Are these the greatest fire poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Fire, one of the four Aristotelian elements, is a useful symbol for poets: it can denote passion, purification, anger, destruction, and, of course, literal blazes and conflagrations. Here are ten of the finest poems about fire.
Edmund Spenser, ‘My love is like to ice, and I to fire’.
My Love is like to ice, and I to fire:
How comes it then that this her cold so great
Is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
But harder grows the more I her entreat?
Or how comes it that my exceeding heat
Is not allayed by her heart-frozen cold,
But that I burn much more in boiling sweat,
And feel my flames augmented manifold? …
Taken from Spenser’s sonnet sequence Amoretti, this poem opens with a paradox: how come the poet’s fiery desire for his ice-cold beloved doesn’t thaw her coldness, but actually makes her even icier and more standoffish? Similarly, how come her coldness doesn’t cool his fire?
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 45.
The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide …
In Shakespeare’s time, mainstream scientific belief was that everything was made up of just four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The two elements, air and fire, are both absent from the Bard in this poem, as they have flown to his beloved: air represents his thought, and fire his desire, and they are both present and absent: present because he thinks about his beloved and desires him, but absent because they have flown to be with his beloved. Clever, eh?
John Donne, ‘A Burnt Ship’.
Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap’d forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes’ ships, did by their shot decay …
This is not one of John Donne’s best-known poems, but it’s a little gem, bringing home the horror and near-certain death that attended a ship’s catching fire.
Anne Bradstreet, ‘Upon the Burning of Our House’.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless …
In 1666, a great fire consumed much of the considerable library of books owned by Anne Bradstreet. This happened in July 1666 – two months before that other great fire that would destroy much of London and that John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys documented in their diaries – and it occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts.
But Bradstreet accepts the loss of her house and possessions with stoicism, detecting God’s hand in the disaster and interpreting the fire as a sign that she doesn’t need such worldly possessions.
William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
The opening line of this poem, ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright’, is among the most famous lines in all of William Blake’s poetry. Accompanied by a painting of an altogether cuddlier tiger than the ‘Tyger’ depicted by the poem itself, ‘The Tyger’ first appeared in Songs of Experience in 1794.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Ashes Denote That Fire Was’.
Ashes denote that fire was;
Respect the grayest pile
For the departed creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile …
The best poem you’re ever likely to read that contains the word ‘carbonates’, this short poem by one of American literature’s greatest voices asks that we respect ash because it denotes that something once stood where the pile of ashes is now found.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’.
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair …
One of Hopkins’s most ambitious and innovative poems, this poem begins as a Petrarchan sonnet but is then extended into a longer 24-line poem. Hopkins considers the chaotic world of nature – which seems to bear out Heraclitus’ notion that everything came from fire and will return to it – and then finds comfort in the chaos by recalling his faith in the Christian idea of the Resurrection.
Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’.
This nine-line poem was supposedly the inspiration for the title of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and lends a curiously apocalyptic meaning to Game of Thrones. Will the world end in fire or ice? These images suggest various things – fire suggests rage, war, passion; ice suggests cold indifference and passivity – and can be interpreted in a number of ways, which lends this classic short poem an ambiguity and deep symbolic quality.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’.
Each of the four poems that make up Eliot’s final great poetic achievement, Four Quartets, is loosely based around one of the four classical elements. In the last of the four poems, ‘Little Gidding’, that element is fire, which is a symbol of both powerful destruction (such as that emblematised by the German bomber planes during the Blitz) and refinement and salvation (influenced by Dante). The poem is not, as one French critic believed, about a little boy Eliot knew, named ‘Little Gidding’.
Dylan Thomas, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’.
Like ‘Little Gidding’, this poem was written during WWII when London was frequently being bombed by the Germans. Thomas rejects the usual response to death, especially the death of a young girl. What sounds like a heartless premise is anything but: Thomas’s argument in the poem is that it is odd and inappropriate to mourn one particular death (especially when ‘mourning’ in itself does no good) when there is so much suffering in the world, and always has been.
Discover more great poetry with these classic poems about water, these poems about the world of work, and our pick of the best holiday and vacation poems. 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).
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.