The best poems of fatherhood and fathers selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we offered our pick of the best poems about mothers and motherhood, so we thought we’d complement that with this selection of the greatest poems about fathers. What good father poems do you know? Here’s our top ten. They range from poems for fathers to poems about fathers and fatherhood, written by poets about their own experience of being fathers to their children. Between them, they offer a varied approach to fatherhood and fathers, and range from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, from male and female poets. We hope you enjoy the list.
Anne Bradstreet, ‘To Her Father with Some Verses’.
Most truly honoured, and as truly dear,
If worth in me or ought I do appear,
Who can of right better demand the same
Than may your worthy self from whom it came?
The principal might yield a greater sum,
Yet handled ill, amounts but to this crumb;
My stock’s so small I know not how to pay,
My bond remains in force unto this day…
Bradstreet (1612-72) was the first poet, male or female, from America to have a book of poems published. A fascinating figure – we discuss her in our book full of literary curiosities, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History – she herself wasn’t American and had been born in England, but she was among a group of early English settlers in Massachusetts in the 1630s. As well as penning a touching poem about her husband, Bradstreet also wrote this poem in honour of her father. See the link above to read the poem in full.
Robert Burns, ‘My Father Was a Farmer’.
My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border, O,
And carefully he bred me in decency and order, O;
He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne’er a farthing, O;
For without an honest manly heart, no man was worth regarding, O.
Then out into the world my course I did determine, O;
Tho’ to be rich was not my wish, yet to be great was charming, O;
My talents they were not the worst, nor yet my education, O:
Resolv’d was I at least to try to mend my situation, O.
In many a way, and vain essay, I courted Fortune’s favour, O;
Some cause unseen still stept between, to frustrate each endeavour, O;
Sometimes by foes I was o’erpower’d, sometimes by friends forsaken, O;
And when my hope was at the top, I still was worst mistaken, O.
So begins this poem written to the tune of ‘The Weaver and His Shuttle, O’, in which Burns reflects on the fact that he, like his father, was bred for labour and toil. Follow the link above to read the full poem.
William Wordsworth, ‘Anecdote for Fathers’.
I have a boy of five years old;
His face is fair and fresh to see;
His limbs are cast in beauty’s mold
And dearly he loves me.
One morn we strolled on our dry walk,
Or quiet home all full in view,
And held such intermitted talk
As we are wont to do.
My thoughts on former pleasures ran;
I thought of Kilve’s delightful shore,
Our pleasant home when spring began,
A long, long year before.
First published in the landmark 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, which Wordsworth co-authored with Coleridge, ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ is narrated by a father who recalls going for a walk with his young son, and coming to realise that the boy’s innocence contains more wisdom than the father’s senior years. ‘A father can learn from his son, too’ might be a concise way of summarising this poem. Follow the link above to read the whole poem.
William Carlos Williams, ‘Dance Russe’. Rather than being about the poet’s father, ‘Dance Russe’ is about Williams’s own experience of fatherhood, and about how, in a household in which he is the only male, Williams snatches small moments to himself when his wife and child are sleeping, and dances in front of the mirror.
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘The Fathers’. Sassoon was one of the great poets of the First World War, and ‘The Fathers’ considers what the older generation was saying about the war. Two fathers sit in their club and swap stories about their sons’ service in the war; both men see the war as ‘fun’, rather than the bloody carnage it was in reality.
E. E. Cummings, ‘my father moved through dooms of love’. This poem was written about Cummings’ own father, a Unitarian minister and Harvard University professor. Written in Cummings’ distinctive style, this is, for our money, one of the greatest poems in praise of a father ever written.
Theodore Roethke, ‘My Papa’s Waltz’. In this poem, whose rhythm echoes that of a waltz dance, Roethke recalls the time he danced with his father in their kitchen. He remembers the smell of whiskey on his father’s breath and his mother’s disapproving stares as she looks on.
Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. Some classic father poems are written about fathers; this one is written to the poet’s father. One of Dylan Thomas’s most famous and best-loved poems, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ is a villanelle, a poem divided into three-line stanzas where the same two repeated lines of verse comprise the last line of each alternating stanza. This poetic form enables Thomas to use the title within the poem as both an instruction (or request) and a simple indicative statement. Written about the death of Thomas’s own father, the poem was completed not long before Dylan himself would die, aged just 39, in 1953. Hear Thomas reading ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ here.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’. One of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems, ‘Daddy’ controversially links the father in the poem to a Nazi officer, and references the Holocaust. Variously seen as a highly autobiographical ‘confessional’ poem and as an extremely loose fictionalised account of Plath’s own relationship to her father (an entomologist and bee-expert who died when Plath was just eight), ‘Daddy’ continues to generate much discussion amongst Plath’s readers and critics.
Tony Harrison, ‘Long Distance II’. Stephen Spender (1909-95) said of Tony Harrison’s series of elegies for his parents that they were the sort of poetry he felt he’d been waiting his whole life for. This is one of a number of moving Meridithian (sixteen-line) sonnets that Harrison wrote following the death of his father. The poem talks about how his father coped with Harrison’s mother’s death, and then how Harrison himself deals with the death of his father.
For more classic poetry, we also 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, and list the best books for the poetry student here). Continue to explore classic poems with these poems about sons, these short poems about death, these classic poems about solitude, and these poems about identity and the self.
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.
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Some lovely verse here, especially the last, heart-breaking one.
Here’s Ben Jonson on fatherhood. And bereavement:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.