I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach. - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Since last month’s column on my favorite books proved so popular, I figured an encore was in order; today and tomorrow I’ll present my favorite poems, arranged alphabetically by poet. As is my custom, I’ve limited the selections to one per poet and listed others as honorable mentions. I’ll share short selections within the column, but longer ones as PDFs, and in cases where I was fortunate enough to locate an illustrated version of an honorable mention I used it as the illustration; just click on it to enlarge. Those blessed with good memories or burdened with English degrees have probably noticed my preference for 19th century literature, especially of the Romantic period (roughly the first half of the century and the end of the 18th); even most of my 20th century selections cluster in the first half. I’d say 75% of all the fiction and poetry I’ve ever read was written between 1766 and 1966, with the remaining quarter divided evenly between the pre-1766 and post-1966 periods. Why? I have no clue; maybe it’s related to the fact that I always get a profound frisson when writing or reading about Catherine Eddowes.
1) “The Tyger” (1794) by William Blake (HM “A Poison Tree” & “The Sick Rose”)
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 watered 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?
Blake was a poet, engraver and visionary; he had visions from the time he was a small child and they often inspired his work. He developed an entire personal mythology as complex as that later created by H.P. Lovecraft, and used it throughout his oeuvre…which often, as these selections demonstrate, contained an undercurrent of horror (consider the theological implications in the penultimate stanza of “The Tyger”). He’s my favorite poet and I’ve quoted him (usually from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”) and used his illustrations in a number of columns. I also have the honor of being distantly related to him.
Yes, it’s doggerel; some of the rhymes are almost painful! But Browning did it on purpose to maintain a light tone in what would otherwise have been a mighty grim fairy tale about the consequences of not paying what one owes for a service (apparently Agent Huntington didn’t learn the lesson). The Piper is of course one of the Fair Folk, and dealings with such beings are always fraught with danger (as demonstrated in two more of my selections tomorrow). The legend dates to shortly after the original incident in 1284 (and as Browning tells us was commemorated in a stained-glass window a few years later), but his version (re-dated to 1376) is the most memorable.
3) “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815) by George Gordon, Lord Byron
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
The topic is of course Biblical, a retelling of 2 Kings 19; I like it for the beauty of its language and the power of its imagery. I’ve always suspected that the climactic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark was inspired by this poem. Bonus: A very funny parody of it by Ogden Nash.
4) “Jabberwocky” (1872) by Lewis Carroll (HM “The Walrus and the Carpenter”)
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jujub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And as in ufﬁsh thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of ﬂame,
Came whifﬂing through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two!! One, two!! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
The most amazing feature of Carroll’s finest short piece is that despite the sheer number of nonsense words, one still has absolutely no problem understanding what is going on here. The poem is from Through the Looking-Glass; if you haven’t reread it lately you really ought to.
Almost everyone knows that the title character brings doom upon his ship by shooting an albatross, but if you’ve never actually read the poem (or if it’s been a long time) you owe it to yourself to get the full story, which would make a fantastic horror movie exactly as written (it even has monsters and zombies, no joke). Of course, that’s not unusual for Coleridge, who also wrote a poem about a lesbian vampire (“Christabel”). Oh, and Rush fans: if you haven’t before, you really, really want to read “Kubla Khan”. Trust me.
6) “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” (1922) by Robert Frost
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 sound’s 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.
My second-grade teacher probably would not have had me memorize this had she realized what it was actually about. If you don’t understand, contemplate the eighth line and ask yourself why the last one is repeated. I usually sing this one rather than reciting it; a friend of mine at UNO wrote a lovely tune for it. Incidentally, this isn’t the only one of these I know by heart; I can also recite #1 (and its HMs), #4, #9 (and HMs), #10 and #11 (plus the first of two HMs). However, you’ll have to read tomorrow’s column to discover what those are.
One Year Ago Today
“Nell Gwyn” was born in a brothel, became an actress and courtesan, and was eventually the mistress of King Charles II.