The HyperTexts

Early English Rhyme
Early English Rhyming Poems
Timeline of Rhyme

Who wrote the first English rhymes? We have created a "Timeline of Rhyme" with examples of the oldest rhyming poems in the English language. The earliest English rhyming poems include a poem quite appropriately called "The Rhyming Poem" which appeared in the Exeter Book (c. 950). We also identify the oldest English poem (c. 658), the oldest English riddle (c. 700), the oldest English proverb (c. 757), the oldest English hymns written by Saint Godric (c. 1100), the oldest limerick (c. 1225), the oldest rhyming song with a musical score (c. 1260), the oldest rondel (c. 1380), the oldest Valentine poem (1415), the oldest English sonnet (c. 1526), the oldest Mother Goose rhyme (1590), the oldest English nursery rhyme (1639), and the oldest published lullaby (1765). Some of these ancient rhyming poems have incredible "staying power" and we think you'll surely recognize the oldest Mother Goose rhyme, the oldest nursery rhyme and probably the oldest song as well.

Timeline of Rhyme

All dates are AD unless specified BC. The beginnings of important eras are underlined and other landmark events are bolded. Poems can be read by clicking their hyperlinked titles. Please be sure to click back if you want to continue reading the timeline.

4500 BC — There is evidence of farming in Britain, along with the development of large earthwork barrows for burials and rituals.
2500 BC — Major work takes place on Stonehenge and the Great Sphinx of Giza. The rise of the Beaker Culture.
2350 BC — Egyptian funerary texts, known as the Pyramid Texts, date back at least to Pharaoh Unas (c. 2353-2323 BC) and include poems and hymns.
2285 BC — Enheduanna, daughter of King Saragon the Great, may be the first named poet in human history, for hymns such as The Exaltation of Inanna.
2100 BC — The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh appears to be the earth's oldest extant major poem and the first great work of literature.
2000 BC — The first love poem may be the Sumerian Love Song of Shu-Sin. Britain enters the Bronze Age and will soon export tin.
1800 BC — The Egyptian Prisse Papyrus (c. 1800 BC) is the oldest writing on paper and thus the first extant book.
1268 BC — This is Robert Graves' date for the Celtic Song of Amergin, but dating oral works of the Prehistoric Period seems iffy to us.
800 BC — Britain enters the Iron Age. Around this time most natives speak Brythonic, a Celtic tongue, as reflected in place names.
750 BC — Celts reach Britain; Hebrew proverbs; Chinese poems of the Shi Jing include the first known rhyming poems.

At this point the contenders for the first rhyming poems appear to be the ancient Egyptians and the first published Chinese poets. We have seen reports that rhyme has been discovered in ancient Egyptian love poems, but we have seen no evidence provided, so for now we will award that laurel to the Chinese poets of the Shi Jing. Poetry in England will emerge around the same time (see the entry for 658), but English poets will create word-music primarily with alliteration, as we can see in the provided translation of the first English poem ...

55 BC — Julius Caesar invades Britain; the Anglo-Roman Period (55 BC-410 AD) makes Latin the language of rulers, clergy and scholars.
51 BC — Julius Caesar in his Gallic War mentions that Celtic Druids studied poetry and committed a "great number of verses" to memory.
410 — Visigoths sack Rome; the Roman legions depart Britain, leading to the Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period (410-1066).
450 — With the Romans gone Anglo-Saxons invade England, which will take its name from the Angles as the lingo becomes more Germanic.

Evidently, Anglo-Saxon scops, or minstrel-poets, brought their lyres with them, as the oldest lyres found in England date to around this period. The Anglo-Saxon term for the lyre was hearpe, the source of our modern word "harp." We know from Anglo-Saxon literature than scops would literally "sing for their supper" and compete for rings, torcs and other prizes. Anglo-Saxon lyres could be fine musical instruments: for instance, some were made of maplewood with a soundboard of thin oak and a wrist-strap for two-handed playing. The Museum of London Archaeology describes the Anglo-Saxon lyre as the most important stringed instrument of the ancient world. If you see a busker playing a guitar and passing around a hat for tips, you are seeing someone carrying on an ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition.

