Proust’s first known poem was written when he was just 17 years old, and dedicated to his friend Daniel Halévy, who had written to him, “Don’t treat me as a pederast, that wounds me. Morally I’m trying, if only out of a sense of elegance, to remain pure.”
“Pederasty” (1889) Translated by Richard Howard
To Daniel Halévy
If I had money from a boundless mint and sinew enough in hands, lips, loins, I’d shun the vanity of politics and print, and leave—tomorrow? No, tonight!—for lawns luminous with artificial green (without the rustic flaws of frost and vermin), where I’d forever be sleeping with one warm child or other: François? Firmin? . . . For what is manly mockery to me? Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre, I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs! Beneath a solar gold, a lunar nacre, I’d… languish (an ars moriendi of my own), deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!
[Published in The Collected Poems of Marcel Proust , ed. Harold Augenbraum, via The Daily Beast]
The earliest surviving Shakespeare verse is clearly juvenile, but carries some sparks of greatness. He would publish his first poem the next year.
Those lips that Love’s own hand did make Breath’d forth the sound that said I hate To me that languish’d for her sake: But when she saw my woeful state, Straight in her heart did mercy come. Chiding that tongue, that ever sweet Was used in giving gentle doom: And taught it thus anew to greet: ‘I hate’ she alter’d with an end That follow’d it as gentle day Doth follow night, who like a fiend From heaven to hell is flown away. ‘I hate’ from hate away she threw, And sav’d my life, saying ‘not you’
Cummings was a poet all his life. He published his first poem at 18, in the Harvard Monthly, but his first recorded poem came to him at the tender age of three.
“My First Poem” (1897)
Oh little birdie oh oh oh,
With your toe toe toe.
Another lifer, Plath’s first poem was published in the Boston Herald when she was only eight years old. She sent the short poem to the editor with a note to explain that it meant to describe “what I see and hear on hot summer nights.”
Hear the crickets chirping In the dewy grass. Bright little fireflies Twinkle as they pass.
[via Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness , Edward Butscher]
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s earliest surviving poem is a wisp of a thing, two lines written when he was 15 on the same page as some of his foster father’s financial records, but never published or incorporated into any other work.
Last night, with many cares & toils oppress’d Weary, I laid me on a couch to rest —
[via Edgar Allan Poe Society]
Though Dickinson is known for her short, syntactically abrupt poems, her earliest efforts were more conventional. Her first known poem was written in 1850 and published in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1852.
“Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine” (March 4, 1850)
Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine, Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!
Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain, For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain. All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air, God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair! The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one, Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun; The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be, Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree. The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small, None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball; The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives, And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves; The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won, And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son. The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune, The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon, Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows, No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose. The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride, Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide; Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true, And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue. Now to the application, to the reading of the roll, To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul: Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone, Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap’st what thou hast sown. Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long, And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song? There’s Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair, And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair! Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree; Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb, And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time! Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower, And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower— And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum— And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!
[via Books and Writers]
Keats’s earliest known poem was, as the title suggest, an imitation of Edmund Spenser’s work.
“Imitation of Spenser” (c. 1814)
Now Morning from her orient chamber came, And her first footsteps touch’d a verdant hill; Crowning its lawny crest with amber flame, Silv’ring the untainted gushes of its rill; Which, pure from mossy beds, did down distill, And after parting beds of simple flowers, By many streams a little lake did fill, Which round its marge reflected woven bowers, And, in its middle space, a sky that never lowers.
There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright Viewing with fish of brilliant dye below; Whose silken fins, and golden scales’ light Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow: There saw the swan his neck of arched snow, And oar’d himself along with majesty; Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show Beneath the waves like Afric’s ebony, And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.
Ah! could I tell the wonders of an isle That in that fairest lake had placed been, I could e’en Dido of her grief beguile; Or rob from aged Lear his bitter teen: For sure so fair a place was never seen, Of all that ever charm’d romantic eye: It seem’d an emerald in the silver sheen Of the bright waters; or as when on high, Through clouds of fleecy white, laughs the coerulean sky.
And all around it dipp’d luxuriously Slopings of verdure through the glossy tide, Which, as it were in gentle amity, Rippled delighted up the flowery side; As if to glean the ruddy tears, it tried, Which fell profusely from the rose-tree stem! Haply it was the workings of its pride, In strife to throw upon the shore a gem Outvieing all the buds in Flora’s diadem.
[via Spenser and the Tradition]
Hardy’s earliest known poem describes his family’s cottage long before the poet’s birth. Though written between 1857 and 1860, when Hardy was in his late teens, it wasn’t published until 1916.
It faces west, and round the back and sides High beeches, bending, hang a veil of boughs, And sweep against the roof. Wild honeysucks Climb on the walls, and seem to sprout a wish (If we may fancy wish of trees and plants) To overtop the apple-trees hard by.
Red roses, lilacs, variegated box Are there in plenty, and such hardy flowers As flourish best untrained. Adjoining these Are herbs and esculents; and further still A field; then cottages with trees, and last, The distant hills and sky.
Behind, the scene is wilder. Heath and furze Are everything that seems to grow and thrive Upon the uneven ground. A stunted thorn Stands here and there, indeed; and from a pit An oak uprises, springing from a seed Dropped by some bird a hundred years ago.
In days bygone– Long gone–my father’s mother, who is now Blest with the blest, would take me out to walk. At such a time I once inquired of her How looked the spot when first she settled here. The answer I remember. ‘Fifty years Have passed since then, my child, and change has marked The face of all things. Yonder garden-plots And orchards were uncultivated slopes O’ergrown with bramble bushes, furze and thorn: That road a narrow path shut in by ferns, Which, almost trees, obscured the passer-by. Our house stood quite alone, and those tall firs And beeches were not planted. Snakes and efts Swarmed in the summer days, and nightly bats Would fly about our bedrooms. Heathcroppers Lived on the hills, and were our only friends; So wild it was when first we settled here.’
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley’s earliest surviving poem is about a cat. It was transcribed by his sister Elizabeth, who drew a sweet little kitty to go along with it.
“A Cat in Distress” (1803-5)
A Cat in Distress Nothing more or less, Good folks I must faithfully tell ye, As I am a sinner It wants for some dinner To stuff out its own little belly
2–– You migh’n.t easily guess All the modes of distress Which torture the tenants of earth And the various evils Which like many devils Attend the poor dogs from their birth
3–– Some a living require And others desire An old fellow out of the way, And which is the best I leave to be guessed For I cannot pretend to say
4–– One wants society Tother variety Others a tranquil life; Some want food Other as good Only require a wife.
5 But this poor little Cat Only wanted a rat To stuff out its own little maw And twere as good Had some people such food To make them hold their jaw
[via Shelley’s Ghost]
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Another child prodigy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote her earliest known poem in 1812, when she was a mere six years old. It’s also a rather weighty subject for a six-year-old — it refers to “the English navy’s practice of conscripting men from civilian life or from American ships, on the pretext that they were deserters, and pressing them into service.”
Ah! the poor lad in yonder boat Forced from his Wife, his Friends, his home, Now gentle Maiden how can you Look at the misery of his doom?
[via Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems</em>, Elizabeth Barrett Browning]