Two Poems by William Blake

William Blake (1757-1827)

Arguably known as much for his painting skills as for his poetry, British Romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827) was recognized for neither during his lifetime. Blake has been posthumously recognized for the philosophical undercurrents in his self-proclaimed prophetic works.

Blake was said to be influenced at one point, as were many writers of his time, by the ideals of the American and French Revolutions. His vocal criticism of organized religion and idiosyncratic viewpoints likely did nothing to help him gain prominence in literary circles during his lifetime; however, the rise and fall of many writers’ reputations throughout the centuries has more to do with the ideologies and sentiments of modern critics than actual fair analysis of one’s work in the context of their own time and circumstance.

The third of seven children, Blake was homeschooled by his mother after age 10. He entered into an apprenticeship for seven years to become a professional engraver, after which he became a student at the Royal Academy. In 1781, he married the illiterate Catherine Boucher, who he taught not only to read and write, but how to engrave. She subsequently helped him in his craft for the rest of his life.

Blake’s most recognizable poems include “The Tyger” and “The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young,” both of which are found below.


The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Two Poems by Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

A contemporary of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, British Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) is probably best known as the author of “The Fairie Queen,” an epic fantasy poem celebrating the monarch of the time, Queen Elizabeth I.

Spenser, however, did much more than write a flattering poem paying tribute to the queen and her family line. He also wrote many sonnets and is considered one of the founders and most respected craftsmen of English verse.

Born in London and twice married, Spenser’s life was spent writing and socializing in literary circles. His foray into politics was suppressed during his lifetime, possibly due to his incendiary viewpoints regarding the Irish. His prose pamphlet entitled “A View of the Present State of Ireland” argued for destroying the customs and language of the Irish people, by violence if necessary, to force them into a more submissive stance toward the English. He died in London at age 46 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminister Abbey.

Aside from his most famous (and very lengthy) epic fantasy poem, “The Fairie Queen,” the following two sonnets are from his collection Amoretti and are among the most notable poems Spenser wrote.


Amoretti LXXIX: Men Call You Fair

Men call you fair, and you do credit it,
For that your self ye daily such do see:
But the true fair, that is the gentle wit,
And vertuous mind, is much more prais’d of me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to naught and lose that glorious hue:
But only that is permanent and free
From frail corruption, that doth flesh ensue.
That is true beauty: that doth argue you
To be divine, and born of heavenly seed:
Deriv’d from that fair Spirit, from whom all true
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only fair, and what he fair hath made,
All other fair, like flowers untimely fade.


Amoretti LIV: Of This Worlds Theatre in Which We Stay

Of this worlds Theatre in which we stay,
My love lyke the Spectator ydly sits
Beholding me that all the pageants play,
Disguysing diversly my troubled wits.
Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in myrth lyke to a Comedy:
Soone after when my joy to sorrow flits,
I waile and make my woes a Tragedy.
Yet she beholding me with constant eye,
Delights not in my merth nor rues my smart:
But when I laugh she mocks, and when I cry
She laughes, and hardens evermore her hart.
What then can move her? if not merth nor mone,
She is no woman, but a sencelesse stone.

Two Poems by George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Best known just as Lord Byron, British poet George Gordon Byron (1788 -1824) was a contemporary of Percy Bysshe Shelley during the English Romantic period. Byron is best known for poems like “Don Juan” and for his philandering love life.

Byron was notoriously bad at handling his finances and prone to engage in desperate and indiscriminate love affairs, which include rumors of homosexual and incestual encounters.

Byron was quite famous and beloved during the Regency period, enjoying prominence in London society and the rare appreciation not always afforded a poet’s work during their lifetime. However, his money and relationship issues eventually led to his self-imposed exile from England for the remainder of his life. He travelled Europe, tarried in Italy, but ended up dying of illness while fighting against the Turks in the Greek War of Independence. Byron’s body was returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but this burial was refused due to the poet’s “questionable morality.” Byron was ultimately buried in the Church of St. Mary Magdelene, with a memorial to him finally being placed in Westminster Abbey in 1969, 145 years after his death.

Aside from his most famous (and very lengthy) poem, “Don Juan,” the following two poems are among Lord Byron’s most beloved and enduring.


