Great poems for men, part 2

Book review of Delphi Poetry Anthology: The World’s Greatest Poems

I’m starting to think my prejudice about the short-lived nature of poets falls far from the mark.  William Wordsworth (1770-1850) made it all the way to eighty.  I’ve a few poems of his to introduce.

The Two April Mornings, A Lesson and We Are Seven are nice ones, but are better read in full rather than trying to give you a sense of them by extract here.  Instead, I offer you two verses of another:

The Affliction of Margaret


WHERE art thou, my beloved Son,

Where art thou, worse to me than dead!

O find me, prosperous or undone!

Or if the grave be now thy bed,

Why am I ignorant of the same

That I may rest; and neither blame

Nor sorrow may attend thy name?  (. . .)


Perhaps some dungeon hears thee groan

Maim’d, mangled by inhuman men;

Or thou upon a desert thrown

Inheritest the lion’s den;

Or hast been summon’d to the deep

Thou, thou, and all thy mates, to keep

An incommunicable sleep . . .

Does anyone know the inspiration for it?  My impression is that it comes from personal experience, perhaps from an acquaintance whose son went missing in the colonies.

I very much like this one, and wish we could now say it of any of the far-flung branches of the Anglo-Saxon world:

We Must Be Free or Die


. . . We must be free or die, who speak the tongue

That Shakespeare spoke: the faith and morals hold

Which Milton held . . .


The sonnet is renowned as the English language’s premier poetic form, noted for its tight, inflexible strictures that some might feel a straitjacket upon the poet’s back.  But not our Willy!  This is what he said:

The Sonnet


NUNS fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels; (. . .)


In truth the prison, unto which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ‘twas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found . . .

Let’s leave old Wordy there.  The next is a fellow called Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and the poem quoted is very long.  Here I highlight just a little part that you’ve probably heard before:

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


. . . Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.  Quite an epic.

Robert Southey (1774-1843) writes about a boy who finds a skull leftover from the Battle of Blenheim.  He struggles to explain to him what the war was all about:

After Blenheim


. . . My father lived at Blenheim then,

Yon little stream hard by;

They burnt his dwelling to the ground,

And he was forced to fly:

So with his wife and child he fled,

Nor had he where to rest his head.

With fire and sword the country round

Was wasted far and wide,

And many a childing mother then

And newborn baby died:

But things like that, you know, must be

At every famous victory . . .

Like finding a skull in Iraq, I suppose.  Or Afghanistan.  Or Vietnam.  Or . . . oh come on, let’s get on with it.  Geez you lot are morbid.

Rob gets quite preachy in the next.  It seems everyone, in every age, thinks that in their own the world has gone to pot:

The Devil’s Walk


FROM his brimstone bed at break of day

A walking the Devil is gone,

To look at his little, snug farm of the World,

And see how his stock went on . . .

He goes on to complain about lawyers, quacks, taxes, slavery, Evangelicals, Utilitarians, parliamentarians, and sundry other sins and sinners.

You know how time seems to go faster as you get older?  Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) has a clever rhyme about it:

The River of Life


THE MORE we live, more brief appear

Our life’s succeeding stages:

A day to childhood seems a year,

And years like passing ages . . .

Heaven gives our years of fading strength

Indemnifying fleetness;

And those of youth, a seeming length,

Proportion’d to their sweetness.

I don’t know when J. Campbell lived, whether it’s a boy or a girl, or if the poet is any relation to Thomas, but he/she/it wrote about free love before it was cool:

Freedom and Love


HOW delicious is the winning

Of a kiss at love’s beginning,

When two mutual hearts are sighing

For the knot there’s no untying!  (. . .)


Love’s a fire that needs renewal

Of fresh beauty for its fuel:

Love’s wing moults when caged and captured,

Only free, he soars enraptured . . .

Can you keep the bee from ranging,

Or the ringdove’s neck from changing?

No!  nor fetter’d Love from dying

In the knot there’s no untying.

The style strikes me as masculine but the content, feminine – a plea for the social acceptability of serial monogamy, which is women’s preference.

Let’s leave it there for today, because next is Byron and we will spend quite a while on him.  I hope you’ve found something to amuse you in our tour so far.

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