To improve my own poems, I read the masters. Here are the poems I’ve found most inspiring.
- Poems are arranged by poet. Right now, poets aren’t in any particular order; I hereby declare (on 2020-01-26) that I’ll write code to fix this some day.
- Poets are listed under their full birth names, unless, like Lord Byron, they are better known by another moniker.
- These are excerpts, not full poems (unless otherwise noted.)
- Strong markup indicates the poem left a particularly powerful impression.
- Citations are chiefly from these works:
- Great Poems of the English Language (GPEL), edited by Wallace Alvin Briggs
- How Does a Poem Mean? (HDPM), by John Ciardi
- Unauthorized Versions: Poems and their Parodies (UV), edited by Kenneth Baker.
Maxwell’s Top Picks
Current as of 2020-09-28. Click the poet’s name to navigate to these, my favorites among favorites.
- Sestina: Altaforte, by Ezra Pound
- The Great Minimum, by G. K. Chesterton
- Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed
- Antarctica, by Derek Mahon
- A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, by Emily Dickinson
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Give Place, Ye Lovers. GPEL pg 20.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(1828-1882). Wikipedia.Sonnet X: The Portrait.
That he who seeks her beauty's furthest goal, Beyond the light that the sweet glances throw And refluent wave of the sweet smile, may know The very sky and sea-line of her soul.
Sir Philip Sydney
(1554-1586). Wikipedia.Doubt You to Whom My Muse. GPEL pg 43. Originally from Astrophel and Stella. This is beautiful; I’d love to hear it set to music.
Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth, Which now my breast, o'ercharged, to music lendeth? To you! to you! all song of praise is due; Only in you my song begins and endeth.
(1564–1616).The Tempest (4.1). GPEL pg 63.
The Tempest (5.1). GPEL pg 63.Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air; And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
Measure for Measure (2.2). GPEL pg 64.Where the bee sucks, there suck I In a cowslip's bell I lie
Measure for Measure (3.1). GPEL pg 64.But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd, His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make the angels weep.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.1). GPEL pg 67.Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible! The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise To what we fear of death.
Henry V (4.3). GPEL pg 79.Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!' The jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion.
Sonnet 76. GPEL pg 108.By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires: But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.
Why is my verse so barren of new pride? So far from variation or quick change? Why with the time do I not glance aside To new-found methods and to compounds strange? Why write I still all one, ever the same, And keep invention in a noted weed, That every word doth almost tell my name, Showing their birth and where they did proceed? O, know, sweet love, I always write of you, And you and love are still my argument; So all my best is dressing old words new, Spending again what is already spent: For as the sun is daily new and old, So is my love still telling what is told.
(c. 1540-c. 1597). Wikipedia.The Lover to His Lady. GPEL pg 21. In full.
My Girl, thou gazest much Upon the golden skies: Would I were Heaven, I would behold Thee then with all mine eyes.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
Blame Not My Lute. GPEL pg 24.
(1722-1771).This cat-centric section from Jubilate Agno.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him. For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness. For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer. For he rolls upon prank to work it in. For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself. For this he performs in ten degrees. For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean. For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there. For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended. For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood. For fifthly he washes himself. For sixthly he rolls upon wash. For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat. For eighthly he rubs himself against a post. For ninthly he looks up for his instructions. For tenthly he goes in quest of food. For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour. For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness. For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance. For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying. For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins. For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary. For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes. For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life. For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him. For he is of the tribe of Tiger. For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger. For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses. For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation. For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat. For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon. For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit. For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. For every family had one cat at least in the bag. For the English Cats are the best in Europe. For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped. For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly. For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature. For he is tenacious of his point. For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery. For he knows that God is his Saviour. For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest. For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion. For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually—Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat. For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better. For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat. For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music. For he is docile and can learn certain things. For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation. For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment. For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive. For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command. For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom. For he can catch the cork and toss it again. For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser. For the former is afraid of detection. For the latter refuses the charge. For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business. For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly. For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services. For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land. For his ears are so acute that they sting again. For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention. For by stroking of him I have found out electricity. For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire. For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast. For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements. For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer. For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.
On the Portrait of Shakespeare. GPEL pg 127. In full.
A Celebration of Charis, Part 4: The Triumph. GPEL pg 127. [The version at Poetry Foundation differs slightly from the one given in GPEL; I’m quoting the latter.]This figure that thou here seest put, It was for gentle Shakespeare cut, Wherein the graver had a strife With Nature, to outdo the life. Oh, could he but have drawn his wit As well in brass, as he has hit His face, the print would then surpass All that was ever writ in brass. But since he cannot, reader, look Not on his picture, but his book.
