As Poet Laureate for Queen Victoria, English poet Alfred Tennyson was well acquainted with literary success. At the age of 20, he received the Chancellor’s Gold Medal from Cambridge for his poem, “Timbuktu.” One year later, he published his first poetry collection, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, which included some of the best pieces he wrote. Appointed Poet Laureate in 1850 after the death of William Wordsworth, Tennyson held the position for 42 years, until his death in 1892.
But even the most successful of poets (and people) must learn to deal with the challenges and disappointments that are inevitable in a life well lived. Tennyson’s critics often argued that Tennyson’s poetry was overly sentimental. His second volume of poetry received such a negative critical reception that Tennyson didn’t publish again for 10 years. His literary career continued through personal and professional hardship, experiencing both the inspirational highs and lows often glossed over in the success stories we collectively celebrate.
The following two poems were highlights of Tennyson’s writing career. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by in 1854 by Tennyson as Poet Laureate to memorialize the costly failed charge executed by the British Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Written just three years before he died, “Crossing the Bar” was desired by Tennyson to be included as the last poem in all future editions of his poetry.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
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.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’ Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldier knew Some one had blunder’d: Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, 15 Their’s but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley’d and thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred.
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
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.
He who turned our English tongue into songs no one had sung now has fallen and now lies in a place that gives no prize, under several feet of loam in a narrow wooden home.
Rhymes no longer meet his ears. Now the autumn frost appears not to delve where he now sleeps in a land where no one weeps; where no dog lies past a pine; no one cherishes his swine.
Now our formalists are left in a tidy little cleft. Like the Spartans at the gates, each composes and then waits. Time will tell if taste returns with some newer well-wrought urns.
John J. Brugaletta is the author of ten volumes of poetry, including his Selected Poems (Future Cycle Press). His poems have appeared in Extreme Formal Poems, The Formalist, Measure, The Random House Treasury of Light Verse, and TRINACRIA. He is Professor Emeritus of literature at California State University, Fullerton.
A highly regarded poet and social figure of the 1920s, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She received the award in 1923 for her poem “Ballad of the Harp Weaver.” Despite being subjected to the ignorant criticism of traditional forms prevalent in the Modernist movement, Millay received the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American Poetry in 1943.
Millay’s reputation as a major poet posthumously improved as identity politics gained influence in literary circles beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. Millay’s feminist activism and her unconventional (for the time) sexual escapades led critics to occasionally overlook the traditional writing style they usually regarded with such loathing.
The following two poems were highlights of Millay’s writing career. “Renascence” was submitted to a poetry contest in The Lyric Year in 1912 when Millay was 20. The poem was selected as the winner by the contest backer before it was shortly thereafter decided the poem did not meet the arbitrary criterion created by the other judges of being “socially relevant.” “Renascence” was ultimately awarded fourth place in that contest. The second poem featured here, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,” is widely regarded as Millay’s most famous poem.
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And—sure enough!—I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The Universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense
That, sick’ning, I would fain pluck thence
But could not,—nay! But needs must suck
At the great wound, and could not pluck
My lips away till I had drawn
All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn!
For my omniscience paid I toll
In infinite remorse of soul.
All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret. Mine was the weight
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief
With individual desire,—
Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire
About a thousand people crawl;
Perished with each,—then mourned for all!
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I saw at sea a great fog bank
Between two ships that struck and sank;
A thousand screams the heavens smote;
And every scream tore through my throat.
No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath
That, crying, met an answering cry
From the compassion that was I.
All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
Mine, pity like the pity of God.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity
Pressed down upon the finite Me!
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.
Long had I lain thus, craving death,
When quietly the earth beneath
Gave way, and inch by inch, so great
At last had grown the crushing weight,
Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,
And sank no more,—there is no weight
Can follow here, however great.
From off my breast I felt it roll,
And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust
That all about me swirled the dust.
Deep in the earth I rested now;
Cool is its hand upon the brow
And soft its breast beneath the head
Of one who is so gladly dead.
And all at once, and over all
The pitying rain began to fall;
I lay and heard each pattering hoof
Upon my lowly, thatched roof,
And seemed to love the sound far more
Than ever I had done before.
For rain it hath a friendly sound
To one who’s six feet underground;
And scarce the friendly voice or face:
A grave is such a quiet place.
The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.
I would I were alive again
To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine
Of every slanting silver line,
To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze
From drenched and dripping apple-trees.
