Islands loom large in British poetry, thanks to the country’s island status: Scottish poets have written paeans to the islands of Scotland, and English poets have discussed their country’s insular nature, while other islands in other parts of the world have also been described and eulogised down the ages. Below, we pick ten of the greatest island poems.
William Fowler, ‘Sonet. In Orknay’. Fowler (c. 1560–1612) was a Scottish poet or makar (royal bard), who penned this early sonnet in the Scots dialect about the Orkney islands: ‘I cal to mynde the storms my thoughts abyds …’
William Shakespeare, John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea …
This speech has become known in the popular consciousness as a paean to England as a great island nation, and certainly John of Gaunt comes out with a string of memorable epithets to describe England here. But the context of the speech is very different: John of Gaunt is lamenting the fact that England is being ‘leased out’ under King Richard II. As he lies dying, John of Gaunt pronounces the death of England. Nevertheless, it’s Gaunt’s devotion to the great nation of England as a ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ which makes his fears for its future so very poignant, and the lines stand as one of the greatest hymns to England’s island status in all of English literature.
John Keats, ‘To Ailsa Rock’. Keats (1795-1821) wrote many sonnets, and ‘To Ailsa Rock’ is not one of his most famous. However, it’s a cracking poem about Ailsa Craig, an island in the outer Firth of Clyde, which Keats saw first-hand during his long walking tour from Scotland, which he undertook in summer 1818:
Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid!
Give answer from thy voice – the sea-fowl’s screams!
When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the sun was thy broad forehead hid?
How long is’t since the mighty Power bid
Thee heave to airy sleep from fathom dreams –
Sleep in the lap of thunder or sunbeams –
Or when gray clouds are thy cold coverlid?
Thou answerest not, for thou art dead asleep.
Thy life is but two dead eternities –
The last in air, the former in the deep!
First with the whales, last with the eagle skies!
Drown’d wast thou till an earthquake made thee steep,
Another cannot wake thy giant size!
Robert Browning, ‘Caliban upon Setebos’. Subtitled ‘Natural Theology in the Island’, and one of the first poems to respond to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, this 1863 poem is a dramatic monologue, spoken by the native, Caliban, from the magical island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Setebos is the invented name for the deity Caliban worships, believing Setebos to be the Creator of all things (the name is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play; one surprising legacy is that one of the moons of the planet Uranus was named after Setebos).
Emma Lazarus, ‘Long Island Sound’. Lazarus (1848-87) is best-known for one poem, ‘The New Colossus’, about the Statue of Liberty. In ‘Long Island Sound’, she offers another sonnet about New York, this time about Long Island Sound. The poem is quoted in full below:
I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,-by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.
John Davidson, ‘In the Isle of Dogs’. Davidson (1857-1909) was a Scottish poet who moved to London, and penned this poem about the Isle of Dogs around Millwall:
While the water-wagon’s ringing showers
Sweetened the dust with a woodland smell,
‘Past noon, past noon, two sultry hours,’
From the schoolhouse clock
In the Isle of Dogs by Millwall Dock.
Mirrored in shadowy windows draped
With ragged net or half-drawn blind
Bowsprits, masts, exactly shaped
To woo or fight the wind,
Like monitors of guilt
By strength and beauty sent,
Disgraced the shameful houses built
To furnish rent …
Follow the link above to read the full, longer poem.
Sara Teasdale, ‘Coney Island’. The American lyric poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) often wrote about America and in particular, New York; here, she writes about visiting Coney Island, known for its pleasures and amusements, out of season:
Why did you bring me here?
The sand is white with snow,
Over the wooden domes
The winter sea-winds blow –
There is no shelter near,
Come, let us go.
With foam of icy lace
The sea creeps up the sand,
The wind is like a hand
That strikes us in the face.
Doors that June set a-swing
Are bolted long ago;
We try them uselessly –
Alas there cannot be
For us a second spring;
Come, let us go.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Defence of the Islands’. As Eliot himself acknowledged, this poem was written for a very specific purpose: to accompany an exhibition of photographs of British war-work in New York in 1940. Eliot didn’t consider it a ‘poem’ as such, but it clearly shows the Churchillian spirit of defending Britain’s islands during a time of war.
W. H. Auden, ‘On This Island’. Although not one of his best-known poems of the 1930s, ‘On This Island’ shows Auden’s descriptive power in full flow as he adopts the voice of an imagined speaker, addressing what almost seem to be a group of conquering questing heroes as they alight upon the shore of some island (Britain, maybe?). This poem also gave one of Auden’s poetry collections its title when it was published in America: in Britain, the same volume had been published under the title Look, Stranger! The title wasn’t Auden’s own choice, but when his publishers contacted him to suggest one, he was, fittingly, visiting an island – Iceland – and so was unable to be reached.
Yusef Komunyakaa, ‘Islands’. What is an island? Here, the African-American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1941) meditates on the meaning of islands, in a poem dedicated to the St Lucia-born Derek Walcott. A great vantage point but also a ‘stubborn thing’, an island is many things at once.