Song–To Celia. GPEL pg 130. In full.Have you seen but a bright lily grow Before rude hands have touched it? Have you mark'd but the fall of snow Before the soil hath smutch'd it? Have you felt the wool of beaver, Or swan's down ever? Or have smelt of the bud of the brier, Or the nard in the fire? Or have tasted the bag of the bee? O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she!
Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine; Or leave a kiss but in the cup, And I'll not look for wine. The thirst that from the soul doth rise, Doth ask a drink divine; But might I of Jove's nectar sup, I would not change for thine. I sent thee late a rosy wreath, Not so much honouring thee, As giving it a hope, that there It could not withered be; But thou thereon didst only breathe, And sent'st it back to me; Since when it grows and smells, I swear, Not of itself, but thee.
William ShenstoneWritten at an Inn in Henley. GPEL pg 283.
Whoe'er has travelled life's dull round, Where'er his stages may have been, May sigh to think he still has found The warmest welcome, at an inn.
Karle Wilson BakerDays. GPEL pg 1264. In full.
Some days my thoughts are just cocoons—all cold, and dull, and blind, They hang from dripping branches in the gray woods of my mind; And other days they drift and shine—such free and flying things! I find the gold-dust in my hair, left by their brushing wings.
William BlakeTo the Muses. GPEL pg 332. Stanza 4.
How have you left the ancient love That bards of old enjoyed in you! The languid strings do scarcely move, The sound is forced, the notes are few!
G. K. Chesterton
The Great Minimum. Cited from GKC.org. In full.
A Ballade of Suicide. Cited from The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. In full.It is something to have wept as we have wept, It is something to have done as we have done, It is something to have watched when all men slept, And seen the stars which never see the sun. It is something to have smelt the mystic rose, Although it break and leave the thorny rods, It is something to have hungered once as those Must hunger who have ate the bread of gods. To have seen you and your unforgotten face, Brave as a blast of trumpets for the fray, Pure as white lilies in a watery space, It were something, though you went from me today. To have known the things that from the weak are furled, Perilous ancient passions, strange and high; It is something to be wiser than the world, It is something to be older than the sky. In a time of sceptic moths and cynic rusts, And fattened lives that of their sweetness tire In a world of flying loves and fading lusts, It is something to be sure of a desire. Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard; Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen: Let the thunder break on man and beast and bird And the lightning. It is something to have been.
The gallows in my garden, people say, Is new and neat and adequately tall; I tie the noose on in a knowing way As one that knots his necktie for a ball; But just as all the neighbours–on the wall– Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!” The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all I think I will not hang myself to-day. To-morrow is the time I get my pay– My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall– I see a little cloud all pink and grey– Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call– I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall That mushrooms could be cooked another way– I never read the works of Juvenal– I think I will not hang myself to-day. The world will have another washing-day; The decadents decay; the pedants pall; And H.G. Wells has found that children play, And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall, Rationalists are growing rational– And through thick woods one finds a stream astray So secret that the very sky seems small– I think I will not hang myself to-day. Envoi Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal, The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way; Even to-day your royal head may fall, I think I will not hang myself to-day.
Putting In The Seed. I know it from the collection Mountain Interval.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It wasn’t until I read HDPM that I noticed how the rhyme in the third line in each stanza becomes the main rhyme for the next stanza.
Charles LambHester. GPEL pg 486. Available at Bartleby.
My sprightly neighbour, gone before To that unknown and silent shore, Shall we not meet, as heretofore, Some summer morning— When from thy cheerful eyes a ray Hath struck a bliss upon the day, A bliss that would not go away, A sweet forewarning?
Joseph Blanco WhiteTo Night. GPEL pg 487. In full.
Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew Thee from report divine, and heard thy name, Did he not tremble for this lovely frame, This glorious canopy of light and blue? Yet 'neath the curtain of translucent dew, Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame, Hesperus with the host of heaven came, And lo! creation widened on man's view. Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find, While fly, and leaf, and insect stood revealed, That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind! Why do we, then, shun Death with anxious strife?— If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?
As Slow Our Ship. GPEL pg 494.
Thomas Love Peacock
The War Song of Dinas Vawr. GPEL pg 498. Stanzas 1, 3. Rollicking rhythm and excellent humor.