She Walks in Beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!


And Thou art Dead, as Young and Fair

And thou art dead, as young and fair
As aught of mortal birth;
And form so soft, and charms so rare,
Too soon return’d to Earth!
Though Earth receiv’d them in her bed,
And o’er the spot the crowd may tread
In carelessness or mirth,
There is an eye which could not brook
A moment on that grave to look.

I will not ask where thou liest low,
Nor gaze upon the spot;
There flowers or weeds at will may grow,
So I behold them not:
It is enough for me to prove
That what I lov’d, and long must love,
Like common earth can rot;
To me there needs no stone to tell,
‘T is Nothing that I lov’d so well.

Yet did I love thee to the last
As fervently as thou,
Who didst not change through all the past,
And canst not alter now.
The love where Death has set his seal,
Nor age can chill, nor rival steal,
Nor falsehood disavow:
And, what were worse, thou canst not see
Or wrong, or change, or fault in me.

The better days of life were ours;
The worst can be but mine:
The sun that cheers, the storm that lowers,
Shall never more be thine.
The silence of that dreamless sleep
I envy now too much to weep;
Nor need I to repine
That all those charms have pass’d away,
I might have watch’d through long decay.

The flower in ripen’d bloom unmatch’d
Must fall the earliest prey;
Though by no hand untimely snatch’d,
The leaves must drop away:
And yet it were a greater grief
To watch it withering, leaf by leaf,
Than see it pluck’d to-day;
Since earthly eye but ill can bear
To trace the change to foul from fair.

I know not if I could have borne
To see thy beauties fade;
The night that follow’d such a morn
Had worn a deeper shade:
Thy day without a cloud hath pass’d,
And thou wert lovely to the last,
Extinguish’d, not decay’d;
As stars that shoot along the sky
Shine brightest as they fall from high.

As once I wept, if I could weep,
My tears might well be shed,
To think I was not near to keep
One vigil o’er thy bed;
To gaze, how fondly! on thy face,
To fold thee in a faint embrace,
Uphold thy drooping head;
And show that love, however vain,
Nor thou nor I can feel again.

Yet how much less it were to gain,
Though thou hast left me free,
The loveliest things that still remain,
Than thus remember thee!
The all of thine that cannot die
Through dark and dread Eternity
Returns again to me,
And more thy buried love endears
Than aught except its living years.

Two Poems by William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom under Queen Victoria from 1843-1850, British poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a major poet of the English Romantic period, friend to fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and another “classical” poet whose success and veneration belies the real criticism and challenges he endured.

A faithful supporter of the Church of England, some of the criticism directed at Wordsworth, both then and now, is due to his adherence to his religious beliefs when the literary elite found it more fashionable to espouse secular themes and values prevalent during the Enlightenment (and currently enjoying renewed popularity). Wordsworth lived for a time in France and was at first enamored with the ideas of Republicanism which brought about the French Revolution, but then became horrified by the atrocities witnessed during the “Reign of Terror.” These early experiences undoubtedly influenced his work. As he progressed in his career, Wordsworth was fortunate enough to witness his earlier works gaining appreciation over time as the views of the Enlightenment gave way to 19th-century Romanticism.

While his semi-autobiographical poem, “The Prelude,” is often considered his best work, Wordsworth’s talent is also widely recognized in shorter works, including “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” found here below.


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Two Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

An important influence of later poets such as Robert Browning and W. B. Yeats and a contemporary of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is widely considered a major poet of the English Romatic period, and has been described by one modern critic as “a lyric poet without rival.”

An atheist who only lived to the age of 29, the challenges overcome to attain literary prominence were not enough to prevent his success, although much of his acclaim came after his tragic death in a boating accident in the Gulf of La Spezia, near modern day Italy. Both Shelley’s first wife and his second wife’s sister committed suicide, arguably in part due to their complicated relationship with the poet. His second wife was Mary Godwin Shelley of Frankenstein fame.

