Are these the greatest football poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Literature and football may not seen like natural bedfellows, although it’s worth remembering that Albert Camus, the philosopher and author, was a goalkeeper, and that the American football team the Baltimore Ravens are named in honour of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem ‘The Raven’. Robert Frost once said, ‘Poetry is play. I’d even rather have you think of it as a sport. For instance, like football.’ And poets down the ages have put into words the magic and wonder of football. Here are five classic poems about football by Victorian, twentieth-century, and contemporary poets.
1. A. E. Housman, ‘Twice a week the winter thorough’.
Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.
Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.
Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.
This poem from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad also mentions cricket, so we get two sports for the price of one in this classic poem. The power of sport in such situations is the ‘mirth’ it provides the speaker: he can keep his mind from gloomier thoughts by joining his fellow man for a football or cricket match. The power of football as a way of ‘fighting sorrow’ also chimes with the message we find elsewhere in A Shropshire Lad: that male bonding, friendship, and neighbourly solidarity are all features of rural village life.
2. Edward George Dyson, ‘A Friendly Game of Football’.
We were challenged by The Dingoes — they’re the pride of Squatter’s Gap—
To a friendly game of football on the flat by Devil’s Trap.
And we went along on horses, sworn to triumph in the game,
For the honour of Gyp’s Diggings, and the glory of the same.
And we took the challenge with us. It was beautiful to see,
With its lovely curly letters, at its pretty filigree.
It was very gently worded, and it made us all feel good,
For it breathed the sweetest sentiments of peace and brotherhood.
We had Chang, and Trucker Hogan, and the man who licked The Plug,
Also Heggarty, and Hoolahan, and Peter Scott, the pug;
And we wore our knuckle-dusters, and we took a keg on tap
To our friendly game of football with The Dingoes at The Gap …
Dyson (1865-1931) was an Australian poet, and this great football poem is steeped in Australian language and setting, from its opening lines onwards.
3. J. Milton Hayes, ‘My Old Football’.
You can keep your antique silver and your statuettes of bronze,
Your curios and tapestries so fine,
But of all your treasures rare there is nothing to compare
With this patched up, worn-out football pal o’ mine.
Just a patched-up worn-out football, yet how it clings!
I live again my happier days in thoughts that football brings.
It’s got a mouth, it’s got a tongue,
And oft when we’re alone I fancy that it speaks
To me of golden youth that’s flown.
It calls to mind our meeting,
’Twas a present from the Dad.
I kicked it yet I worshipped it,
How strange a priest it had!
And yet it jumped with pleasure
When I punched it might and main:
And when it had the dumps
It got blown up and punched again.
It’s lived its life;
It’s played the game;
It’s had its rise and fall,
There’s history in the wrinkles of
That worn-out football …
Hayes (1884-1940) was an actor as well as a poet, who is best-known for his poem ‘The Green Eye of the Yellow God’. ‘My Old Football’, which was set to music in the early twentieth century, is a fine football song/poem about the singer’s/poet’s close bond to his old football, because of the football’s close associations with the poet’s brother, who is off fighting in the war (see also Duffy’s poem below).
4. Louis Jenkins, ‘Football’.
We switch football, or what is known in the United States as ‘soccer’, for American football with this poem, as we cross the Atlantic for this poem by contemporary US poet Louis Jenkins (b. 1942). Stream-of-consciousness and almost prose poetry in its form, ‘Football’ takes a wry and humorous look at the game.
5. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The Christmas Truce’.
Perhaps the most famous football match in European history is the Christmas truce of 1914, when the soldiers fighting in No Man’s Land sang songs and carols at each other from their trenches, and played impromptu games of football. The truce wasn’t total, and on Christmas Day 1914 there was some fighting on the western front; but Duffy’s poem homes in on the temporary cessation of hostilities – and those parts of the trenches where the battleground was made into a football pitch.
Discover more classic poetry with our pick of the best poems about sports, these classic baby poems, and these great Rudyard Kipling 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, 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.