He sits with his harp at his thane's feet,
Earning his hire, his rewards of rings,
Sweeping the strings with his skillful nail;
Hall-thanes smile at the sweet song he sings.
—"Fortunes of Men" loose translation by Michael R. Burch

500 — Birth of Gildas, the first native writer we know by name (although he was born in Scotland and wrote in Latin).
597 — Sent by Pope Gregory with 40 missionaries, Augustine founds the English Church then becomes Archbishop of Canterbury in 601.
658 — Caedmon's Hymn, the oldest known English poem, marks the beginning of English poetry (although its language was still largely Germanic).

The oldest Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) poems did not rhyme, but were alliterative and used repetition of consonant and vowel sounds to create word-music. "Caedmon's Hymn" was probably composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD and appears to be the English language's oldest extant poem. That makes it older than Beowulf, as far as we know. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735), a notable scholar and England's first great historian, Cędmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. By Caedmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. Anglo-Saxon poets, called "scops," were considered to be "makers" (as in William Dunbar's poem "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so Caedmon's poem may express a sort of affinity between the creator poet and his God.

Cędmon's Hymn (circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Humbly now we honour      heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the Measurer's might       and his mind-plans,
the goals of the Glory-Father.     First he, the Everlasting Lord,
established      earth's fearful foundations.
Then he, the First Scop,      hoisted heaven as a roof
for the sons of men:      Holy Creator,
mankind's great Maker!      Then he, the Ever-Living Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth:      Master Almighty!

680 — Possible early date for the composition of the epic poem Beowulf, a masterpiece of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poetry.
700 — Cynewulf pens and signs four Anglo-Saxon poems: Christ II, Elene, The Fates of the Apostles and Juliana. Runic extracts from The Dream of the Rood, the first dream poem in the English language, are carved on the Ruthwell Cross, dated to the eighth century, and thus firmly establishing the poem's antiquity. The Franks Casket Runes (below) were found in similar runic inscriptions. The Leiden Riddle (below) is an Old English translation of Aldhelm's Latin riddle Lorica ("Corselet").

The Leiden Riddle
anonymous Old English riddle poem, circa 700
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The dank earth birthed me from her icy womb.
I know I was not fashioned from woolen fleeces;
nor was I skillfully spun from skeins;
I have neither warp nor weft;
no thread thrums through me in the thrashing loom;
nor do whirring shuttles rattle me;
nor does the weaver's rod assail me;
nor did silkworms spin me like skillfull fates
into curious golden embroidery.
And yet heroes still call me an excellent coat.
Nor do I fear the dread arrows' flights,
however eagerly they leap from their quivers.

Solution: a coat of mail.

Franks Casket Runes
anonymous Old English riddle, circa 700
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The fish flooded the shore-cliffs;
the sea-king wept when he swam onto the shingle:
whale's bone.

731 — The Venerable Bede writes The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in Latin and composes Bede's Death Song.
760 — Hygeburg, author of the Latin Hodoeporicon is "the first known Englishwoman to have written a full-length literary work."
871 — King Alfred the Great defeats the Danes and becomes the first king of a united England. He was also a scholar, poet and translator.
890 — The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is "the single most important source for the history" of Anglo-Saxon England; Deor's Lament.
950 — The Exeter Book has two feminist poems, Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife's Lament, the first English rhymed poem, and Anglo-Saxon kennings.

"The Rhyming Poem" also known as "The Riming Poem" and "The Rhymed Poem" is well-named, because it appears to be the oldest English rhyming poem. It was included in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to circa 950-990 AD. However the poem may be older than the collection in which it was discovered.

The Rhymed Poem aka The Rhyming Poem and The Riming Poem
anonymous Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, circa 990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

He who granted me life created this sun
and graciously provided its radiant engine.
I was gladdened with glees, bathed in bright hues,
deluged with joy’s blossoms, sunshine-infused.

