Literature

10 of the Best Poems about Knights and Chivalry

Poets have often written about the days of chivalry, giving us gripping narrative poems about noble knights and brave kings, or romantic lyrics about knights saving damsels … or being brought under seductive women’s spells. Below, we introduce ten of the very best poems about chivalry, knights, and noble deeds from a bygone era.

1. Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

This long Arthurian poem was composed in the fourteenth century by an unknown poet who probably lived in the West Midlands or the North West of England.

The poem focuses on King Arthur’s nephew, the young Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenged issued by the mysterious Green Knight who arrives at Camelot during the New Year’s celebrations. Gawain can cut off the Green Knight’s head, on condition that he honour the other side of the bargain and allow the Green Knight to return the favour the following year, at the Green Chapel.

But when Gawain beheads the stranger, things do not go quite as planned, and the Knight survives. Will Gawain honour his pledge? This is perhaps the greatest story in all of medieval literature, told in lively alliterative verse and full of action, colour (especially, as you’ll have guessed, green), and interesting moral questions.

2. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene.

High above all a cloth of State was spred,
And a rich throne, as bright as sunny day,
On which there sate most brave embellished
With royall robes and gorgeous array,
A mayden Queene, that shone as Titans ray,
In glistring gold, and peerelesse pretious stone:
Yet her bright blazing beautie did assay
To dim the brightnesse of her glorious throne,
As envying her selfe, that too exceeding shone …

This is not just a poem but a vast epic poem. The poem, written in the 1590s, is a Christian allegory featuring a cast of knights, maidens, villains, monsters (the Blatant Beast – whence we get our word ‘blatant’ – is but one example), wizards, and princes. Spenser depicts the Christian world of chivalry across more than 1,000 pages.

3. Anonymous, ‘The Twa Corbies’.

There were three rauens sat on a tree,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe …

Also known as ‘The Three Ravens’ (the number of ravens or ‘corbies’ varies from telling to telling), this ballad tells how some ravens see a dead knight, recently slain, and debate whether they can eat him. Grisly but great.

4. Anonymous, ‘The Knight and Shepherd’s Daughter’.

It’s of a shepherd’s daughter dear
Keeping sheep all on the plain;
Who should ride by but Knight William
And he’d got drunk by wine.
With me right fal-lal-al diddle-al-day …

This is another classic ballad, from the golden age of British ballads in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Bearing some similarities to Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’, this ballad sees a knight seducing a shepherd’s daughter into giving up her virginity. She pursues him afterwards, insisting that he marry her, and despite the knight’s attempts to pay her off, her has to agree. After they marry, it’s revealed that she is not a shepherd’s daughter after all, but a noblewoman.

5. Anonymous, ‘The Baffled Knight; or, Lady’s Policy’.

There was a knight was drunk with wine,
A riding along the way, sir;
And there he met with a lady fine,
Among the cocks of hay, sir.

‘Shall you and I, O lady faire,
Among the grass lye down-a,
And I will have a special care
Of rumpling of your gown-a?’

So begins this, the third and last ballad included on this list. A knight meets a maid and tries it on with her, but she tells him they should go back to her comfortable bed at home, where they can get to know each other. But when they get back to her place, she goes inside and locks the door, mocking him for believing her.

6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Knight’s Tomb’.

Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O’Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good man be? –
By the side of a spring, on the breast of Helvellyn,
Under the twigs of a young birch tree!
The oak that in summer was sweet to hear,
And rustled its leaves in the fall of the year,
And whistled and roared in the winter alone,
Is gone, – and the birch in its stead is grown. –
The Knight’s bones are dust,
And his good sword rust; –
His soul is with the saints, I trust.

This short poem – which is reproduced in full above – is thought to be a draft Coleridge wrote around the same time he was working on his longer, more famous poem ‘Christabel’.

7. Felicia Dorothea Hemans, ‘The Captive Knight’.

’Twas a trumpet’s pealing sound!
And the knight look’d down from the Paynim’s tower,
And a Christian host, in its pride and power,
Thro’ the pass beneath him wound.
Cease awhile, clarion! Clarion, wild and shrill,
Cease! let them hear the captive’s voice–be still …

Hemans (1793-1835) is best-remembered for her two poems ‘Casabianca’ (beginning ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’) and ‘The Homes of England’. However, she wrote many other poems, and this one tells of a Christian knight taken captive during the Crusades. Will he ever be freed, or is he destined to rot in his jail? The knight’s plaintive lament shows how dramatic and Romantic Hemans’ style was, but it’s an interesting example of the nineteenth-century interest in the Middle Ages.

8. John Keats, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.

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 …

Talking of nineteenth-century writer’s interest in all things medieval, here’s an even more famous example than Hemans’.

‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (‘the beautiful lady without mercy’) is one of John Keats’s best-loved and most widely anthologised poems; after his odes, it may well be his most famous. But is this poem with its French title a mere piece of pseudo-medieval escapism, summoning the world of chivalrous knights and beautiful but bewitching women, or does it have a deeper meaning?

We have analysed the poem here.

9. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Morte d’Arthur’.

So all day long the noise of battle roll’d
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur’s table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full …

After the Romantics, the Victorians continued their devotion to all things related to chivalry and romance, and none more so than Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), who even went on to write a long cycle of narrative poems about King Arthur, titled Idylls of the King.

However, we’ve opted for this earlier poem, from the 1830s, here. ‘Morte d’Arthur’ was written shortly after the death of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Hallam, and the portrayal of kingly Arthur may owe something to Hallam (‘Morte d’Arthur’ means, of course, ‘the death of Arthur’). Hallam died in 1833, and Tennyson wrote ‘Morte d’Arthur’ in 1833-34.

The poem describes the death of the great British king, Arthur, and Bedivere’s depositing of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, in the lake from which Arthur first acquired it. Bedivere tends to the dying king, who hands his knight the sword and tells him to go and throw it in the lake.

10. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Worthy the Name of Sir Knight’.

Sir Knight of the world’s oldest order,
Sir Knight of the Army of God,
You have crossed the strange mystical border,
The ground floor of truth you have trod;
You have entered the sanctum sanctorum,
Which leads to the temple above,
Where you come as a stone, and a Christ-chosen one,
In the kingdom of Friendship and Love …

We conclude this pick of the best poems about knights and chivalry with this light poem from Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). Like other poems on this list – and like any poem, perhaps, which tries to capture the magic and romance of chivalry – the poem is nostalgic, looking back on a knight of the golden age of chivalry: a time which probably, in reality, never existed.

2 Comments

  1. More recent sideways looks at chivalry are John Crowe Ransom’s “Captain Carpenter” and E.A. Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy.”

  2. how wonderful!