For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun
Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth
Until the world with answering mirth
Shakes joyously, and each round drop
Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.
How can I bear it; buried here,
While overhead the sky grows clear
And blue again after the storm?
O, multi-colored, multiform,
Beloved beauty over me,
That I shall never, never see
Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,
That I shall never more behold!
Sleeping your myriad magics through,
Close-sepulchred away from you!
O God, I cried, give me new birth,
And put me back upon the earth!
Upset each cloud’s gigantic gourd
And let the heavy rain, down-poured
In one big torrent, set me free,
Washing my grave away from me!
I ceased; and through the breathless hush
That answered me, the far-off rush
Of herald wings came whispering
Like music down the vibrant string
Of my ascending prayer, and—crash!
Before the wild wind’s whistling lash
The startled storm-clouds reared on high
And plunged in terror down the sky,
And the big rain in one black wave
Fell from the sky and struck my grave.
I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things;
A sound as of some joyous elf
Singing sweet songs to please himself,
And, through and over everything,
A sense of glad awakening.
The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rain’s cool finger-tips
Brushed tenderly across my lips,
Laid gently on my sealed sight,
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see,—
A drenched and dripping apple-tree,
A last long line of silver rain,
A sky grown clear and blue again.
And as I looked a quickening gust
Of wind blew up to me and thrust
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard-breath, and with the smell,—
I know not how such things can be!—
I breathed my soul back into me.
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.
About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e’er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
The white-haired custodian helps me with hauling my hi-fi to my second-floor apartment,
a studio, with one door and a window too high for jumping.
At the first landing, he gestures me to the window. Come take a look. Down there. On a cement slab,
a man in powder-blue sweater lies face-down, arms spread into wings, legs buckled backwards.
The cops think he jumped from up there. I step back. Nothing to be afraid of . . . only a dead body.
I had just exchanged my unlocked family house for a dim hallway of numbered doors, chain-bolt rattles.
And my futon, lobster trap table, Chianti-basket candle holders, Night Hawks in the kitchenette
fail to make here a home, until Sven delivers from his stash in the basement, four glass blocks
to hold up my door desk. I thought they’d work. He switches on my desk lamp.
Knowing he and his wife dwell just beneath me, among pressed cottage curtains,
cream cakes, and Hummels, I brave the cobwebby back staircase from my car, sleep better.
All summer, he places orange cones in my space behind the building, shoos away Red Sox fans. They’ll park
in your living room, if you don’t lock your door, and without a word, sweeps bottle glass
from his immaculate front steps, trashed by my out-of-hand student party the night before.
Later that night, he taps on my door, jingles the keys left outside in my lock. Thought you might need these.
America’s Main Street
On three-hundred-mile car days, the water in our portable window AC hotter than the summer blaze, my sister and I whining for a pool – any small oval dug before a rustic motor court, screen doors slamming in the wind, outhouses at the rear.
Our always-new, pastel-with-white-stripe De Soto, yearly cruising Route 66 – its ruler-flat horizons, endless cornfields, no-stoplight towns, stormy vistas, Triptik detours, Burma Shaves, cut-out blondes and jackrabbits, cowboy mannequins, trading-post warnings about baby rattlers, knotty pine everything. And soaring over it all, the flying horsepower of the Mobilgas red Pegasus.
Those rattlers, a dusty array of plastic baby rattles in a cage, casting doubt on our genuine arrowheads carved by the braves themselves and on our authentic fossils and gold nuggets.
My mother saving for, planning those neon-lit, root beer, carhop, stalagtite-mines, wigwam weeks, and my father, the only driver, delivering us intact to all of it, master of macadam.
Oh, to cruise once more with them this singular street, they too singular, to thank them for their ongoing gift – my roadwise, wide-range awakening. Pool irrelevant.
Ann Taylor is a Professor of English at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. where she teaches both literature and writing courses. She has written two books on college composition, academic and freelance essays, and a collection of personal essays, Watching Birds: Reflections on the Wing. Her first poetry book, The River Within, won first prize in the 2011 Cathlamet Poetry competition at Ravenna Press. A chapbook, Bound Each to Each, was published in 2013. Her collection, Héloïse and Abélard: the Exquisite Truth, published in 2018, is based on the twelfth-century story of their lives, and her most recent collection, Sortings, was published by Dos Madres Press, in June 2020. She is currently at work on a new collection of poems, called Taking Care.
