Poets are often writing about historical events, from wars and battles to key political moments. But what about poets who turn their thoughts to the past and write about not the present day, but history from hundreds of years ago?
Below, we select and introduce ten of the greatest poems about the past and history that played out before the poets themselves were alive. Some of them are more general meditations on ‘the past’ and what we mean by ‘history’, but some engage with particular events, buildings, or historical figures.
We will give an honorary mention to a contemporary poem, Oliver Tearle’s ‘The Rough Guide to Croatia’, about the (less well-known) Black Sphinx dating back over 3,000 years and found in Split, Croatia.
1. Anne Bradstreet, ‘In Honour of that High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth’.
Although great Queen, thou now in silence lie,
Yet thy loud Herald Fame, doth to the sky
Thy wondrous worth proclaim, in every clime,
And so has vow’d, whilst there is world or time …
So begins this poem from the seventeenth-century poet Anne Bradstreet, the first person from the New World to have a book of poems published (although Bradstreet had been born in England, she had emigrated to America following her marriage). Bradstreet pays tribute to Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch during whose reign England first set up the colonies in the Americas a century earlier.
2. Percy Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’.
Published in The Examiner on 11 January 1818, ‘Ozymandias’ is perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most celebrated and best-known poem, concluding with the haunting and resounding lines:
‘“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
A sonnet about the remnants of a statue standing alone in a desert – a desert which was once the vast civilisation of Ozymandias, ‘King of Kings’ – the poem is a haunting meditation on the fall of civilisations and the futility of all human endeavour. Shelley wrote the poem as part of a competition with his friend, Horace Smith.
3. John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter …
Here’s another poem from a Romantic, once again inspired by a historical artefact. Inspired by the scenes depicted on an ancient Greek urn, this is one of Keats’s best odes. However, original readers didn’t think so: in 1820 it was met with a lukewarm reception. Since then, though, its reputation as one of Keats’s most polished poems has become established – including the famous final two lines, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘Yesterday is History’.
Yesterday is History,
’Tis so far away –
Yesterday is Poetry –
’Tis Philosophy –
Yesterday is mystery –
Where it is Today
While we shrewdly speculate
Flutter both away –
What counts as ‘history’? Is ‘history’ synonymous with ‘the past’? In this poem from the great American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), which we reproduce in full above, even yesterday is history because it is as irretrievable as the deep past of thousands of years ago: it is ‘so far away’. But yesterday is also now poetry (the past takes on a nostalgic appeal to us, even our recent pasts), philosophy (encouraging us to speculate upon the passage of time), and mystery (it is unknowable now).
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘A Spellbound Palace’.
Our footsteps wait awhile,
Then draw beneath the pile,
When an inner court outspreads
As ’twere History’s own asile,
Where the now-visioned fountain its attenuate crystal sheds
In passive lapse that seems to ignore the yon world’s clamorous clutch,
And lays an insistent numbness on the place, like a cold hand’s touch …
‘A Spellbound Palace’ is not one of Thomas Hardy’s best-known poems, but in our opinion it is one of his best. This one takes a historic building as its subject: focusing on Hampton Court Palace on the River Thames, and summoning memories of Tudor England during the time of Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry VIII, ‘A Spellbound Palace’ is a moody and evocative poem that deserves more critical attention than it has received.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘On Wenlock Edge’.
’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there …
First published in Housman’s popular 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, ‘On Wenlock Edge’ (later set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams) imagines the life of a Roman soldier who trod the same land in west England as he now treads, but in the times of Roman occupation. The poem captures the Roman history of England through its contrast with Housman’s present-day existence and the life of the imagined inhabitant of Uriconium.
7. Philip Larkin, ‘An Arundel Tomb’.
In this poem, one of Larkin’s most affirmative about the nature of romantic love, we find the poet musing upon a memorial (strictly not a tomb) in Chichester Cathedral to the fourteenth-century Richard FitzAlan and Eleanor of Lancaster. Using this historical effigy as its starting-point, Larkin’s poem homes in on the fact that the earl and countess are depicted in a romantic gesture holding hands; he concludes that only an ‘attitude’ from that courtly and chivalric age has survived, revealing that this attitude is the notion that love is what survives of our lives and what we do.
We have analysed this poem in more detail in a separate post.
8. 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’.
9. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘History’.
Here is a poem about the female perspective on ‘history’ as a broad subject. If ‘history’ for a long time, as Thomas Carlyle pointed out, was the story of ‘Great Men’, then Duffy’s contemporary poem reminds us that women have played an important but overlooked role throughout history, sometimes as witnesses, sometimes as active participants.
10. Oliver Tearle, ‘The Rough Guide to Croatia’.
She alone endures. Her mere presence
rolls back the centuries like a Time Machine,
concatenating Egypt, Rome, the Adriatic
and the ages, emperors, dynasties she outlived.
Now she has settled into retirement,
her eyes weary from the glare of Ra, Sol, sun …
Let’s conclude this pick of poems about history and the past with a contemporary poem about a less well-known sphinx from antiquity. The famous Great Sphinx at Giza is celebrated throughout the world, but what about the Egyptian black sphinxes which were taken from Egypt by the Roman emperor Diocletian?
One of them is still visible at the beautiful palace in coastal Split, Croatia. This poem views the sphinx as a kind of time machine, rolling back the millennia to the Roman empire and, further, the Egyptian civilisation that worshipped Ra.