She cried, “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.” - Christina Rossetti
Yesterday I told you about the first six of my favorite poems, listed in alphabetical order by poet; today we’re going to look at seven more, for a total of thirteen. As I pointed out yesterday, I have a particular fondness for literature of the Romantic Period, which ran from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries; only three of today’s selections were written later, and one of them (#12) shows a strong Romantic influence. As y’all have noticed by now my taste in poetry is for traditional (if sometimes unconventional) rhyme and meter; it’s probably the main reason I don’t care for modern poetry, which generally eschews both except in song lyrics. That brings up an important point: a song is really just a poem set to music, and one of these poems (#10) is nearly always performed as a song. So one of these days I’ll probably do a column on my favorite songs…but that’s going to take a lot of thought, so it’ll probably be much later this year.
7) “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819) by John Keats
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
“I love thee true.”
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
This haunting poem about a knight who makes the terrible mistake of dallying with a Faerie woman displays a common theme in Faerie lore; everything about the Fair Folk, from their persons to their music to their food, is so woven with enchantment (or to use the old word, glamour) that a mortal who partakes of it pines forever after, sometimes unto death. The motif appears again in “Goblin Market” below, in my own story “Faerie Tale”, and in the Electric Light Orchestra song “I Can’t Get It Out of My Head”.
8) “The Female of the Species” (1911) by Rudyard Kipling
Long-time readers may remember that I’ve not only quoted this one, but actually based part of a column on it. And since that’s already available, I’ll otherwise allow the poem to speak for itself.
9) “Disobedience” (1924) by A.A. Milne (HM “Buckingham Palace” and “The King’s Breakfast”)
In my considered opinion, Milne’s nonsense is second only to that of Carroll; both cloaked incredible wit and brilliant wordplay in literature ostensibly intended for children, but which (like the old Warner Brothers cartoons) can only really be appreciated by adults. This is true in the Pooh books, but much more so in his poetry, which marries a Victorian flair for whimsy with a 20th-century willingness to play with form and meter (as displayed perfectly in all these selections). And though Milne didn’t intend it that way, try reading “Disobedience” with the topic of the nanny state in mind.
10) “The Minstrel Boy” (1806) by Thomas Moore
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”
This is actually a song, which you can hear performed by the famous Irish tenor John McCormack in the provided link. However, it’s often included in collections of poetry and the tune is a traditional Irish one called “The Moreen”. My Irish and British readers and those who live in traditionally-Irish communities in the US are probably quite familiar with this one, which is probably the simplest and most conventional of all my favorites.
Poe was one of the rare writers who excelled equally at prose and poetry, and “The Raven” is his masterpiece; it’s also the longest poem I ever committed wholly to memory (one stanza at a time over several weeks in high school). People are still arguing about its exact meaning, and its repeated refrain of “Nevermore” is so linked with the poem I daresay most English-speaking adults can scarcely hear the word without thinking of it. Poe’s language is incredibly musical, and he had a gift for working polysyllabic words into his meter with enviable ease; nowhere is this more perfectly showcased than in “The Bells”, which is best appreciated when read aloud. Bonus: “The Raven” inspired one of my favorite movies, and here’s a hilarious parody of the poem as recited by Bullwinkle.
12) “Goblin Market” (1859) by Christina Rossetti
This incredibly sensual, overtly sexual fairy tale poem draws on the pining motif (see #7 above) to present a disguised protest against Victorian repression of female sexuality (including, as will be obvious, lesbian sexuality); more specifically, it rebukes the doctrine that a “fallen” woman could not be redeemed. What Rossetti seems to be saying here is that it’s abstaining from sex which harms a woman, not embracing it in the context of a loving relationship; and for a woman of her time, that was positively radical. It’s the longest of my favorites, but please don’t let that length deter you; it’s really a quick read and worth your time. NB: This illustration was done by the poet’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
13) “Ozymandias” (1818) by Percy Byssche Shelley
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 beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
“Ozymandias” is the Greek name for Ramses II, but that really isn’t important to the meaning of this meditation on the fleeting nature of power and fame, and the futility of the excesses men commit to obtain them. The cruel irony of the inscription, which now means exactly the opposite of what Ozymandias intended it to mean, is one of the most striking in English poetry.
One Year Ago Today
“Projection” discusses the people who use whores as scapegoats by projecting their own twisted needs and self-loathing onto us.