There is no specific movement or style strictly associated with occasional verse. Poets throughout time have engaged with this kind of poetry in everything from strict iambic pentameter to experimental free verse poems. It is just as possible to write an occasional poem today as it was in the 16th century.
Explore Occasional Verse
Occasional Verse Definition
Occasional verse refers to poems that discuss a specific event or date. These poems are usually written in order to celebrate or discuss something important.
This could be anything from commemorating the death of a family member, discussing a shift in government policy, or honoring a holiday, like Christmas.
There are nearly endless ways to complete an occasional poem. Some address the topic head-on, while others only allude to it. For example, in Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ (see below). The event he is commemorating— the death of Billie Holiday—is addressed in the title but is not named explicitly in the poem’s text.
Below, readers can explore a few important occasional poems.
Types of Occasional Verse
Throughout history, poets have crafted a wide variety of occasional poems. These touch on subjects like:
- Holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.)
- Military victory or defeat
- Births and deaths
- Literary achievements
- Breakthroughs in science
Examples of Occasional Verse
‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is one of the best-known occasional poems commemorating a military event in the English language. Specifically, it commemorates the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here are a few lines:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Tennyson penned this piece as an occasional poem in response to a battle wherein the British cavalry charged over open terrain in the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. With six hundred and thirty-seven men, the British charged against Russia.
Explore more Lord Alfred Tennyson poems.
This well-known poem was written in memory of the jazz singer Billie Holiday. She passed away from complications due to liver disease in July 1959. The poem describes a speaker who lingers in a bookstore, buys liquor, and walks down the street. Until being confronted by the breaking news that Billie Holiday has died. O’Hara writes in the final stanza:
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Famously, O’Hara wrote this poem during his lunch break. It was published in Lunch Poems in 1964.
Discover more Frank O’Hara poems.
This piece is an occasional poem about a father who has lost a young son and attempts to distance himself from the tragedy in numerous ways. Jonson’s son left a powerful mark on his father, and within the short lines of this piece, Jonson commemorates that. The first lines read:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Jonson’s son tragically passed away at seven from the plague.
Read more Ben Jonson poems.
On the Death of Anne Brontë by Charlotte Brontë
‘On the Death of Anne Brontë’ is an occasional poem written to honor the life and death of Anne Brontë, one of the three Brontë sisters and author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and poems like ‘A Prisoner in a Dungeon Deep’ and ‘Dreams.’ The poem begins with the lines:
There’s little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I’ve lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.
Anne died in May of 1849 of tuberculosis. Emily Brontë, the third sister, had died the year previously, also of tuberculosis, and Charlotte would only live for six more years, dying in March of 1855 of pneumonia.
Read more Charlotte Brontë poems.
The purpose is to celebrate or mourn or note that an event has happened. For example, an author might write a poem honoring the birth of their first child, the death of a loved one, or anything as diverse as a change in government power to the beginning of spring.
Occasional verse is written by poets around the world and throughout time. These poems can be found in every style, genre, and part of every movement. The only requirement is that the poem commemorates an event.
An example of occasional verse in English-language poetry is ‘On My First Daughter’ by Ben Jonson. This poem was published in 1616 and was written in memory of Jonson’s first daughter, Mary, who died young.
Occasional verse is not about one single topic. It can touch on anything worth celebrating, honoring, or remembering. For example, the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a holiday (like Easter or the Fourth of July), a military loss or victory, and more.
Related Literary Terms
- Style: the way a writer writes. An individual writer’s style is original and unlike any other.
- Tone: how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic, have a tone of some sort.
- Verse: a term that refers to various parts of poetry, such as a single line of poetry, a stanza, or the entire poem.
- Elegy: a poem or song written in dedication to someone who has died.
- Ode: a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration or dedication. They are generally directed with specific intent.
- Eulogy: a speech, or short piece of writing, created in honor of someone who has recently died.
- Read: 20 of the Best Thanksgiving Poems
- Read: 10 Incredible Poems about Death
- Read: 19 Different Types of Themes in Poetry