Two Poems by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Best known as a father of free verse, American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) famously wrote impressively in both free verse and more traditional style about his feelings and experiences during the American Civil War. His occupations famously included volunteer service as a nurse during the war, which gave him much inspiration in his literary and journalistic career, which resumed thereafter. His observations and experiences both as a nurse and a Union sympathizer inspired some of his most widely known and admired poems. “O Captain, My Captain!” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” are two such pieces.

 

O Captain! My Captain!

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.
 
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
                         Here Captain! dear father!
                            This arm beneath your head!
                               It is some dream that on the deck,
                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.
 
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

 

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying,
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—
          no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.
 
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
          no sleepers must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—
          would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.
 
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.

Two Poems by John Donne

John Donne (1572-1631)

Ordered to take on holy orders by the king, British poet John Donne (1572-1631) actually wore many hats in his lifetime. In addition to his position as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Donne was a poet, scholar, secretary, soldier, and member of Parliament. His prolific volume of literary work includes everything from sonnets to sermons. His metaphysical poetry sometimes touches on profound questions of religious faith while at other times can be surprisingly erotic and sensual. “Death Be Not Proud” and “The Good-Morrow,” are two of his most celebrated works.

 

Death Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

 

The Good-Morrow

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

Two Poems by Herman Melville

Portrait of Melville by Joseph Oriel Eaton, oils on canvas, 1870

While participating in a memorial ceremony this weekend for the Union dead from Missouri units at the battle of Shiloh, I heard an orator read the first of two poems below written by Herman Melville (1819-1891), perhaps most famous for his epic novel Moby-Dick. It struck me how his famous tale of the obsessive hunt for Captain Ahab’s whale likely more often than not overshadows Melville’s skills as a poet and his chronological place among his contemporaries. His talent is demonstrated in the two selections included below.



Shiloh: A Requiem (April 1862)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
     The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
      The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
     Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
          And natural prayer
     Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
     Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
     But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
     And all is hushed at Shiloh.


Sheridan at Cedar Creek (October 1864)

Shoe the steed with silver
     That bore him to the fray,
When he heard the guns at dawning—
               Miles away;
When he heard them calling, calling—
          Mount! nor stay:
               Quick, or all is lost;
               They’ve surprised and stormed the post,
               They push your routed host—
     Gallop! retrieve the day!
 
House the horse in ermine—
     For the foam-flake blew
White through the red October;
     He thundered into view;
They cheered him in the looming;
     Horseman and horse they knew.
               The turn of the tide began,
               The rally of bugles ran,
               He swung his hat in the van;
     The electric hoof-spark flew.
 
Wreathe the steed and lead him—
     For the charge he led
Touched and turned the cypress
     Into amaranths for the head
Of Philip, king of riders,
     Who raised them from the dead.
               The camp (at dawning lost)
               By eve recovered—forced,
               Rang with laughter of the host
      At belated Early fled.
 
Shroud the horse in sable—
     For the mounds they heap!
There is firing in the Valley,
     And yet no strife they keep;
It is the parting volley,
     It is the pathos deep.
               There is glory for the brave
               Who lead, and nobly save,
               But no knowledge in the grave
     Where the nameless followers sleep.

Two Poems by Emily Dickinson

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype_(Restored_and_cropped)
Emily Dickinson, ca. 1848

Emily Dickinson very much belongs among the greatest poets of her era; however, her story is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks poetry comes with any kind of fame or recognition. Unappreciated in her lifetime on the scale she deserved, her work is nonetheless a timeless collection of treasures which keeps her name upon the lips of even the most novice of literature aficionados. Here are two classics by Emily Dickinson.

 

 

“”HOPE” IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea,
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

 

“SUCCESS”

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory,
As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break, agonized and clear.

Two Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe 1849
Edgar Allan Poe, 1849.

Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849, yet he is a poet and writer whose name is still familiar to many outside of academic circles. While often dark, his work has a depth of emotion which keeps it a relevant reminder of the human condition even into the 21st century. My own daughter is named after one of the following poems which speaks of love as a bond which transcends this mortal coil. Here are two popular poems by Edgar Allan Poe.

 

 

 

“ANNABEL LEE”

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the winged seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

 

“ALONE”

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ‘round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—

 

Three Poems by Robert Frost

Robert Frost in a 1941 photograh. (Library of Congress photograph)
Robert Frost in a 1941 photograph. (Library of Congress photograph)

When I was an undergraduate in college, I had a professor who held the distinction of having every poet laureate of the United States in his car at one time or another since Robert Frost. He told an amusing story of having almost run Robert Frost over with his car while Frost was walking on the Amherst campus. Frost has long been one of my favorite poets and remains an influence 57 years after his death and over 95 years after the following poems were published. Here are three of my favorite Robert Frost poems which entered the public domain on January 1, 2019.

 

“STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

 

“THE ROAD NOT TAKEN”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

“FIRE AND ICE”

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.