Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The weekends are often the time when we can pursue our passions and interests, or dreams and hobbies. If poetry is one of your interests, this selection of some of the best weekend poems is worth a read: we choose ten classic poems about Saturday morning, Saturday evening, Saturday night, and Sunday morning, right through to the end of the weekend.
1. Hugo Williams, ‘Saturday Morning’.
A short poem from the wry and witty contemporary poet, ‘Saturday Morning’ kicks off our list of the best weekend poems appropriately enough by focusing on Saturday morning – the ‘morning after’ the night before, Friday night, when many people the speaker sees as he walks around appear to bear the bright red glow that reveals they made love the night before…
2. John Gay, ‘The Shepherd’s Week : Saturday; Or, The Flights’.
Sublimer Strains, O rustick Muse, prepare;
Forget a-while the Barn and Dairy’s Care;
Thy homely Voice to loftier Numbers raise,
The Drunkard’s Flights require sonorous Lays,
With Bowzybeus’ Songs exalt thy Verse,
While Rocks and Woods the various Notes rehearse.
The poet John Gay, best-known for The Beggar’s Opera, wrote a series of eclogues or pastoral verses about a week in the life of a shepherd – only Gay, unlike Virgil or Spenser before him, has his tongue firmly in his cheek and offers is burlesque rather than serious pastoral verse. Here, he focuses on Saturday, which sees Gay’s shepherd getting drunk and singing in a rowdy fashion – a tradition upheld by many people in Britain of a Saturday night.
3. E. Nesbit, ‘Saturday Song’.
They talk about gardens of roses,
And moonlight over the sea,
And mountains and snow
And sunsetty glow,
But I know what is best for me.
The prettiest sight I know,
Worth all your roses and snow,
Is the blaze of light on a Saturday night,
When the barrows are set in a row.
Nesbit, best-known for her children’s novels such as Five Children and It and The Railway Children, was also a writer of supernatural fiction for adults (see her ‘Man-Size in Marble’), as well as a poet. In ‘Saturday Song’, Nesbit sings the praises of the market barrows displaying their vast range of inviting wares on a Saturday.
4. John Newton, ‘Saturday Evening’.
Safely through another week,
God has brought us on our way;
Let us now a blessing seek,
On th’ approaching Sabbath-day:
Day of all the week the best,
Emblem of eternal rest.
For God-fearing Christians, Saturday evening means the eve of Sunday, the day of religious worship and contemplation, as well as the day that represents rest. In this poem, from the famous hymn-writer John Newton (best-known for ‘Amazing Grace’), we see the poet looking forward to Sunday and all it will bring.
5. Robert Burns, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’.
My lov’d, much honour’d, much respected friend!
No mercenary bard his homage pays;
With honest pride, I scorn each selfish end,
My dearest meed, a friend’s esteem and praise:
To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays,
The lowly train in life’s sequester’d scene;
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways;
What Aiken in a cottage would have been;
Ah! tho’ his worth unknown, far happier there I ween!
First, what is a ‘cotter’? In eighteenth-century Scotland, it was a peasant who was allowed to use a cottage or ‘cot’ (hence ‘cotter’) and who worked on the land in lieu of rent. As in Newton’s poem, we see Burns’s cotter looking ahead to Sunday, a day of rest and the one day off from the back-breaking labour he performs the rest of the week.
6. Maya Angelou, ‘Weekend Glory’.
As many of the previous poems in this selection of great weekend poems indicate, many people who don’t have much in life – they aren’t rich, and they have to work hard for a living all week – may well see the weekend, and especially Saturday night, as the highlight of their week, a respite from work and the troubles of their daily life.
Angelou’s poem offers a contemporary version of this, with Angelou advising those who buy big condos and massive cars to observe her on a Saturday night if they want to learn how to be happy with a little rather than a lot.
7. Emily Dickinson, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church’.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
And so we come to Sunday morning. This poem turns the idea of ‘going to church’ on a Sunday right on its head: Dickinson recreates the ‘church’ within her own home, with a ‘Bobolink’ (a bird) as the chorister, and God as the ultimate ‘Clergyman’ leading the service. Truly Emily Dickinson – who lived as a hermit at her father’s home throughout her life – knew what it was to have a personal Jesus…
8. Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’.
This longer poem first appeared in 1915 in the magazine Poetry, although the fuller version was only published in Harmonium in 1923. Yvor Winters, an influential critic of modernist poetry and a minor modernist in his own right, pronounced ‘Sunday Morning’ to be ‘the greatest American poem of the twentieth century’.
The poem, which is a meditation on not being a Christian, offers a different view of Sunday from George Herbert’s famous Sunday poem, and is more in keeping with Dickinson’s poem. ‘Sunday Morning’ centres on a woman who stays at home, lounging around, on a Sunday morning, when virtually everyone else is at church. The poem includes the statement that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’.
9. Louis MacNeice, ‘Sunday Morning’.
The reputations of the Thirties Poets, and how individual reputations have changed over time, are curious: Auden has remained popular and (thanks partly to Four Weddings and a Funeral) continues to enjoy a very healthy readership; Stephen Spender is now little-read except for a few anthology favourites; and Louis MacNeice, in many ways a more Romantic poet than either of his fellow Thirties Poets, has become more and more acclaimed as time has gone on.
Although, like Auden, he wrote long poems as well as short, and his Autumn Journal is a masterpiece, MacNeice is generally at his best in his short lyric poems.
The form of this poem, describing a Sunday morning with its church bells, a man tinkering with his car, and someone practising scales on a piano, is curious: it’s written in rhyming couplets but has fourteen lines, suggesting the sonnet form – and, indeed, MacNeice even describes Sunday morning as being ‘a sonnet self-encased in rhyme’. This is another poem focusing on a moment, described as ‘this Now’.
10. Anthony Hecht, ‘The End of the Weekend’.
And so we arrive at the end of the weekend with a fine, if enigmatic, poem from Anthony Hecht, an underrated twentieth-century American poet whose work owes much to American modernism.
The symbols range from the erotic to the religious (aptly, for a Sunday evening) to the menacing or predatory, capturing the fear and apprehension many feel as the ‘back to school’ or ‘back to work’ sensation takes hold after a romantic fling…
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.