Poems for Birthdays
PostedDecember 27, 2004
Birthdays are usually celebrated with a four-line ditty and a cake, but long before the Hill sisters composed the now ubiquitous birthday song (originally called "Good Morning to All") in the late nineteenth century, poets had been writing about birth. Thomas Traherne, for example, marked the occasion in "Salutation" by portraying the awe he felt at his own existence: "From Dust I rise / And out of Nothing now awake."
Many poets use their birthdays as a moment for retrospection, for looking back over the past, or imagining the future. Poems about birthdays are often poems about the passing of time, about age, and an opportunity for change. Joyce Sutphen, for example, writes in "Crossroads":
The second half of my life will be black
to the white rind of the old and fading moon.
The second half of my life will be water
over the cracked floor of these desert years.
Walter Savage Landor summed up 75 years in only four lines in the poem "On His Seventy-fifth Birthday":
I strove with none; for none was worth my strife,
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
William Blake wrote numerous poems where he imagined his own birth, among them "Infant Joy" and "Infant Sorrow," which contrast the joy of a parent at the birth of a new child to the sorrow the newborn feels upon entering this world. "Pretty Joy! Sweet joy, but two days old" coos a parent in "Infant Joy," against which the infant says in "Infant Sorrow":
My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Like Blake, the twelfth century Chinese poet Su Tung-p’o, wrote a poem about birth to comment on the society that the child would be entering. In his poem, "On the Birth of his Son," for example, he criticized the fact that the poor, no matter how intelligent, rarely rose to the top:
Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.
Of course, poets have also been drawn to write about the birthday tradition of giving gifts. Sylvia Plath, for example, imagines that she's unworthy of her gift in her dark poem "A Birthday Present":
What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?
I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is just what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking
"Is this the one I am to appear for,
Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?
Finally, Thom Gunn expressed a unique, perhaps Freudian birthday wish, when he wrote, in "Baby Song":
From the private ease of Mother’s womb
I fall into the lighted room.
Why don’t they simply put me back
Where it is warm and wet and black?
For poems on birth consider the following:
"Labor Pains" by Yosano Akiko
"Infant Joy" by William Blake
"Infant Sorrow" by William Blake
"The Angel that Presided O’er My Birth" by William Blake
"A Newborn Girl at Passover" by Nan Cohen
"Baby Song" by Thom Gunn
"Happy Birthday" by Ted Kooser
"Seal Lullaby" by Rudyard Kipling
"On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday" by Walter Savage Landor
"The Birthnight" by Walter de la Mare
"To Miss Charlotte Pulteney, in Her Mother’s Arms" by Ambrose Philips
"Morning Song" by Sylvia Plath
"The Birthday Present" by Sylvia Plath
"Crossroads" by Joyce Sutphen
"The Salutation" by Thomas Traherne
"Sweet and Low" by Lord Alfred Tennyson
"On the Birth of His Son" by Su Tung-p’o