Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Joy of Poetry

The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen,
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing,
A local habitation and a name.

Is there a better definition of poetry than that?

This is a bonus post. Read on if you are interested, or give it a miss if you're not.

I used to think that bloggers were rather immodest and self-indulgent. I still do, and now I've joined them. But then, what the hell! You don't have to read my posts if you don't want to.

My old mate John in Perth asked me for my favourite poem. I have been walking along the highway a lot lately, so I've been thinking about it. But I can't pin it down to just one poem.

First of all I would include the great speeches which I've mentioned before from Shakespeare's plays. And then the sonnets. I would choose a copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets as my desert island book of poetry.

First among the sonnets is the famous

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

Surely, those are among the most beautiful lines in our language.

And then there's

That time of year in me thou mayst behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

At my age, that sonnet is particularly meaningful, and I love the image of the last line.

There are two other sonnets I must mention.

No other poem expresses the vanity of human ambition as well as Shelley's "Ozymandias".

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.

Everything in that last line conveys the vast emptiness of the desert, and human ambition.

And then there is Wordsworth's sonnet on the evils of materialism:

The world is too much with us. Late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our power,
Little we see in nature that is ours,
We have given our hearts a way, a sordid boon.

I wonder if they teach that sonnet in Fort McMurray.

Keats' Odes have alway been among my favourites, "Ode to a Grecian Urn" a little less than the others. "Ode to a Nightingale" is close to the top of the list of great poems. Lines such as

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird


Now seems it more than ever rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain

rank with Shakespeare. As does all of "To Autumn", apparently the most anthologised poem in the English language. With good reason. Every line is perfect, so I hesitate to quote just one. But I will:

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind

It gives me such pleasure to say that line. And the whole poem is like that.

I like Wordsworth as well, especially "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality", and parts of The Prelude. His lines keep coming to me as I pass through the countryside.

I heard a thousand blended notes
While in a grove I sate reclined...

When it comes to the Victorians, I've been thinking about Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" as I walk by church after magnificent church, once the centre of life in Europe but now devoid of priests and standing empty on Sundays.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full...
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

Poets of the second league, like composers, sometimes come up with a masterpiece.

Tennyson, I think is in the first league. "Ulysses" is one of the great Victorian poems. The last line,

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield

used to be heard in the English-speaking world at school Speech Nights as often as Gilbert and Sullivan medleys at band concerts. In fact, I think it was quoted in 1958 when I graduated. However, I prefer

Some work of noble note may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with gods


Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world


I will drink life to the lees

Memorable lines with meaning to boot! Tennyson had an ear for the music of the language. "Ulysses" is close to the top of my list. If I were a kid forced to recite a poem under the new curriculum in England, that's the poem I'd choose. Such great-sounding lines!

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy

You can hear the clanging of swords and the clashing of shields.

I like some of his shorter poems as well. Sixty years ago, I came upon this one in "The Harp of Youth". It has stayed with me.

Break, break, break,
On thy cold, grey stones, O sea.
And I would that my tongue could utter,
The thoughts that arise in me.

But for obvious reasons, Tennyson is out of favour today. It's a shame.

Wilfred Owen was a fine poet. I think that "Dulce et Decorum Est" should be on every school curriculum as the definitive anti-war poem.

I like T. S. Elliot's "Preludes" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. For all his complex imagery, Elliot understood the beauty of simplicity:

And then the lighting of the lamps

It reminds me of Shakespeare's

Let us sit down and tell sad stories of the death of kings

What a perfect monosyllabic line that is! The great poets "felt" the language.

I also get great pleasure from reading the poems of Banjo Patterson, Australia's bush poet. The intellectuals scoffed at him at the time for not presenting a realistic view of life in the bush, and my English teacher derided him for only being a story teller, but I like him. "Clancy of the Overflow" is a very fine poem.

Incidentally, Banjo Patterson wrote an early version of Australia's unofficial national anthem, "Waltzing Maltilda". Is it really true that the song is no longer taught in Australian schools because it's about suicide? As the character (played by Jack Hawkins, I think) says in The Bridge on the River Kwai: "Madness, absolute madness!"

Don't be impressed because I have these poems in my head. Many of them I have heard hundred of students recite over the years. Besides, I've had to cheat and Google a couple of times when a phrase eluded me.

These are some of my favourite poems. There are many gaps in my knowledge of literature and, consequently, I'm not very familiar with some poets who might otherwise have been on my list. Yeats, for instance.

These poems are not for the intellectual elite, but for everybody. Almost all of them used to be found on the high school English curriculum and students were richer for it.

Now that I've thought about it, I think that my top four would be "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", "To Autumn", "Ozymandias" and "Ulysses".

But I'm now experiencing symptoms of Repetitive Stress Syndrome from tapping away on this iPhone, so it's time to stop.


  1. "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" was one of my favourites in first-year English at uni. This post of yours reminds me of sitting in your Grade 12 English class at Kelvin! (The perks of being the teacher were that you got to read the parts of Hamlet and the First Gravedigger. Lucky sod.)

  2. Have a look at Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death".

    I encountered it when I read the memoir of the doctor stranded at the South Pole, who diagnosed and operated on her own breast cancer. ("Ice Bound" by Jerri Nielsen and Maryanne Vollers.) Nielsen was of Irish descent. She strived to NOT measure her life with coffee spoons, and I think she succeeded.