By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘There’s no money in poetry,’ Robert Frost once observed, ‘but then there’s no poetry in money, either.’ But was Frost right? Are there any great poems about money? Has money ever inspired a good poem? Here are some of the best poems about money in some way, whether they merely mention money as a crucial element or even, in some cases, take cash, money, pounds, pence, and dollars as their central subject.
Anon, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’.
Given the monetary mention in its title, this traditional nursery rhyme had to feature in this pick of the best poems about money! The rhyme has attracted some fanciful theories concerning its lyrics, including the idea that the twenty-four blackbirds represent the hours in the day, with the king representing the sun and the queen the moon.
Another places the rhyme in the time of King Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, with the blackbirds symbolising the choirs of the monasteries, baking a pie in order to try to curry favour with Henry.
Robert Herrick, ‘Money Makes the Mirth’.
This rhyming couplet pithily praises money’s value: ‘When all birds else do of their music fail, / Money’s the still-sweet-singing nightingale!’
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘On a Handful of French Money’.
From one of the Pre-Raphaelites’ finest poets. ‘These coins that jostle on my hand do own / No single image: each name here and date / Denoting in man’s consciousness and state / New change.’
W. H. Davies, ‘Money’.
The self-described ‘supertramp’ and poet, W. H. Davies, captures money’s allure well in this poem: ‘When I had money, money, O! / I knew no joy till I went poor; / For many a false man as a friend / Came knocking all day at my door.’ However, Davies concludes on a bittersweet note: ‘But now I have no money, O! / My friends are real, though very few.’
Kathleen Raine, ‘Worry about Money’.
‘Wearing worry about money like a hair shirt / I lie down in my bed and wrestle with my angel.’ Raine’s focus in this wonderful poem is on how money defines our very identities, and worrying about it becomes second nature in a world where to be poor is to be overlooked and scorned.
Howard Nemerov, ‘Money’.
Written in the style of a lecture on symbolism, ‘Money’ homes in on a homely nickel coin as Nemerov’s speaker meditates on money, with references to everything from concentration camps to Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
Philip Larkin, ‘Money’.
Larkin’s attitude about life tended to be that whether or not we use it, it goes. So it was with spending money: the unspent money lying in his bank account reproaches him for letting it lie there wastefully, but Larkin knows deep down that spending his money will not bring happiness. There is something depressing about money: ‘It is intensely sad.’
Simon Armitage, ‘Ten Pence Story’.
Just think about what distance the humble 10p piece covers in the course of its ‘life’: the hands it passes through, the tills it goes in, the pockets it lines.
This, in essence, is what the contemporary poet Simon Armitage explores in this poem, telling the ‘story’ of a ten-pence piece as it is minted and then used as loose change for a ‘Leeds pimp’, all the while dreaming of being used in a coin-toss at a football match or some other lofty achievement.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
I’m finding myself rating Simon Armitage more and more. I loved the lines from this poem:
“I slotted in well, but all that vending
blunted my edges and did my head in.”
That cleverness of turning phrases without being pretentious is something he excels at. Wonderful stuff!
On a related note, it’s a pity you don’t include song lyrics as poems (something I feel is entirely legitimate to do) – you’d have some good examples from Berry Gordy, Lennon & McCartney and Ray Davies!
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