Poems You Should Know: Desiderata

From the Latin ‘Desiderata’, meaning ‘desired things’, this is a 1927 prose poem by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) which expresses a kind of non-religious life guidance with a spiritual slant. Because of this it has successfully transcended religious boundaries to appeal to the spiritual and the secularist alike. I bought it on a poster years ago and still have it.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

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Poems You Should Know: The Man From Snowy River

First published in 1890, A. B. ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s ‘The Man From Snowy River’ is the breathless, action-packed story of a group of riders attempting to recapture an escaped horse. The late 1800s was a time when Australia, like many British colonies, was in the process of forming a sense of national identity, and poets like Patterson and Henry Lawson played a pivotal role in placing the image of the ‘rugged bushman’ at the heart of that image. The poem is a great read, and a particular favourite, and it seems I’m not alone in my love – over the years it’s inspired several movies and a television series. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: The Man From Snowy River”

Poems You Should Know: The Charge of the Light Brigade

I’ve been known to mutter the line ‘ours not to make reply, ours not to reason why’, occasionally adding ‘ours but to do and die, into the valley of death rode the six hundred’ when confronted with a particularly baffling instruction from an employer, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson, originally penned this poem in response to far greater events.

In 1854, Britain was at war with Russia in the Crimea. The ‘Light Brigade’ of just over six hundred light cavalry were supposed to prevent the Russians from moving captured Turkish artillery (a task well-suited to the fast, lightly-armoured light cavalry), but due to a miscommunication they instead found themselves making a full-frontal assault on 20 battalions of Russians holding the high ground on both sides of a valley supported by some 50 pieces of artillery. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: The Charge of the Light Brigade”

Poems You Should Know: The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde

In 1895, Irish novelist, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde was riding high on the success of his latest play, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and his relationship with young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). But the good times were not to last. Douglas’ furious father, the Marquis of Queensberry, left a calling-card at Wilde’s club inscribed ‘for Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite’ [sic]. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde”

Poems You Should Know: ‘The Maori Jesus’ by James K. Baxter

Mid-twentieth century poet James K. Baxter was a complicated man with a certain prophetic bent. A number of his poems, like this one, challenged contemporary social assumptions. In ‘The Maori Jesus’, the Christ is depicted as a somewhat down-and-out member of New Zealand’s indigenous people who pays a heavy price for living outside comfortable White social norms. For me as a Christian, Baxter captures something in this poem which is too easily forgotten in our ‘nice’ White, middle class religion.

Māori_Jesus_at_Te_Papa
Excerpt from ‘The Maori Jesus’ on display outside Te Papa museum in Wellington. In my student days I often used to walk past this but it took me years to look up the poem it came from.

Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: ‘The Maori Jesus’ by James K. Baxter”

Poems You Should Know: ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I profiled Hopkins (1844-1889), who is one of my favourite poets, ages ago. Although written during the Victorian era, his poems are Romantic in their emphasis on nature and spirituality, and were published (posthumously) during the Modern period. ‘The Windhover’ describes the flight of a falcon as it hovers and then drops, but also captures the spiritual ecstasy inspired by associating this sight with the sigh of Christ returning in majesty. However, the language – Hopkins’ ‘sprung verse’ – and the imagery is so evocative and captivating that the poem seems to transcend any religious framework to touch the hearts of people from many different backgrounds and beliefs.

To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom
of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.

Poems You Should Know: Jabberwocky

The most widely known of Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-1898) poems, ‘Jabberwocky’ is a piece of nonsense verse which first appeared in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’, the sequel to ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Like all nonsense poems it is less than serious in nature, and makes free use of made-up, nonsense words, which nonetheless appear to make perfect sense in context. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: Jabberwocky”

Poems You Should Know: Still I Rise

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

The 20th century was a time of tremendous social change as people began to question, and then challenge, the hierarchical concepts which had previously shaped the social order. From the suffragettes of the early 20th century to the mid-century Civil and Women’s Rights movements to the LGBT activism of the late 20th century ideas about who should have power, and why, have changed in ways that our great-grandparents would probably have struggled to imagine. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: Still I Rise”

Poems You Should Know: To A Mouse on Turning Up Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785, by Robert Burns

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine was humming a tune in the office. “I’m sure I know that from somewhere,” she mused. The tune was ‘Auld Lang Syne’ by Robert Burns (1759-1796), the Bard of Ayrshire, quite possibly the only poet to have an anniversary, Burns Night on the 25th of January (his birthday), dedicated to celebrating his life and poetry. Scotland’s national poet, who wrote in both English and lowlands Scottish dialect, was a forerunner of the English Romantic movement, and the natural imagery and human sentiment of the Romantics is evident in poems such as ‘To A Mouse’.

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring prattle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

They wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin’!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An bleak December’s winds ensuing,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An weary winter comin’ fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell –
Till crash! The cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld.

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain,
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy.

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee;
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear.

Poems You Should Know: ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke

The transition from one artistic era to another seldom happens swiftly, but there is one notable exception: the abrupt and sweeping changes which took place in every field of European art during and immediately after World War One.

Written in 1914, ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) is a sonnet which reflects the very end of the Victorian era, with its smug nationalism and unswerving sense of loyalty and duty. Brooke himself would not live to see the transition to Modernism; he died in 1915 on his way to serve at Gallipoli.

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blessed by the suns of home.
.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.