By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poets have often turned to childhood as a theme for their poetry, but what about pregnancy? In this post, we collect together some of the best poems about expecting a child, being pregnant, and giving birth, as well as the experiences of bringing a new life into the world.
1. William Blake, ‘Infant Joy’.
I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee …
Let us begin with a few poems about the wonders of giving birth and bringing a baby into the world. A baby is born, a little miracle with the gift of life. But what should the infant be called? ‘Joy’, of course, in honour of the joy of new life a baby represents!
‘Infant Joy’ is noteworthy for being spoken by both the new-born baby and its mother: ‘I am but two days old’, speaks the joyous infant, while another voice – as we learn from the second stanza, the voice of the infant’s mother – responds with the question, ‘What shall I call thee?’ An infant may be without a name but it is also without a voice, as the very word attests (from the Latin infans, ‘unable to speak’).
2. Christina Rossetti, ‘I Know a Baby’.
I know a baby, such a baby,
Round blue eyes and cheeks of pink,
Such an elbow furrowed with dimples,
Such a wrist where creases sink …
This is one of the best lullabies in the English language, if we grant that by ‘best’ we mean ‘written by one of the best poets’. If you favour something a little more sentimental to anticipate the birth of a child, look no further than this charming piece of poetry by one of the Victorian era’s foremost poets.
3. WB Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’.
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s Wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind …
This 1919 poem was written for Anne, Yeats’s daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. In the poem, Yeats watches his sleeping daughter and thinks of all the things he wishes for her: beauty (but not too much beauty), and a personality that is free from hatred.
4. Mina Loy, ‘Parturition’.
As we’ve written elsewhere, Loy (1882-1966) was probably the finest Futurist poet writing in English, and her modernist style bears the influence of many continental thinkers and artists, including the Italian Futurists who championed speed and modernity over tradition and the establishment.
But Loy’s style is entirely her own, and in this free verse poem she takes an almost scientific view of pregnancy, even giving her poem a title taken from the world of medicine. At the same time, there’s something utterly personal and, at times, autobiographical about the experience – especially the pain – of being pregnant and giving birth.
5. H. D., ‘The Pool’.
As we’re explored in our longer discussion of this poem, ‘The Pool’ was written in spring 1915 when the modernist poet Hilda Doolittle, who published as simply ‘H. D.’, was expecting her first child with her husband, Richard Aldington, and this brief five-line imagist poem has been interpreted as a poem addressed to their unborn child.
6. Louis MacNeice, ‘Prayer before Birth’.
Written during the Second World War, ‘Prayer Before Birth’ muses about the kind of world that an as-yet-unborn child will be brought into. And what will that child grow up to be, given the horrors and atrocities being witnessed every day? It is a striking poem not least because MacNeice writes it from the perspective of, and in the voice of, the unborn child.
One of most frequently anthologised poems by Louis MacNeice (1907-63), the Northern Irish poet who was associated with W. H. Auden as one of the ‘Poets of the Thirties’ in England, to which the young MacNeice moved and where he spent the rest of his life.
7. Philip Larkin, ‘Born Yesterday’.
It might surprise you to find Philip Larkin appearing in a list of the best baby poems. And yet this poem is refreshingly frank about the wishes we have for newborn children and our hopes for the sort of people they might grow up to be.
Written for Sally Amis, the first daughter of Larkin’s close friend Kingsley Amis and his wife Hilly, Larkin composed ‘Born Yesterday’ the day after Sally’s birth, although of course the title resonates with that phrase’s other meaning, denoting someone innocently naïve.
8. Sylvia Plath, ‘Metaphors’.
Plath (1932-63) often wrote about her own experiences of becoming a mother, and ‘Metaphors’ is an almost meta-poetic exploration of pregnancy and the poet’s quest to capture this experience through metaphor, that stock-in-trade of poetic language.
Some of the metaphors are more logical and easily suggested than others, such as the loaf of bread rising like an expectant mother’s belly. Others, like the coin-purse filled with new-minted money, are perhaps more surprising, but strike us as no less true.
9. Don Paterson, ‘Waking with Russell’.
What of the experience of fatherhood when a baby has been born? Written by one of the greatest contemporary poets, ‘Waking with Russell’ (2003) is about waking next to his four-day-old son and the joy it brings to the poet. Tender, without being mawkish, with its use of the same rhymes acting almost like a gently rocking cradle.
10. Rachel Richardson, ‘Ultrasound’.
We’ll conclude our pick of pregnancy poems with one about the wonder that is the ultrasound scan, showing the expectant mother and her partner what the baby looks like in the womb. Richardson is a contemporary poet and her poem bears the influence of Plath’s from this list, with its metaphors including a ‘half-loaf rising’. But we also love the image of the unborn child as a ‘Novel unbegun’, not least because a new life is ‘novel’ in the other sense of that word: new.