Poets have often turned their attention to college and school, and in this post we have selected ten of the very best poems about education of various kinds, from poets remembering their schooldays and university years to poets pondering the idea of ‘education’ in a more general, abstract sense.
1. Thomas Gray, ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’.
To each his suff’rings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
’Tis folly to be wise …
Written in 1742 when Gray was in his mid-twenties, and around ten years after his own time as a student at Eton – the prestigious public school in Berkshire, England – this poem sees Gray reflecting on his own schooldays and the value of education more generally. The poem gave us the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’.
2. Oliver Goldsmith, ‘The Village Schoolmaster’.
Goldsmith, like Gray, was an eighteenth-century poet, and his depiction of a genial village schoolteacher, who is viewed by the locals as a kind of demigod, is not one that has lasted, alas, into the modern age. But when Goldsmith was writing, learning and literacy and education for its own sake were looked up to, and the man who possessed their gifts was revered:
The village all declar’d how much he knew;
’Twas certain he could write, and cipher too:
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquish’d he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thund’ring sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew …
3. William Blake, ‘The School Boy’.
But to go to school in a summer morn, –
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with dreary shower …
The speaker of ‘The School Boy’ is, appropriately enough, a schoolboy. He tells us how much he loves to get up early on a summer morning, listening to the huntsmen blasting their horns and the birdsong.
What he doesn’t like is having to go to school. The ‘cruel eye’ of the stern schoolmaster makes school anything but a pleasant experience. The boys all sit unhappily in ‘sighing and dismay’, and the schoolboy speaker sits drooping in his chair, anxious and unhappy, unable to learn. So we get a searing indictment of the ‘bad education’ so prevalent in English schools in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (something Dickens would go on to highlight in his novels such as Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield).
4. William Wordsworth, ‘Residence at Cambridge’.
My spirit was up, my thoughts were full of hope;
Some friends I had, acquaintances who there
Seemed friends, poor simple school-boys, now hung round
With honour and importance: in a world
Of welcome faces up and down I roved;
Questions, directions, warnings and advice,
Flowed in upon me, from all sides; fresh day
Of pride and pleasure! to myself I seemed
A man of business and expense, and went
From shop to shop about my own affairs,
To Tutor or to Tailor, as befell,
From street to street with loose and careless mind …
This is part of Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem The Prelude, recalling the young poet’s time studying at King’s College, Cambridge in the late 1780s.
For the young Wordsworth, the university was abuzz with ‘Questions, directions, warnings and advice’, the world was full of promise, and the poet’s mind was carefree.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘Through the Dark Sod — as Education’.
Through the Dark Sod — as Education —
The Lily passes sure —
Feels her white foot — no trepidation —
Her faith — no fear —
Afterward — in the Meadow —
Swinging her Beryl Bell —
The Mold-life — all forgotten — now —
In Extasy — and Dell —
This short poem – quoted in full above – is quintessential Emily Dickinson, and sees her using the word ‘Education’ as a metaphor for the way the lily flourishes out of the earth, like a child growing to maturity.
6. G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Song of Education’.
They have brightened our room, that is spacious and cool,
With diagrams used in the Idiot School,
And Books for the Blind that will teach us to see;
But mother is happy, for mother is free.
For mother is dancing up forty-eight floors,
For love of the Leeds International Stores,
And the flame of that faith might perhaps have grown cold,
With the care of a baby of seven weeks old …
So Chesterton writes in this poem, part of a longer sequence from 1922 called ‘Songs of Education’ in which the poet and creator of Father Brown rails against the various flaws of the modern age, all of which are grouped around ‘education’ in some way.
7. Langston Hughes, ‘Theme for English B’.
Hughes (1901-67) was one of the leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
This poem is about the experience of being a black boy – the only one in his class – at a New York School in the early twentieth century. Hughes writes that his experience of the world will be different from his white peers, and yet they – and their white teacher – are united by being American. This acknowledgment of what brings them together, but also what marks them out as different, underpins this poem.
8. Seamus Heaney, ‘Death of a Naturalist’.
This is a poem about ‘education’ that goes beyond school lessons. ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – the title poem from Heaney’s first collection of poems, published in 1966 – is a poem about a rite of passage, and realising that the reality of the world does not match our expectations of it. Here, specifically, it is sexuality which is the theme: the speaker is appalled and repulsed by the reproductive cycle of frogs, which doesn’t quite tally with the view of nature offered by his teacher, Miss Walls.
We have analysed this poem here.
9. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’.
There aren’t many modern or contemporary poems which recall schooldays with affection, but ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ does just that. Duffy paints a fond picture of her time at primary school and on the brink of adolescence, powerfully suggested by the poem’s final image of the sky breaking into a thunderstorm – reminding us that ‘education’ at school is about more than just the academic lessons, and that we grow personally, physically, and emotionally during our time at school.
10. Karl Shapiro, ‘University’.
This 1940 poem by the American poet Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) is especially relevant in light of the recent move to decolonise university curriculums, particularly in the US and UK. Shapiro describes the old-fashioned, manorial structure and feel to the modern university, which is propped up by tradition and endowments from wealthy donors, and fails to connect with the lives of many ordinary Americans beyond the campus boundaries. The university in question is the University of Virginia.
Appreciated especially the Shapiro and Hughes poems I didn’t know before.