The mountain sheep are sweeter, The valley sheep are fatter; We therefore deemed it meeter To carry off the latter. We made an expedition; We met a host and quelled it; We forced a strong position, And killed the men who held it. [...] He fled to his hall-pillars; And, ere our force we led off, Some sacked his house and cellars, While others cut his head off.
She Walks in Beauty. GPEL pg 501.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
One Hour With Thee. GPEL pg 443. Originally from Woodstock.
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge (September 3, 1802). GPEL pg 386. In full.
Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. GPEL pg 371. In full. This is the unedited, original 1789 text, as presented by Prospero’s Isle1; I’ve copied it out here in full as a precaution against that website being unavailable2.Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth, like a garment, wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, Which on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect The landscape with the quiet of the sky. The day is come when I again repose Here, under this dark sycamore, and view These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts, Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits, Among the woods and copses lose themselves, Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb The wild green landscape. Once again I see These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke Sent up, in silence, from among the trees, With some uncertain notice, as might seem, Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire The hermit sits alone. Though absent long, These forms of beauty have not been to me, As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart, And passing even into my purer mind With tranquil restoration:—feelings too Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps, As may have had no trivial influence On that best portion of a good man’s life; His little, nameless, unremembered acts Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust, To them I may have owed another gift, Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world Is lighten’d:—that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on, Until, the breath of this corporeal frame, And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things. If this Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft, In darkness, and amid the many shapes Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, Have hung upon the beatings of my heart, How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods, How often has my spirit turned to thee! And now, with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought, With many recognitions dim and faint, And somewhat of a sad perplexity, The picture of the mind revives again: While here I stand, not only with the sense Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts That in this moment there is life and food For future years. And so I dare to hope Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first I came among these hills; when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, Wherever nature led; more like a man Flying from something that he dreads, than one Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then (The coarser pleasures of my boyish days, And their glad animal movements all gone by,) To me was all in all.—I cannot paint What then I was. The sounding cataract Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock, The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, Their colours and their forms, were then to me An appetite: a feeling and a love, That had no need of a remoter charm, By thought supplied, or any interest Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past, And all its aching joys are now no more, And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur: other gifts Have followed, for such loss, I would believe, Abundant recompence. For I have learned To look on nature, not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity, Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods, And mountains; and of all that we behold From this green earth; of all the mighty world Of eye and ear, both what they half-create, And what perceive; well pleased to recognize In nature and the language of the sense, The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of all my moral being. Nor, perchance, If I were not thus taught, should I the more Suffer my genial spirits to decay: For thou art with me, here, upon the banks Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend, My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch The language of my former heart, and read My former pleasures in the shooting lights Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while May I behold in thee what I was once, My dear, dear Sister! And this prayer I make, Knowing that Nature never did betray The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege, Through all the years of this our life, to lead From joy to joy: for she can so inform The mind that is within us, so impress With quietness and beauty, and so feed With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men, Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all The dreary intercourse of daily life, Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb Our chearful faith that all which we behold Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon Shine on thee in thy solitary walk; And let the misty mountain winds be free To blow against thee: and in after years, When these wild ecstasies shall be matured Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, Thy memory be as a dwelling-place For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then, If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief, Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts Of tender joy wilt thou remember me, And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance, If I should be, where I no more can hear Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams Of past existence, wilt thou then forget That on the banks of this delightful stream We stood together; and that I, so long A worshipper of Nature, hither came, Unwearied in that service: rather say With warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget, That after many wanderings, many years Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs, And this green pastoral landscape, were to me More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake.
Resolution and Independence. William Wordsworth. GPEL pg 382.
Samuel RogersA Wish. GPEL pg 360.
Oft shall the pilgrim lift the latch, And share my meal, a welcome guest.
A Toccata of Galuppi’s. GPEL pg 844.
A Grammarian’s Funeral. GPEL pg 853. Excellent polysyllabic rhyming.
Walter Savage Landor
(1775–1864).Death. GPEL pg 478. In full.
Twenty Years Hence. GPEL pg 479.Death stands above me, whispering low I know not what into my ear; Of his strange language, all I know Is, there is not a word of fear.
Resignation. GPEL pg 481.Twenty years hence my eyes may grow, If not quite dim, yet rather so, Yet yours from others they shall know Twenty years hence.
Separation. GPEL pg 481. In full.I see the rainbow in the sky, The dew upon the grass, I see them, and I ask not why They glimmer or they pass.
