What are the most heavenly poems in all of literature? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Who deserves a place in heaven? And what is heaven like? Contemplating the former question and imagining an answer to the latter has occupied many a poet’s mind down the ages. Here are ten of the very best poems about heaven…
Dante, The Divine Comedy. Composed in the early fourteenth century, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a trilogy of poems charting the poet’s journey from hell (Inferno) through Purgatory (Purgatorio) to heaven (Paradiso), guided by his fellow poet, Virgil. Featuring lakes of filth and farting demons, it’s much more fun than its theological subject might suggest, and it influenced a whole raft of later poets, especially T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. It’s even been called the ‘fifth Gospel’, so clearly and effectively does Dante detail the medieval view of Christianity. Specifically, the final part of the trilogy, Paradiso, is of particular interest here, where the poet is guided by his muse, Beatrice, to heaven.
Edmund Spenser, from Amoretti. This poem, beginning ‘Oft when my spirit doth spread her bolder wings’, is part of Spenser’s sonnet sequence Amoretti. In summary, Spenser says that when he wishes to think of higher things, his mind is bogged down by thoughts of mortality; but he comes to the conclusion that the way to ensure happiness is to find heaven among earthly things.
Robert Herrick, ‘To Heaven’. What does it mean to be worthy of a place in heaven? Herrick (1591-1674), one of the most popular of the Cavalier poets, wrote this very short and pithy poem about heaven, in which he asks that the sinful be given mercy and allowed in. If he himself is not granted entry, he will ‘force the gate’…
Henry Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’. Henry Vaughan (1622-95) was a Welsh Metaphysical Poet, although his name is not quite so familiar as, say, Andrew Marvell. His poem ‘The Retreat’ (sometimes the original spelling, ‘The Retreate’, is preserved) is about the loss of heavenly innocence experienced during childhood, and a desire to regain this lost state of ‘angel infancy’.
Emily Dickinson, ‘“Heaven” – is what I cannot reach!’ One of a number of poems Emily Dickinson wrote about heaven, this poem is about how paradise is always just out of reach, like an apple hanging just a little too high up on the tree. It is an ‘interdicted land’ – one, perhaps, we are not meant to find yet…
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Heaven-Haven’. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), who was a contemporary of Tennyson and Browning although his work seems to anticipate the modernists in its daring experimentation and unusual imagery, wrote this short eight-line meditation on heaven, which he envisions as a place where ‘no storms come’.
W. B. Yeats, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’. The gist of this poem, one of Yeats’s most popular poems, is straightforward: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you. But I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘New Heaven and Earth’. This 1917 poem is noteworthy because it is a longer modernist poem that responds to the First World War, and so prefigures a much more famous modernist poem, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The poem’s speaker tells of his disillusionment with this world and its modern warfare and inventions and of his sense of release at having found a ‘new world’. But the poem has as much in common with Wilfred Owen’s poems highlighting the horrors of war as it has with Eliot’s later modernist poem.
Rupert Brooke, ‘Heaven’. Heaven was much on Brooke’s mind when he ended ‘The Soldier’ with its image of ‘hearts at peace, under an English heaven’. But this earlier poem, composed in 1913 before the outbreak of the War, is altogether more playful, even satirical, than the war sonnets. ‘Heaven’ uses fish to make a 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). Witty and well-constructed, ‘Heaven’ is an overlooked poem in Brooke’s oeuvre, but we think it’s one of his best.
T. S. Eliot, ‘The Hippopotamus’. The premise of this poem is a comparison between the large African mammal and the Roman Catholic Church, which culminates with the hippopotamus being lifted up to heaven, surrounded by a choir of angels. Who is worthy of reaching heaven: someone who professes godliness but practises greed? Or the humble but ignorant hippo?
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, these scary Gothic poems, these religious poems, these poems about various jobs, and these great beach 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).
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.