What are the best poems about knowledge? Poetry often contains a kind of wisdom or deeper knowledge: about the world, about love, about what might await us after we die. Whether we agree with the forms of knowledge poets postulate or vehemently disagree, the poet is often seeking out, in William Blake’s memorable phrase, ‘the Palace of Wisdom’.
The following ten poems are some of the best to deal with the topic of ‘wisdom’ or ‘knowledge’, of various kinds.
1. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much …
This work is from the early 1730s and is one of the most famous examples of the didactic poetry which was associated with the Augustan era and especially with Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Didactic poetry puts forward an argument in the heroic couplet form.
An Essay on Man is a moral work, in which Pope places man within the grand scheme of God’s creation and argues how man should live. In particular, as in the oft-quoted passage above, Pope discusses the importance of man ‘knowing himself’. The work would inspire Voltaire to write his novel Candide.
2. Oliver Goldsmith, ‘The Village Schoolmaster’.
The village all declar’d how much he knew;
’Twas certain he could write, and cipher too:
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquish’d he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thund’ring sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew …
Goldsmith’s depiction of a genial village schoolteacher, who is viewed by the locals as a kind of demigod, is not one that has lasted, alas, into the modern age. But when Goldsmith was writing, learning and literacy were looked up to, and the man who possessed their gifts was revered. The reference to the schoolmaster’s ‘small head’ being sufficient to ‘carry all he knew’ is a memorable one.
3. Phillis Wheatley, ‘On Virtue’.
O thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heaven-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promised bliss …
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84), who was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties. Wheatley’s poems, which bear the influence of eighteenth-century English verse – her preferred form was the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and others – address a range of subjects, including George Washington, child mortality, her fellow black artists, and her experiences as a slave in America.
This poem is slightly unusual among Wheatley’s poems in that it’s written in blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. This looser form, freed from the ‘shackles’ of rhyme we find in the heroic couplet, allows Wheatley freer rein when considering the virtues of virtue: here, a quality personified as female, and with the ability to deliver ‘promised bliss’. Wisdom is also an important quality.
4. William Wordsworth, ‘The Tables Turned’.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher …
This is a poem from the 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, a book co-authored by the two English Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
Wordsworth orders his friend to stand up and stop reading books. He looks haggard (‘clear your looks’; ‘toil and trouble’), perhaps because he’s been overdoing the books and studying too hard. True knowledge, for Wordsworth as for many of the Romantics, is to be found among nature rather than in dusty old books.
5. John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know …’
One of the most famous ‘theories’ propounded by the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) was something the poet himself called ‘Negative Capability’: in short, being content to live with uncertainties and doubts rather than always reaching ‘irritably’ after facts and reason.
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is perhaps the most famous of the five Odes which Keats composed in 1819. Meditating on the mute form of a vase from classical antiquity, Keats tries to discover what it means and realises, in words that have become celebrated, that the vase itself appears to offer up the answer and say: ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’, and this is all we need to know: Negative Capability, in other words …
6. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Locksley Hall’.
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and I linger on the shore,
And the individual withers, and the world is more and more.
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and he bears a laden breast,
Full of sad experience, moving toward the stillness of his rest …
Here’s another oft-quoted line which is especially apt for this selection of poems: ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’. Tennyson himself said that this 1835 poem represents ‘young life, its good side, its deficiencies, and its yearnings.’
We may come into knowledge about the world as we attain maturity, but it is a deeper kind of knowledge, which we call wisdom, which remains, and remains the most valuable.
7. Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed …
‘Song of Myself’ is perhaps the definitive achievement of the great nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman (1819-92), and is, among other things, a celebration of identity and of the importance of knowing ourselves.
The whole poem is long, but well worth devoting ten or fifteen minutes to reading, whether you’re familiar with Whitman’s distinctive and psalmic free verse style or new to the world of Walt Whitman’s poetry.
8. Oscar Wilde, ‘The True Knowledge’.
Thou knowest all; I seek in vain
What lands to till or sow with seed –
The land is black with briar and weed,
Nor cares for falling tears or rain.
Thou knowest all; I sit and wait
With blinded eyes and hands that fail,
Till the last lifting of the veil
And the first opening of the gate.
Thou knowest all; I cannot see.
I trust I shall not live in vain,
I know that we shall meet again
In some divine eternity.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) had many a wise and witty word to say about knowledge, experience, and wisdom. But his poetry has been eclipsed by his other writings, and by his quotable one-liners. Here, Wilde considers the idea that we on earth know and see little of what lies beyond ‘the veil’ which separates us from the next world.
9. Dorothy Parker, ‘Wisdom’.
Along with Wilde, Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is perhaps the wittiest person whom everyone loves to quote. But unlike Wilde, Parker’s poetry was as witty as her conversation, and in ‘Wisdom’ she tells us why she’s giving up on love, because it’s the wise thing to do …
10. Louise Bogan, ‘Knowledge’.
Let’s conclude our pick of knowledge poems with a short poem from the American Louise Bogan (1897-1970), from 1922. The knowledge the speaker has come into is that passion is short-lived and we require something subtler and longer-lasting to sustain us: the poem’s image of trees making little sound but casting a long shadow is a fine symbol for the deeper wisdom many of these poems urge us to cultivate.