Poets have often paid tribute to particular locations in their poetry, writing paeans to beautiful landscapes, bustling cities, or areas of historical or personal significance. Below, we introduce ten of our favourite poems about places of various kinds, in Britain, America, and elsewhere.
Anonymous, ‘The Cries of London’. The author of this seventeenth-century poem about the shouts and cries that could be heard in London streets (especially at one of the city’s markets) has been lost in the mists of time. But really, the poem belongs to the people of London, whose voices can be hard in its lines: ‘Here’s fine rosemary, sage and thyme. / Come buy my ground ivy.’ As the poet declares: ‘Let none despise the merry, merry cries / Of famous London-town!’
William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’. Although this poem is actually titled ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ and doesn’t specifically describe the ruins of the medieval abbey in Wales, it does feature some beautiful evocations of the Welsh countryside:
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
’Mid groves and copses …
John Keats, ‘To Ailsa Rock’. Keats (1795-1821) wrote many sonnets, and ‘To Ailsa Rock’ is not one of his most famous. However, it’s a cracking poem about Ailsa Craig, an island in the outer Firth of Clyde, which Keats saw first-hand during his long walking tour from Scotland, which he undertook in summer 1818:
Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid!
Give answer from thy voice – the sea-fowl’s screams!
When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the sun was thy broad forehead hid?
How long is’t since the mighty Power bid
Thee heave to airy sleep from fathom dreams –
Sleep in the lap of thunder or sunbeams –
Or when gray clouds are thy cold coverlid?
Thou answerest not, for thou art dead asleep.
Thy life is but two dead eternities –
The last in air, the former in the deep!
First with the whales, last with the eagle skies!
Drown’d wast thou till an earthquake made thee steep,
Another cannot wake thy giant size!
James Lynne Alexander, ‘A Day at the Falls of Niagara’. Alexander (1801-79) died in Grimsby, Ontario, although he was born in Ireland and emigrated to Canada with his parents when he was sixteen years old. In this poem, he captures the landscape and sights of Niagara Falls: ‘It was a tall Canadian Pine, / Sunk in a perpendicular line; / The foot on firm foundation stood, / Halfway above the boiling flood…’
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Inversnaid’.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home …
The great Victorian poet and inventor of ‘sprung rhythm’, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), visited Inversnaid near Loch Lomond in Scotland and wrote this poem in praise of the features of its landscape – especially the ‘weeds and the wilderness’. Fittingly, given our contemporary focus on sustainability and conservation, Hopkins implores the world: ‘let them be left’.
Arthur Symons, ‘Venice’. Symons (1865-1945) was instrumental in introducing many English readers to French Symbolism, and this short poem about Venice captures the sight and feel of the city with almost proto-imagistic precision: ‘Water and marble and that silentness / Which is not broken by a wheel or hoof; / A city like a water-lily, less / Seen than reflected, palace wall and roof…’
Hope Mirrlees, Paris. Regular readers of Interesting Literature will know that we’re huge fans of this eccentric modernist poem, written in spring 1919 while the Paris Peace Conference was taking place in the city, in the wake of the Armistice. Mirrlees, a British-born poet, was living in Paris at the time, and her avant-garde poem celebrates the city as the most bohemian and progressive place on earth in 1919, with its multicultural population, night life (the Moulin Rouge), and trappings of modern culture (including billboard advertisements on the Metro).
Keith Douglas, ‘Oxford’.
At home as in no other city, here
summer holds her breath in a dark street
the trees nocturnally scented, lovers like moths
go by silently on the footpaths
and spirits of the young wait,
cannot be expelled, multiply each year …
The WWII poet Keith Douglas (1920-44) was educated at Oxford and wrote his Oxford poem while he was an undergraduate there, in 1941. Three years later, during the D-Day Landings, he would be killed in action, leaving behind a slim but remarkably accomplished volume of poetry.
Denise Levertov, ‘February Evening in New York’. Levertov (1923-97) was an English poet, but she became an American citizen in the 1950s and wrote this wonderful poem about New York City. As the night darkens, the lights of New York brighten in the city that never sleeps.
Yusef Komunyakaa, ‘Islands’. What is an island? Here, the African-American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1941) meditates on the meaning of islands, in a poem dedicated to the St Lucia-born Derek Walcott. A great vantage point but also a ‘stubborn thing’, an island is many things at once. This seems like the perfect poem with which to conclude this selection of the best poems about places.
In America, we think of big places, like the Sierra Nevada. Here’s part of a beautiful poem about what hiking such a place does to the hiker:
THIS IS THE AMERICAN EARTH
(Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams)
…To the primal wonders no road can ever lead; they are not so won.
To know them you shall leave road and roof behind;
you shall go light and spare.
You shall win them yourself, in sweat, sun, laughter, in dust and rain, with only a few companions.
You shall know the night — its space, its light, its music.
You shall see earth sink in darkness and the universe appear.
No roof shall shut you from the presence of the moon.
You shall see mountains rise in the transparent shadow before dawn.
You shall see — and feel! — first light, and hear a ripple in the stillness.
You shall enter the living shelter of the forest.
You shall walk where only the wind has walked before.
You shall know immensity, and see continuing the primeval forces of the world.
You shall know not one small segment but the whole of life, strange, miraculous, living, dying, changing.
You shall face immortal challenges;
you shall dare, delighting, to pit your skill, courage, and wisdom against colossal facts.
You shall live lifted up in light; you shall move among the clouds.
You shall see storms arise, and, drenched and deafened, shall exult in them.
You shall top a rise and behold creation.
And you shall need the tongues of angels to tell what you have seen.