The full poem can be read here: The Rhyming Poem

1000 — Now skruketh rose and lylie flour is an early English love poem; also a possible date for the Nowell Codex.
1066 — William the Conqueror invades and rules England; the Norman Conquest begins the Anglo-Norman or Middle English Period (1066-1340).
1086 — King William I commissions the Domesday Book, written in Latin, to catalog his English holdings.
1096 — Teaching begins at Oxford. French and Latin are the primary languages of rulers, clergy, scholars and fashionable poets.

Reginald of Durham recorded four verses of Saint Godric's: these are the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive. The first song is said in the Life of Saint Godric to have come to Godric when he had a vision of his sister Burhcwen, like him a solitary at Finchale, being received into heaven. She was singing a song of thanksgiving, in Latin, and Godric renders her song in English bracketed by a Kyrie eleison:

Led By Christ and Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

By Christ and Saint Mary I was so graciously led
that the earth never felt my bare foot’s tread!

Crist and sainte marie swa on scamel me iledde
žat ic on žis erše ne silde wid mine bare fote itredie


In the second poem, Godric puns on his name: godes riche means “God’s kingdom” and sounds like “God is rich” ...

A Cry to Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I.
Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Mother of Jesus Christ the Nazarenė,
Welcome, shield and help thin Godric,
Fly him off to God’s kingdom rich!

II.
Saintė Mariė, Christ’s bower,
Virgin among Maidens, Motherhood’s flower,
Blot out my sin, fix where I’m flawed,
Elevate me to Bliss with God!

Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Moder Iesu Cristes Nazarenė,
Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,
Onfong bring hegilich
With the in Godės riche.

Saintė Mariė Cristes bur,
Maidenės clenhad, moderės flur;
Dilie min sinnė, rix in min mod,
Bring me to winnė with the selfd God.


Godric also wrote a prayer to St. Nicholas:

Prayer to St. Nicholas
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Saint Nicholas, beloved of God,
Build us a house that’s bright and fair;
Watch over us from birth to bier,
Then, Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there!

Sainte Nicholaes godes druš
tymbre us faire scone hus
At ži burth at ži bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel žare


1200 — How Long the Night ("Myrie it is while sumer ylast") is a stellar rhyming poem of the Middle English period; also the first Ballads.
1215 — The Magna Carta, drafted in French, forces King John to grant liberties and rights to Englishmen in return for taxation.
1225 — Saint Thomas Aquinas may have written the first limerick: a prayer in Latin! My, how things have changed!
1250 — Early rhyming poems: Sumer is icumen in, Fowles in the Frith, Ich am of Irlaunde, Now Goeth Sun Under Wood, Pity Mary.
1260 — Sumer is icumen in is an early rhyming poem with a refrain, circa 1260; it may be the oldest extant English song as well, with a musical score in Latin!

Here are two poems from the early 13th century that may predate Chaucer. Please note the introduction of end rhyme ...

How Long the Night (anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong
now grieve, mourn and fast.

Pity Mary (anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now the sun passes under the wood:
I rue, Mary, thy face—fair, good.
Now the sun passes under the tree:
I rue, Mary, thy son and thee.

In the poem above, note how "wood" and "tree" invoke the cross, while "sun" and "son" seem to invoke each other. Sun-day is also Son-day, to Christians. The birthday of Jesus Christ was changed to the 25th day of December several hundred years after the fact, because the winter solstice marks the "resurrection" of the sun as the days begin to lengthen, heralding spring and crops to come. December 25th was celebrated as the birthday of Sol Invictus and Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity as one of the official state religions of Rome, was a worshiper of Sol Invictus. The anonymous poet who wrote the poem above may have been been punning the words "sun" and "son" with such things in mind.

1300 — The poem "Sumer is i-comen in," also known as the "Cuckoo Song," is limerick-like.
1322 — A limerick-like poem "The lion is wondirliche strong" is one of the oldest such poems extant today.
1340 — Birth of Geoffrey Chaucer, the first major vernacular English poet; thus begins the Late Middle English Period (1340-1500).
1350 — An "alliterative revival" is led by the Gawain poet with Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, Cleanness.
1362 — The Statute of Pleading replaces French with English as the language of law; English is used in Parliament for the first time.
1370 — William Langland writes Piers Plowman.
1380 — Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty") is an early rondel by the first major English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, circa 1380.
1384 — John Wycliffe publishes his English translation of the Bible. English replaces Latin as the main language in schools.
1399 — Henry IV is the first English-speaking monarch since before the Norman Conquest!