Plays. GPEL pg 482. In full.There is a mountain and a wood between us, Where the lone shepherd and late bird have seen us Morning and noon and eventide repass. Between us now the mountain and the wood Seem standing darker than last year they stood, And say we must not cross—alas! alas!
How soon, alas, the hours are over, Counted us out to play the lover! And how much narrower is the stage, Allotted us to play the sage! But when we play the fool, how wide The theatre expands; beside, How long the audience sits before us! How many prompters! what a chorus!
Robert W. ServiceThe Men That Don’t Fit In. Source here. In full.
There's a race of men that don't fit in, A race that can't stay still; So they break the hearts of kith and kin, And they roam the world at will. They range the field and they rove the flood, And they climb the mountain's crest; Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood, And they don't know how to rest. If they just went straight they might go far; They are strong and brave and true; But they're always tired of the things that are, And they want the strange and new. They say: "Could I find my proper groove, What a deep mark I would make!" So they chop and change, and each fresh move Is only a fresh mistake. And each forgets, as he strips and runs With a brilliant, fitful pace, It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones Who win in the lifelong race. And each forgets that his youth has fled, Forgets that his prime is past, Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead, In the glare of the truth at last. He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance; He has just done things by half. Life's been a jolly good joke on him, And now is the time to laugh. Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost; He was never meant to win; He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone; He's a man who won't fit in.
(1822-1888).Epilogue To Lessing’s Laocooen.
The World’s Triumphs. GPEL pg 909. In full."Behold at last the poet's sphere. But who," I said, "suffices here? "For, ah! so much has he to do; Be painter and musician too! The aspect of the moment show, The feeling of the moment know! The aspect not, I grant, express Clear as the painter's art can dress; The feeling not, I grant, explore So deep as the musician's lore— But clear as words can make revealing, And deep as words can follow feeling. But, ah! then comes his sorest spell Of toil—he must life's movement tell! The thread which binds it all in one And not its separate parts alone. The movement he must tell of life Its pain and pleasure, rest and strife; His eye must travel down, at full, The long, unpausing spectacle;"
So far as I conceive the world's rebuke To him address'd who would recast her new, Not from herself her fame of strength she took, But from their weakness who would work her rue. "Behold," she cries, "so many rages lull'd, So many fiery spirits quite cool'd down; Look how so many valours, long undull'd, After short commerce with me, fear my frown! Thou too, when thou against my crimes wouldst cry, Let thy foreboded homage check thy tongue!"— The world speaks well; yet might her foe reply: "Are wills so weak?—then let not mine wait long! Hast thou so rare a poison?—let me be Keener to slay thee, lest thou poison me!"
Percy Bysshe ShelleyStanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples. GPEL pg 558. Stanzas 2 and 3.
I saw the Deep's untrampled floor With green and purple seaweeds strown; I see the waves upon the shore, Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown; I sit upon the sands alone,— The lightning of the noontide ocean Is flashing around me, and a tone Arises from its measured motion, How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion. Alas! I have nor hope nor health, Nor peace within nor calm around, Nor that content surpassing wealth The sage in meditation found And walked with inward glory crowned— Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure. Others I see whom these surround— Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;— To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.
Felicia Dorothea Hemans
The Graves of a Household. GPEL pg 592.
William Cullen BryantTo a Waterfowl. GPEL pg 597. Stanza 2.
Vainly the fowler's eye Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong As, darkly painted on the crimson sky, Thy figure floats along.
This is from Michael Kandel’s English translation of Lem’s masterful Cyberiad.
Klapaucius thought, and thought some more. Finally he nodded and said:
“Very well. Let’s have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit.”“Love and tensor algebra? Have you taken leave of your senses?” Trurl began, but stopped, for his electronic bard was already declaiming:Come, let us hasten to a higher plane, Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn, Their indices bedecked from one to n, Commingled in an endless Markov chain! Come, every frustum longs to be a cone, And every vector dreams of matrices. Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze: It whispers of a more ergodic zone. In Riemann, Hilbert, or in Banach space Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways. Our asymptotes no longer out of phase, We shall encounter, counting, face to face. I'll grant thee random access to my heart, Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love; And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove, And in our bound partition never part. For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel, Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler, Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers, Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell? Cancel me not — for what then shall remain? Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes, A root or two, a torus and a node: The inverse of my verse, a null domain. Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine! The product of our scalars is defined! Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind Cuts capers like a happy haversine. I see the eigenvalue in thine eye, I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh. Bernoulli would have been content to die, Had he but known such a^2 cos 2phi
The Eve of St. Agnes. GPEL pg 607. God this one makes me happy.Ode on a Grecian Urn. GPEL pg 619. Stanza 4.
