Innocence is a theme that looms large in English poetry, especially since the age of Romanticism. However, poems about innocence can be found before the 1790s and the arrival of Romanticism into English poetry, so below we’ve ranged far and wide in English verse to collect some of the greatest poems about being innocence, about states of innocence, and related themes.
Anonymous, Pearl. We begin this selection of classic poems about innocence with a long dream-vision poem from the fourteenth century, composed by an unknown poet (although probably the same person who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). The speaker laments the death of his daughter, a ‘precious pearl without a spot’, an innocent child who, through baptism, can be saved:
Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.
Thomas Traherne, ‘Innocence’. Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-74) had to wait a long time before he earned recognition as a poet, and such recognition came too late for him to enjoy it. His poetry was not discovered and published until the early twentieth century, but in many ways it prefigures the work of the Romantics, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, despite being written more than a century earlier:
That prospect was the gate of Heav’n, that day
The ancient light of Eden did convey
Into my soul: I was an Adam there
A little Adam in a sphere
Of joys! O there my ravish’d sense
Was entertain’d in Paradise,
And had a sight of innocence
Which was beyond all bound and price.
An antepast of Heaven sure!
I on the earth did reign;
Within, without me, all was pure;
I must become a child again.
Thomas Parnell, ‘Oft Have I Read That Innocence Retreats’. Parnell (1679-1718) was an Anglo-Irish poet who was a friend of both Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift; he was a member of their famous Scriblerus club with them. However, Parnell is now no longer remembered or mentioned in the same breath as Swift or Pope. Yet this poem deserves inclusion here as it’s a fine poem about innocence, written in the heroic couplets the Augustans like Swift and Pope were so fond of, and it’s short enough to be quoted in full:
Oft have I read that Innocence retreats
Where cooling streams salute ye summer Seats
Singing at ease she roves ye field of flowrs
Or safe with shepheards lys among the bowrs
But late alas I crossd a country fare
And found No Strephon nor Dorinda there
There Hodge & William Joynd to cully ned
While Ned was drinking Hodge & William dead
There Cicely Jeard by day the slips of Nell
& ere ye night was ended Cicely fell
Are these the Virtues which adorn the plain
Ye bards forsake your old Arcadian Vein
To sheep those tender Innocents resign
The place where swains & nymphs are said to shine
Swains twice as Wicked Nymphs but half as sage
Tis sheep alone retrieve ye golden age.
William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’. William Blake, who wrote the 1789 volume Songs of Innocence, gets two poems on this list because he wrote so powerfully and influentially about innocence in his poetry. First, from the poem that heads that collection:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
William Blake, ‘The Lamb’. Perhaps the other most famous poem from Blake’s Songs of Innocence, ‘The Lamb’ would later gain a companion-poem, ‘The Tyger’, in Blake’s later Songs of Experience. Here, an innocent, childlike voice wonders who made the lamb, only to learn that the answer is … the Lamb (i.e. Christ). The poem begins:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Click on the link above to read the full poem, and to learn more about it.
William Wordsworth, ‘We Are Seven’. Taking the form of a dialogue between the adult speaker and a young girl who has lost many of her family members to illness and hardship – yet who insists on counting the dead among the number of her family – ‘We Are Seven’ is perhaps Wordsworth’s best-known poem about the purity of childlike innocence:
‘And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.’
‘How many are you, then,’ said I,
‘If they two are in heaven?’
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
‘O Master! we are seven.’
‘But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!’
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, ‘Nay, we are seven!’
Christina Rossetti, ‘Holy Innocents’. Few Victorian poets wrote so tenderly and effectively about innocence as the prolific Christina Rossetti, who elsewhere also wrote about temptation and experience so well in ‘Goblin Market’. Here, though, she pays tribute to the Holy Innocents – the infants slaughtered by King Herod in the New Testament:
Sleep, little baby, sleep;
The holy Angels love thee,
And guard thy bed, and keep
A blessed watch above thee.
No spirit can come near
Nor evil beast to harm thee:
Sleep, sweet, devoid of fear
Where nothing need alarm thee.
The love which doth not sleep,
The eternal Arms around thee:
The shepherd of the sheep
In perfect love hath found thee.
Sleep through the holy night,
Christ-kept from snare and sorrow,
Until thou wake to light
And love and warmth to-morrow.
Robert W. Service, ‘Innocence’. For the British-Canadian poet Robert William Service (1874-1958), the innocence of a child seemed to be the height of wisdom, as he explains in this short poem. To delve too deeply into science and knowledge is ‘folly’, not wisdom; there is something to be said for remaining innocent. Not everyone would agree with Service, but he puts it wonderfully.
Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Innocence’. Between W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney there was Patrick Kavanagh, a brilliant poet paying attention to the everyday details of Irish life, taking in themes including youth and childhood. Here, Kavanagh adopts the voice of nature itself, and its innate innocence, as he describes the changing landscape.
Philip Larkin, ‘First Sight’. Although he’s better known for his poems about experience – he famously titled one of his volumes of poetry The Less Deceived – there was another side to Philip Larkin, which wrote about the awe and serenity found in innocent scenes, such as here, in this poem about lambs learning to walk in the snow, unaware that the world of nature beneath the snow that will soon be revealed to them when winter passes.