The best birthday poems
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.
Matthew Prior, ‘On My Birthday, July 21’. 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 birthday poem that is also a love poem, albeit one about thwarted love.
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…
Walter Savage Landor, ‘On His Eightieth Birthday’. 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’. 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, died on, of all days, Austen’s own birthday, 16 December.
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.
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.
Robert W. Service, ‘Birthday’. Written about the poet’s own 75th birthday, ‘Birthday’ sees Service thanking the gods that he can still enjoy life, despite having passed his three-score years and ten.
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. 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.
Sylvia Plath, ‘A Birthday Present’. 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, but it’s a powerful example of a poet writing about her personal demons.
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.
Image: Birthday Cake (picture credit: Will Clayton on Flickr).