I have a diary entry about Buddy Holly,
Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, aka
The Big Bopper. I remember the classroom’s
rickety wood floor. I’m keen on hardwood
floors but this floor lacked gloss. Still,
it’s what I recall best about that room,
where I learned about the plane crash
then went home and wrote about it.
Art Costello’s brother came in
one morning in boots, jeans, shirtless
with a crop of dark hair spilled down his
brow and in his hand a brown paper bag,
Art’s lunch, he handed to Sister John at
her desk up front. a long pole’s hook
opened and closed windows, we were
at basement level, the girl’s playground
east of where we sat. My diary is green,
diamond-pattered, with a dark blue spine,
a latch for a key lost years ago.
I can open it and find what I wrote that day.
I remember Sister’s face, Art’s
close-together features made him older
and worried. His brother came in shirtless
on a warm day. We were all startled.
It was quick, quiet, nobody said anything.
He was muscled but not overly so. His
hair spilled over like Richie Valens’ hair.
I’d seen Richie, Buddy and The Big Bopper
but only on TV. Clean-cut Buddy Holly
always wore a tie. Our wood floor
was uneven, a level below the playground.
Word of the crash went ‘round our room.
They teach us to believe in ourselves,
A while back I was mean to a dog.
It started one Saturday afternoon.
About to leave my house I gave each dog
a biscuit shaped like a bone
but denied her.
Even though she’s dead 14 months
I still see the look in her eyes that day,
disbelief, sorrow. A Catahoula mix
not by nature affectionate.
Now I have a dog who slept at my side
many nights, then suddenly found
a big pillow in a room other than mine.
More comfortable there than with me,
he teaches me I’m alone,
an ongoing lesson, it’s okay being alone,
a lesson my mother used to teach
and, I assume, your mother taught you,
because she chose to.
Outside a pavilion balloons floated up
into the sky an hour after the service
for your mom.
I’m with animals and I’m alone.
I’m okay. But that Saturday I denied Lori,
the Catahoula, a treat I wasn’t.
I was anything but kind.
Days like that may come again.
I can’t predict the future. But I know
what my mom taught me and what I think
your mom taught. It’s continual.
Now they’re not here, our mothers,
the animals teach us.
Peter Mladinic has published three books of poems: Lost in Lea, Dressed for Winter, and Falling Awake in Lovington, all with the Lea County Museum Press. He lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.
She left the window open so
Her soul could float free
In ways her body never could
Or mind would ever be.
There, as we arrived, she lay,
A dressing gown her cover
Along with dreams of long ago
And hopes her time was over.
She made a smile as we came in –
Bees back to some lost hive –
But soon the theme was God’s harsh laugh,
Mocking those who live.
I knew I’d stay and have to hear
Her rant against the One
Who made the sinews of the heart
And human soul His throne.
At eighty-eight her wisdom gained
Had drifted through the glass,
Now open, yet for all that stained,
The queen about to pass.
James Sale, a 2022 Pushcart Prize nominee, has had poetry and literary works published in Hong Kong, the USA, and the UK. His work has appeared in The Society of Classical Poets, The Epoch Times, The Times Educational Supplement, The Hong Kong Review, The Anglo-Theological Review, The St Austin Review, and many others. An international and award-winning poet, he currently is one of two judges for the Society of Classical Poets’ 100 Days of Dante poetry competition. For more information about the author and about his own Dante project, visit https://englishcantos.home.blog.
Within those sheets, my mistress lay, her flawless form with perfect feet. One last embrace; I cannot stay! I hear her heart in metered beat.
Her voice, a ballad siren song with lyrics begging my delay. But I’ve already been too long! Within those sheets, my mistress lay.
The grandest thought one could create was “could the wife and mistress meet?” She’d see a villain-elle and hate her flawless form with perfect feet.
She draws me back into the sheets. Seductive eyes say, “Come and play,” But I must leave this incomplete! One last embrace; I cannot stay.
Perhaps… I’ll finish this last rhyme. One hasty end-stop short and sweet. The chugging quatrain steams to climb! I hear her heart in metered beat.
The writing’s done… now comes the chafe. A writer’s wife airs her dismay. The notebook closed; my secret, safe. Within those sheets, my mistress lay.
