15 of the Best Poems about Rivers and Streams

The river has an important role from the early period of literary history. Moreover, River images used in literature are enduring, aesthetically appealing, often used to symbolize birth, rebirth, and eternity.

Poems of the 18th century, especially, of Bowles, Coleridge, and Egerton Brydges deal with rivers that established the tradition in which Wordsworth‘s Tintern Abbey too joined.

In this section, best River poems, we have analyzed a great range of poems and came to the conclusion on the best river and stream poems.

Best Poems about Rivers and Streams

 

Sonnet: To the River Otter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Sonnet: To the River Otter’ by Coleridge deals with the image of the River Otter, near his birthplace in Devon. It is a sonnet, possibly composed in 1793, that portrays a view of the river Otter from a child’s perspective. In the poem, the speaker returns to a brook near his childhood home and ponder over the time of his youth when he used to skim stones alongside the river bank. Now, being an adult, he longs for the times of childhood innocence.

Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!

How many various-fated years have past,

What happy and what mournful hours, since last

(…)

Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:

Ah! that once more I were a careless Child!

 

The River by Caroline Ann Bowles

The River‘ by Caroline Ann Bowles describes a river in all its liveliness and grandeur. The poet begins the poem by comparing it with a child who is playing hide and seeks. As the poem progresses, he compares it to a gallant youth who is daring to go anywhere. In the poem, the river is personified and portrayed as a wanderer who keeps moving from one place to the other.  The River twists and turns, like a wanderer who cannot keep still.

River, river, little river!

Bright you sparkle on your way;

O’er the yellow pebbles dancing,

(…)

Sea that line hath never sounded,

Sea that sail hath never rounded,

Like eternity.

 

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is a poem written by Langston Hughes when he was 17 in 1920. He was on a train and crossing the Mississippi River, while he was on the way to visit his father in Mexico. The speaker speaks to represent the perseverance of black cultural roots as the title itself starts as “The Negro.” The rivers mentioned in the poem metonymically stand for the cultures that have risen and fallen in America. Also, the speaker seems to have a deep knowledge of black life and culture, as it coexisted with all those cultures.

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in

human veins.

(…)

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 

Prothalamion by Edmund Spenser

Prothalamion’ is a Spousal Verse in Honour of the Double Marriage of Ladie Elizabeth and Ladie Katherine Somerset written by Edmund Spenser. It is one of the important poets of Tudor England, published in 1596. The poem centers its theme of celebrations encompassing the beauty and images River Thames such as nymphs gathering flower crowns for the two sisters. The poem written in ten stanzas, with the poet as a narrator, is best remembered for its exquisite refrain, “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.”

CALM was the day, and through the trembling air

Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play,

A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay

(…)

Each one did make his bride

Against their bridal day, which is not long:

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

 

The Man from Snowy River by Banjo Paterson

The Man from Snowy River’ by Banjo Paterson, Australian poet was first published in The Bulletin, an Australian news magazine, on 26 April 1890. Later, it was published by Angus & Robertson in October 1895, along with his other poems, under the title “The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses.” The poem tells the story of a horseback pursuit of a young protagonist, who goes after the brumbies and down the “terrible descent” on his pony catches the colt of a prizewinning racehorse. The poem also has reference to his other poems “Clancy of the Overflow” and “Old Pardon, Son of Reprieve”.

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around

That the colt from Old Regret had got away,

(…)

The man from Snowy River is a household word today,

And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.

 

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Li Bai

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ is a poem written by Li Bai, the Chinese poet. It was translated by Ezra Pound and first appeared in his 1915 collection “Cathay”. It is widely anthologized along with his other poems, “The Jewell Stairs’ Grievance” and “The Exile’s Letter”. The poem tells the story of a girl who is married to a river merchant. Written from the girl’s perspective, it describes her gradually increasing affection and the fear and pain she undergoes whenever he is away.

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,

You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

(…)

And you have been gone five months.

The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

 

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman

‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ by Walt Whitman published as a part of his collection Leaves of Grass. The poem describes the ferry trip across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn, which is later becoming Brooklyn Bridge. The poem begins half an hour before sunset and continues into the evening with the speaker comparing the tides to the attraction of New York City. In particular, the poem addresses readers who will look back on it, and the ferry ride, years after the poem is published.

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!

Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

(…)

We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,

You furnish your parts toward eternity,

Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

 

Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

‘Crossing the Bar’, written in four quatrains is a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The poem is written just three years before his death is often considered as his acceptance of death.   It is considered to be an Elegy for the narrator uses an extended metaphor to compare death with crossing the “sandbar” as a transition process from life into death.

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

(…)

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.

 

To the River Charles by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In this, ‘To the River Charles’, a nineteenth-century American poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow carries important memories for him. He is able to trace only Memories of important friends he has known and eulogizes one reason why he eulogizes it here in this less famous poem. The poem is the emphasis on the poet’s attempt to honor the River Charles in Massachusetts. The poet encourages others too to follow the calm and soothing voice with a respect to the river.

River! that in silence windest

Through the meadows, bright and free,

Till at length thy rest thou findest

In the bosom of the sea!

(…)

‘T is for this, thou Silent River!

That my spirit leans to thee;

Thou hast been a generous giver,

Take this idle song from me.

 

My River Runs to Thee by Emily Dickinson

‘My River Runs to Thee’ is a short poem by Dickinson. Like her so many other poems, this poem too has a captivating opening line with the poem ending with a childish plea. The poem depicts the endless bond between the river and the sea, as the water goes as a cycle, simultaneously finding its way into the sea. Written in just seven lines, it has three sets of rhyming couplets, and then a single, standalone line.

My River runs to thee –

Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?

 

My River wait reply.

Oh Sea – look graciously!

 

I’ll fetch thee Brooks

From spotted nooks –

Say Sea – take Me?

 

Heaven by Rupert Brooke

The poem, ‘Heaven’, composed by Rupert Brooke in 1913, uses fish in a stream, brook, or pond to comment on human piety. ‘Heaven’ is another classic poem of Brooke is noted for its satirical tone and clever use of metaphor. The poet satires on the human worries about the afterlife, while contrastingly comparing him with a small fish, that have no such worries.

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,

Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)

Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,

(…)

Shall come of Water and of Mud;

And, sure, the reverent eye must see

A Purpose in Liquidity …

 

The River by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In ‘The River’, Emerson contrasts the eternal nature of the river, with our own short lives. The river is one of the central themes of the poem. He ponders over his childhood memory of how his father’s land had been washed away by the river. He also wondered about where the water came from and where it was going. As years passed, Emerson has changed, yet he has not allowed anyone to burden himself.

 And I behold once more

My old familiar haunts; here the blue river,

The same blue wonder that my infant eye

Admired, sage doubting whence the traveller came,–

(…)

They were coeval with my ancestors,

Adorned with them my country’s primitive times,

And soon may give my dust their funeral shade.

 

Looking-Glass River by Robert Louis Stevenson

‘Looking-Glass River’ by Robert Louis Stevenson is a part of a series with clear and easily visualized images of the River.  In this poem, Robert Louis Stevenson summons the magical charm of the river with its ‘looking-glass’ aspect. The poet addresses the river as a looking glass, for the world around us is reflected in the surface of the water.

Smooth it glides upon its travel,

Here a wimple, there a gleam –

O the clean gravel!

O the smooth stream!

(…)

Patience, children, just a minute –

See the spreading circles die;

The stream and all in it

Will clear by-and-by.

 

A River by A. K. Ramanujan

‘A River’ by A.K. Ramanujan describes the river Vaikai which is romanticized by the poets of the past and present. The river has an intimate relationship with the life and culture of the Tamil people. Every other poet who has spoken about the river will be doing the same thing again and again against floods, and sometimes empty riverbeds. A.K. Ramanujan, in this special deals with the river.

In Madurai,

city of temples and poets,

who sang of cities and temples,

(…)

with no moles on their bodies,

with different coloured diapers

to tell them apart.

 

Sonnets from The River Duddon: After-Thought by William Wordsworth

‘Sonnets from The River Duddon: After-Thought’ by William Wordsworth is the last poem or valedictory note to the “The River Duddon” series published by William Wordsworth. Wordsworth is having a general conversation with the river. He thinks of sharing his experience with the river, even if they had to part ways, as life goes forward. He concludes the poem with his belief in becoming a greater personality through love, hope, and faith.

I thought of Thee, my partner and my guide,

As being past away.—Vain sympathies!

For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,

(…)

And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,

Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,

We feel that we are greater than we know.

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About
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.
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