succumbs to masculine wiles and is ruined as a result (though she is, of course, happily married at the end of the poem). But some critics have drawn parallels between Laura’s addiction to the exotic fruit in the poem and the experience of drug addiction, specifically opium. The opening of this poem sounds almost like an advertisement for the fruit marketing board…
Emily Dickinson, ‘Forbidden Fruit a flavour has’. This poem is short enough – a single quatrain – to be reproduced here in full: ‘Forbidden fruit a flavor has / That lawful orchards mocks; / How luscious lies the pea within / The pod that Duty locks!’ Our desire what we know we can’t have always seems to be greater than our ‘lawful’ desires, and here Dickinson draws on the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden (according to western tradition, an apple) to emphasise our weakness for the forbidden.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘A Song of Bananas’.
Those are not Bananas, simple townsmen all.
(Plantains from Canaryward maybe!)
For the true are red and gold, and they fill no steamer’s hold,
But flourish in a rare country,
(That men go far to see.)
‘No bananas’ may have become a famous phrase during the Second World War when fruit shortages came into play, but this Kipling poem dates from a little before that, in 1927. It addresses the ‘simple townsmen’ of Rio de Janeiro in a poem that is really more of a popular song, and stemmed from a visit to the country that Kipling made in early 1927.
Robert Frost, ‘After Apple-Picking’. Robert Frost had a wonderful ability to capture the unremarkable and everyday details of life and write about them in a way that refused to dramatise or sensationalise them, yet nevertheless teased out the significance within them. Having picked apples all day, the speaker of this poem grows tired, and longs to sleep. But is he, in fact, slipping into what Hamlet calls ‘that sleep of death’?
Wallace Stevens, ‘A Dish of Peaches in Russia’. This poem engages a number of the senses as Stevens invokes the sight, touch, taste, and smell of ripe peaches in summer. Stevens links the peaches to questions of native pride and belonging: the speaker of the poem is a Russian who views the peaches as part of who he is. We’ve compiled information about more great Wallace Stevens poems here.
William Carlos Williams, ‘This Is Just to Say’. Reading like a note the poet has left for a friend or family member confessing to his theft of some plums in an icebox, ‘This Is Just to Say’ is one of the most minimalist poems of the twentieth century and makes Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ look positively florid by comparison.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Figs’.
The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.
But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret …
As well as penning novels such as Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence was also a prolific poet. ‘Figs’ begins with a detailed description of how to eat a fig, before going on to sing the praises of this fruit that ‘doesn’t keep’.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’. A poem at once about the remembered experience of picking blackberries every August and, on another level, about the loss of childhood innocence and the onset of adulthood (with all of the harsh realities and disappointments adulthood brings with it), ‘Blackberry-Picking’ remains one of Heaney’s most popular poems.
Wendy Cope, ‘The Orange’. This poem is about how the simple day-to-day things – such as buying an orange and sharing it with work colleagues, or walking in the park – can make us happy when we’re in love, and are ‘glad we exist’. The beauty of the poem is in its touching simplicity, and the faint hint of the absurd suggested by that huge orange which the poem’s speaker consumes.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. Alternatively, check out these classic wine poems, these poems about drinking, these great food poems, and these non-cheesy wedding poetry recommendations.
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: William Mason Brown, Peaches on a White Plate (c. 1880), via Wikimedia Commons.