By Dr Oliver Tearle
Every poet has two parents, even if only one of them – or neither of them – is around during the poet’s most formative years. And many poets become parents themselves, of course. So, in this post, we’ve selected some of the very best poems about parents, the greatest poems for parents, and some of our favourite poems about parenting and having children.
1. Ben Jonson, ‘On My First Son’.
O, could I lose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the fate he should envíe?
To have so soon scap’d worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Jonson (1572-1637) was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and, like the Bard, wrote poems as well as the plays for which he is well-known. Ben Jonson’s short poem for his son Benjamin, who died aged seven, is one of the most moving elegies written by a parent for his lost child.
Jonson says that his one sin was to entertain too many hopes for his son’s future. This is a ‘sinne’ (a twisting of ‘Sonne’: ‘On My First Sonne’), because the child’s fate, like everyone’s, is not in Jonson’s hands, but God’s: not up to his father but Our Father, he might say. Jonson follows this up with a financial analogy, saying that his son was merely ‘lent’ to him, and now he has to ‘pay’ back the loan that has been ‘Exacted’. It was ‘fate’: God willed that the boy be returned to Him after seven years, so who is Jonson to question or lament this? Indeed, he knows that in many ways his son should be envied, for escaping the hardships of life, and the horrible process of getting old. (Obviously to a believer, as many people were in Jonson’s time, such a bitter pill is easier to swallow if one has a belief in the afterlife, that the son is in a ‘better place’.)
2. Anne Bradstreet, ‘Upon My Daughter Hannah Wiggin Her Recouery From A Dangerous Feaver’.
Bles’t bee thy Name, who did’st restore
To health my Daughter dear
When death did seem ev’n to approach,
And life was ended near.
Gravnt shee remember what thov’st done,
And celebrate thy Praise;
And let her Conversation say,
Shee loues thee all thy Dayes.
Bradstreet (1612-72) was the first published poet of America, with her The Tenth Muse Recently Sprung up in America appearing in 1650, and early colonial life was hard, and often short. (Bradstreet lived in Massachusetts with her husband, children, and other early English settlers in the New World.) Fever, unsurprisingly, looms large in Bradstreet’s poetry, which is remarkable for its tenderness about members of her family, as also glimpsed in her poem to her husband. In this poem, Bradstreet thanks God for delivering her daughter Hannah from a fever.
3. W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’.
This 1919 poem was written for Anne, Yeats’s daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. In the poem, Yeats watches his sleeping daughter and thinks of all the things he wishes for her: beauty (but not too much beauty), and a personality that is free from hatred. Follow the link above to read the full poem, but here’s the first stanza:
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s Wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour,
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come
Dancing to a frenzied drum
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea …
4. William Carlos Williams, ‘Dance Russe’.
Rather than being about the poet’s father, ‘Dance Russe’ is about Williams’s own experience of fatherhood, and about how, in a household in which he is the only male, Williams snatches small moments to himself when his wife and child are sleeping, and dances in front of the mirror.
5. Langston Hughes, ‘Mother to Son’.
Probably the best-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1902-67) adopts the maternal voice for this short poem, expressing the views of an African American mother as she addresses her son, telling him that life has been hard for her but that the important thing is to keep climbing and not to turn back.
6. Theodore Roethke, ‘My Papa’s Waltz’.
In this poem, whose rhythm echoes that of a waltz dance, Roethke recalls the time he danced with his father in their kitchen. He remembers the smell of whiskey on his father’s breath and his mother’s disapproving stares as she looks on. A fine poem about a poet remembering both of his parents.
7. Philip Larkin, ‘This Be the Verse’.
This classic poem had to be on this list, because it is about both parents and parenting (or rather, not parenting). Written in 1971, this is a less celebratory poem about parents. Its opening line is one of the best-known in all of poetry – but don’t recite it too loudly in your local library (warning: contains swearing!).
Larkin concludes by saying that this is the way of humankind: we pass on our own miseries to our children, and they pass on theirs to their children’s children, and so on. Like a coastal shelf where deposits of sand and rock are laid down gradually over centuries, this misery ‘deepens’ over generations. Larkin’s advice is to leave home (and possibly even life itself?) as soon as you can – and don’t, of course, have children of your own.
You can read our analysis of ‘This Be The Verse’ here.
8. Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Warning to Parents’.
Jennings (1926-2001) doesn’t get the recognition she deserves as one of the most lucid and affecting poets of the twentieth century to write about family. Here, she offers one of the finest poems to parents, advising them to protect their children while also acknowledging that children will grow up to be aware of very horrific things which they will evoke in conversation, despite the parents’ best efforts to shield their children from the horrors of the world.
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘Morning Song’.
This poem is about a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby, and so doesn’t celebrate the beauty of the sunrise or an aesthetically pleasing landscape as seen at dawn, like some of the poems on this list. Instead, we have Plath’s speaker (based on Plath, herself a mother to a small child when she penned this poem) stumbling out of bed ‘cow-heavy and floral’ in her Victorian nightgown. For our money, this is one of Plath’s finest poems.
10. Jacqueline Woodson, ‘Parents Poem’.
This is a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to the poet’s parents, by one of the finest African-American poets writing today. Woodson tells us how her parents were killed in a fire, but that fire couldn’t destroy all of her mother and father: her memories of them, the way her mother spoke on the phone, the hat her father wore to work, stay alive through her.
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.
Or, as parenting days are ending, ‘Walking Away’ by C Day-Lewis…
I don’t know how you can leave out Charles Causley’s wonderfully moving poem Eden Rock. It should be top of your list.