In previous selections of the best colour poems, we’ve offered a colourful range of poems including classic verse about the colour green, poems about all things yellow, all things red, all things blue, all things black, and all things white. But what about that most prized colour of all: gold? Gold can signify a whole range of things to poets, from wealth to beauty to all manner of things precious and rare. Below, we introduce ten solid gold poems.
William Shakespeare, ‘All That Glisters Is Not Gold’. Taken from The Merchant of Venice, this ‘song’ appears written on the scroll housed in the gold casket, which the Prince of Morocco, a suitor for the hand of Portia in the play, chooses, in the belief that this is the ‘right’ casket that will grant him permission to marry the play’s heroine. However (spoiler alert), as the opening line of this song makes clear – in a phrase that has since become proverbial – not everything is as it seems:
All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled.
Fare you well. Your suit is cold—
Cold, indeed, and labour lost.
Thomas Dekker, ‘Golden Slumbers’. Memorably used by The Beatles as the lyrics for their song of the same name on the Abbey Road LP, ‘Golden Slumbers’ is a lullaby from Thomas Dekker’s 1603 play Patient Grissel, written with Henry Chettle and William Haughton. This is one of the most soothing short Renaissance poems – and perhaps the best-known Renaissance lullaby, or ‘cradle song’, out there. It begins:
Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby …
Jonathan Swift, ‘On Gold’.
All-ruling tyrant of the earth,
To vilest slaves I owe my birth,
How is the greatest monarch blest,
When in my gaudy livery drest! …
So begins this poem from the satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who is best-remembered for writing Gulliver’s Travels.
Thomas Hood, ‘Gold’. How many rhymes for the word ‘gold’ can you think of? Thomas Hood, best-known for ‘The Song of the Shirt’ and ‘I Remember, I Remember’, does his best to come up with as many as possible in this paean to the colour gold (although ‘paean’ may be an oversimplification, as Hood also acknowledges the role gold plays in inspiring crime):
Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Bright and yellow, hard and cold
Molten, graven, hammered and rolled,
Heavy to get and light to hold,
Hoarded, bartered, bought and sold,
Stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled,
Spurned by young, but hung by old
To the verge of a church yard mold;
Price of many a crime untold …
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Moon Was But a Chin of Gold’. Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was one of the most distinctive poets of the nineteenth century. Of her contemporaries writing across the Atlantic at the same time as her, only Gerard Manley Hopkins, of the Victorian poets, comes close to matching her uniqueness and sharp eye for detail. Before the imagists, under Ezra Pound’s leadership, began to ‘make it new’, Emily Dickinson was forging exciting new and fresh metaphors to describe the world around her. The moon is not, for her, a boring and predictable ‘silver’ orb or pale silvery face, but instead a ‘chin of gold’. ‘The Moon was but a Chin of Gold’ is a fine example of her idiosyncratic style, and begins:
The Moon was but a Chin of Gold
A Night or two ago—
And now she turns Her perfect Face
Upon the World below—
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’. If Shakespeare provides lead caskets and gold caskets in The Merchant of Venice, Hopkins – perhaps the most remarkable poet of all to come out of the nineteenth century – offers us leaden and golden sound-effects in this strange long poem, which sees one set of verbal pyrotechnics (to borrow Jonathan Culler’s phrase) being complemented by another voice, a ‘Golden Echo’ which appears to represent Catholic dogma (Hopkins was a Jesuit). If silence can be golden, sounds and language can also have an aureate hue.
Robert Frost, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’. In just eight lines, Robert Frost (1874-1963) offers a fairly comprehensive view of the world, taking in the mutability of everything in the world, from the leaves on the trees to the purest good that existed in Eden before the Fall. ‘Nothing lasts forever’ might be a pale (or white gold?) paraphrase of Frost’s golden meaning.
H. D., ‘Sea Poppies’. The imagist poet Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who published as H. D., writes here in this 1916 poem about poppies of the sea rather than those of the field and meadow. These sea poppies are ‘gold’ in both senses: both a bright amber colour, and rare and precious like the metal. The opening word of the poem, amber, also contains this double meaning, denoting a rare gemstone as well as a bright golden-orange colour.
Amy Lowell, ‘Azure and Gold’. Along with H. D., Amy Lowell was the leading female imagist poet in the second decade of the twentieth century. ‘Azure and Gold’ gives us a colour double whammy, as Lowell (1874-1925) revels in the bright, vivid colours of April:
Such a colour, such infinite light!
The heart of a fabulous gem,
Many-faceted, brilliant and rare.
Centre Stone of the earth’s diadem!
G. K. Chesterton, ‘Gold Leaves’. Of course, it is in autumn even more than spring that we find ourselves surrounded by nature’s bounty of gold colours, and in this poem, G. K. Chesterton praises the golden leaves of autumn. We include the poem in full here:
Lo! I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold;
Grey hairs and golden leaves cry out
The year and I are old.
In youth I sought the prince of men,
Captain in cosmic wars,
Our Titan, even the weeds would show
Defiant, to the stars.
But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.
In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold,
But I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold.