The best birthday poems, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Birthdays, like other celebratory occasions such as weddings, are a fine time to dig out some poetry. However, birthdays can make us contemplative and reflective as well as deliriously joyous, and in the following ten classic birthday poems, poets down the ages have taken some widely differing approaches to birthdays – sometimes their own, sometimes someone else’s. Some of the following classic poems say Happy Birthday – others, not so much – but they are all some of the best poetic statements about birthday celebrations that have ever been committed to print (at least in English or Anglophone literature). If you’re looking for the ideal piece of verse for a friend’s or loved one’s birthday, look no further than this list of literary recommendations.
Matthew Prior, ‘On My Birthday, July 21’. We begin these birthday poems with one that’s 300 years old. In this poem, Prior (1664-1721) takes his birthday as an opportunity to chastise the woman he loves for treating him with ‘scorn’ and denying him. A classic birthday poem that is also a love poem, albeit one about thwarted love:
I, my dear, was born to-day—
So all my jolly comrades say:
They bring me music, wreaths, and mirth,
And ask to celebrate my birth:
Little, alas! my comrades know
That I was born to pain and woe;
To thy denial, to thy scorn,
Better I had ne’er been born:
I wish to die, even whilst I say—
‘I, my dear, was born to-day.’
I, my dear, was born to-day:
Shall I salute the rising ray,
Well-spring of all my joy and woe?
Clotilda, thou alone dost know.
Shall the wreath surround my hair?
Or shall the music please my ear?
Shall I my comrades’ mirth receive,
And bless my birth, and wish to live?
Then let me see great Venus chase
Imperious anger from thy face;
Then let me hear thee smiling say—
‘Thou, my dear, wert born to-day.’
Jonathan Swift, ‘Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1727’. Swift was born just three years after Prior, but unlike Prior, whose Clotilda spurned him, Swift had several important friendships (or more than friendships?) with women, including Esther Vanhomrigh (whom Swift gave the pet name Vanessa, inventing a new girls’ name in the process) and Esther Johnson. Swift actually wrote a number of birthday poems for the latter, but this poem acknowledges that both Stella and Swift himself aren’t exactly in the first flush of youth any more. A glorious Happy Birthday poem from the author of Gulliver’s Travels to the girl he named Stella – although by the time he penned this birthday poem, Stella was no longer a girl and Swift himself no longer a spring chicken:
Walter Savage Landor, ‘On His Eightieth Birthday’.
To my ninth decade I have tottered on,
And no soft arm bends now my steps to steady;
She, who once led me where she would, is gone,
So when he calls me, Death shall find me ready.
A short poem, this, but a sweet one – or perhaps that should be bittersweet. Landor (1775-1864) lived to be nearly ninety, but on the occasion of his 80th birthday he wrote this four-line poem which pronounces him ready to face death, now his wife and companion has already left the world.
Jane Austen, ‘To the Memory of Mrs Lefroy who Died Dec:r 16 – My Birthday’. Is this the best-kept literary secret on the internet? Jane Austen wrote a poem about her own birthday, in commemoration of another woman? Jane Austen is, of course, best-known for her six full-length novels rather than for her poems, but she did also write poetry – such as this fine verse commemorating her friend, Anne Lefroy, who died on, of all days, Austen’s own birthday, 16 December:
The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes. –
The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory! –
Click on the link above to read the full poem.
Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’. Love poetry is obviously common enough in English literature, but there are actually few truly great poems about being in love (and being happy). ‘A Birthday’ is a fine example of a successful poem which celebrates being in love using colourful and majestic imagery, by one of the Victorian era’s greatest poets. It is a different kind of birthday poem from others of this list, celebrating the birthday of the speaker’s love:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
Sidney Lanier, ‘A Birthday Song: To S. G.’. Lanier was a nineteenth-century American poet who fought for the Confederates during the American Civil War. Written in 1866, one year after the end of the war, ‘A Birthday Song’ is a touching poem written in triplets (three-line rhyming stanzas) using the rich and lush romantic imagery of vines, roses, and angels to suggest the wisdom gained with age. The poem is reproduced in full below:
For ever wave, for ever float and shine
Before my yearning eyes, oh! dream of mine
Wherein I dreamed that time was like a vine,
A creeping rose, that clomb a height of dread
Out of the sea of Birth, all filled with dead,
Up to the brilliant cloud of Death o’erhead.
This vine bore many blossoms, which were years.
Their petals, red with joy, or bleached by tears,
Waved to and fro i’ the winds of hopes and fears.
Here all men clung, each hanging by his spray.
Anon, one dropped; his neighbor ’gan to pray;
And so they clung and dropped and prayed, alway.
But I did mark one lately-opened bloom,
Wherefrom arose a visible perfume
That wrapped me in a cloud of dainty gloom.
And rose—an odor by a spirit haunted—
And drew me upward with a speed enchanted,
Swift floating, by wild sea or sky undaunted,
Straight through the cloud of death, where men are free.
I gained a height, and stayed and bent my knee.
Then glowed my cloud, and broke and unveiled thee.
“O flower-born and flower-souled!” I said,
“Be the year-bloom that breathed thee ever red,
Nor wither, yellow, down among the dead.
“May all that cling to sprays of time, like me,
Be sweetly wafted over sky and sea
By rose-breaths shrining maidens like to thee!”
Then while we sat upon the height afar
Came twilight, like a lover late from war,
With soft winds fluting to his evening star.
And the shy stars grew bold and scattered gold,
And chanting voices ancient secrets told,
And an acclaim of angels earthward rolled.
Robert W. Service, ‘Birthday’. Even in our advancing years, we can still enjoy the pleasures life throws at us – such as good wit, a fine wine, or a round of golf. These pleasures, among others, are what Service salutes in this birthday poem. Written about the poet’s own 75th birthday, ‘Birthday’ sees the British-Canadian poet Robert William Service (1874-1958) thanking the gods that he can still enjoy life, despite having passed his three-score years and ten. A true Happy Birthday poem if ever there was one!
Dylan Thomas, ‘Poem on His Birthday’. Few ‘birthday poems’ have taken the concept quite so literally as Dylan Thomas. In this longer poem, Thomas returns literally to his origins or birth, reimagining the womblike oceanic forces which gave rise to him using typically visceral and vivid (though unusual) poetic imagery. Written when Thomas was in his mid-thirties (‘driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age’), it’s a meditation on getting older as much as it is about being born. You can listen to Thomas reading his classic birthday poem here.
Thom Gunn, ‘For a Birthday’. ‘I have reached a time when words no longer help’: so begins this poem by the great twentieth-century British poet who came to prominence in the 1960s. Published in 1994, ‘For a Birthday’ was written when Gunn had reached the age of 65, and was contemplating old age. A less hopeful poem than Service’s, but still wonderful.
Sylvia Plath, ‘A Birthday Present’. Perhaps only Sylvia Plath could write a poem called ‘A Birthday Present’ in which the birthday present the speaker requests is death. Not the cheeriest note on which to conclude our pick of the best birthday poems, and indeed not a Happy Birthday poem as much as a Sad Birthday one, but it’s a powerful example of a poet writing about her personal demons. You can listen to Plath reading her birthday poem here – what a treat!
If you enjoyed this pick of Happy Birthday poems, then for more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here). Discover further poetry recommendations with these great drinking poems, these poems about heaven and paradise, these spooky Gothic poems, and these unsentimental poems for weddings.
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: Birthday Cake (picture credit: Will Clayton on Flickr).