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“To Sir William Sidney, on his Birthday” by Ben Jonson At the birthday feast of the poet’s patron, the fire roars and the guests sing and dance. But Jonson tells Sidney that he must not rest on his laurels, but procreate. “Nor can a little of the common store / Of nobles’ virtue, shew in you; / Your blood / So good / And great, must seek for new.”
“To Mrs MB on Her Birthday” by Alexander Pope Pope’s poem to his friend Martha Blount knows that birthdays are melancholy for many. “Is that a Birth-Day? ’tis alas! too clear, / ‘Tis but the funeral of the former year”. He wishes Martha happiness, pointedly expecting that she will be pleased “Not with those Toys the female world admire, / Riches that vex, and Vanities that tire.” Instead she will “wake to Raptures in a Life to come.” Consoling?
“VI. Stella’s Birth-Day” by Jonathan Swift Swift wrote many wonderful birthday poems to his friend-or-was-she-lover Esther Johnson (“Stella”). In 1724 he was 56 and she 43: “Adieu bright wit, and radiant eyes; / You must be grave, and I be wise”. Luckily his eyes are going. “For nature, always in the right, / To your decays adapts my sight, / And wrinkles undistinguished pass, / For I’m ashamed to use a glass.”
“One and Twenty” by Samuel Johnson Johnson’s satirical celebration of a titled young man’s coming of age gets read aloud by the obnoxious Gerald Fedden at his son’s 21st birthday party in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. He doesn’t understand Johnson’s mockery. “Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander, / Let it wander as it will; / See the jocky, see the pander, / Bid them come, and take their fill.”
“A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti “My heart is like a singing bird / Whose nest is in a watered shoot; / My heart is like an apple tree / Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit”. Is it amorous or religious ecstasy? Somebody’s birthday is special in Rossetti’s mysterious poem, “Because the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me”.
“Poem on his Birthday” by Dylan Thomas Thomas is 35 and sitting in a nice room near the sea, but makes it sound both lyrical and death-bound. “And the rhymer in the long tongued room, / Who tolls his birthday bell, / Toils towards the ambush of his wounds; / Herons, steeple stemmed, bless.”
“For a Birthday” by Thom Gunn “I have reached a time when words no longer help.” Gunn’s middle-aged rumination is at first comic, and then surprisingly ecstatic. We go from words being “gravel-stones, or tiny dogs which yelp / Biting my trousers, running round my legs” to a kiss as communion. “The sweet moist wafer of your tongue I taste, / And find right meanings in your silent mouth.”
“A Birthday Present” by Sylvia Plath In Plath’s poetic world, birthday gifts are not exactly cheering. “I will only take it and go aside quietly. / You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle, // No falling ribbons, no scream at the end. / I do not think you credit me with this discretion.”
“For KR on her Sixtieth Birthday” by Richard Wilbur Wilbur’s witty and charming rondeau was written for the poet and critic Kathleen Raine. “Blow out the candles of your cake. / They will not leave you in the dark, / Who round with grace this dusky arc / Of the grand tour which souls must take.”
“Ninetieth Birthday” by RS Thomas “Noting the lichen / That writes history on the page / Of the grey rock”, the poet treks up a steep Welsh lane to visit a woman “Born almost a century back”. She asks for news of people who are gone, and he congratulates her, “Yet no bridge joins her own / World with yours, all you can do / Is lean kindly across the abyss / To hear words that were once wise.” JM
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ten of the best: birthday poems | Poetry