The best village poems in English literature – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve offered some of the best poems about big cities like London and New York; now, it’s the humble village’s turn. Poets down the ages have often written about villages and rural communities, but they have often done so for very different reasons. Here are ten of the very best poems about village life.
Oliver Goldsmith, ‘The Deserted Village’.
Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!
How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm …
One of the best-known poems about villages, ‘The Deserted Village’ is dedicated to Joshua Reynolds, and exposes the corruption found within towns in the eighteenth century as well as decrying the depopulation of rural areas, hence the poem’s title. But the poem proved to be so popular partly because it could be read as social commentary or, alternatively, for its appealing and sympathetic descriptions of rural village life.
Thomas Gray, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds …
Of course, this classic eighteenth-century poem had to feature in our list of the best church poems! The ‘country churchyard’ referred to in the poem’s title belonged to St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire. Gray’s Elegy (as it’s often known) was partly inspired by the death of another poet, Richard West, in 1742, but became a grand meditation on death and the simple memorials left behind by rustic village folk rather than statesmen and celebrated figures. The poem also gave Thomas Hardy the phrase ‘far from the madding crowd’ for use as the title of his fourth published novel.
George Crabbe, ‘The Village’.
The village life, and every care that reigns
O’er youthful peasants and declining swains;
What labour yields, and what, that labour past,
Age, in its hour of languor, finds at last;
What forms the real picture of the poor,
Demands a song—the Muse can give no more.
Fled are those times, if e’er such times were seen,
When rustic poets praised their native green …
Crabbe was influenced by Goldsmith in his depictions of village life, and this influence is clear in ‘The Village’, a narrative poem in which Crabbe tries to move away from the glorified depictions of the village in earlier eighteenth-century poems (including Goldsmith’s) and show village life as it actually is.
John Clare, ‘The Village Boy’.
Free from the cottage corner see how wild
The village boy along the pastures hies
With every smell and sound and sight beguiled
That round the prospect meets his wondering eyes
Now stooping eager for the cowslip peeps
As though he’d get them all – now tired of these
Across the flaggy brook he eager leaps
For some new flower his happy rapture sees
Now tearing mid the bushes on his knees
Or woodland banks for bluebell flowers he creepts
And now while looking up among the trees
He spies a nest and down he throws his flowers
And up he climbs with new-fed extacies
The happiest object in the summer hours
In this sonnet, one of England’s greatest poets of rural life and the natural world describes a village boy moving through the countryside, with Clare’s repeated use of ‘now’ conveying the heady and almost dizzying journey of the village boy. We have reproduced the sonnet in full above, as it isn’t widely available elsewhere online.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I often passed the village’. This poem is about the stillness and quietness of villages:
I often passed the village
When going home from school –
And wondered what they did there –
And why it was so still –
But with a twist: the speaker of the poem is dead, and is speaking from the stillness of the village grave.
Thomas Hardy, ‘Afternoon Service at Mellstock’.
On afternoons of drowsy calm
We stood in the panelled pew,
Singing one-voiced a Tate-and-Brady psalm
To the tune of ‘Cambridge New.’
We watched the elms, we watched the rooks,
The clouds upon the breeze,
Between the whiles of glancing at our books,
And swaying like the trees …
Mellstock in Hardy’s Wessex is Stinsford, the small Dorset village where his heart was interred in 1928, and in this poem, Hardy recalls his childhood hours spent at the local village church, singing hymns and psalms. The adult Hardy, looking back, cannot believe that such ‘psalming’ did any good; but, as so often with Hardy’s poems, there is a wistfulness for the faith he has lost (compare ‘The Oxen’ here.)
Edward Thomas, ‘Adlestrop’.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform …
The setting for this poem is the railway station serving the small village of Adlestrop in Gloucestershire; the moment is a day in ‘late June’ – specifically, late June 1914, when Thomas, on his way to visit Robert Frost, noted the summery sounds and sights while the train stopped at the station. The poem captures a moment of English summer tranquillity in a few vivid, evocative images and sounds.
Rupert Brooke, ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’.
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low …
This famous poem romanticises a small Cambridgeshire village while Brooke sits in a German café – a sort of updated version of Robert Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts, from Abroad’ for a new generation. The closing lines – ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?’ are well-known and well-loved. The poem captures an idea of Englishness which belongs to the years immediately preceding the First World War, which changed everything forever. The English way of life described in the poem would be altered drastically in all sorts of ways. Brooke seems to know, from his coffee-shop in Berlin, that its days are numbered. Two years later, he would be proved right.
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’. Although T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was born in the United States, he lived in England from 1914 and adopted British citizenship in 1927. ‘East Coker’ is unusual among Eliot’s poems in focusing on the English countryside. Detailing a visit to his ancestral home, the small Somerset village of East Coker, and dwelling on the Tudor communities who once inhabited the land, ‘East Coker’ is the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets and a great modernist poem about the English countryside.
R. S. Thomas, ‘The Village’. This fine poem about a Welsh village by one of the twentieth century’s greatest Welsh poets conveys the feel of a small village where hardly anything happens. Yet despite this, the village possesses a significance beyond itself: it is part of history.
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.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.