Poets have written well about innocence, but the flipside to the Romantic apotheosis of childlike innocence is the more grounded acceptance of human experience, and the values of living, struggling, and facing life’s challenges. So below, we’ve gathered together some of the finest poems about experience of various kinds.
William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
This poem about the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the tiger, with its striking stripes that seem forged in the furnaces of some great divine fire, first appeared in Songs of Experience in 1794, the companion volume to Blake’s earlier 1789 collection Songs of Innocence. The poem which ‘The Tyger’ forms a pair with is ‘The Lamb’. Click on the link above to read the full poem and discover more about it.
William Blake, ‘The Sick Rose’. Because Blake wrote so influentially about experience, he gets two poems on this pick of classic poems about experience – and here, he offers a vision of a worm destroying the beautiful rose. Is the worm that destroys the rose a symbol of death? By contrast, roses are often associated with love, beauty, and the erotic, so the poem could relate experience to the concept of mortality, and death. It begins:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm …
Click on the link above to read the full poem and discover more about it.
Jane Taylor, ‘Experience’. Taylor (1783-1824) is not much known these days, but one of her poems continues to be famous around the world: she wrote the words to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. Taylor also wrote this long poem in heroic couplets, meditating upon the idea of experience:
That lesson, learned aright, is valued more
Than all experience ever taught before;
For this her choicest secret, timely given,
Is wisdom, virtue, happiness, and heaven.
Long is religion viewed, by many an eye,
As wanted more for safety by and by,
– A thing for times of danger and distress,
Than needful for our present happiness.
But after fruitless, wearisome assays
To find repose and peace in other ways,
The sickened soul – when Heaven imparts its grace,
Returns to seek its only resting place;
And sweet Experience proves, as years increase,
That wisdom ways are pleasantness and peace.
Yes, and the late conviction, fraught with pain,
On many a callous conscience strikes in vain …
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Experience’. This short poem from one of the leaders of the American Transcendental movement is short enough to be quoted in full here:
The lords of life, the lords of life, –
I saw them pass,
In their own guise,
Like and unlike,
Portly and grim, —
Use and Surprise,
Surface and Dream,
Succession swift and spectral Wrong,
Temperament without a tongue,
And the inventor of the game
Omnipresent without name; —
Some to see, some to be guessed,
They marched from east to west:
Little man, least of all,
Among the legs of his guardians tall,
Walked about with puzzled look.
Him by the hand dear Nature took,
Dearest Nature, strong and kind,
Whispered, ‘Darling, never mind!
To-morrow they will wear another face,
The founder thou; these are thy race!’
Emily Dickinson, ‘I stepped from Plank to Plank’. This short poem from the prolific nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson is short enough to be quoted in full below. It sees the poet ‘walking the plank’, taking the plunge, going close to the edge: the very nature of experience?
I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch —
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.
W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’. This classic poem from 1919, written against the backdrop of the end of the First World War and the struggle for Irish independence in Yeats’s home country, earns its place on this list for the following lines:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
However, the entire poem is worth reading; in the link above, you can find the full text of Yeats’s poem and learn more about its background.
T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’. All four of T. S. Eliot’s final great poems, which collectively form the meditative and devotional sequence Four Quartets, are about experience of some kind, but we’ve chosen the second of the quartets here for its talk of ‘knowledge derived from experience’, as Eliot returns to his ancestral home of East Coker, the village in Somerset, England, where his ashes would later be interred. As he puts it later, old men ought to be explorers, going out and seeing the world and using their experience while they are still among the land of the living.
Dorothy Parker, ‘Experience’. In this witty quatrain, Dorothy Parker – one of the pithiest poets of the twentieth century – offers some words of wisdom about relationship experience, specifically concerning men.
Philip Larkin, ‘Deceptions’. Inspired by a passage from Henry Mayhew’s work of Victorian reporting, London Labour and the London Poor, this poem appeared, aptly enough, in Larkin’s second volume of poems, The Less Deceived (1955), with a phrase from ‘Deceptions’ providing that collection with its title. A young Victorian girl who had been drugged and ‘ruined’ by an older man is here addressed by the twentieth-century poet, who acknowledges the difficulty of showing sympathy for someone who is beyond consoling. But what is the nature of ‘experience’ here? Was the man who perpetrated this horrible act truly the ‘more deceived’ of them?
Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’. This classic Heaney poem, published in his first published volume, the 1966 book Death of a Naturalist, is simultaneously about picking blackberries in August and, on another level, about a loss of youthful innocence and a growing awareness of disappointment as we grow up. In other words, it’s the ideal poem to conclude this collection of the best poems about experience of various kinds.