Much of Percy Shelley’s poetry was overtly political, if not radical for the times, and published posthumously to avoid the persecution and prosecution that surely would have commenced if such material was published in his lifetime. In addition to the poets mentioned previously, a diverse group of luminaries including Mahatma Ghandi, Karl Marx, and George Bernard Shaw were said to be admirers of his work. Shelley’s literary reputation was more marginal than one would expect during and after his lifetime, even into the 20th century when critics such as T.S. Eliot and W. H. Auden fiercely disparaged his work. But as similar viewpoints to his increased in favor in the mid to late 1960s, Shelley’s critical reputation has unsurprisingly improved.

The following two poems, “Ozymandias” and “To a Skylark,” are among Shelley’s most recognized.


Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert….Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


To a Skylark

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,

Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow’d.

What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace-tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Scattering unbeholden
Its aëreal hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:

Like a rose embower’d
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflower’d,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves:

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awaken’d flowers,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus Hymeneal,
Or triumphal chant,
Match’d with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.

Two Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

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

I.

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.

II.

‘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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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.

VI.

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.

Two Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay, c. 1914-1915

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.


Renascence

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.

Two Poems by Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson by Abraham Blyenberch, c. 1617

A contemporary of William Shakespeare, English poet Ben Jonson’s most successful period as a literary figure probably occurred from 1605 to 1620.

Jonson was known as much if not more so as a playwright than as a poet. Not only was Jonson in the same location at the same time doing the same thing as William Shakespeare, but Shakespeare actually acted in Every Man in His Humour, one of Jonson’s most famous plays. His poetry was notable as well, with Song of Celia and On My First Son being two poems often regarded among his best. Jonson died in August 1637 at the age of 65. Upon his death, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his funeral was attended by nobility of the time.


On My First Son

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
      My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
      Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
      Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
      And if no other misery, yet age!

Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
      Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
      As what he loves may never like too much.


Song to Celia

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
      And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
      And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
      Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
      I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
      Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope, that there
      It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
      And sent’st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
      Not of itself, but thee.

Two Poems by Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling, 1895

While arguably best known for his collection of short stories entitled The Jungle Book (1894), English writer Rudyard Kipling is also widely recognized as a talented poet. Voted the UK’s most popular poem in a 1996 poll conducted by the BBC, Kipling’s “If—” still resonates more than 125 after its 1895 conception.

Kipling’s Diamond Jubilee poem, “Recessional” might have some familiar lines to even casual observers. The phrase “lest we forget,” commonly associated with Remembrance Sunday in the UK and even Memorial Day in the U.S., originated from this poem.

It is often argued that both of these poems are far more complex in sentiment than Kipling is often given credit for. Decide for yourself after reading each of these classic pieces, provided here below.


If—

If you can keep your head when all about you
      Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
      But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
      Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
      And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
      If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
      And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
      Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
      And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
      And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
      And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
      To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
      Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
      Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
      If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
      With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
      And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old,
      Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
      Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
      The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
      An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
      On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
      Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
      Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
      Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
      In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
      And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Two Poems by John McCrae

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

Sometimes a poet can write for their entire life and still be forgotten…and then there is John McCrae (1872-1918). With one magnificent poem, this Canadian military physician forever secured his place in the pantheon of classical poetry. First published in Punch magazine, “In Flanders Fields” has subsequently been anthologized countless times in textbooks throughout the English-speaking world. It is this poem that precipitated the adoption of the poppy by Britain and the British commonwealth as the official Flower of Remembrance to honor those soldiers killed in World War I. This poem and the poem below it, “The Pilgrims,” are two of a small handful of poems posthumously published as In Flanders Fields and Other Poems in 1919.


In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


The Pilgrims

An uphill path, sun-gleams between the showers,
Where every beam that broke the leaden sky
Lit other hills with fairer ways than ours;
Some clustered graves where half our memories lie;
And one grim Shadow creeping ever nigh:
And this was Life.

Wherein we did another’s burden seek,
The tired feet we helped upon the road,
The hand we gave the weary and the weak,
The miles we lightened one another’s load,
When, faint to falling, onward yet we strode:
This too was Life.

Till, at the upland, as we turned to go
Amid fair meadows, dusky in the night,
The mists fell back upon the road below;
Broke on our tired eyes the western light;
The very graves were for a moment bright:
And this was Death.