The greatest poems about vacations selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Holidays can be a time for the family to spend time together, a time to get away from it all. Poets aren’t naturally drawn to happy times as a fit subject for poetry, but nevertheless they have occasionally treated the subject of holidays and vacations – whether the Christmas holidays, or summer holidays. Here are six of the very best holiday poems.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Holidays’. This sonnet by the author of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ reminds us of the etymology of the word ‘holiday’ as ‘holy day’. The ‘holiest’ of holidays are the ones we keep by ourselves, the ‘secret anniversaries of the heart’. Holidays, then, are less about going away somewhere different and having fun, and more a state of mind, a feeling, an act of remembrance and self-discovery. This holiday poem, then, is a world away from the image of the family by the seaside with a bucket and spade – it’s about an inner peace that holiday time can bring. ‘The holiest of all holidays are those / Kept by ourselves in silence and apart; / The secret anniversaries of the heart…’
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘A Holiday’. This poem shuttles between a husband’s and wife’s perspective on a Christmas holiday. Wilcox has often been ridiculed for her ‘bad’ poetry – she wrote a great deal, and features in Nicholas T. Parsons’ The Joy of Bad Verse – but ‘A Holiday’ is an amusing take on the festive season.
Robinson Jeffers, ‘Summer Holiday’. The American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) wrote this short ten-line poem in 1925, and it offers an unusual take on the summer holiday, being as much about the development of mankind (with the references to the stone, bronze, and iron ages of our past) and the perceived collapse of civilisation. Not one to read just before you head to the airport with your beach towel and sun-tan lotion, perhaps.
Elizabeth Daryush, ‘After Bank Holiday’. The English poet Elizabeth Daryush (1887-1977) is an underrated poet, and ‘After Bank Holiday’ shows just what a fine and evocative writer she could be. The poem begins with a meditation on the deserted roads after the busy Bank Holiday weekend when everyone was off work and lovers could be found enjoying themselves, and links the passing of the holiday weekend to a bigger, much more overwhelming sense of passing.
Philip Larkin, ‘To the Sea’. Larkin’s poem of praise to the English seaside appeared in his 1974 volume High Windows. Like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘Show Saturday’, it’s a surprisingly upbeat poem from the self-described ‘poet of deprivation’, celebrating the English tradition of heading to the beach with the family to enjoy the ‘annual pleasure, half a rite’ of a trip to the seaside. This poem does reflect the typical holidaymaker’s experience.
Rita Dove, ‘Vacation’. Dove, born in 1952, was the US Poet Laureate in 1993-95, and ‘Vacation’ wonderfully captures her talent for people-watching and turning everyday observations – here, holidaymakers waiting to board their flight – into popular poetry.
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.