Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poems often offer a sense of hope in dark times, and poets down the ages have written wisely and movingly about the need to make a fresh start. Below, we introduce some of our favourite poems about beginnings and new starts – taking in the very beginnings of the universe, the beginning of a new chapter in a life, and even a new life itself.
1. John Donne, ‘The Good-Morrow’.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one …
Let’s begin in the late sixteenth century with this wonderful metaphysical love poem by Donne (1572-1631), who celebrates the feeling of a new beginning which love can bring: the sense of your life having truly begun when you meet the person you love.
The opening lines address this plainly: ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved?’ Watch out, too, for the sly pun on a certain four-letter word in the third line’s reference to ‘country pleasures’.
2. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true…
This is one of the last poems in Tennyson’s long masterpiece, In Memoriam (1850), his elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. In one sense, the whole poem is about Tennyson’s struggle to come to terms with the untimely death of his friend (whom Tennyson loved dearly) and to make a new start. How can he prepare to live a good life now that the world no longer has Hallam in it?
Tennyson calls on the church bells to ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’, and to rid the world of the bad things that have occurred and to usher in a newer, brighter world. See the link above to read all of this classic poem.
3. Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me …
A birthday marks a beginning, of course: the very beginning of our lives. But this idea of a beginning can also be taken up more metaphorically, in an extended sense, to refer to a new chapter in our lives, and this is what this beautiful, uplifting poem from Christina Rossetti (1830-94) brilliantly conveys: ‘Because the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me.’
4. Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘In the Beginning’.
‘In the beginning’ are, of course, the opening words of the Bible, and begin the account of God’s creation of the universe and everything in it. Here, Rilke considers what’s happened since: ‘Ever since those wondrous days of Creation / our Lord God sleeps …’ Did we do something to make God lose interest in our world?
5. Rupert Brooke, ‘The Beginning’.
Some day I shall rise and leave my friends
And seek you again through the world’s far ends,
You whom I found so fair
(Touch of your hands and smell of your hair!),
My only god in the days that were …
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’.
The second of Eliot’s Four Quartets, published in 1940 near the beginning of the Second World War, ‘East Coker’ begins, fittingly enough, with the words ‘In my beginning is my end.’
And indeed, the poem sees Eliot visiting the place where he ‘began’, genealogically speaking: the small Somerset village of East Coker was where his ancestors lived.
The poem meditates on origins and beginnings of various kinds, taking in the origins of English rural communities and the poet’s own origins through the generations and centuries.
7. Dylan Thomas, ‘In the Beginning’.
‘In the beginning’: these three words begin each of the four stanzas that make up this poem by Dylan Thomas, which consider the grand and cosmological (the ‘star’), the earthly power of the elements (‘fire’), the message of God (‘the word’, reminding us of the beginning of another book of the Bible, the Gospel of St John: ‘In the beginning was the Word’), and human brain-power.
8. Sylvia Plath, ‘Morning Song’.
In this poem 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 to attend to her new-born child. A number of beginnings – the start of a new day, the birth of a new life – are present in this poem which offers a vision of the child as a ‘new statue’.
9. Geoffrey Hill, ‘Genesis’.
Here’s another take on ‘in the beginning’: although Hill doesn’t use these biblical words, this poem – which, fittingly enough, opens his first collection of poems, For the Unfallen (1959) – muses upon God during the six days of Creation. Another ‘beginning poem’, on an epic scale.
10. Don Paterson, ‘Rain’.
This poem earns its place on this list of poems about beginnings and new starts because, as well as being beautifully lyrical, it is about films, and especially the beginnings of films – films that ‘start with rain’, as the poem’s own beginning, its opening line, has it.
For Paterson, even the most flawed films are saved if they have an arresting and atmospheric opening shot of rain to set the scene and evoke a mood; but might we see this clever, keenly felt poem as about more than just the beginnings of films?
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.