10 of the Best Poems about Discovery

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Discoveries can take many forms: an explorer discovering a new land, an astronomer discovering a whole new planet or galaxy, or a poet discovering the truth about love, nature, or even, for that matter, truth itself.

The following ten poems are our pick of the best ‘discovery’ poems: poems which are about people discovering things, or something about the world in some way. They range from metaphysical poems about settlers arriving on a new island to Romantic poems about discovering the joys of reading classical poetry in translation. We hope you enjoy them.

1. Andrew Marvell, ‘Bermudas’.

Where the remote Bermudas ride
In th’ocean’s bosom unespied,
From a small boat, that row’d along,
The list’ning winds receiv’d this song.
‘What should we do but sing his praise
That led us through the wat’ry maze
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?

This poem, from the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621-78), is set in the Atlantic Ocean and focuses on a group of people aboard a boat, and clearly in exile from their native land. They discover the island of Bermuda, and sing a song in praise of the island. The next 32 lines of the poem comprise their song.

The people aboard the boat praise God for leading them to this previously undiscovered island, which seems ‘far kinder’ than the island they have left behind, namely Britain.

2. John Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold …

Here’s a poem about a different kind of discovery: the discovery of a new writer. Keats (1795-1821), one of the leading Romantic poets in English, recalls opening a book containing the Elizabethan George Chapman’s English translation of Homer’s epic poetry, and discovering the world of wonder contained within.

Tellingly, Keats likens his own personal discovery of this enchanting book of poetry to an astronomer discovering a new star, or Hernán Cortés discovering South America (although in actual fact, Keats has got Cortez and Pizarro mixed up).

3. Emily Dickinson, ‘Our Journey had advanced’.

Our journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being’s road,
Eternity by term …

In some of the best poems about discoveries, there is a focus on journeys: voyages of discovery, in other words. Here, Dickinson (1830-86) uses the voyage as a metaphor for something greater. And what journey is greater than that from life into death, mortality into eternity?

4. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Discovery’.

I wandered to a crude coast
Like a ghost;
Upon the hills I saw fires —
Funeral pyres
Seemingly — and heard breaking
Waves like distant cannonades that set the land shaking.

And so I never once guessed
A Love-nest,
Bowered and candle-lit, lay
In my way,
Till I found a hid hollow,
Where I burst on her my heart could not but follow.

As well as being a novelist, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a prolific poet, and this short lyric – reproduced in full above – is more of a fragment than a fully worked-up piece. Still, it wonderfully captures the way love surprises us, when it is found in the unlikeliest of places.

5. W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect …

Yeats wrote ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ in 1927, when he was in his early sixties, and the poem sees Yeats’s speaker announcing that the country he’s left behind is ‘no country for old men’: being old, the speaker felt out of place there, and so he is making a journey (a pilgrimage?) to the ancient city of Byzantium, which can be read as a symbol for his yearning for spiritual meaning.

The poem, then, is about a journey of spiritual discovery, and renouncing the hold of the world upon us in order to attain something higher than the physical or sensual.

6. Florence Ripley Mastin, ‘Discovery’.

Mastin (1886-1968) was an American poet whose collections included Green Leaves and Cables of Cobweb. She died in 1968 after a long career in teaching.

This poem sees the speaker finding peace among nature, until the sight of a ‘battalion’ of ‘red tulips’ (or are they actual soldiers in red uniform?) awakens something within her, and she discovers that she is not as placid as they believed herself to be …

7. T. S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’.

This poem from 1942 is the final part of Eliot’s suite of poems known as Four Quartets, and although it takes in many themes – from religious salvation to the Blitz during the Second World War – it is, among other things, about exploration and discovery. ‘We shall not cease from exploration’, Eliot tells us towards the end of the poem.

8. Louis MacNeice, ‘Star-Gazer’.

To look at the night sky is to look into the past: we are looking at stars, not as they are now, but as they were thousands, perhaps even millions of years ago. MacNeice’s ‘Star-Gazer’ thinks bigger than man’s three-score-and-ten, reflecting on the fact that some of the stars now bursting into life will never be seen by the poet, because they are so far away their light will only reach earth a long, long time in the future.

9. Mary Jo Salter, ‘Discovery’.

Salter (born 1954) is an American poet, known to millions of English Literature students as the co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is also a fine poet herself, as this poem about the launch of a rocket demonstrates.

10. Sarah Howe, ‘Relativity’.

Howe wrote this poem about scientific ideas – specifically relating to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and its impact on subsequent physics – and read it to Stephen Hawking, to whom the poem is dedicated. It’s beautiful, moving, and shows that scientific discovery continues to inspire some of the finest poetry.

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