Poets have often written about the importance of friendship, but as G. K. Chesterton said: ‘We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next door neighbour.’ What have poets had to say about neighbours and neighbourhoods? Below, we introduce some of the finest poems about neighbours, from the Tudor era to the present.
1. John Heywood, ‘The Quiet Neighbour’.
Accounted our commodities,
Few more commodious reason sees
Than is this one commodity,
Quietly neighbourèd to be.
Which neighbourhood in thee appears.
For we two having ten whole years
Dwelt wall to wall, so joiningly,
That whispering soundeth through well-nigh,
I never heard thy servants brawl
More than thou hadst had none at all …
We begin with a poem written in the sixteenth century. John Heywood (1497-1580) entertained the courts of four English monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. He was a poet, playwright, and composer whose fascinating life we have summarised here.
In ‘The Quiet Neighbour’, he appears to sing the praises of neighbours who respectfully keep the noise down; however, as Carol Rumens discusses in the link to the full poem above, the poem may be ironic, or it may be allegorical (with a cunningly disguised political message).
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘Air has no Residence, no Neighbor’.
The reclusive Emily Dickinson (1830-86) considers ‘neighbours’ of a different sort in this short poem, which we reproduce in full here:
Air has no Residence, no Neighbor,
No Ear, no Door,
No Apprehension of Another
Oh, Happy Air!
Ethereal Guest at e’en an Outcast’s Pillow —
Essential Host, in Life’s faint, wailing Inn,
Later than Light thy Consciousness accost me
Till it depart, persuading Mine —
3. Christina Rossetti, ‘An Apple Gathering’.
I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree,
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.
With dangling basket all along the grass
As I had come I went the selfsame track:
My neighbours mocked me while they saw me pass
So empty-handed back …
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’
Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
This poem can be read as a religious allegory: the speaker of the poem greedily plucks all of the apples from the tree, and when she returns for more there are none left; her neighbours, with their baskets full of apples, mock her.
4. Rudyard Kipling, ‘Neighbours’.
The man that is open of heart to his neighbour,
And stops to consider his likes and dislikes,
His blood shall be wholesome whatever his labour,
His luck shall be with him whatever he strikes.
The Splendour of Morning shall duly possess him,
That he may not be sad at the falling of eve.
And, when he has done with mere living—God bless him!
A many shall sigh, and one Woman shall grieve!—
So begins this poem from the prolific Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). It might be regarded as the ‘If—’ of neighbourly behaviour: Kipling provides some sage advice about how to treat one’s neighbour.
5. Robert William Service, ‘Neighbours’.
In this poem, the British-Canadian Robert W. Service (1874-1958) touts the holy trinity of ‘Bread, Wine and Liberty’, as well as communion of both a religious and secular kind: the poet and his neighbour both bring something to their lives, and are content with these three simple offerings.
6. Robert Frost, ‘Mending Wall’.
No selection of poems about neighbours would be complete without this, one of Frost’s most famous poems. ‘Mending Wall’ is about the human race’s primitive urge to ‘mark its territory’ and our fondness for setting clear boundaries for our houses and gardens.
Whilst Frost believes that such markers are a throwback to an earlier stage in mankind’s development, his neighbour believes that ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’ That line has often been quoted out of context to give the impression that Frost approves of the sentiment; in fact, he disagrees with it.
7. Iain Crichton Smith, ‘Neighbour’.
Smith (1928-98) was a Scottish poet and novelist, who wrote in both English and Gaelic. This is wonderfully touching short poem about shared human sympathy and community, and might be productively paired with Frost’s poem above, since they both express a similar idea.
8. Adélia Prado, ‘Neighbourhood’.
Prado (b. 1935) is a Brazilian poet, and in this poem she demonstrates a gloriously sharp eye for the little details as the poem’s speaker observes her neighbour picking his teeth, and she realises she is falling in love with him. The kind of poem that surprises us with every new line.
9. Helen Dunmore, ‘Next Door’.
Anyone who lives, or has lived, next door to people who like to play ‘bass that thuds / like the music of demolition’ (why is it always just bass? Don’t any neighbours like an actual tune?) will doubtless identify with this vision of next-door neighbours – which Dunmore treats in level-headed, down-to-earth tones here. How well do we know our neighbours? They seem like our inverse, or ‘mirror-image’, this relationship even being reflected (as it were) in the designs of many houses next door to each other…
10. Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘Neighbours’.
Many Britons took a while to accept black people from the former British colonies who arrived in the UK after the end of the Second World War, and racism was not only common but, in many circles, even socially acceptable until well into the final quarter of the twentieth century. The Birmingham-born Zephaniah (b. 1958) has written particularly well about changing attitudes to race in this period.
In ‘Neighbours’, he explores the old scenario where a black family moves in next door to a white family (something that the politically incorrect sitcom Love Thy Neighbour tapped into in the 1970s on British TV). Taking a series of stereotypes about black people and the way white Britons have perceived them, Zephaniah deftly overturns them.
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Enjoyable collection in this time of ‘lock down’ (but still Frost! Why this obsession with Frost?) when a yell over the fence to a neighbour or a greeting in a supermarket is a blow to social distancing. Will we ever be able to have a barbe with neighbours again? Or long coffee time in street cafes? I doubt it but literature is still a saving link with the past.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” When I taught Frosts poems to a class back in the 1960s, the students immediately assumed that Mending Wall was a parable about the Berlin Wall, until I explained that it was written before the Second War. There is some validity in this view. It could equally be applied to Hadrian’s Wall and to Trump’s Mexican wall.
The best neighbours are those with no barking dogs!!
Thank you for keeping these blogs up. This one was consoling today — way back in the 16th century to now, neighbors.
Thanks for the nice comment :) it’s surprising how long this everyday topic has been important among poets. I find writing/compiling these blog posts quite helpful during lockdown – good for bringing a sense of order to things :)