Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In a previous post, we offered five poems about writing poetry; now, it’s the turn of reading and books. Poets have often written about the act of reading books, so here are ten of the very best poems about books and reading.
1. Anne Bradstreet, ‘The Author to Her Book’.
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view …
This poem was directly inspired by the news that Bradstreet’s poems had been published, as The Tenth Muse, by her brother-in-law … without her consent. Bradstreet laments the fact that her ‘ill-formed’ verses have seen the light of day and blushes and cringes at them, but this may partly be female modesty. Bradstreet also claims the volume as her ‘child’, casting herself as the mother – if not the midwife – to the book.
2. John Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’.
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold …
Composed when Keats was just 20 years of age, this is one of his most widely anthologised sonnets and one of the most famous poems about reading poetry. The poem focuses on Keats’s initial encounter with an English translation of Homer’s poetry by George Chapman (c. 1559-1634), likening the experience to that of an astronomer discovering a new planet or an explorer sighting an unknown land: ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken; / Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific …’
3. Emily Dickinson, ‘There Is No Frigate Like a Book’.
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry …
In this short poem, Dickinson sings the praises of poetry as an art form which can allow us to travel anywhere at any time.
4. Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Land of Story-Books’.
These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.
I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.
So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books …
A fine example of Stevenson’s verse for children, this poem is a nice companion to Dickinson’s, with its depiction of reading as a way of experiencing adventure and escape.
5. W. B. Yeats, ‘When You Are Old’.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face …
Based on a poem by the sixteenth-century poet Ronsard, this poem was written to Yeats’s long-term muse, Maud Gonne, and sees Yeats making the ultimate declaration of love: his poetry is written for Gonne, inspired by her, and will be there when she is old and her looks have faded, to remind her of how one man ‘loved the pilgrim soul in you’.
6. Edgar Albert Guest, ‘Good Books’.
A good book is a good friend: a solid and reliable companion, waiting there on the shelf to provide intellectual company at any time, just when it’s needed. For Guest, the ‘fellowship of books is real.’ Can’t argue with that!
7. Dorothy Parker, ‘Lines on Reading Too Many Poets’.
A witty poem about overdosing on poetry, from one of the twentieth century’s greatest wits. The final line, ‘Quae cum ita sint’, means ‘since these things are so’ in Latin.
8. Dylan Thomas, ‘Notes on the Art of Poetry’.
This is a poem about discovering just how much is ‘going on’ between the covers of a book, particularly a poetry book, with its ‘sandstorms and ice blasts of words’. Dylan Thomas captures the sheer physical delight of being arrested and thrilled by a book of poetry, doing so in a poem that itself arrests and thrills.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘A Study of Reading Habits’.
Famous for its concluding line that ‘Books are a load of crap’, this poem may make Larkin sound like a philistine. It’s true that he downplayed the breadth of his reading (particularly in foreign poetry), and his first-class degree in English Literature from Oxford, but in this poem Larkin is taking aim specifically at a certain kind of novel which fulfilled adolescent male fantasies when the poet was a teenager, but now strikes him as unsatisfying in light of his own life.
10. Denise Levertov, ‘The Secret’.
This beautiful poem is about literary interpretation and the ‘meaning’ of poetry itself. Who creates the meaning? Levertov describes how readers of her poetry come to her to announce they have discovered the ‘secret’ of one of her poems – a secret Levertov didn’t even realise she’d been keeping. The joy of reading, Levertov’s poem suggests, is that we are always discovering new meanings in the things we read – even meanings that remained a secret to the writer …
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.