By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The plight of refugees is likely to evoke sympathy in all but the hardest of hearts, so it’s no surprise that some of the finest poets writing in English – including, naturally, some of the most politically aware – have written poems about refugees of different nationalities and the often harsh welcomes they’ve received when seeking a new home in a foreign country.
Below, we’ve picked six of the best poems about refugees, spanning over 400 years of literature in English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on this list we will find several English poets whose parents were of a different nationality.
William Shakespeare, from Sir Thomas More.
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers …
This is an excerpt from a longer speech from a play, but as it’s in iambic pentameter, we’d say it qualifies as a ‘poem about refugees’. The only manuscript thought to be in Shakespeare’s hand – the only manuscript of anything we can call ‘literature’, any way (signatures aside) – is a page from this play, whose authorship is uncertain (although it has been edited and published as part of the terrific Arden Shakespeare series: Sir Thomas More (Arden Shakespeare) (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series)).
It’s thought that Shakespeare perhaps contributed a scene or two, possibly rewriting an existing play-text. And, fittingly for our purposes here, the page (possibly) in Shakespeare’s handwriting is about the plight of refugees in Tudor London during the reign of King Henry VIII: ‘Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, / Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, / Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation …’
Ford Madox Ford, ‘Antwerp’.
This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman—a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd …
This is one of the first longer poems to respond to the First World War in a style or mode that can be described as ‘modernist’, written by the German-born Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford). It focuses on the Belgians’ resistance to German invasion in August 1914, when Germany demanded that Belgium allow the German army safe passage through the country. The Belgian government refused.
The Germans invaded and the armies clashed, famously, at Mons later that month. In Antwerp, German troops besieged a garrison of Belgian forces as well as the Belgian field army and the British Royal Naval Division. Ford’s ‘Antwerp’ praises the heroism of the Belgians in refusing to capitulate to the Germans’ demands. T. S. Eliot called it ‘the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war’.
Section VI of ‘Antwerp’ depicts Belgian refugees in London, and serves to remind us that some 250,000 refugees fled the country and came to the capital in the wake of the invasion, the biggest number of refugees Britain has ever handled in one go.
Herbert Read, ‘The Refugees’.
Read (1893-1968) was an important proponent of anarchism, one of the first writers to introduce existentialism to a British readership, and the author of a fine fantasy novel, The Green Child. But he was also a poet, whose poetry has unfortunately been neglected since his death.
In ‘The Refugees’, one of a number of poems Read wrote about his experience fighting in the First World War, Read considers the mute ‘figures with bowed heads’ whose eyes are ‘too raw for tears’.
W. H. Auden, ‘Refugee Blues’.
‘Refugee Blues’ is the title commonly given to the first song in W. H. Auden’s ‘Ten Songs’. The poem was completed in March 1939, while Auden (pictured right) was living in New York, having only arrived in the city from England a few months earlier.
The fact that ‘Refugee Blues’ was part of a cycle titled ‘Ten Songs’ prepares us for the rhythm of the stanzas, each ending with a refrain-like line featuring the expression ‘my dear’. The poem is spoken by a Jewish refugee living in New York, who is addressing his lover and reflecting on the fact that he – and many other refugees in a similar position – are not made welcome in the city.
Alun Lewis, ‘All Day It Has Rained’.
And we talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome,
And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees …
Like Edward Thomas’s ‘Rain’, this rain poem is also a war poem – though Lewis was a poet of the Second, rather than the First World War. Indeed, Lewis was an admirer of Thomas’s poetry and ‘All Day It Has Rained’ might be considered his tribute to Thomas’s rainy war poem.
The mention of ‘celebrities’ and ‘refugees’ (uneasily rhymed on purpose here) makes this a curiously modern poem – a poem for our times as well as of its time, the 1940s.
Warsan Shire, ‘Home’.
We bring this pick of the best poems about refugees up to date with this poem from the contemporary British poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Kenya, to Somali parents, in 1988.
Here, Shire writes an impassioned poem about the reasons why refugees are forced to leave their homes in search of new ones: as the opening lines have it, nobody leaves home unless ‘home’ is the mouth of a shark. A powerful note on which to end this selection of great poems about the plight of refugees – and alas, all too relevant in our own times.