Geoffrey Chaucer is generally considered to be the first major English poet.

Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

When April with her sweet showers
has pierced the drought of March to the root,
bathing the veins of virginal vines in such nectar
that even sweeter flowers are engendered,
and when Zephyr also with his immaculate breath
has inspired in every grove and glade
the tender crops; and when the young sun
has run half his course through Aries the Ram,
and when small birds make melodies
after sleeping all night with eyes wide open
because Nature pierces them through to their hearts―
then people long to go on pilgrimages ...

The two medieval English poems below may have been written around the time of Chaucer, or perhaps earlier ...

Fowles in the Frith (anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The birds in the wood,
the fishes in the flood ...
and I must go mad:
much sorrow I walk with,
for beasts of bone and blood.

I am of Ireland (anonymous Medieval Irish Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I am of Ireland,
and of the holy land of Ireland.
Gentlefolk, I pray thee:
for the sake of holy charity,
come dance with me
in Ireland.

The poem immediately above still smacks of German, as the first line reads: "Ich am of Irlaunde." But a German would have said "Ich bin" so a metamorphosis was in progress. English was becoming a language in its own right, and English poets had a number of non-Germanic influences, including the Celts, Greeks, Romans and Vikings. The ancient Celts seemed to favor myths and poems in which the earthly and otherworldly were juxtaposed. We can still see their influence in the dragons, witches and warlocks of the now heavily Christianized Arthurian legends. But our poetic forbears were by no means prudes, regardless of what Christian monks did when they "sanitized" their work (I accidentally typed "satanized" on my first attempt!). And the early English poets whose names we remember today were by no means one-track thinkers: they had numerous influences, including Greek, Roman/Italian, French and Norse poetry, in addition to the Bible.

1415 — Charles d'Orleans writes the first known Valentine poem, "My Very Gentle Valentine" (provided below).
1430 — A "haunting riddle-chant" is I Have a Yong Suster, an anonymous Medieval English poem.
1455 — The Guttenberg Bible is the first book printed with moveable type. Printed books will lead to an explosion of knowledge.
1476 — William Caxton prints Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the first book published in England with moveable type.
1485 — The Tudor Period (1457-1603) ends the Middle Ages; English rules Henry VII's court; England now speaks Early Modern English!

Charles d’Orleans (1394-1465), a French royal, the grandchild of Charles V, and the Duke of Orleans, has been credited with writing the first Valentine card, in the form of a poem for his wife. Charles wrote the poem in 1415 at age 21, in the first year of his captivity while being held prisoner in the Tower of London after having been captured by the British at the Battle of Agincourt. (The Battle of Agincourt forms the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s historical play Henry V, in which Charles appears as a character with a number of lines.) At age 16, Charles had married the 11-year-old Bonne of Armagnac in a political alliance, which explains the age difference he mentions in his poem. Unfortunately, Charles would be held prisoner for a quarter century and would never see his wife again, as she died before he was released. Why did Charles call his wife “Valentine”? Well, his mother’s name was Valentina Visconti ...

My Very Gentle Valentine
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My very gentle Valentine,
Alas, for me you were born too soon,
As I was born too late for you!
May God forgive my jailer
Who has kept me from you this entire year.
I am sick without your love, my dear,
My very gentle Valentine.

Rondel: Your Smiling Mouth
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,
Your little feet—please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you’re far away
To muse on these and thus to soothe my pain—
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains.

So would I beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as I before have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day
By your sweet smiling mouth and eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains!

Spring
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Young lovers,
greeting the spring
fling themselves downhill,
making cobblestones ring
with their wild leaps and arcs,
like ecstatic sparks
struck from coal.

What is their brazen goal?

They grab at whatever passes,
so we can only hazard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
raked by brilliant spurs of need,
Young lovers.

