Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In a previous post, we’ve gathered together ten of the very best poems about old age, but what about youth and youthfulness? Here’s our pick of ten of the greatest poems in the English language that celebrate or reflect upon youth and being young.
1. John Milton, ‘How Soon Hath Time’.
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!
My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th …
Milton (1608-74) was, by all accounts, a beautiful young man; and although at age 23 he felt his first flush of youth was already in the past, he continued to look angelically youthful. The fact that he wrote this sonnet at such a young age is a testament to his precocity as a poet.
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Youth and Age’.
Verse, a breeze mid blossoms straying,
Where Hope clung feeding, like a bee—
Both were mine! Life went a-maying
With Nature, Hope, and Poesy,
When I was young!
‘You’re only as old as you feel’ might be a rough paraphrase of the main sentiment driving this poem, by one of English literature’s leading Romantic poets.
Because of this, it’s an upbeat poem about growing old but also a great celebration of enduring and long-lasting youth. If we can but remain young in mind, then we are young, no matter that our bodies may be growing older. No: as Coleridge asserts, ‘Youth and I are house-mates still.’
3. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘My Lost Youth’.
Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.
And a verse of a Lapland song
Is haunting my memory still:
‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’
The title of this poem by the author of the Song of Hiawatha says it all: the poet reflects nostalgically on his lost youth in America: ‘Often I think of the beautiful town / That is seated by the sea; / Often in thought go up and down / The pleasant streets of that dear old town, / And my youth comes back to me.’
4. Matthew Arnold, ‘Youth and Calm’.
’Tis death! and peace, indeed, is here,
And ease from shame, and rest from fear.
There’s nothing can dismarble now
The smoothness of that limpid brow.
But is a calm like this, in truth,
The crowning end of life and youth,
And when this boon rewards the dead,
Are all debts paid, has all been said?
Here we find the Victorian poet reflecting on death, but in doing so, his thoughts take him back to his youth. Why do young people find themselves longing for the grave?
5. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘The Lost Garden’.
Can we ever reclaim our lost youth? That is a perennial theme among poets in particular. Here, Wilcox (1850-1919) uses the image of the garden to ruminate upon this question:
I would go back, but the ways are winding,
If ways there are to that land, in sooth;
For what man succeeds in ever finding
A path to the garden of his lost youth?
6. A. E. Housman, ‘Delight It Is in Youth and May’.
Delight it is in youth and May
To see the morn arise,
And more delight to look all day
A lover in the eyes.
Oh maiden, let your distaff be,
And pace the flowery meads with me,
And I will tell you lies …
Unusually for a poem by A. E. Housman (1859-1936), the Laureate of unrequited love, this poem begins with hope: morning, springtime, and youth. But as the short poem develops, we realise that all is not well in this Edenic world of youth the poet is painting…
7. W. B. Yeats, ‘Youth and Age’.
This poem is a single quatrain, and so can be reproduced here in full:
Much did I rage when young,
Being by the world oppressed,
But now with flattering tongue
It speeds the parting guest.
The young poet was angry and possessed by a desire to tackle the injustices of the world. But world-weariness about being unable to change the world sets in once the poet’s youth has passed…
8. William Carlos Williams, ‘Youth and Beauty’.
A domestic poem, this, brought to us by the American modernist poet who left his wife a note about having eaten all the plums in the icebox and who extolled the importance of a red wheelbarrow. Here, youth and beauty are examined through the image of a dishmop…
9. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Virgin Youth’.
Now and again
All my body springs alive,
And the life that is polarised in my eyes,
That quivers between my eyes and mouth,
Flies like a wild thing across my body,
Leaving my eyes half-empty, and clamorous …
Lawrence (1885-1930) liked to confront taboos in his writing, particularly sexual taboos. In this early poem, he touches upon the topic of … self-pleasure, using suggestive language (the phrase ‘willy nilly’ is a loaded one here) to conjure up the experience of what the Victorians called ‘self-pollution’. A somewhat different poetic take on youth from the others on this list!
10. Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds …
Of course, in the early twentieth century a whole generation of young men found their lives either altered forever, or, in many cases, tragically cut short, because of the First World War (1914-18). This sonnet by the finest war poet England has ever produced is full of concentrated anger and, true to Owen’s intentions, the pity of war.
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.