Sonnet. GPEL pg 625. In full.Who are these coming to the sacrifice To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? What little town by river or by sea-shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain, Before high-piled books, in charactery, Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain; When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face, Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, And think that I may never live to trace Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; And when I feel, fair creature of an hour, That I shall never look upon thee more, Never have relish in the faery power Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
Thomas HoodThe Song of the Shirt. GPEL pg 631. Stanzas 4 and 6.
"O men with sisters dear! O men with mothers and wives! It is not linen you're wearing out, But human creatures' lives! Stitch—stitch—stitch, In poverty, hunger, and dirt,— Sewing at once with a double thread, A shroud as well as a shirt! [...] "Work—work—work! My labour never flags; And what are its wages? A bed of straw, A crust of bread—and rags. That shattered roof—and this naked floor— A table—a broken chair— And a wall so blank my shadow I thank For sometimes falling there!
Edward Coate PinkneyA Health. GPEL pg 645. Stanza 2. I especially like the last two lines of this stanza.
Her every tone is music's own, Like those of morning birds, And something more than melody Dwells ever in her words; The coinage of her heart are they, And from her lips each flows As one may see the burdened bee Forth issue from the rose.
Ralph Waldo EmersonFriendship. GPEL pg 681. In full.
A ruddy drop of manly blood The surging sea outweighs, The world uncertain comes and goes; The lover rooted stays. I fancied he was fled,— And, after many a year, Glowed unexhausted kindliness, Like daily sunrise there. My careful heart was free again, O friend, my bosom said, Through thee alone the sky is arched, Through thee the rose is red; All things through thee take nobler form, And look beyond the earth, The mill-round of our fate appears A sun-path in thy worth. Me too thy nobleness has thought To master my despair; The fountains of my hidden life Are through my friendship fair.
Business Girls. UV pg 24.
And behind their frail partitions Business women lie and soak, Seeing through the draughty skylight Flying clouds and railway smoke. Rest you there, poor unbelov'd ones, Lap your loneliness in heat. All too soon the tiny breakfast, Trolley-bus and windy street!
Dea ex Machina. UV pg 61. In full. Parodying “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns.
My love is like Mies van der Rohe’s “Machine for living”; she, Divested of her underclothes, Suggests efficiency. Her supple shoulders call to mind A set of bevelled gears; Her lower jaw has been aligned To hinge behind her ears. Her hips, sweet ball-and-socket joints, Are padded to perfection; Each knee, with its patella, points In just the right direction. Her fingertips remind me of A digital computer; She couldn’t be, my well-tooled love, A millimeter cuter.
This poem is the first I have found which reminds me of Michael Kandel’s poetry translations for The Cyberiad.
Charles Fenno Hoffman
Monterey. GPEL pg 694.
Henry Wadsworth LongfellowMaidenhood. GPEL pg 696.
Childhood is the bough, where slumbered Birds and blossoms many-numbered;— Age, that bough with snow encumbered.
Belfry of Bruges. GPEL pg 699.
Arthur Hugh Clough
Say Not, the Struggle Not Availeth. GPEL pg 874.
Where Lies the Land. GPEL pg 876.
(c. 1320-1395). Wikipedia.Freedom. GPEL pg 13.
A! Fredome is a noble thing! Fredome mayse man to half liking; Fredome all solace to man giffis, He livis at ese that frely livis! A noble hart may haif nane ese, Na ellys nocht that may him plese, Gif fredome fail'th; for fre liking Is yharnit ouer all othir thing.
The Haystack in the Floods. HDPM pg 716.
The Glove and the Lions. HDPM pg 741.
A Narrow Fellow in the Grass. HDPM pg 798. In full. Certainly in my top 5. “It wrinkled, and was gone” absolutely floored me.
A narrow fellow in the grass Occasionally rides. You may have met him – did you not? His notice sudden is. The grass divides as with a comb, A spotted shaft is seen; And then it closes at your feet And opens further on. He likes a boggy acre, A floor too cool for corn. Yet when a boy, and barefoot, I more than once, at morn, Have passed, I thought, a whip lash Unbraiding in the sun,– When, stooping to secure it, It wrinkled, and was gone. Several of nature's people I know, and they know me; I feel for them a transport Of cordiality; But never met this fellow, Attended or alone, Without a tighter breathing, And Zero at the Bone.
