Poets have written about houses, palaces, museums, towers, churches, and much else besides. Below, we introduce ten of our favourite poems about buildings and structures of various kinds. From sacred spaces to haunted houses, these buildings feature in some of the finest poems on the subject – but are there any classic poems we’ve missed off the list?
1. George Herbert, ‘Church-Monuments’.
Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth …
We begin this selection of great poems about buildings and structures with the great devotional and metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633) lying in a church tomb in order to accustom his body and soul to the fact that he will one day lie at rest in such a church monument – forever. The poem is especially notable for its gendered depiction of the body (as male) and soul (as female).
2. Felicia Dorothea Hemans, ‘The Homes of England’.
‘The Stately Homes of England, / How beautiful they stand!’ These are among the most famous lines penned by the nineteenth-century poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835). The vogue for visiting the grand houses of England began surprisingly early: the pioneering female travel writer Celia Fiennes did so in the late seventeenth century. But it was Hemans who best expressed the glory of England’s stately homes in this, one of the greatest poems about houses and homes in all of English verse.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Palace of Art’.
How about leaving the stately home for something even grander now: a palace? But no ordinary palace, one created from art, for the good of the poet’s soul. In Tennyson’s palace of art, the art (not morality) is all that matters: although it was written almost half a century before Aestheticism took off, Tennyson’s poem champions ‘art for art’s sake’, using the architecture of the palace as a metaphor for the value of art.
I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house,
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
I said, ‘O Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear soul, for all is well.’
A huge crag-platform, smooth as burnish’d brass,
I chose. The ranged ramparts bright
From level meadow-bases of deep grass
Suddenly scaled the light …
4. Christina Rossetti, ‘A Castle-Builder’s World’.
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 late poem from the 1880s is short enough to be quoted in full below – a haunting evocation of a ghost-ridden castle:
‘The line of confusion, and the stones
Unripe harvest there hath none to reap it
From the misty gusty place,
Unripe vineyard there hath none to keep it
In unprofitable space.
Living men and women are not found there,
Only masks in flocks and shoals;
Flesh-and-bloodless hazy masks surround there,
Ever wavering orbs and poles;
Flesh-and-bloodless vapid masks abound there,
Shades of bodies without souls.
This poem uses the idea of a house and its scaffolding as a metaphor for life: we need support when starting out, but over time we become self-reliant and even come to forget that we ever needed supporting. It’s short enough to be quoted in full here:
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –
6. Thomas Hardy, ‘Architectural Masks’.
Perhaps no English poet has been better-qualified to write poems about architecture than Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who even trained as an architect. And his prolific poetic output provides plenty of poems about buildings too (see his poem about Hampton Court Palace, for one example). Here, we’ve gone with the aptly titled ‘Architectural Masks’, which begins:
There is a house with ivied walls,
And mullioned windows worn and old,
And the long dwellers in those halls
Have souls that know but sordid calls,
And dote on gold …
7. William Empson, ‘Homage to the British Museum’.
Written in around 1930 while Empson was living in London following his expulsion from Cambridge, this poem by one of the great minor poets of the twentieth century, the poet and critic William Empson (1906-84), celebrates a Polynesian god named Tangaroa, whose bust can be found in the museum.
Empson hopes that this god, and what he represents (‘all the creeds of the world’), will come to ‘reign’ over ‘the entire building’. A gloriously celebratory poem from one of the twentieth century’s most rewarding intellectual (indeed, metaphysical) poets.
8. Philip Larkin, ‘The Building’.
The building in question here is a hospital, which grows ‘higher than the handsomest hotel’ but is an altogether less salubrious place to pass time, of course, because of the connotations of being there. The poem shows Larkin’s pessimism and focus on ‘deprivation’, but is also possessed of an enormous sympathy for others’ suffering – as well as Larkin’s fears over growing older himself.
9. Derek Walcott, ‘Ruins of a Great House’.
In a poem that speaks of the ‘leprosy of empire’, we get a complex response to the British colonial mission in the West Indies from one of the greatest English-language poets to emerge from the Caribbean: Derek Walcott. Adopting the by-then-familiar trope of the Gothic house in decay, Walcott offers a new take on this old image, musing on the legacy of those ‘evil times’.
10. David Caplan, ‘In a Hotel’.
We’ve had poems about houses, churches, and hospitals, but what about hotels? In this poem, the contemporary American poet David Caplan captures the experience of staying in hotels, from the lady of dubious virtue in the lobby to those who simply ‘have the custom of forgetting’.