Thanksgiving, like Christmas and Easter, is an important holiday and a time when families, friends, and communities can come together to celebrate. For the United States, ‘Thanksgiving’ has a particular significance, so in the selection of classic poems below, we’ve included some of the very best poems specifically about the American festival of Thanksgiving. So, if you’re ready, get that turkey in the oven and relax with these poems – and Happy Thanksgiving!
Felicia Dorothea Hemans, ‘The Landing of the Pilgrims’.
The breaking waves dashed high,
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods against a stormy sky
Their giant branches tossed;
And the heavy night hung dark
The hills and waters o’er,
When a band of exiles moored their bark
On the wild New England shore.
Not as the conqueror comes,
They, the true-hearted came;
Not with the roll of the stirring drums,
And the trumpet that sings of fame;
Not as the flying come,
In silence and in fear; –
They shook the depths of the desert gloom
With their hymns of lofty cheer…
The English poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835) heads this list of great Thanksgiving poems because she was born the earliest; but her poem about the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers on the shores of Massachusetts in 1620 seems like a fitting place to begin this pick of poems about the Thanksgiving holiday. Best-known for her poem about the stately homes of England (memorably parodied by Noel Coward) and for ‘Casabianca’ with its memorable opening line (‘The boy stood on the burning deck’), Hemans here pays tribute to the arrival of European settlers on the east coast of the New World.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Thanksgiving’.
When first in ancient time, from Jubal’s tongue
The tuneful anthem filled the morning air,
To sacred hymnings and elysian song
His music-breathing shell the minstrel woke…
Best-known for poems such as ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, Longfellow did his bit to immortalise Thanksgiving in this early poem. Although it may not be classic Longfellow, it gives us an insight into what one of America’s most celebrated poets thought of Thanksgiving.
James Whitcomb Riley, ‘Thanksgiving’.
Let us be thankful – not only because
Since last our universal thanks were told
We have grown greater in the world’s applause,
And fortune’s newer smiles surpass the old –
But thankful for all things that come as alms
From out the open hand of Providence: –
The winter clouds and storms – the summer calms –
The sleepless dread – the drowse of indolence…
This Thanksgiving poem sees Riley encouraging his fellow Americans to give thanks, not just because it’s that time of year, but because America is growing in the world and becoming a more important nation.
George Parsons Lathrop, ‘Thanksgiving Turkey’.
Valleys lay in sunny vapor,
And a radiance mild was shed
From each tree that like a taper
At a feast stood. Then we said,
‘Our feast, too, shall soon be spread,
Of good Thanksgiving turkey.’
And already still November
Drapes her snowy table here.
Fetch a log, then; coax the ember;
Fill your hearts with old-time cheer…
One of the central ingredients of a good Thanksgiving is, of course, the Thanksgiving turkey. This poem urges us to fill our hearts ‘with old-time cheer’ – and what better way to do that than with the signature dish of the season?
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Thanksgiving’.
We ought to make the moments notes
Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
A grand Thanksgiving chorus.
Wilcox’s poetic reputation is somewhat contentious: she’s been included in a number of lists of ‘bad’ poets. But she could write a good occasional poem, and here she salutes the occasion of Thanksgiving with skill and enthusiasm, contributing to the ‘grand Thanksgiving chorus’ of celebration and joy.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘Signs of the Times’.
Choppin’ suet in de kitchen,
Stonin’ raisins in de hall,
Beef a-cookin’ fu’ de mince meat,
Spices groun’—I smell ’em all.
Look hyeah, Tu’key, stop dat gobblin’,
You ain’ luned de sense ob feah,
You ol’ fool, yo’ naik’s in dangah,
Do’ you know Thanksgibbin’s hyeah?
We could have opted for Dunbar’s ‘A Thanksgiving Poem’ here:
The sun hath shed its kindly light,
Our harvesting is gladly o’er
Our fields have felt no killing blight,
Our bins are filled with goodly store.
From pestilence, fire, flood, and sword
We have been spared by thy decree,
And now with humble hearts, O Lord,
We come to pay our thanks to thee.
But instead, we’ve chosen one of his poems written in the African-American vernacular English of the late nineteenth century, which wittily focuses on the minutiae of Thanksgiving time, including the turkey strutting outside in the barnyard, unaware that it’s for the chop…
Edgar Albert Guest, ‘Thanksgiving’. Like Christmas, Thanksgiving can be a time of togetherness and rejoicing, especially with the family; and this is the quality that Edgar Albert Guest brilliantly captures in his Thanksgiving poem. Guest sees Thanksgiving as the winding-down of the year, when most of the hard work is done and we can look forward to Christmas time and a well-earned rest.
Langston Hughes, ‘Thanksgiving Time’. The autumn moon is big in the sky, and a frost is in the air … that can only mean that it’s Thanksgiving time, as the laureate of the Harlem Renaissance has it here. The emphasis is on the cold winter air and the time of year, which Hughes conveys in a few memorable stanzas here.
Anthony Hecht, ‘The Transparent Man’. Hecht, in many ways still an underrated American poet of the twentieth century (he tends to be known only for his witty response to Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and for writing one of the most harrowing and moving poems about the Holocaust), offers us a dramatic monologue here – a form he did much to reinvigorate – focusing on the Thanksgiving season. This late poem was perhaps partly inspired by Hecht’s own increasing old age: it focuses on an old man who doesn’t have any family around him at Thanksgiving.
Linda Pastan, ‘Home for Thanksgiving’. A poem about the brevity of life and the passing of the years, this beautiful Thanksgiving poem is also a powerful reminder to make the most of our families when we see them for holidays such as Thanksgiving every November. The final image of the family picture album closing over the poet and her family leaves a lasting impression.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.