W. H. Auden
In Memory of W. B. Yeats. HDPM pg 830-831.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom; A few thousand will think of this day As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
Among pelagian travelers, Lost on their lewd conceited way To Massachusetts, Michigan, Miami or L.A., An airborne instrument I sit, Predestined nightly to fulfill Columbia-Giesen-Management's Unfathomable will, [...] Though warm my welcome everywhere, I shift so frequently, so fast, I cannot now say where I was The evening before last, Unless some singular event Should intervene to save the place, A truly asinine remark, A soul-bewitching face, Or blessed encounter, full of joy, Unscheduled on the Giesen Plan, With, here, an addict of Tolkien, There, a Charles Williams fan. [...] Spirit is willing to repeat Without a qualm the same old talk, But Flesh is homesick for our snug Apartment in New York. A sulky fifty-six, he finds A change of mealtime utter hell, Grown far too crotchety to like A luxury hotel. The Bible is a goodly book I always can peruse with zest, But really cannot say the same For Hilton's Be My Guest. Nor bear with equanimity The radio in students' cars, Muzak at breakfast, or--dear God!-- Girl-organists in bars. Then, worst of all, the anxious thought, Each time my plane begins to sink And the No Smoking sign comes on: What will there be to drink? Is this a milieu where I must How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig! Snatch from the bottle in my bag An analeptic swig? Another morning comes: I see, Dwindling below me on the plane, The roofs of one more audience I shall not see again. God bless the lot of them, although I don't remember which was which: God bless the U.S.A., so large, So friendly, and so rich.
Naming of Parts. HDPM pg 832-833. This is classic for a reason. The bee stanza is my favorite.
I Saw a Man. HDPM pg 892. In full.
I saw a man pursuing the horizon; Round and round they sped. I was disturbed at this; I accosted the man. "It is futile," I said, "You can never–" "You lie," he cried, And ran on.
The Book of Wisdom. HDPM pg 893. In full.
I met a seer. He held a book in his hands, The book of wisdom. "Sir," I addressed him, "Let me read." "Child–" he began. "Sir," I said, "Think not that I am a child, For already I know much Of that which you hold; Aye, much." He smiled. Then he opened the book And held it before me. Strange that I should have grown so suddenly blind.
T. S. Eliot
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The excerpt at the beginning, from Inferno, means,
If I thought that my reply were given to anyone who might return to the world, this flame would stand forever still; but since never from this deep place has anyone returned alive, if what I hear is true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.
James Clerk Maxwell
Rigid Body Sings. UV pg 63. Parodying “Comin’ thro’ the Rye” by Robert Burns.
The author is better known for his equations.
Gin a body meet a body Flyin’ through the air. Gin a body hit a body, Will it fly? And where? Ilka impact has its measure, Ne’er a ane hae I, Yet a’ the lads they measure me, Or, at least, they try. Gin a body meet a body Altogether free, How they travel afterwards We do not always see. Ilka problem has its method By analytics high; For me, I ken na ane o’ them, But what the waur am I?
The Rolling Chinese Wall. UV pg 75. Parodying “The Rolling English Road” by G. K. Chesterton.
Kenneth Baker notes in Unauthorized Versions that Woddis’s poem
appeared in Punch in 1985, on the occasion when Bass, the brewers, had won a contract to help the Chinese improve the quality of their beer.
Stanley J. Sharpless
Chaucer: The Wogan’s Tale. UV pg 73. In full. Parodying the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
A Chatte-Show Host came with us, yclept Wogan, As fam'd as any Emperour or Shogun, Of goodly port, he smyling was, and merrie, And known to all the companye as Terrie. Thrice ev'ry week upon the littel screen His jolie visage in close-uppe was seen; From far and wide came pilgrims to his shrine, And hard by Shepherd's Bush would wait in line. There he, with feyned flaterye and jape, The which kept all his faithful fannes agape, Made conversacioun with each summon'd guest, Contriving to turn all they said to jest, Whereat the audience would fall about With unconfinèd myrth, and scream and shout. 'Tis said that he was payed a wondrous fee, The envie of all at the BBC; Though ther were some who thought his programme trype, He was a verray parfit TV type.
“Wogan” is Terry Wogan, the late Irish radio and TV broadcaster.
Sestina: Altaforte. In full.
I mostly dislike Pound’s work. But this sestina is unquestionably a masterwork: a trumpetable triumph over this notoriously difficult closed form. As of 2020-09-28 I must crown it as my all-time favorite poem.
Altaforte narrowly misses conformity to the strictest definition of a sestina, because stanza VII doesn’t contain all six of the end-words, but that’s completely unimportant here.
