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The Best Occasional Poems of All Time
Famous Occasional Poems

Occasional poem definition: An occasional poem is a poem written to commemorate, memorialize, document and/or provide commentary on a specific event, such as a battle, struggle, victory, defeat, great accomplishment, or tragedy. Types of occasional poems include elegies, dirges, wedding poems and songs, inaugural poems, hymns, odes, elegiac sonnets, paeans, and other forms of tribute. Occasional songs are occasional poems set to music.

One of the world's greatest poets, Goethe, said occasional poetry is the highest form of poetry.

Famous poets and songwriters who wrote occasional verse include Robert Frost ("The Gift Outright"), Goethe, Thomas Hardy, Horace, Julia Ward Howe ("The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), Ben Jonson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ("The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere"), Don McLean ("American Pie"), Pindar, Ronsard, Sappho, Simonides ("Go Tell the Spartans"), Alfred Tennyson ("The Charge of the Light Brigade") and Walt Whitman ("O Captain! My Captain!").

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Which poets wrote the best occasional poems? These are the exemplars...

The most famous of the ancient Greek occasional poems is "Go Tell the Spartans" by Simonides:

Tell the Spartans we lie
Lifeless at Thermopylae:
Dead at their word,
Obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
—Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

Plato has been credited with commemorative verse in the form of epitaphs inscribed on headstones and funeral monuments:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
—Michael R. Burch, after Plato

For those interested in art and craft of ancient Greek epitaphs, I have a collection here: Athenian Epitaphs.

"The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of the most famous occasional poems:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere...

"The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson may be the most famous occasional poem ever written:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

• "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key was written as a poem about the American flag withstanding a barrage by the British navy:

O say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

• "Easter 1916" by William Butler Yeats is a poem about an Irish uprising against British rule:

For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead...

• Thomas Hardy wrote one of his best poems, "The Convergence of the Twain," about the sinking of the Titanic:

           In a solitude of the sea
           Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
           Steel chambers, late the pyres
           Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
           Over the mirrors meant
           To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls—grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
           Jewels in joy designed
          To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
           Dim moon-eyed fishes near
          Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?"...
           Well: while was fashioning
          This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
          Prepared a sinister mate
          For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
          And as the smart ship grew
          In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
          Alien they seemed to be;
          No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
          Or sign that they were bent
          By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
          Till the Spinner of the Years
          Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

"American Pie" by Don McLean pays tribute to singers who died young, like Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper:

Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

"The Day the Lady Died" by Frank O'Hara is a tribute to the famous blues singer Billie Holiday:

[I see] a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
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.

"Abraham, Martin and John" is a 1968 song written by Dick Holler and performed by Dion. It commemorates the lives and mourns the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy:

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lotta people but it seems the good they die young...
I just looked around and he's gone.

Ben Jonson wrote the elegiac sonnets "On My Son" and "On My Daughter" for his children who died young.

William Dunbar wrote "Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]" in which he mourned the deaths of a number of poets, including Geoffrey Chaucer.

John Milton's wrote a famous elegiac sonnet for William Shakespeare.

W.H. Auden wrote a famous elegy for the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Auden also wrote "Funeral Blues":

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

"The Gift Outright" by Robert Frost was the the first American inaugural poem, recited by Frost at John F. Kennedy's inauguration:

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

"O Captain! My Captain!" is a poem Walt Whitman wrote about the death of Abraham Lincoln.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is another elegy Walt Whitman wrote for Abraham Lincoln:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a poem written by Julia Ward Howe about the American Civil War. Her poem was later set, appropriately, to the music of "John Brown's Body":

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
He has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword.
His truth is marching on.

• "Praise Song for the Day" is an occasional poem written for Barack Obama's inauguration by Elizabeth Alexander.

• "The Hill We Climb" is an occasional poem written for Joe Biden's inauguration by Amanda Gorman.

• "Ohio," better known as "Four Dead in Ohio," is an occasional song written by Neil Young about the Kent State Massacre. It was performed and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

These are other occasional poems...

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
by Antipater of Sidon
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have set my eyes upon
the lofty walls of Babylon
with its elevated road for chariots

... and upon the statue of Zeus
by the Alpheus ...

... and upon the hanging gardens ...

... upon the Colossus of the Sun ...

... upon the massive edifices
of the towering pyramids ...

... even upon the vast tomb of Mausolus ...

but when I saw the mansion of Artemis
disappearing into the cirri,
those other marvels lost their brilliancy
and I said, "Setting aside Olympus,
the Sun never shone on anything so fabulous!"

Ancient Roman Epigrams

Wall, I'm astonished that you haven't collapsed,
since you're holding up verses so prolapsed!
—Ancient Roman graffiti, translation by Michael R. Burch

Other occasional poems and songs of note...

"Happy Birthday to You"
"Taps" (a song played at many military funerals)
Birthday poems and songs
Christmas poems and songs
Easter poems and songs
Independence Day poems and songs
Thanksgiving poems and songs
Valentine poems and songs
Wedding poems and songs
Funeral poems and songs

"Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold
"A Letter from the Front" by Sir Henry Newbolt
"Of Late" by George Starbuck
"A March in the Ranks Hard-prest" by Walt Whitman
"Song of the Broad-Axe" by Walt Whitman

Related Pages: Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs, The Best Occasional Poems of All Time

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