Oft in My Thought
by Charles D'Orleans
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

So often in my busy mind I sought,
    Around the advent of the fledgling year,
For something pretty that I really ought
    To give unto my lady dear;
    But that sweet thought's been wrested from me, clear,
        Since death, alas, has sealed her under clay
    And robbed the world of all that's precious here―
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

For me to keep my manner and my thought
    Acceptable, as suits my age's hour?
While proving that I never once forgot
    Her worth? It tests my power!
    I serve her now with masses and with prayer;
        For it would be a shame for me to stray
    Far from my faith, when my time's drawing near
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Now earthly profits fail, since all is lost
    and the cost of everything became so dear;
Therefore, O Lord, who rules the higher host,
    Take my good deeds, as many as there are,
    And crown her, Lord, above in your bright sphere,
        As heaven's truest maid! And may I say:
    Most good, most fair, most likely to bring cheer
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

When I praise her, or hear her praises raised,
I recall how recently she brought me pleasure;
    Then my heart floods like an overflowing bay
And makes me wish to dress for my own bier
    God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Confession of a Stolen Kiss
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

My ghostly father, I confess,
First to God and then to you,
That at a window (you know how)
I stole a kiss of great sweetness,
Which was done out of avidness—
But it is done, not undone, now.

My ghostly father, I confess,
First to God and then to you.

But I shall restore it, doubtless,
Again, if it may be that I know how;
And thus to God I make a vow,
And always I ask forgiveness.

My ghostly father, I confess,
First to God and then to you.

By "ghostly father" I take Charles d’Orleans to be confessing to a priest. If so, it's ironic that the kiss was "stolen" at a window and the confession is being made at the window of a confession booth. But it also seems possible that Charles could be confessing to his human father, murdered in his youth and now a ghost. There is wicked humor in the poem, as Charles is apparently vowing to keep asking for forgiveness because he intends to keep stealing kisses at every opportunity!

This is one of the best-known early English poems ...

Western Wind (anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 15th century AD)

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
     The small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
     And I in my bed again!

I should point out that there may be no absolutely authoritative text for such poems. I have seen other versions of the poem in major anthologies that substitute "will" for "wilt" in the first line, and "if" for "that" in the third line.

Here are two valuable poems by an early Scottish master, William Dunbar ...

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar (1460-1525)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

Lament for the Makaris
by William Dunbar (1460-1525)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

i who enjoyed good health and gladness
am overwhelmed now by life’s terrible sickness
and enfeebled with infirmity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

our presence here is mere vainglory;
the false world is but transitory;
the flesh is frail; the Fiend runs free ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

the state of man is changeable:
now sound, now sick, now blithe, now dull,
now manic, now devoid of glee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

no state on earth stands here securely;
as the wild wind shakes the willow tree,
so wavers this world’s vanity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

Death leads the knights into the field
(unarmored under helm and shield)
sole Victor of each red mźlée ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

that strange, despotic Beast
tears from its mother’s breast
the babe, full of benignity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He takes the champion of the hour,
the captain of the highest tower,
the beautiful damsel in her tower ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He spares no lord for his elegance,
nor clerk for his intelligence;
His dreadful stroke no man can flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
“how the fear of Death dismays me!”

in medicine the most astute
sawbones and surgeons all fall mute;
they cannot save themselves, or flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i see the Makers among the unsaved;
the greatest of Poets all go to the grave;
He does not spare them their faculty ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i have seen Him pitilessly devour
our noble Chaucer, poetry’s flower,
and Lydgate and Gower (great Trinity!) ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

since He has taken my brothers all,
i know He will not let me live past the fall;
His next prey will be — poor unfortunate me! ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

there is no remedy for Death;
we all must prepare to relinquish breath
so that after we die, we may be set free
from “the fear of Death dismays me!”

