By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Looking for a good poem to read before dinner? Poets have often sung the praises of their favourite fruits, or meals, or sweet and tasty treats. Below we’ve chosen ten of the very best poems about food, dinner, fruit, and other fine morsels.
1. Ben Jonson, ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’.
Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I
Do equally desire your company;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast
With those that come, whose grace may make that seem
Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, sir, creates
The entertainment perfect, not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons, and wine for sauce; to these a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money …
Many poets have flattered their patrons, but few have written poems inviting them to dine with them. But that’s exactly what the poet and playwright Ben Jonson does in ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ – the friend in question being his patron, William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke.
2. Jonathan Swift, ‘Cooking Poem: How I Shall Dine’.
This rare gem of a poem isn’t readily available elsewhere online, so we’ve included it below instead. There aren’t many great poems celebrating mutton, so we hope you enjoy this one.
Gently blow and stir the fire,
Lay the mutton down to roast,
Dress it nicely I desire,
In the dripping put a toast,
That I hunger may remove:
Mutton is the meat I love.
On the dresser see it lie,
Oh! the charming white and red!
Finer meat ne’er met my eye,
On the sweetest grass it fed:
Let the jack go swiftly round,
Let me have it nicely browned.
On the table spread the cloth,
Let the knives be sharp and clean:
Pickles get and salad both,
Let them each be fresh and green:
With small beer, good ale, and wine,
O ye gods! how I shall dine.
3. 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 …’
The fruit in this classic 1862 poem by Christina Rossetti 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, so it had to feature in a pick of the best food poems!
4. Wallace Stevens, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’.
One of the most baffling great poems of the twentieth century, ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ refuses to offer itself up to any easy readings. Who is the titular emperor, and why is he the only emperor?
What is going on in the poem – a funeral? Yet Stevens’s use of imagery – and striking deployment of the imperative mood – make this a beguiling and memorable poem, whatever the relevance of the ice cream might be.
5. 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.
6. 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’.
7. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) published only 100 poems during her lifetime, though she’s now regarded as one of the major American poets of the twentieth century.
In ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’, set during the Great Depression, the speaker queues up for a coffee and a ‘charitable crumb’ of bread; the poem acts as a reminder that for many people throughout history (and, indeed, today) food is not plentiful and they lack the money and the means to feed themselves.
8. Maya Angelou, ‘The Health-Food Diner’.
Angelou (1928-2014) is best-known as a poet and as the author of the memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but she was also once a fry cook, and published several books of recipes, beginning with Hallelujah! The Welcome Table (2004).
In ‘The Health-Food Diner’, Angelou lists the nutritious vegetables the diner offers, before declaring that what she really needs is a steak. Let others pursue the healthy diet: this poet, she declares, is an incorrigible carnivore.
9. 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.
10. Michael Rosen, ‘Chocolate Cake’.
A popular children’s poem, ‘Chocolate Cake’ begins with the poet discussing his love of chocolate cake as a young boy, and how one night he crept downstairs to eat a bit of the chocolate cake in the kitchen – and ended up wolfing down the whole lot.
Want some wine with that food? Check out some of the best wine poems, the best poems about drinking, some classic poems about fruit, and these great non-cheesy wedding poems. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
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.