LOQUITUR: En Betrans de Born. Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer-up of strife. Eccovi! Judge ye! Have I dug him up again? The scene is his castle, Altaforte. “Papiols” is his jongleur. “The Leopard,” the device of Richard (Cœur de Lion). I Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace. You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music! I have no life save when the swords clash. But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson, Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing. II In hot summer have I great rejoicing When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace, And the light’nings from black heav’n flash crimson, And the fierce thunders roar me their music And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing, And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash. III Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash! And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing, Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing! Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music! Bah! there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson! IV And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson. And I watch his spears through the dark clash And it fills all my heart with rejoicing And prys wide my mouth with fast music When I see him so scorn and defy peace, His lone might ’gainst all darkness opposing. V The man who fears war and squats opposing My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson But is fit only to rot in womanish peace Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing; Yea, I fill all the air with my music. VI Papiols, Papiols, to the music! There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing, No cry like the battle’s rejoicing When our elbows and swords drip the crimson And our charges ’gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash. May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!” VII And let the music of the swords make them crimson Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash! Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace”!
Freedom is in Peril. UV pg 205. Parodying “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted” by Rudyard Kipling.
When the last newspaper is printed and the ink is faded and dried, And the oldest critic is muzzled and the youngest croaker has died, We shall pass to a tranquil era of government by decree, When every voice shall be silenced but the voice of the B.B.C. We shall hearken to Government spokesmen, we shall listen to Government news; And no one will doubt or question, and none shall express their views. And only the good shall be favoured, and only the killjoy shall fall, And the murmur of opposition will never be heard at all.
Nothing from Lear yet, but apparently he was a major drongo:
Lear was known to introduce himself with a long pseudonym: “Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph” or “Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps”sourced, via Wikipedia, from Kathleen Sarah Pendlebury’s thesis Reading Nonsense: A Journey through the writing of Edward Lear
A parody of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which uses the vocabulary of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Originally posted on his Tumblr; archived here in full.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of The coming of the Lord above He’s got some grapes of wrath He’s gonna brew ya He’s loosed the fateful lightning stored Within his terrible swift sword Truth’s marching, glory glory hallelujah! Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelu..uu uu uu…ujah I’ve seen Him in a hundred camps They’ve built an altar in the damps And where the chill of evening passes through ya I’ve read his righteous sentence in The lights that flare both bright and dim His day comes, glory glory hallelujah! Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelu..uu uu uu…ujah I read a Gospel writ in steel God sees how you with sinners deal And as you do to them, His grace will do ya Let hero born of woman crush The serpent hidden in the brush God’s marching, glory glory hallelujah! Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelu..uu uu uu…ujah He’s sounded forth the trumpet call That never knows retreat at all And from His judgment seat He’s gonna view ya Be swift my soul his call to meet Be jubilant, my legs and feet God’s marching, glory glory hallelujah! Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelu..uu uu uu…ujah Beside the lilies, Christ was born Amidst the beauty of the morn With glory in His bosom to renew ya And as He died in saving me So I will die to make men free God’s marching, glory glory hallelujah! Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelu..uu uu uu…ujah
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
To E. L., On His Travels in Greece. [E. L. is Edward Lear.]
Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair, With such a pencil, such a pen, You shadow forth to distant men, I read and felt that I was there [...]
Antarctica. In full. A beautiful villanelle about the death of Lawrence Oates. To appreciate a villanelle, pay close attention to its use of the two refrain lines (here, “I am just going outside…” and “At the heart of the ridiculous…”).
"I am just going outside and may be some time." The others nod, pretending not to know. At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime. He leaves them reading and begins to climb, Goading his ghost into the howling snow; He is just going outside and may be some time. The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime And frostbite is replaced by vertigo: At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime. Need we consider it some sort of crime, This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No, He is just going outside and may be some time In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme, Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow, At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime. He takes leave of the earthly pantomime Quietly, knowing it is time to go. "I am just going outside and may be some time." At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.
