By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve offered some of the best poems for mothers, but what about the mothers of mothers? Below, we’ve chosen seven of the very best poems about grandmothers, poems for grandmothers, and poems that somehow salute the different generations of strong women in a family.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Grandmother’.
Published in 1859, this poem begins this selection of poems for grandmothers because it’s by arguably the greatest Victorian poet and is one of his most powerful meditations on old age, using the figure of the grandmother – the speaker of the poem – to contemplate one’s twilight years.
Our favourite moment is when the grandmother announces that she has had a happy life and would not live it all over again if she had the chance – although in her case, this is partly because she has tragically outlived all of her children.
She hopes for peace in old age: ‘And age is a time of peace, so it be free from pain, / And happy has been my life; but I would not live it again. / I seem to be tired a little, that’s all, and long for rest; / Only at your age, Annie, I could have wept with the best.’
Carl Sandburg, ‘Helga’.
Helga in the title of this poem is the poet’s own daughter, born in 1918 (Sandburg, an American poet, lived a long time, from 1878 until 1967). Here, in this delightful short poem, Sandburg imagines his young daughter one day becoming a grandmother feeding geese on frosty mornings. In just nine lines, Sandburg imagines the generations to come unfolding before him, surviving long after him. (And he lived to be 89!)
William Carlos Williams, ‘The Last Words of My English Grandmother’.
Williams (1883-1963) was one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, associated with American modernist poetry and famous for poems such as ‘This Is Just to Say’ and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. But his grandmother hailed from England, so this poem is partly autobiographical: it sees Williams reflecting in a matter-of-fact and unsentimental manner on the last moments he spent with his grandmother, first as she lies dying at home, and then as he rides in the ambulance with her to hospital.
Many poems are too sentimental to move us; the power of Williams’s tribute to his dying grandmother is in his refusal to give in to this poetic urge, instead relying on the situation and the details to provide the emotional power.
Katherine Mansfield, ‘Butterfly Laughter’.
Although best-known for her short stories, the New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was also a poet, and ‘Butterfly Laughter’ is a delightfully whimsical poem about a childhood recollection of eating porridge at breakfast with grandmother present. This is a lighter poem about a grandmother than the others on this list, but we all need a bit of variety.
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Sestina’.
A poem about the relationship between a grandmother and a young child one rainy September evening. The grandmother is laughing and reading to the child to hide her tears.
Bishop (1911-79), a technically brilliant poet, uses the challenging form of the sestina – in which each stanza uses the same words at the ends of the lines, but arranged into a different order each time – to hint at the sadness behind the grandmother’s life, appearing to suggest that ‘tears’ are an eternal feature of the human condition, passed from one generation to the next.
A beautiful, challenging, inscrutable, and moving poem, and a fine note on which to conclude this pick of the best grandmother poems.
Judith Wright, ‘Request to a Year’.
Judith Wright (1915-2000) often wrote about female intergenerational relationships – witness her brilliant dramatic monologue, ‘Eve to Her Daughters’ – and here, in this poem, Wright considers not her grandmother but her great-great-grandmother, whose steely stoicism and artistic gifts were such that she could sit by and observe her children in potentially mortal danger while in the Alps.
Wright longs to have the artistic detachment and ability to cope in a crisis that her great-great-grandmother – a woman who was of not just a different generation, but several generations removed – clearly possessed.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘My Grandmother’.
Regret is a powerful emotion, and one that Jennings (1926-2001) uses to great effect in this poem, about her grandmother who kept an antique shop. Why, the poet wonders, did she refuse to go out with her grandmother one day when she was a young girl?
When her grandmother died, Jennings tells us sincerely, she felt no grief, only guilt for that time she refused to be with her grandmother. A moving and heartfelt poem that avoids being sentimental, as so often with Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry – and a fine place to conclude this pick of great grandmother poems.
For more classic poetry, 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.