A ‘quest’ is defined by the OED as ‘A search or pursuit in order to find something; the action of searching’. Poets have often used the quest motif to discuss all manner of subjects, from religion to nobility to that most important thing, the quest we as individuals take to find ourselves.
The following poems are some of the best quest poems ever written: they range from long narrative poems to short lyrics, from medieval poems to contemporary works. They represent different kinds of quest, but are united by their stirring focus on the important of searching for, and pursuing, something that matters.
1. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung, Roman de la Rose.
For Love it prayeth, and also
Commaundeth me that it be so
And if ther any aske me,
Whether that it be he or she,
How [that] this book [the] which is here
Shal hote, that I rede you here;
It is the Romance of the Rose,
In which al the art of love I close …
Le Roman de la Rose (i.e., The Romance of the Rose) is a French medieval poem begun by Guillaume de Lorris and continued by Jean de Meung; Chaucer began translating it into English (though he never finished doing so), and the lines quoted above are from the Chaucer translation (which we have linked to above).
It takes the form of an allegorical dream vision, where ‘Rose’ refers both to the name of the lady in the poem and the concept of female sexuality. It’s also a quest poem, as the Lover embarks on a quest to locate his ‘Rose’ (representing both a specific woman of that name and women in general).
2. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene.
High above all a cloth of State was spred,
And a rich throne, as bright as sunny day,
On which there sate most brave embellished
With royall robes and gorgeous array,
A mayden Queene, that shone as Titans ray,
In glistring gold, and peerelesse pretious stone:
Yet her bright blazing beautie did assay
To dim the brightnesse of her glorious throne,
As envying her selfe, that too exceeding shone …
This is not just a poem but a vast epic poem: without doubt, it’s Edmund Spenser’s crowning achievement, even though he finished little more than half of the projected twelve-book epic before his death in 1599. As it stands, the poem is over 1,000 pages.
Written in the 1590s, The Faerie Queene is a Christian allegory (in which Catholicism is the enemy and the Church of England in need of protecting) featuring a cast of knights, maidens, villains, monsters (the Blatant Beast – whence we get our word ‘blatant’ – is but one example), wizards, and princes. The poem features a series of chivalrous quests undertaken by knights who represent various virtues and qualities.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Holy Grail’.
I sware a vow before them all, that I,
Because I had not seen the Grail, would ride
A twelvemonth and a day in quest of it,
Until I found and saw it, as the nun
My sister saw it; and Galahad sware the vow,
And good Sir Bors, our Lancelot’s cousin, sware,
And Lancelot sware, and many among the knights,
And Gawain sware, and louder than the rest …
In the 1850s and 1860s, Tennyson (1809-92) wrote a long epic in blank verse, his version of the Arthurian legend, taking Malory’s fifteenth-century work Le Morte d’Arthur as his main source material. Although T. S. Eliot dismissed it as ‘Chaucer retold for children’, the poem shows Tennyson’s skill at weaving an enchanting narrative out of Malory’s sometimes dry prose. Here, the focus is the quest of the Knights of the Round Table as they go in search of the Holy Grail.
4. Robert Browning, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’.
Glad was I when I reach’d the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poison’d tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage …
Browning’s universe was darker than Tennyson’s, as this long dramatic monologue – a Gothic take on the quest narrative – makes clear. It’s fitting that the poem inspired Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, since Browning’s poem, like King’s novels about Roland the Gunslinger, is a curious blend of fantasy and Gothic horror.
5. Carrie Williams Clifford, ‘Quest’.
My goal out-distances the utmost star,
Yet is encompassed in my inmost Soul;
I am my goal – my quest, to know myself.
To chart and compass this unfathomed sea,
Myself must plumb the boundless universe.
My Soul contains all thought, all mystery,
All wisdom of the Great Infinite Mind:
This is to discover, I must voyage far,
At last to find it in my pulsing heart.
Carrie Williams Clifford (1862-1934) was a writer and activist who was an important figure in the early days of the US Civil Rights movement; she was also a champion of women’s rights.
‘Quest’ was published in 1922, and is short enough to be reproduced in full above. It sees Clifford facing a challenging quest: to know herself. It’s a quest that takes her out into ‘the boundless universe’ of her own soul: is this a version of Whitman’s ‘I am large; I contain multitudes’?
6. Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Quest’.
The knight came home from the quest,
Muddied and sore he came.
Battered of shield and crest,
Bannerless, bruised and lame.
Fighting we take no shame,
Better is man for a fall.
Merrily borne, the bugle-horn
Answered the warder’s call …
So begins this 1896 narrative poem from Kipling (1865-1936), prolific poet as well as novelist and short-story writer. A knight, having been defeated in battle, is nevertheless confident that the victorious enemy has been sufficiently weakened to make their defeat assured in the next battle. Like Kipling’s much more famous poem ‘If—’, this poem has been read as a response to the Jameson Raid the year before, in 1895.
7. Robert W. Service, ‘The Quest’.
Robert William Service (1874-1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer who is often called ‘the Bard of the Yukon’. In this poem, Service’s speaker tells of how he sought God, but his quest to find his own belief in God was ‘in vain’. However, he persists, and eventually discovers God in the most unlikely – and most tragic – of times and places.
8. Georgia Douglas Johnson, ‘Quest’.
This 1918 poem is a plangent lyric about the failure of a quest: in this case, the search for happiness. Johnson (1880-1966) was one of the earliest high-profile female African-American poets, and an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York just after the end of the First World War.
9. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
Although it only features elliptically in Eliot’s 1922 poem, the quest for the Holy Grail is an important motif in The Waste Land, from the quotations from Verlaine’s Parsifal to the final section, ‘What the Thunder Said’, which alludes to the search for Chapel Perilous in the Grail Quest legend.
Eliot’s point seems to be that modern Europe is suffering from a spiritual malaise; the Holy Grail, if it can be found, represents the cure. But it remains elusive: the chapel, when it turns up in ‘What the Thunder Said’, is, revealingly, empty. This is a quest poem about, perhaps, the futility of quests.
10. W. H. Auden, ‘The Quest’.
Here we get not one quest poem, but a whole series of them: ‘The Quest’ (1940) is one of several sonnet sequences Auden wrote. Like his fellow ‘Thirties Poet’ Louis MacNeice, Auden liked to use the quest motif in his poems, and in this sequence we find Auden drawing on the familiar tropes of the quest narrative – the hero, the journey, the search – in order to respond to the end of the 1930s and the arrival of a new decade.