Okay, I’ll be honest, I tried to research and write a detailed history of American poetry, but I decided I couldn’t be bothered, so here instead is a selection of the really important bits. Continue reading “Brief Highlights in the History of American Poetry”
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,
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.
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.
Yes, Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was one of the Metaphysical poets. Yes, he wrote this poem over three hundred years ago. Yes, it is basically a guy trying to talk his way into a girl’s knickers. Turns out this is not a new thing. Who’d have thunk? The ultimate theme of the poem is carpe diem (‘seize the day’), and the opening line, with its underlying humour, justifiably continues to be quoted today. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: To His Coy Mistress”
John Keats (1795-1821) was one of the most innovative poets of the Romantic movement, and ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ is filled with the things the Romantics loved best: emotion, nature, death, and, in this case, drug use. It’s one of six ‘Odes’ composed by Keats in 1819 as a new variety of short(ish) lyric poem. Of the other five the best known today are probably ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’ and one of my personal favourites, ‘To Autumn’. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ by John Keats”
Written during the Victorian period, the combination of realism (death is sometimes described as the ultimate reality), intellect (‘remember’, ‘tell’, ‘counsel’, ‘pray’, ‘thoughts’), emotion (the poem is permeated by the melancholy which accompanies the death of a loved one), and symbolism (referring to death as ‘the silent land’) in ‘Remember Me’ is all characteristic of the writing of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which Christina Rossetti (1830-1864) was arguably one of the foremost poets. ‘Remember Me’ speaks from the point of view of a person contemplating their own death and exhorting their loved one to remember them after death – but not at the cost of their own continued life and happiness. It’s apparently a favourite at funerals.
Remember me when I am gone away,Gone far away into the silent land;When you can no more hold me by the hand,Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.Remember me when no more day by dayYou tell me of our future that you plann’d:Only remember me; you understandIt will be late to counsel then or pray.Yet if you should forget me for a whileAnd afterwards remember, do not grieve:For if the darkness and corruption leaveA vestige of the thoughts that once I had,Better by far you should forget and smileThan that you should remember and be sad.
There must be something about the late-Victorian certitude with which Kipling (1865-1936) expounds on the nature of masculine virtue which continues to resonate with men and women today, because in 1995 ‘If’ was voted Britain’s favourite poem in a BBC poll. There is no room here for weakness or indecision or ‘expressing your feelings’: in a manner as bracing as a good British northerly it’s all duty and valour and a stiff upper lip.
If you can keep your head when all about youAre losing theirs and blaming it on you,If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,But make allowance for their doubting too;If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:.If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;If you can meet with Triumph and DisasterAnd treat those two impostors just the same;If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spokenTwisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:.If you can make one heap of all your winningsAnd risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,And lose, and start again at your beginningsAnd never breathe a word about your loss;If you can force your heart and nerve and sinewTo serve your turn long after they are gone,And so hold on when there is nothing in youExcept the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’.If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,If all men count with you, but none too much;If you can fill the unforgiving minuteWith sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Kipling, in true Victorian style, had a male audience in mind when he wrote this poem, but I’ve never found that an obstacle to finding this poem personally inspiring. What do you think?
Following my recent post on the history of poetry I’m starting a new series of posts along the same lines as my Paintings You Should Know series – ‘Poems You Should Know’. Much like the painting series I’m not planning on following a particular chronology or providing deep analysis; I’ll simply be sharing significant poems.
So here’s my first offering, ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). It’s a Modernist work full of literary allusions. Continue reading “Poems You Should Know: ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot”
Throughout its history, the glory of the English artistic spirit has always found its clearest expression in words, and while prose writing began to gain ascendency with the evolution of the novel in the 18th century, the roots of poetry extend much further back. Indeed, so far back do they go that the earliest poems are lost in the mists of time. What follows, then, is a very brief summary of some 1,500 years of literary history. Continue reading “A Brief History of English Poetry”
“Tell me about Danny,” (not his real name, obviously), the social worker said.
I smiled. “You know how we’re not supposed to have favourites?” I told her. “Well, he’s one of the favourites that I officially don’t have.”
Danny was a kid with a lot of challenges, but he was lucky: he had mum firmly on his side, determined to get him the help he needed. Not all kids are so fortunate, a subject which the social worker and I touched upon before she left. Modern British poet Philip Larkin captured this reality all too well in his funny, offensive (the f-word, so don’t click ‘Read More’ if that’s something that will offend you), and heart-wrenching poem ‘This Be The Verse.’ Continue reading “Random Poem: ‘This Be The Verse’ by Philip Larkin”