Compiling a list of the best children’s poems is a delicate task. Everybody, after all, has their favourites, wrapped up in cherished memories of childhood. No doubt we’ve failed to do justice to some real classics. Nonetheless, here are ten poems that represent some of the greatest voices in children’s literature.
Best poems for kids
The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear
Not only are we unsure quite what this poem is getting at – is it really about love? – but even the words themselves are of questionable meaning. In particular, the word ‘runcible’ was entirely made up by Lear, who, as well as using it to describe a spoon, applied it to his hat, a wall and his cat. And nobody has a clue what it actually means – which is exactly the point. One of the most vivid and charming examples of Victorian nonsense poetry, it is embedded in the national psyche, with many a grown up able to recite it from beginning to end.
Among the musical settings of this poem was this waterbound opera, presented by the ROH2 in 2012.
A Baby Sardine by Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan’s inimitable humour found expression in every area of the entertainment industry, including films, books and programmes and radio, not least, of course, the legendary Goon Show. Here it is, wrapped up in a lovely little poem about a baby sardine gazing through a peephole into a submarine.
The Anteater by Roald Dahl
As Roald Dahl poems go, this one isn’t the most famous. That title probably goes to Little Red Riding Hood, or Cinderella. But it is my personal favourite. Part of the Dirty Beasts collection, it tells the story of Roy, a spoilt brat from San Francisco who announces that he wants an anteater, only to find, when the emaciated creature arrives, that it has a taste for human flesh, in particular that of Roy’s 83-year-old aunt Dorothy. Devilishly subversive and maliciously comic, it proves why Roald Dahl is so well loved by children and adults worldwide.
The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
Though included in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 follow up to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Through the Looking Glass – this nonsense poem actually first appeared in 1855 in the little periodical Mischmasch, which the author compiled to entertain his family. Probably the most famous of all British nonsense poems, it is particularly loved for its wildly imaginative language, which includes many new words, such as ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’, that have since become part of our lexicon.
Among those who have set this poem to music is the madcap composer Gerald Barry – also famous for his bonkers take on Alice’s Adventures Underground and The Importance of Being Earnest. His surreal setting for voice, horn and piano uses the text twice, first in French with long legato phrases, and then, more incisively, in German.
From a Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stevenson
Describing the view from a railway train as it speeds through the countryside, this 1885 poem stands out for its vivid imagery and its rhythm, which masterfully evokes the movement of a train. What is particularly arresting is the way the two interact, with the steady rhythm providing an interesting counterpoint to the swiftly-shifting scenery. The result, for children and adults alike, is both escapist and exhilarating – qualities that were skilfully harnessed by the contemporary American composer Nico Muhly in his setting of the poem for voice and piano as part of Aldeburgh Music’s Friday Afternoons Project.
6. Matilda by Hillaire Belloc
Despite its dark message about the perils of telling lies, Belloc’s 1907 poem about the mendacious Matilda who ended up burning to death, has a light, comical tone. That’s because it’s less of a cautionary tale, than a parody of cautionary tales, of the sort that were popular in the 19th century. Other poems in the same collection included ‘Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion’, and ‘Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies.’
Probably the most famous musical setting of this poem is probably that of the English soprano and composer Liza Lehmann, who included it in her 1909 collection of Lieder entitled ‘4 Cautionary Tales and a Moral’.
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Buckingham Palace by A.A. Milne
A.A Milne wrote this playful poem about his son Christopher Robin going to the changing of the guard ceremony in 1924, when Christopher was four years old. In the poem he is accompanied by someone called ‘Alice’ who is apparently ‘marrying one of the guard’. Some say she is based on Christopher’s nanny, Olive Brockwell, who looked after Christopher until he went to boarding school, and whom he adored. Whether or not this theory is accurate, it certainly adds to the poignancy of this little poem, which, like the Winnie the Pooh stories, for which Milne was best known, captures a sense of yearning for a lost childhood.
Although there are relatively few musical settings of this poem, one that stands out is that by the English light music composer Harold Fraser-Simon, whose song was later made into a record by the nine-year-old child star Ann Stephens.
Macavity, the Mystery Cat by T.S. Eliot
As well as his great poems about the human condition, T.S Eliot also wrote some of the most memorable light verses in English literature. Best known is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, his homage to the psychological complexity and general awesomeness of feline characters. It was this collection that inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Cats, with Macavity – the so-called ‘Napoleon of Crime!’, who is always just one step ahead of Scotland Yard – playing a central role.
Please Mrs Butler by Allan Ahlberg
For all that is was written forty years ago, this poem about a fruitless conversation between pupil and teacher, doesn’t seem at all dated. That’s because Allan Ahlberg had the knack of writing about the most ordinary, everyday events in a child’s life, and making them absolutely relateable. Oh, and it helps that he’s so damn funny.
Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen
This love letter to pudding is a hit with children, not just because of the subject matter, but because of the sheer vividness with which it paints picture of a child sneaking downstairs to grab a morsel of cake. You can hear the creaky floorboards. You can see the crumbs lying on the plate. Packed with onomatopoeic effects, it’s also a poem that lends itself to live performance, which is why the Polka Children’s Theatre in Wimbledon turned it into a musical a few years ago, featuring music by the cabaret singer-songwriter Barb Jungr.