1503 — Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard introduce the sonnet, iambic pentameter and blank verse, in the English Renaissance (1500-1558).
1517 — Martin Luther publishes his 95 theses against the Roman Catholic Church, kick-starting the Protestant Reformation.
1526 — Thomas Wyatt visits Italy and falls under the spell of the Petrarchan sonnet, so this seems like the earliest date for the first English sonnet.
1532 — The English Reformation (1532-1649) has poets at war: some support the Pope, others the crown.
1552 — Birth of Edmund Spenser, the creator of the modern English style of poetry: "fluid, limpid, translucent and graceful."
1558 — The Elizabethan Period (1558-1603) has Spenser, Walter Raleigh, Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare.
1572 — Birth of John Donne, major poet of the Metaphysical Period (1572-1695); others were George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, Andrew Marvell.
1579 — Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender has been called "the first work of the English literary Renaissance."
1590 — Edmund Spenser publishes "Mother Hubbard's Tale," a precursor to "Mother Goose" poems and stories to come.
1591 — Birth of Robert Herrick, first poet of the Cavalier Period (1591-1674); others were Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, Thomas Carew.

Thomas Wyatt (1503-1524) was one of the first great English poets; his primary influence was an Italian poet, Petrarch. Wyatt wrote wonderfully original English poems "under the influence" ...

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

1603 — The Jacobean/Caroline/Interregnum/Restoration Period (1603-1690) sees the King James Bible, Shakespeare's plays, Milton's epics.
1608 — John Milton is born; John Donne writes his Holy Sonnets; Shakespeare's sonnets and plays Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, etc.
1611 — The King James Bible is published in still-readable English with early English free verse such as the poetic Song of Solomon.
1620 — The Pilgrims set sail for America in the Mayflower. Harold Bloom has called Tom O'Bedlam's Song "all but High Romantic vision."
1623 — Publication of Shakespeare's First Folio. Ben Jonson and his "tribe" are on the rise: Herrick, Lovelace, Suckling, Carew, Waller, et al.
1626 — The first texts containing the French terms mere l’oye or mere oye (Mother Goose).
1639 — The oldest English nursery rhyme appears to be "Jack Sprat" circa 1639.
1649 — King Charles I is executed. Oliver Cromwell becomes England's Lord Protector and Regent in 1653. Milton lauds Cromwell.
1658 — Cromwell's death throws England into chaos; Milton works on his masterpiece Paradise Lost.
1690 — The Augustan Period (1690-1756) is marked by the sophisticated work of Alexander Pope, John Dryden and Dr. Samuel Johnson.
1697—Charles Perrault publishes the first Mother Goose collection of rhymes and folk tales in France, essentially creating the fairy tale genre of literature.
1698 — The nursery rhyme "Pat-a-Cake" appears in the Thomas d'Urfey play The Campaigners.

"Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man" is one of the oldest surviving English nursery rhymes. The earliest recorded version of the rhyme appears in Thomas d'Urfey's play The Campaigners from 1698.

Here's a wonderful anonymous ballad with supernatural overtones ...

Tom O' Bedlam's Song (anonymous Ballad, circa 1620 AD)

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
The spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons, defend ye.
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken,
Nor wander from your selves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon,
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragčd,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagčd.
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips, ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty,
    And now I sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With a thought I took for Maudlin,
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
With a thing thus tall, sky bless you all,
I befell into this dotage.
I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never wakčd,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stript me nakčd.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

When I short have shorn my sow's face
And swigged my horny barrel,
In an oaken inn, I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel;
The moon's my constant mistress,
And the lovely owl my marrow;
The flaming drake and the night crow make
Me music to my sorrow.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The palsy plagues my pulses
When I prig your pigs or pullen
Your culvers take, or matchless make
Your Chanticleer or Sullen.
When I want provant, with Humphry
I sup, and when benighted,
I repose in Paul's with waking souls,
Yet never am affrighted.
    But I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.
 
I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at mortal wars
In the wounded welkin weeping.
The moon embrace her shepherd,
And the Queen of Love her warrior,
While the first doth horn the star of morn,
And the next the heavenly Farrier.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The Gypsies, Snap and Pedro,
Are none of Tom's comradoes,
The punk I scorn, and the cutpurse sworn
And the roaring boy's bravadoes.
The meek, the white, the gentle,
Me handle not nor spare not;
But those that cross Tom Rynosseross
Do what the panther dare not.
    Although I sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end:
Methinks it is no journey.
    Yet I will sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

