In this post, we introduce ten of the greatest poems about various hobbies, pastimes, and interests: everything from reading to walking to fishing to sports and games. But obviously ‘activities’ is quite a broad term, so which great poems about hobbies and activities have we missed off this list?
1. Thomas Traherne, ‘Walking’.
To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet.
In terms of having the longest wait for a posthumous poetic reputation to begin, the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-74) may take first prize. Over a century before Romanticism, Traherne describes how walking amongst nature can provide us with an appreciation of the beauty all around us.
2. William Wordsworth, from The Prelude.
And now, as suited one who proudly row’d
With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon, for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin Pinnace; lustily
I dipp’d my oars into the silent Lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;
When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear’d its head …
Wordsworth’s magnum opus was, in many ways, his long autobiographical poem in blank verse, The Prelude, which makes good on Wordsworth’s claim elsewhere that ‘the Child is Father of the Man’. The poem describes his early years and how those formative experiences shaped the poet and man he became.
In this excerpt from the first book of the poem, we find a young Wordsworth rowing a boat and having an encounter with a vast mountain which is both beautiful and terrific in its size – the very embodiment of what Edmund Burke called ‘the Sublime’.
Autumn—overlooked my Knitting—
Dyes—said He—have I—
Could disparage a Flamingo—
Show Me them—said I—
Cochineal—I chose—for deeming
It resemble Thee—
And the little Border—Dusker—
For resembling Me—
Since we’re offering some of the greatest poems about various activities and hobbies, how about a poem about knitting, from one of the nineteenth century’s most original poets, Emily Dickinson (1830-86)? The poem is short enough to be reproduced in full above.
4. Francis Thompson, ‘At Lord’s’.
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago …
It’s often tempting to look back, nostalgically, at a golden age of sport, or to recall a sportsperson when they were playing at their peak. Harold Pinter once sent a short poem to Len Hutton which read, ‘I saw Len Hutton in his prime, another time, another time.’ (When, upon receiving no response, Pinter wrote to Hutton asking what he thought of the poem, Hutton shot back that he hadn’t finished reading it yet.)
Francis Thompson (1859-1907) remembered seeing Hornby and Barlow bat at Old Trafford in their heyday, and when he was invited to watch Lancashire play Middlesex at Lord’s, Thompson declined to go. Instead, he stayed at home and wrote At Lord’s, recalling those glory days of English cricket.
5. A. E. Housman, ‘Twice a week the winter thorough’.
Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.
Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad …
This poem from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad mentions both football and cricket, so we get two sports for the price of one in this classic poem. The power of sport in such situations is the ‘mirth’ it provides the speaker: he can keep his mind from gloomier thoughts by joining his fellow man for a football or cricket match. The power of football as a way of ‘fighting sorrow’ also chimes with the message we find elsewhere in A Shropshire Lad: that male bonding, friendship, and neighbourly solidarity are all features of rural village life.
6. Amy Lowell, ‘Climbing’.
High up in the apple tree climbing I go,
With the sky above me, the earth below.
Each branch is the step of a wonderful stair
Which leads to the town I see shining up there.
Climbing, climbing, higher and higher,
The branches blow and I see a spire,
The gleam of a turret, the glint of a dome,
All sparkling and bright, like white sea foam …
This poem from the American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) has an almost fairy-tale quality to it, as the speaker describes the activity of climbing up an apple tree and discovering some wonderful land at the top of it …
7. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Travel’.
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going …
Travel is a popular pastime and activity for many people: exploring the world and seeing the sights it has to offer. In this poem from the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), we find her telling us how she would happily hop on a train and travel somewhere new …
8. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘The Fish’.
In this poem, Bishop’s speaker catches a fish but then lets it go; she delivers the first piece of information succinctly in the first line (‘I caught a tremendous fish’) and then the news that she let the fish go is delivered only in the poem’s final line; in between there is a long description of the fish and of the speaker’s growing awareness of it as part of a rich natural ecosystem. This has to be one of the most famous poems about fish.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘A Study of Reading Habits’.
How about a poem that takes a wry look at one of the most popular activities and pastimes of all: reading? Famous for its concluding line that ‘Books are a load of crap’, this poem may make Larkin sound like a philistine. It’s true that he downplayed the breadth of his reading (particularly in foreign poetry), and his first-class degree in English Literature from Oxford, but in this poem Larkin is taking aim specifically at a certain kind of novel which fulfilled adolescent male fantasies when the poet was a teenager, but now strikes him as unsatisfying in light of his own life.
10. Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’.
Let’s conclude with a poem about one activity (digging) that also takes in another activity (writing). ‘Digging’ is about a poet-son’s relationship with his father and the sense that the working-class son, by choosing the vocation of the poet, is adopting a path very different from his father’s, and his father’s before him. Heaney resolves to use his pen as his digging implement, and to perform a different kind of excavation from that practised by his forefathers.
The poem’s structure is significant not least in the fact that it almost goes full-circle: Heaney begins with the pen in his hand, ‘snug as a gun’ – a suggestive simile, especially given the complementarity of ‘snug’ and the word it spells when reversed, ‘guns’. A gun is a weapon associated with ‘manly’ ideas of war (however misguidedly); a spade is associated with honest manual labour, such as that performed by the poet’s father and grandfather. But the pen is, by comparison, no weapon – yes, as the proverb has it, the pen is mightier than the sword (or the gun or the spade).