Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously we’ve offered ten poems about beauty – but, as John Keats pointed out, beauty is truth, and truth, beauty. So now it’s truth’s turn: what are some of the best poems about truth? Here are our ten suggestions.
Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘Truth’. We begin this pick of truth poems with a poem that’s over 600 years old:
Fle fro the pres, and dwelle with sothefastnesse,
Suffise thin owen thing, thei it be smal;
For hord hath hate, and clymbyng tykelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal …
It’s shorter than Chaucer’s best-known works, The Canterbury Tales and Troylus and Criseyde, but demonstrates the range of meanings that ‘truth’ held for Chaucer and his society in the late fourteenth century.
Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Loving in Truth’.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe …
In this Elizabethan sonnet, Sidney (1554-86) acknowledges that he truly loves the woman he is to write about, and wants to convey that true love through the poetry he writes. But writing the truth isn’t always easy. Suffering the pangs or ‘throes’ of childbirth, he bites his pen and beats himself for not being able to write, and then his Muse speaks, chiding him for a fool, and commanding him to look in his heart and start writing. Forget books, forget study: just be true to yourself. Look inside and write what you find there.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 138. In poems about truth, we’ll often find the subject of fidelity – or, more often, infidelity – not far behind, leading to much wordplay on the word ‘lie’. In this sonnet by the most famous sonnet-writer in English literature, we get a delicious example of this, as Shakespeare laments the lack of trust he has towards his mistress, the Dark Lady:
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties …
John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Inspired by the scenes depicted on an ancient Greek urn, this is one of Keats’s best odes. However, original readers didn’t think so: in 1820 it was met with a lukewarm reception. Since then, though, its reputation as one of Keats’s most polished poems has become established – including the famous final two lines, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ It is these famous concluding lines which earn this poem its place on this list.
Walt Whitman, ‘All is Truth’. Truth grows, and is an organic thing rather than a solid object which remains the same. This is the message of this poem about the nature of faith and truth, written by one of American poetry’s most innovative poets:
O me, man of slack faith so long!
Standing aloof – denying portions so long;
Only aware to-day of compact, all-diffused truth;
Discovering to-day there is no lie, or form of lie, and can be none, but grows as inevitably upon itself as the truth does upon itself,
Or as any law of the earth, or any natural production of the earth does …
Emily Dickinson, ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind …
In this poem, Dickinson says that we should tell the truth – the whole truth – but tell it indirectly, in a circuitous and round-the-houses fashion. The truth, she says, is too bright and dazzling for us to be able to cope with it in one go. We can be overwhelmed by it. Dickinson is writing before the phrase ‘being economical with the truth’ was coined, but her poem raises a similar question. Is this the same as flat-out lying? It would seem not, though the word ‘lies’, couched as so often in its potential double meaning (be supine/tell falsehoods), is there in the poem’s second line.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Truth—is as old as God—’. The second of two poems by Emily Dickinson to feature on this list. Dickinson makes a repeat appearance because she is one of the finest poets on truth, and wrote about it in a number of her poems. Here, Dickinson pairs Truth, not with Beauty, but with God:
Truth—is as old as God—
His Twin identity
And will endure as long as He
A Co-Eternity …
A. E. Housman, ‘If Truth in Hearts That Perish’.
If truth in hearts that perish
Could move the powers on high,
I think the love I bear you
Should make you not to die.
Sure, sure, if stedfast meaning,
If single thought could save,
The world might end to-morrow,
You should not see the grave …
Few poets wrote more powerfully about true love than Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), who himself harboured a long unrequited affection for someone who did not return his love. This poem takes the truth of a heartfelt passion as its starting-point for a meditation upon the helplessness of the lover.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘A Legend of Truth’.
Once on a time, the ancient legends tell,
Truth, rising from the bottom of her well,
Looked on the world, but, hearing how it lied,
Returned to her seclusion horrified…
In this narrative poem, Kipling (1865-1936) tells us about how Truth shrank from the world, letting her sister, Fiction, go out into the world instead. This plan works well – until war breaks out… A good poem to read in the era of fake news and ‘post-truth’.
Stephen Crane, ‘Truth’.
‘Truth,’ said a traveller,
‘Is a rock, a mighty fortress;
Often have I been to it,
Even to its highest tower,
From whence the world looks black …’
Best-known for his novel The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was also a poet. For the first traveller in this poem, truth is a rock and a mighty fortress; then, according to another traveller, it’s a phantom, a shadow, as insubstantial as the wind. The speaker sides with the second traveller, concluding that truth is a difficult thing to get hold of…
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. 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).
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.