By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Many great towns and cities are built on the riverside, since fresh water is one of the basic human necessities. So it’s little surprise that poets have often waxed lyrical about the life-giving properties of rivers and streams. Here are ten of the best river poems.
Edmund Spenser, Prothalamion.
There, in a meadow, by the river’s side,
A flock of nymphs I chanced to espy,
All lovely daughters of the flood thereby,
With goodly greenish locks, all loose untied,
As each had been a bride;
And each one had a little wicker basket,
Made of fine twigs, entrailed curiously,
In which they gathered flowers to fill their flasket,
And with fine fingers cropt full featously
The tender stalks on high.
Of every sort, which in that meadow grew,
They gathered some; the violet pallid blue,
The little daisy, that at evening closes,
The virgin lily, and the primrose true,
With store of vermeil roses,
To deck their bridegrooms’ posies
Against the bridal day, which was not long:
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
‘Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song’ is a line probably more familiar to readers as a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but Eliot borrowed (stole?) the line from Spenser, and this poem which celebrates the double marriage of two pairs of aristocrats.
The poem begins with a description of the Thames, where Spenser finds two beautiful maidens who are due to be married – it’s these opening lines about the Thames which earn this piece of Elizabethan lyricism its place in this list of the best river poems.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Sonnet: To the River Otter’.
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray …
Coleridge, the co-author with Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads, was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon in 1772. The village is named for the river which passes through it – the river which Coleridge eulogises in this Romantic sonnet, recalling his childhood when he skimmed stones along the river’s surface and wishing he could return to those carefree years.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘To the River Charles’.
River! that in silence windest
Through the meadows, bright and free,
Till at length thy rest thou findest
In the bosom of the sea!
Four long years of mingled feeling,
Half in rest, and half in strife,
I have seen thy waters stealing
Onward, like the stream of life …
‘Thou hast taught me, Silent River! / Many a lesson, deep and long; / Thou hast been a generous giver; / I can give thee but a song.’ In this nineteenth-century American poem, the Hiawatha author praises the Charles river in Massachusetts.
The river carries important memories for Longfellow – memories of important friends he has known – and this is one reason why he eulogises it here in this less famous poem.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Brook’.
I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.
By thirty hills I hurry down,
Or slip between the ridges,
By twenty thorpes, a little town,
And half a hundred bridges.
Till last by Philip’s farm I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever …
Just as rivers flow into the sea, so brooks flow into larger rivers, as Tennyson highlights in this charming poem: ‘And out again I curve and flow / To join the brimming river, / For men may come and men may go, / But I go on for ever.’
Emily Dickinson, ‘My River Runs to Thee’.
A short poem, even by Dickinson’s brief, telegrammatic standards, but as with so many of Dickinson’s poems, it carries an arresting opening line, and reminds us that the river and the sea are endlessly linked in one great cycle (as our pick of the best sea poems serves to prove).
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Looking-Glass River’.
Smooth it glides upon its travel,
Here a wimple, there a gleam –
O the clean gravel!
O the smooth stream!
Sailing blossoms, silver fishes,
Pave pools as clear as air –
How a child wishes
To live down there!
We can see our coloured faces
Floating on the shaken pool
Down in cool places,
Dim and very cool;
Till a wind or water wrinkle,
Dipping marten, plumping trout,
Spreads in a twinkle
And blots all out …
As well as writing Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) also wrote the perennially popular A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), a collection of poems for younger readers including this lovely poem about gazing into the reflective waters of the river.
Wallace Stevens, ‘The River of Rivers in Connecticut’.
This poem about ‘the river that flows nowhere, like a sea’ contains a wonderful use of the word ‘curriculum’ in a poem, summoning the running motion of the river (while also, perhaps, hinting at the curriculum vitae, the life-giving properties of that running river). By one of the twentieth century’s greatest American modernist poets.
Rupert Brooke, ‘Heaven’.
Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity …
This poem, composed in 1913, uses fish in a stream, brook, or pond to comment on human piety, and specifically the reasons mankind offers for a belief in something more than one’s immediate surroundings (e.g. an afterlife – hence the title of the poem): ‘Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond; / But is there anything Beyond?’
T. S. Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’.
With one of the most mispronounced titles in all of twentieth-century poetry (as Eliot’s note informs us, the final word should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘assuages’, so ‘Sal-VAY-giz’), ‘The Dry Salvages’, named for the trois sauvages off the New England coast, are the theme of this ‘water poem’, the third of Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Kathleen Raine, ‘The River’.
The English poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) wrote this wonderful poem about an encounter ‘down by the riverside’. Yet this is an encounter in a dream (or rather several dreams): the water is purer than in real life, and Raine’s speaker is an ‘expected guest’ at the house by the river’s edge. Quite where the poem’s speaker is destined in the final stanza remains tantalisingly unexplained.
Discover more classic poetry with our pick of the greatest comic poems, great poems about water, these classic poems about secrets, and these extremely short poems. 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, and list the best books for the poetry student 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.