1742 — Thomas Gray begins writing his masterpiece, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, a major work of early English Romanticism.
1744 — The oldest printed collection of nursery rhymes is Tom Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published in London.
1752 — Birth of Thomas Chatterton, called the "marvellous Boy" by William Wordsworth and also praised by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
1757 — William Blake heads the English Romantic Period (1757-1837) with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats.
1759 — Birth of the Romantic poet Robert Burns, generally considered to be the greatest Scottish poet.
1765 — The oldest published lullaby is "Rock-a-Bye-Baby" which was first seen in Mother Goose’s Melody, published in 1765.
1776 — Americans declare independence with words written in ringing iambic pentameter by Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..."
1798 — Lyrical Ballads, written by Wordsworth with contributions by Coleridge, becomes the foundational text of the English Romantic Movement.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) has been called the national poet of Scotland. He wrote poems in standard English and in the Scots dialect. His best-known poems tend to be those with a Scottish flavor that are still accessible to English readers. He was also a popular songsmith, most famously penning "Auld Lang Syne" ...

A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns

Oh my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
Oh my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Afton Water
by Robert Burns

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Thou stock-dove, whose echo resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear,
I charge you disturb not my slumbering fair.
How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark'd with the courses of clear winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary's sweet cot in my eye.
How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev'ning sweeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.
Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides,
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As gathering sweet flowrets she stems thy clear wave.
Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

1819 — Keats publishes Ode to a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale. Byron publishes Don Juan. Birth of the American Romantic poet Walt Whitman.
1830 — Alfred Tennyson publishes his Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. Emily Dickinson, widely considered to be the greatest female American poet, is born.
1836 — Ralph Waldo Emerson founds the Transcendental Club, which includes Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott.
1837 — The Victorian Period (1837-1901) is led by Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Clare, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
1846 — Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning get married: they become poetry's first "super couple" a century before Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
1848 — The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848-1882) is founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; aligned poets include Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne.
1855 — Walt Whitman publishes Leaves of Grass, a landmark work of Early Modernism (1855-1901) that rocks the Victorians to their whalebone corsets!
1865 — The Civil War ends. Slavery is abolished. Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. Whitman publishes his elegy for Lincoln, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd.
1867 — Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach has been called a masterpiece of Early Modernism.
1871 — Birth of Stephen Crane. He would write poems and prose in a minimalist or "spare" style that would influence modernist writers like Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sandburg.
1888 — T. S. Eliot, a major Modernist poet and critic, is born. Columbia Records, the first major American record label, is founded. The first classical music recording, of Handel.
1890 — Fin-de-sičcle (1890-1900) poets influenced by the French symbolists include W. B. Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde and Swinburne.
1895 — Scott Joplin publishes ragtime. Buddy Bolden creates the countermelody of jazz. The world will soon be awash in poems set to music: pop, rock, country, blues, etc.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish poet, historian and novelist who was one of the first internationally acclaimed writers to work primarily in English. His best-known work today is the historical novel Ivanhoe ...

Proud Maisie
by Sir Walter Scott

Proud Maisie is in the wood
Walking so early;
Sweet Robin sits on the bush,
Singing so rarely.

'Tell me, thou bonny bird,
When shall I marry me?' —
'When six braw gentlemen
Kirkward shall carry ye.'

'Who makes the bridal bed,
Birdie, say truly?'
'The gray-headed sexton
That delves the grave duly.'

'The glowworm o'er grave and stone
Shall light thee steady,
The owl from the steeple sing,
'Welcome, proud lady.'

Although George Gordon (1788-1824, better known as Lord Byron) is generally considered an English poet, he was a descendent of King James I of Scotland and received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School. His work often reflects the melancholy one tends to expect of Scottish poets ...

So We'll Go No More A-Roving
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

So we'll go no more a-roving
    So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
    And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
    And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
    And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
    And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
    By the light of the moon.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer. His best-known poem, "Requiem" is reminiscent of the elegy the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote for himself ...

Requiem
by Robert L. Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is generally considered the greatest of Irish poets, and deservedly so. His native language was English, but his influences were many and varied. For instance the poem below is a loose translation of a poem by the French poet Ronsard ...

