Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we offered a selection of the best green poems. Green is the colour of spring, of new shoots and lush leaves: the colour of nature. But there’s another side to nature – nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson memorably put it – so it comes as little surprise to find that there are many fine poems about the colour red, that colour of passion, violence, lust, love, and much else. Here are ten of the very best red poems.
William Blake, ‘The Sick Rose’. All is not well in paradise: addressing the red rose, Blake (1757-1827) tells the flower that the ‘invisible worm’ has ‘found out thy bed / Of crimson joy: / And his dark secret love /Does thy life destroy.’ What the ‘dark secret love’ of this worm is precisely, Blake doesn’t say, leaving us with a richly symbolic poem where ‘crimson joy’ has a range of connotations.
Robert Burns, ‘A Red, Red Rose’.
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune …
Possibly based on a traditional lyric, this poem – also sometimes called ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ – is one of the most widely anthologised love poems in English. Bob Dylan called it his single biggest inspiration. And did the final two lines inspire The Proclaimers to write ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’? One cannot choose but wonder. Unlike the Blake poem above, it’s not about an actual red rose, but instead compares the poet’s sweetheart to the beautiful red flower.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’.
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me …
This short fourteen-line song from Tennyson’s long narrative poem or ‘medley’, The Princess, is a (loose) version of the Persial ghazal form, and earns its place on this list not least thanks to its images of passion and lust, beginning with that summoning of the ‘crimson petal’. Here, Tennyson offers a sensual, even erotic love poem whose ‘fire-fly’ evokes the burning passion of the speaker, while the reference to Danaë suggests sexual union through its reference to Zeus’s coupling with Danaë, with the Greek god disguised as a shower of gold.
Emily Dickinson, ‘A Lady red – amid the Hill’.
A Lady red – amid the Hill
Her annual secret keeps!
A Lady white, within the Field
In placid Lily sleeps!
The tidy Breezes, with their Brooms—
Sweep vale—and hill—and tree!
Prithee, My pretty Housewives!
Who may expected be …
Did Emily Dickinson anticipate Chris de Burgh? Here we have not a lady in red but a red lady – but what does the red and white symbolism mean in this cryptic poem? That ‘Lily’ provides a clue: the ‘Lady red’ is the tulip, while the ‘Lady white’ is the lily. This is a poem about the coming of spring, using these two flowers as a focal point.
Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Child in Red’. The Bohemian-Austrian writer Rilke was much possessed by childhood. ‘Child in Red’ is about a girl in a red dress whose movements as she walks and runs through the town attract the delight of everyone who sees her. No matter what happens in her future life, Rilke tenderly reflects, she will remember this happiness and this moment in her red dress.
William Carlos Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. It may be just sixteen words long, and consist of eight short lines, but ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams has generated more commentary than many longer twentieth-century poems. Quite what Williams meant the poem to ‘mean’ – is this even the right way of framing it? – has eluded critics for nearly a century, but it can be read as a poem about redness: the redness of the wheelbarrow, the way the light glints on it at a particular moment, being filled with significance which only the poet notices.
Robert Graves, ‘Double Red Daisies’. In the First World War, during the Battle of the Somme, Robert Graves was declared dead. He was, thankfully, still alive, and went on to live until 1985. After the end of the war, Graves published Fairies and Fusiliers, a collection of poems written during the war. This light poem about red daisies is songlike, childlike, and a world away from the grim and tragic horrors symbolised by the red poppies of No Man’s Land.
Claude McKay, ‘A Red Flower’.
Your lips are like a southern lily red,
Wet with the soft rain-kisses of the night,
In which the brown bee buries deep its head,
When still the dawn’s a silver sea of light.
Your lips betray the secret of your soul,
The dark delicious essence that is you,
A mystery of life, the flaming goal
I seek through mazy pathways strange and new …
McKay (1889-1948) was a Jamaican poet who was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. In this poem, McKay offers an altogether more sensuous take on a woman’s red lips than Burns’s more innocent song from over a century before: ‘Your lips are like a southern lily red, / Wet with the soft rain-kisses of the night, / In which the brown bee buries deep its head, / When still the dawn’s a silver sea of light …’
Wilfred Owen, ‘Greater Love’.
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure …
This classic war poem earns its place on this list for two reasons: one, for the redness of its unsettling opening lines (‘Red lips are not so red / As the stained stones kissed by the English dead’), and two, for being a moving poem about the sacrifice so many men made in the First World War, and a brilliant technical accomplishment. Unlike Graves’ poem above, this is a war poem, red in tooth and claw (and lips). Filled with, in Owen’s words, ‘the Pity of war’.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Tulips’. Written in March 1961, apparently after Plath was admitted to hospital for an appendectomy. The view of the world Plath describes in ‘Tulips’ is based around ideas of blankness and emptiness: Plath has, she tells us, given up her clothes to the nurses, her history to the anaesthetist, and her body to the surgeons. Running through the poem is the image of the tulips, which are ‘too red’.
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.