“Mistress” was first published by The Society of Classical Poets
Michael Pietrack is a new writer from Colorado, USA. This businessman and former baseball player started writing poetry during the pandemic. He will launch his first book of poetry, titled Legacy, in early 2023. Michael has a BA in English Literature from Colorado Mesa University, where he minored in Theatre, and an MA in Education from New Mexico State University.
I was born breach and reaching for a Bible and a break-up song. It’s eight months to the day since I last saw you.
I’ve weaned myself of counting breaths, redeemed myself by wanting less; it’s only when I dream that I break and call you.
Sunrise sees me clothe the bones, braid my hair, and carry on. Summer’s come and almost gone – wolf and wheel.
Let autumn steal my time to think. Winter, chill my blood to ink. Spring is soon enough for me to thaw and feel.
Kelli Simpson is a mother and poet living in Norman, Oklahoma. She has had poems published in Bewildering Stories, One Art Poetry Journal, Gyroscope Review, Lamplit Underground, Taco Bell Quarterly, and elsewhere.
She offered light that was as boldly bright
As evening star or satellite.
But now she’s ancient, dusky, hollow-eyed,
A piece of local history
Preserved by some society.
To one who’d grown up in her scope,
Who’d given up on life and hope,
She seemed as purposeless as he.
They’d lost their lights concurrently….
It was a cold, bleak sea.
He stood beneath his eyeless friend
And heard her voice upon the keening wind:
“I might have saved a ship or two
From wrecking on a bar or bank,
But I could not save you….
I lit the night, the world. Now look at me:
I can’t do anything but be.”
“Goodbye,” he said, then sank
And lay down in the darkness of the sea.
A green leaf and a brown leaf, side by side,
On an old oak we walked together past,
The walk I sensed somehow would be our last,
In early autumn, just before you died.
The two leaves seemed the perfect metaphor
That day, for what we were: a grey-haired lady
Who stooped a bit and was approaching 80,
Beside her son (I’d just turned 44).
Your cheeks were flushed as you were laughing, talking,
And pointing out the wonders that you saw:
The mist, the leaves. Your joy made me withdraw.
I drooped and dragged, I was so tired from walking….
I see us now, amid the autumn scene,
Myself the dead brown leaf, and you the green.
Allen Lee Ireland‘s poetry has appeared in The Road Not Taken, The Lyric, Red Planet Magazine, and Button Eye Review. He is currently working on his third book of poetry. His previous collections include Loners and Mothers and Dark and Light Verse.
I sense my pages turn before I see the message written there for me to read. My short sight yearns for ageless reverie.
The light is dim, I lie, and glance briefly to grab more time to dance with my own lead. As pages turn too fast, I fail to see
when false steps trip and send me to my knees. Remorse and wisdom both I fail to heed. My short sight clings to ageless reverie.
The birthstone days, each anniversary push hard to bring discernment to my need. The decades quickly turn, and now I see
frail bones, hair falling: loss the enemy. This half cup teases hands that end palsied, a heart that churns for ageless reverie.
Yet still I sing without finding a key and pass the book for other eyes to read. I sense more pages turn but all I see are sightings learned in ageless reverie.
Bonnie and the Great Depression
She had a mind for hairpin turns and sighed when Clyde’s first thrill-ride spun them out of town. The road ahead sped far and free and wide.
Their ways veered fast. Hot cash, quick gin supplied his fuel while her dim wishful heart cooled down. She paid a mind to hairpin turns and tried
to hold the ring (her compromise) but shied when nightmares crashed the merry-go-round. Their road ahead sped fast, not free, not wide.
The cycle held and straight roads were denied and breath: his flat line track just looped around. Now hard against the hairpin turns, she tried
to navigate for steady, sober rides. His reckoning dead-set, he swerved and frowned. Feel how this road leads far and free, he lied.
[An intervening verse—Reader’s aside: Hey Bonnie, quit careening off that clown! The road hog’s lost…and something else has died.]
She stepped clear then and let the years collide and burn as Clyde drove to his next ghost town. She thanked her Reader and then turned and sighed: the road ahead stretched far and free and wide.
Jean Biegun, retired special education teacher, lives in California after a lifetime in the Midwest. Poems have appeared in many publications including Amethyst Review, Mobius: The Poetry Magazine, Muddy River Poetry Review, Soul-Lit, Eastern Iowa Review, World Haiku Review, Door is a Jar and Gyroscope Review. Her chapbook Hitchhikers to Eden will be published by Kelsay Books in 2022.