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats
after Ronsard

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

When reading Irish, Scottish and Welsh poets, one should keep in mind that subjected people are seldom fans of their conquerors. Yeats eloquently conveys the dilemma of an Irish pilot who ends up defending England from Germans during World War I ...

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
by William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

1901 — The Edwardian/Georgian Period (1901-1936) is brief but fecund with Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas.
1909 — Two T. E. Hulme poems begin the modernist movement called Imagism (1909-1919); its leading poets and critics would be Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.
1919 — The Harlem Renaissance (1919-1940) was led by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and James Weldon Jones. Paul Dunbar was a major influence.
1920 — The Neo-Romantics (1920-Present) include Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kevin N. Roberts, Michael Pendragon, Carmen Willcox, Mary Rae and Michael R. Burch.
1922 — The Fugitives (1922-1925) aka Agrarians were led by John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Donald Davidson and Randall Jarrell.
1943 — The Beats (1940-Present) include Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Raine Crowe and Jack Foley.
1950 — The San Francisco Renaissance Poets (1950-Present) include Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser.
1950 — The Confessionals (1950-1977) included Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass, Sharon Olds and Richard Moore.
1950 — The New York School (1950-Present) includes John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest and James Schuyler.
1950 — Charles Olson calls Pound and other Imagists "inferior predecessors" and creates a new school of poetry, Projectivism (1950-1960).
1985 — The New Formalists (1985-Present) include Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Dana Gioia, X. J. Kennedy, Richard Moore, Rhina Espaillat, R. S. Gwynn, A. E. Stallings, Jared Carter.

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) seems to have done for Welsh poets what Yeats did for Irish pilots, declaring independence to fly simply for the sake of flying, in this case for the sake of love and words ...

In My Craft Or Sullen Art
by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was an Irish poet and playwright of considerable skill, as his best-known poem, "Bagpipe Music," superbly attests ...

Bagpipe Music
by Louis MacNeice

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

This is my loose translation of a poem written in Scots by Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978). A "watergaw" is a fragmentary rainbow ...

The Watergaw
by Hugh MacDiarmid
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

One wet forenight in the sheep-shearing season
I saw the uncanniest thing—
a watergaw with its wavering light
shining beyond the wild downpour of rain
and I thought of the last, wild look that you gave
when you knew you destined for the grave.

There was no light in the skylark's nest
that night—no—nor any in mine;
but now often I've thought of that foolish light
and of these strange, foolish hearts of men
and I think that, perhaps, at last I ken
what your look meant then.

Seamus Cassidy (1943-) is a contemporary American poet of Irish extraction who often writes on Irish/Gaelic themes ...

Taste of that Salt Breath
by Seamus Cassidy

(Reflections on a verse by W. B. Yeats)

So, I'll take my watercolors
and go to where the rocks
reach out like Celtic hands
just in from the fields,
spread for the surging sea's cleansing.

There on promontories that jut out
to where the starving have all gone,
I sit and stare inhaling salt breath
your incoming tide exhales
upon these stones.

I want to taste the salt of seas
invading redhaired Vikings smelled,
remembering as they leaned back
to watch our green shores fade,
longed to return and learned to love our land,
then stayed to give birth
to all my wife and children's fierce red fire.

Now, upon my own head that bonfire
has retired to ash
where white-caps top me,
and I wave toward heaven
wondering when and why I've come today.

Oh, I'll sit and paint on this stillpoint;
let waves outside me crash
and send their white-churning
to bound against the boulders
that fill my breathing chest.

I am of Scottish ancestry, as my last name attests. The poem below has a Scottish flavor and is an elegy of sorts dedicated to Harold Bloom, a prominent American critic who has called poetry America's "elitist art" ...

Come Down
by Michael R. Burch

for Harold Bloom

Come down, O, come down
from your high mountain tower.
How coldly the wind blows,
how late this chill hour.
And I cannot wait
for a meteor shower
to show you the time
must be now, or not ever.

Come down, O, come down
from the high mountain heather
now brittle and brown—
dun corpse in white feather.
Come down, or your heart
will grow cold as the weather
when winter devours
and spring returns never.

Related Pages: Rondels and Roundels, Kevin N. Roberts, Timeline of Rhyme

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