By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Should poetry be read in quiet solitude, enjoyed in silence? Or is poetry at its best when it is being declaimed, recited for an audience, and read aloud for the world to hear? The answer, of course, is ‘both’ and ‘it perhaps depends on the poem’.
Below, we introduce ten of the greatest poems suitable for being read aloud. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but we believe these are some of the best poems for reciting at the top of your voice. Have fun, everyone – and try not to startle your cat.
1. William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.
Wordsworth’s paean to daffodils is written in confidently regular iambic tetrameter, with the rhythm giving Wordsworth’s account of his encounter with the spring flowers an air of deeper Romantic significance which perhaps belies the rather straightforward meaning of the poem. All together, now:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze …
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Coleridge’s 1798 narrative poem, which appeared in the first edition of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s joint-authored collection Lyrical Ballads (but was nearly removed from the second edition because Wordsworth wasn’t sure about it), is a long poem to read aloud in its entirety, but if you want a poem to regale your friends and family with by the fireside one winter evening, this tale of a cursed sailor and his crew is the ideal choice:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he …
3. Felicia Dorothea Hemans, ‘Casabianca’.
The English poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835) is best-known for her poem about the stately homes of England (memorably parodied by Noel Coward) and for ‘Casabianca’ with its memorable opening lines, quoted below.
The poem, written in the ballad metre (something it shares with a number of other poems on this list), was inspired by something that happened in the 1798 Battle of the Nile: Giocante, the young son of the commander Louis de Casabianca, remained at his post, unaware that his father was already dead, and … well, you can read the full sorry tale by following the link above.
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead …
4. John Keats, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’.
Ballads were designed to be sung, but John Keats’s Romantic-era ballad about a medieval knight who falls under the thrall of a beautiful fairy-woman rewards recitation as much as singing, so don’t worry if you can’t hold a note:
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too …
5. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Raven’.
Some of the best poems to read aloud are those with an insistent rhythm which makes them ideal for chanting.
Poe’s narrative poem ‘The Raven’, about a lovelorn, grieving man who receives a visit from a mysterious raven one midnight, is a classic that has featured in popular culture (such as in The Simpsons) and remains a favourite poem for speaking aloud in schools:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more …’
6. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred …’
This was one of the first poems to be recorded with the poet who wrote it reciting their words aloud (the first poet to have his voice recorded was Robert Browning).
You can listen to Tennyson enunciating ‘Half a league, half a league’ here, but his poem about the Battle of Balaclava sounds great when read aloud by just about anyone.
7. Emily Dickinson, ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’.
There’s something about Emily Dickinson’s distinctive use of dashes in place of conventional punctuation, and her use of the ballad form of the quatrain, that makes her work ideal for reciting out loud. This poem, describing a snake in the grass, has some delicious off-rhymes and pauses which really stand out with a good reading:
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted shaft is seen –
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot –
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone …
8. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
Nonsense verse is great fun, but is arguably at its most delightful when being read aloud. And ‘Jabberwocky’, perhaps the best-known nonsense poem in all of English literature (we’ve gathered together some of the greatest here), is doubly suitable because it’s a narrative poem about overcoming a monster (the mysterious Jabberwock) as well as a linguistically inventive piece:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought …
9. John Masefield, ‘Cargoes’.
‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir, / Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine…’: one of Masefield’s best-known poems, ‘Cargoes’ has a rhythm that lends itself perfectly to group chanting and energetic recital. The poem is about the various cargoes of gems, spices, and other rare and precious items being transported around the world.
10. Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’.
Thomas’s impassioned plea to his father to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ – written when his father lay dying in the early 1950s – is a great poem to read aloud not least because it is an example of a villanelle, which involves repeating, mantra-like, two key lines throughout the poem.
Whether or not you can manage Thomas’s lyrical Welsh burr when declaiming poetry, this is an ideal poem for reading aloud and this list to a nice conclusion.
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.