Sometimes the notes are ferocious, skirmishes against the author raging along the borders of every page in tiny black script. If I could just get my hands on you, Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien, they seem to say, I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head. Other comments are more offhand, dismissive— "Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!"— that kind of thing. I remember once looking up from my reading, my thumb as a bookmark, trying to imagine what the person must look like who wrote "Don't be a ninny" alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson. Students are more modest, needing to leave only their splayed footprints along the shore of the page. One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's. Another notes the presence of "Irony" fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal. Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers, hands cupped around their mouths. "Absolutely," they shout to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin. "Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!" Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points rain down along the sidelines. And if you have managed to graduate from college without ever having written "Man vs. Nature" in a margin, perhaps now is the time to take one step forward. We have all seized the white perimeter as our own and reached for a pen if only to show we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; we pressed a thought into the wayside, planted an impression along the verge. Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria jotted along the borders of the Gospels brief asides about the pains of copying, a bird singing near their window, or the sunlight that illuminated their page— anonymous men catching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves. And you have not read Joshua Reynolds, they say, until you have read him enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling. Yet the one I think of most often, the one that dangles from its like a locket, was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye I borrowed from the local library one slow, hot summer. I was just beginning high school then, reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room, and I cannot tell you how vastly my loneliness was deepened, how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed, when I found on one page a few greasy-looking smears and next to them, written in soft pencil— by a beautiful girl, I could tell, whom I would never meet— "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."
The Land. In full.
When Julius Fabricius, Sub-Prefect of the Weald, In the days of Diocletian owned our Lower River-field, He called to him Hobdenius—a Briton of the Clay, Saying: "What about that River-piece for layin' in to hay?" And the aged Hobden answered: "I remember as a lad My father told your father that she wanted dreenin' bad. An' the more that you neeglect her the less you'll get her clean. Have it jest as you've a mind to, but, if I was you, I'd dreen." So they drained it long and crossways in the lavish Roman style — Still we find among the river-drift their flakes of ancient tile, And in drouthy middle August, when the bones of meadows show, We can trace the lines they followed sixteen hundred years ago. Then Julius Fabricius died as even Prefects do, And after certain centuries, Imperial Rome died too. Then did robbers enter Britain from across the Northern main And our Lower River-field was won by Ogier the Dane. Well could Ogier work his war-boat—well could Ogier wield his brand— Much he knew of foaming waters—not so much of farming land. So he called to him a Hobden of the old unaltered blood, Saying: "What about that River-piece; she doesn't look no good ?" And that aged Hobden answered "'Tain't for me to interfere. But I've known that bit o' meadow now for five and fifty year. Have it jest as you've a mind to, but I've proved it time on ' time, If you want to change her nature you have got to give her lime!" Ogier sent his wains to Lewes, twenty hours' solemn walk, And drew back great abundance of the cool, grey, healing chalk. And old Hobden spread it broadcast, never heeding what was in't— Which is why in cleaning ditches, now and then we find a flint. Ogier died. His sons grew English—Anglo-Saxon was their name— Till out of blossomed Normandy another pirate came; For Duke William conquered England and divided with his men, And our Lower River-field he gave to William of Warenne. But the Brook (you know her habit) rose one rainy autumn night And tore down sodden flitches of the bank to left and right. So, said William to his Bailiff as they rode their dripping rounds: "Hob, what about that River-bit—the Brook's got up no bounds ?" And that aged Hobden answered: "'Tain't my business to advise, But ye might ha' known 'twould happen from the way the valley lies. Where ye can't hold back the water you must try and save the sile. Hev it jest as you've a mind to, but, if I was you, I'd spile!" They spiled along the water-course with trunks of willow-trees, And planks of elms behind 'em and immortal oaken knees. And when the spates of Autumn whirl the gravel-beds away You can see their faithful fragments, iron-hard in iron clay. Georgii Quinti Anno Sexto, I, who own the River-field, Am fortified with title-deeds, attested, signed and sealed, Guaranteeing me, my assigns, my executors and heirs All sorts of powers and profits which—are neither mine nor theirs, I have rights of chase and warren, as my dignity requires. I can fish—but Hobden tickles—I can shoot—but Hobden wires. I repair, but he reopens, certain gaps which, men allege, Have been used by every Hobden since a Hobden swapped a hedge. Shall I dog his morning progress o'er the track-betraying dew ? Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew ? Confiscate his evening faggot under which my conies ran, And summons him to judgment ? I would sooner summons Pan. His dead are in the churchyard—thirty generations laid. Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made; And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine. Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies, Would I lose his large sound counsel, miss his keen amending eyes. He is bailiff, woodman, wheelwright, field-surveyor, engineer, And if flagrantly a poacher—'tain't for me to interfere. "Hob, what about that River-bit ?" I turn to him again, With Fabricius and Ogier and William of Warenne. "Hev it jest as you've a mind to, but"—and here he takes command. For whoever pays the taxes old Mus' Hobden owns the land.