10 classic poems of travelling – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
According to Thomas de Quincey, Wordsworth clocked up an estimated 180,000 miles during his lifetime, walking around his beloved Lake District (to say nothing of the Quantocks, where he lived near Coleridge during the 1790s). Given that there is a strong link between poets and travelling of various kinds – whether walking, sailing, or travelling in some more abstract, metaphorical or spiritual sense – we felt it was time we put together some of the greatest journey poems. Many, though not all, of these classic travelling poems are available in the excellent anthology, Nation’s Favourite Poems Of Journeys (Poetry).
Andrew Marvell, ‘Bermudas’.
Where the remote Bermudas ride
In th’ocean’s bosom unespied,
From a small boat, that row’d along,
The list’ning winds receiv’d this song.
‘What should we do but sing his praise
That led us through the wat’ry maze
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?
This poem, from the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell, is set in the Atlantic ocean and focuses on a group of people aboard a boat, and clearly in exile from their native land. They spy the island of Bermuda, and sing a song in praise of the island. The next 32 lines of the poem comprise their song. The people aboard the boat praise God for leading them to this previously undiscovered island, which seems ‘far kinder’ than the island they have left behind, namely Britain. These people have endured and eluded sea-monsters and storms, and God has led them to safety on the ‘grassy stage’ of this new island. It is mentioned that they are fleeing England because of ‘prelates’ rage’, namely religious persecution – so ‘Bermudas’ is a poem about undertaking a difficult journey to find a new place where a community of people can start afresh.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
‘The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea …
Written in 1797-8, this is Coleridge’s most famous poem – it first appeared in Lyrical Ballads. The idea of killing an albatross bringing bad luck upon the crew of a ship appears to have been invented in this poem, as there is no precedent for it – and the albatross idea was probably William Wordsworth’s, not Coleridge’s (Wordsworth got the idea of the albatross-killing from a 1726 book, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea, by Captain George Shelvocke). The poem is one of the great narrative poems in English, with the old mariner recounting his story, with its hardships and tragedy, to a wedding guest. Variously interpreted as being about guilt over the Transatlantic slave trade, about Coleridge’s own loneliness, and about spiritual salvation, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner remains a challenging poem about a journey whose lessons the ship’s crew, and we as readers, continue to learn from.
Robert Browning, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we gallop’d abreast …
Beginning with the wonderfully rhythmical lines ‘I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; / I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three’. But this poem, describing a horse-ride to deliver some important news (although we never learn what the news actually is). Instead, the emphasis is on the journey itself, with the sound of the galloping horses excellently captured through the metre of the verse. This poem has a notable claim to fame: in 1889, it became the first poem (spoken by the author) to be recorded on a phonograph, when Browning recited (half-remembered) words from the poem into an Edison phonograph at a dinner party.
Henry Cholmondeley Pennell, ‘The Night Mail North’.
Now then, take your seats! for Glasgow and the North;
Chester! – Carlisle! – Holyhead, – and the wild Firth of Forth,
‘Clap on the steam and sharp’s the word,
You men in scarlet cloth: –
‘Are there any more pas .. sengers,
For the Night .. Mail .. to the North!’
Are there any more passengers?
Yes three – but they can’t get in, –
Too late, too late! – How they bellow and knock,
They might as well try to soften a rock
As the heart of that fellow in green …’
Before W. H. Auden’s more famous ‘Night Mail’ poem from 1936, there was this poem, whose full title is ‘The Night Mail North (Euston Square, 1840)’ – 1840 being the year the penny post was introduced in Britain. Pennell captures the snatches of conversation on the train as it prepares to embark on its long voyage north and the passengers settle down for their journey in this skilful piece of what we might call documentary poetry.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Our Journey had advanced’.
Our journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being’s road,
Eternity by term …
In many of the best journey poems, the journey is a metaphor for something greater – and this is certainly the case in this Emily Dickinson poem. And what journey is greater than that from life into death, mortality into eternity?
A. E. Housman, ‘White in the moon the long road lies’.
White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.
Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
Pursue the ceaseless way …
In this poem, the king of lugubrious English verse writes about leaving his beloved, with the road lying ahead of him that ‘leads me from my love’. And although he trusts that the same road will eventually lead him back to his love, first he must travel far, far away.
W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect …
W. B. Yeats wrote ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ in 1927, when he was in his early sixties, and the poem sees Yeats’s speaker announcing that the country he’s left behind is ‘no country for old men’: being old, the speaker felt out of place there, and so he is making a journey (a pilgrimage?) to the ancient city of Byzantium, which can be read as a symbol for his yearning for spiritual meaning: the poem, then, is about a spiritual journey, and renouncing the hold of the world upon us in order to attain something higher than the physical or sensual.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Ship of Death’.
Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.
The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.
And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self …
A poem of angst and death, ‘The Ship of Death’ uses the metaphor of a journey to invoke the idea of self-discovery: the poem involves the poem’s speaker calling for the reader to prepare a ‘ship of death’ – ‘the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith’ – to transport them to ‘oblivion’, travelling from ‘the old self’ to ‘the new’.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Journey of the Magi’. A nativity poem with a difference, ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) is spoken by one of the ‘Three Wise Men’ (as they’re commonly known), as they make their journey to visit the infant Jesus. The speaker reflects on the hardships he and his fellow travellers endure on their journey, and the implications of the advent of Christ for the Magi’s own belief system.
Philip Larkin, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. This poem, the title poem in Larkin’s 1964 collection, describes a journey from Hull to London on the Whitsun weekend and the wedding parties that Larkin sees climbing aboard the train at each station. Actually inspired by a train journey from Hull down to Loughborough in the Midlands, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ captures the hope and togetherness these wedding parties symbolise – although the poem can also be read in a less optimistic way.
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.