By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve offered our pick of the best poems for brothers, the best poems for mothers, and the best father poems. But the missing relative here is the sister: so, below, we offer five of the very best poems about sisters and sisterhood.
Katherine Philips, ‘To My Dear Sister, Mrs. C. P. On Her Nuptial’.
Katherine Philips (1632-64), also known as ‘the Matchless Orinda’, was an Anglo-Welsh poet and translator in an age where few women had the chance to succeed at either. As well as being a fine poem written by a woman to her sister, ‘To My Dear Sister’ is also an epithalamium – a poem written in celebration of a wedding:
We will not like those men our offerings pay
Who crown the cup, then think they crown the day.
We make no garlands, nor an altar build,
Which help not Joy, but Ostentation yield.
Where mirth is justly grounded these wild toyes
Are but a troublesome, and empty noise …
William Wordsworth, ‘To My Sister’.
William Wordsworth’s debt to his sister Dorothy in inspiring arguably his most famous poem immediately suggests that Dorothy Wordsworth was worthy of a poem herself, and sure enough, William penned this touching poem to his sister about spending the day together and having some leisure time outdoors:
Some silent laws our hearts will make,
Which they shall long obey:
We for the year to come may take
Our temper from to-day.
And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
We’ll frame the measure of our souls:
They shall be tuned to love.
Then come, my Sister! come I pray,
With speed put on your woodland dress;
—And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness …
Emily Dickinson, ‘One Sister have I in our house’.
The prolific American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) included this poem in a letter to her sister-in-law and friend, Sue, on her 28th birthday:
One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There’s only one recorded,
But both belong to me …
Although Sue and Emily are related by law rather than by blood, in this wonderful poem of sisterhood, Emily claims Sue as her other ‘true’ sister. As Dickinson concludes, rousingly: ‘Sue – forevermore!’
Lewis Carroll, ‘Brother and Sister’.
‘Sister, sister, go to bed!
Go and rest your weary head.’
Thus the prudent brother said.
‘Do you want a battered hide,
Or scratches to your face applied?’
Thus his sister calm replied.
‘Sister, do not raise my wrath.
I’d make you into mutton broth
As easily as kill a moth …’
This comic poem by the master of nonsense verse for children sees a brother advising – nay, threatening – his sister to go to bed, otherwise he’ll turn her into mutton stew. The moral of this frivolous little poem? Well, all is revealed in the wise last line.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Night Is My Sister’.
We conclude this pick of the best poems about sisters with a metaphorical take on sisterhood: in this short poem, Millay views the night-time as her kindred spirit, female like her – her sister: ‘Night is my sister, and how deep in love, / How drowned in love and weedily washed ashore …’
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.