What are some classic poems suitable to be shared or read aloud at christenings? Poets haven’t often written about christenings as such, but many poets have written touchingly, humorously, or powerfully about the arrival of a new life into this world. Here’s our pick of ten of the best poems for reading at christenings.
1. William Blake, ‘Infant Joy’.
A baby is born, a little miracle with the gift of life. But what should the infant be called? ‘Joy’, of course, in honour of the joy of new life a baby represents! ‘Infant Joy’ was published in Blake’s 1789 collection Songs of Innocence. It’s noteworthy for being spoken by both the new-born baby and its mother: ‘I am but two days old’, speaks the joyous infant, while another voice – the infant’s mother – responds with the question, ‘What shall I call thee?’
As with so many of his poems, in ‘Infant Joy’ Blake is giving a voice to the (literally) voiceless. Given the question ‘What shall I call thee?’ and the joyousness accompanying the new baby’s birth, ‘Infant Joy’ isn’t a bad place to begin our pick of poems for christenings.
2. Christina Rossetti, ‘I Know a Baby’.
This is one of the best lullabies in the English language, if we grant that by ‘best’ we mean ‘written by one of the best poets’. If you favour something a little more sentimental, look no further than this charming piece of poetry by one of the Victorian era’s foremost poets: ‘I know a baby, such a baby, / Round blue eyes and cheeks of pink, / Such an elbow furrowed with dimples, / Such a wrist where creases sink…’
3. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’.
This 1919 poem was written for Anne, Yeats’s daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. In the poem, Yeats watches his sleeping daughter and thinks of all the things he wishes for her: beauty (but not too much beauty), and a personality that is free from hatred.
4. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Son’.
Yeats earns the right to another appearance on this list, thanks to a poem he wrote for his son Michael: ‘Bid a strong ghost stand at the head / That my Michael may sleep sound, / Nor cry, nor turn in the bed / Till his morning meal come round…’
At the time, Michael was still an infant (‘You have lacked articulate speech / To tell Your simplest want’), so this is the perfect poem for sharing at a christening.
5. James Weldon Johnson, ‘A Poet to His Baby Son’.
The US poet and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) penned this poem to his own ‘tiny bit of humanity’, his new-born son, ‘Blessed with your mother’s face, / And cursed with your father’s mind.’
Witty, gently ironic, and touching, ‘A Poet to His Baby Son’ sees Johnson hoping his baby son won’t follow in his father’s footsteps: ‘Take the advice of a father who knows: / You cannot begin too young / Not to be a poet.’
6. Louis MacNeice, ‘Prayer Before Birth’.
The reputations of the Thirties Poets, and how individual reputations have changed over time, are curious: Auden has remained popular and (thanks partly to Four Weddings and a Funeral) continues to enjoy a very healthy readership; Stephen Spender is now little-read except for a few anthology favourites; and Louis MacNeice, in many ways a more Romantic poet than either of his fellow Thirties Poets, has become more and more acclaimed as time has gone on.
Although, like Auden, he wrote long poems as well as short, and his Autumn Journal is a masterpiece, MacNeice is generally at his best in his short lyric poems.
Another poem written during the Second World War, ‘Prayer Before Birth’ muses about the kind of world that an as-yet-unborn child will be brought into. And what will that child grow up to be, given the horrors and atrocities being witnessed every day? One of MacNeice’s most frequently anthologised poems.
7. Philip Larkin, ‘Born Yesterday’.
What, Philip Larkin in a list of the best poems for christenings? But this poem was written for a new-born child: Sally Amis (‘Tightly-folded bud’), the daughter of Larkin’s friends Kingsley and Hilly Amis, who was indeed ‘born yesterday’ when he wrote this poem. It’s a refreshingly frank expression of the wishes we have for the life of a new-born child and our hopes for the sort of person they might grow up to be.
Instead of expressing his hopes that Amis’s baby will grow up to be beautiful and remarkable, he wishes for normality and ordinariness for the new-born daughter – if that is the best way of catching happiness in this uncertain world. So, in an odd way, this is an ideal poem for reading at a christening.
8. W. D. Snodgrass, ‘Heart’s Needle’.
A longer poem addressed to the poet’s daughter by the American poet W. D. Snodgrass (1926-2009), and one born of unhappiness rather then celebration. Snodgrass became separated from his daughter Cynthia in the 1950s, when Cynthia was still young, after the breakdown of Snodgrass’s marriage to Cynthia’s mother.
‘Heart’s Needle’ explores the need of a father to be near his daughter, but also the need to acknowledge that he and his daughter will sometimes have to go different ways. As he ends the poem defiantly, ‘you are still my daughter’.
9. Anne Sexton, ‘Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward’.
Written to the poet’s own six-day-old new-born baby, her ‘inheritor’, this poem is not an out-and-out celebration of new life – it’s as much about the mother’s misgivings and fears as it is about the new-born baby – but it’s a more down-to-earth and, in its own way, beautiful poem about a mother giving birth to a new child.
10. Don Paterson, ‘Waking with Russell’.
Written by one of the greatest contemporary poets, ‘Waking with Russell’ (2003) is about waking next to his four-day-old son and the joy it brings to the poet. Tender, without being mawkish, with its use of the same rhymes acting almost like a gently rocking cradle.