Tag: dead british guys

William Shakespeare


Sonnet #18

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:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

– – –

Monsters of Poetry back again with the Monster of Poetry. This is one of those poems we all think back to from time to time; surely, it’s one of ol’ Bill’s most quotable sonnets. The lines of this poem seem to be a part of our DNA, fused over the centuries by beautiful mutation. What English speaker has never spoken that opening line? What English speaker does not still get a little ticklish feeling when they hear the phrase “the darling buds of May?” Indeed, the poem is so ingrained into our collective unconscious that it has become almost cliche, which is a true tragedy. So I propose to look at this poem with fresh eyes and appreciate it for what it is once more.

Sonnet #18 is thought by many to be one of the world’s most perfect love poems, if not one of the most perfect poems of all time. And with good reason. First off, the poem’s form is impeccable. Or nearly so. It’s a sonnet, clearly: the title “sonnet” simply indicates a rhyming pattern. In this case, abab cdcd efef gg. “Sonnet” also usually, but not always, indicates a certain format. The most traditional of sonnets are broken into three sections. The first eight lines make a statement, and the next four make a counterstatement or an addendum to the first statement. the final couplet is a resolution or conclusion. In #18, we can see this pattern: lines 1-8 tell of the beauty of summer, but also tell that summer’s beauty fades every year when autumn comes. Lines 9-12 state that “you” are not like the summer; you will never fade, because I have immortalized you in song. The couplet offers a romantic conclusion: as long as men live, breathe, and see, they will read this poem, and you will be forever young. Best pick up line ever? I think so.

The real reason for this poem’s immortality lies in its meter. Like nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, #18 is in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a bit magical for poets. An iamb is a “foot” made of one unstressed and one stressed beat: “ta-tum.” The word “compare” in the first line is an iamb. Five iambs together is a pentameter: ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum. Many believe it’s the meter that represents most closely the rise and fall of the English language, and thus is best suited to represent English. Shakespeare knew, however, that drama comes when the meter is broken, if ever so slightly. He uses this technique straight away: say aloud the first line. You don’t say “Shall I”, like normal iambic pentameter, you say “Shall I”. Two stressed beats in a row is called a spondee, and Shakespeare knew that to start this poem off right, he needed more force than an iamb would allow. A lesser poet may not have ever made that leap.

The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that it plays with iambic pentameter; it dances with it. Shakespeare never draws attention to the meter; nowhere in this poem do you feel the meter instead of the words, just like you’d never see the steel beams holding up the building. Nor do the words move flatly along; they are moved by the meter without being controlled by it.

Lastly, this poem is so endearing because it is quietly enigmatic. The person immortalized is, of course, dead. What is immortal is, in fact, the poem itself, which grows with time, as Shakespeare predicted. So the poem is not just about the subject (Actually a young boy, not a woman. Bet you didn’t know that!), but about the poem itself; some would say it’s more about the poem (and the poet’s ego) than anything else. It takes a lot of guts to say your poem will last forever. Funny thing is, he was right.

So there you have it, Sonnet 18, continuing to live on as Shakespeare knew it would.

Percy 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 lips, 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.” –

– – –

This is a beautifully sublime poem, quiet and powerful. With only few words Shelley brings the scene and the idea to vivid life, walking the line between narrative and lyric poem.

Shelley was a member of the same movement that spawned Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Keats, etc. – the Romantic Movement. Wordsworth’s poem a couple weeks ago illustrated one aspect of Romanticism: reverence toward Nature, and the power of Nature over the human spirit. Shelley’s Ozymandias, in a quick sonnet (with a beautiful interlocking rhyme), takes on another major aspect of Romanticism: the use of History to inform the present. The Romantics loved the Classical Era: they found strong kinship in the ancient Romans and Greeks, races of philosopher/warrior/poets. The Romantics (the word itself containing “Roman”) looked back into history, and found people who were strong, spiritual, loving, and in tune with the world. At the same time they often disdained of non-Greeks and non-Romans, finding them brutish. They were very interested in filling in a direct line of philosophical succession from England to Rome to Athens.

Here Shelley writes of Ozymandias – not a Greek or Roman – and his broken statue, alone and forgotten in the desert – Egypt or some place equally exotic. The statue’s location seems even further away with the use of a proxy to tell the story, a “traveller from an antique land.” Shelley finds in Ozymandias’ statue traces of tyrrany; “Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!” Ozymandias calls to mind a dictator contemporary to Shelley, whose attempt to become the King of Kings through “mighty works” became a “colossal Wreck;” Napoleon. Calling Ozymandias the “King of Kings” may also be a direct insult to Christians, who have used the same title for Jesus. The irony of it is that nothing is left of this King of Kings except his broken statue.

In the end we find that Humanity is trumped by Nature – anything we create can be destroyed, all to quickly washed over by sand and time.

William Wordsworth


The Tables Turned

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

– – –

Spring is a tricky thing here in Minnesota – on days like today the heart and mind are confused. The air is warm and filled with water; the breeze is cool and not stinging; the sun is bright, but not hot; you can hear the sounds of ice melting and icicles breaking and falling. But, on the ground rests a solid foot and a half of snow. Your body doesn’t know what to think.

Wordsworth is the poet of springtime; one would believe fall and winter never found him in the Lake District. Spring is Nature (Wordsworth & Co. loved the capital-N Nature) at its most fertile, at its smelliest and soggiest. Nature is more Natural in Spring. So when I catch whiffs of it in the air, I like to read a little Wordsworth in hopes of nudging the planet forward.

The language of Wordsworth’s poetry is Romanticism at its best – and it should be, he invented it. Bill Wordsworth is prone to exclamations and interruptions – no one loved a “!” like he did. He paints with a great deal of color; his poems are filled with yellows and greens and browns. He is prone to hyperbole – his poems generally start off small and dull but end up in a world that bears only little resemblance to ours. And he loves using big chewy words like “beauteous.” What a great word!

For me, Wordsworth never seems old or dusty, like so many poets do – there’s a freshness to his lyrical style that I just love to soak up. It feels so invigorating, comforting. This is sweatshirt poesy. This poem is perhaps the most self-explanatory of any that I’ve presented so far. It’s message is simple: get off your ass and go outside. He says it a little better, I’ll admit, but that’s about the long and short of it. Looked at a little more closely, this poem advocates a back-to-nature style of living; Wordsworth is saying that a life close to Nature is the life most worth living, and that everything we need to live is already inside us. Science and Art are unnecessary excesses (yet Wordsworth addresses the topic through poetry, an artform). “Our meddling intellect / mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things.” There’s a bit of a pagan bent to the whole thing: linnets and throstles are full of wisdom, and not mean like preachers. “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings.” Wordsworth insisted a number of times that he was not a “Nature worshipper,” but it’s clear here that he advocates some sort fo communion with the world; the more like animals we act, the more like humans we become.

Gerard Manley Hopkins


Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

– – –

I want you to read this once more, this time aloud. I want you to sense how your tongue moves about and your lips shape the sounds. Ah! The feel of this poem is so unique. This poem is a physical act. This is language poetry at its finest, this makes other poets either feel inadequate or inspired. Gerard Manley Hopkins, or G-Man as I like to call him, was a strange man. He was a poet his whole life; in fact, he couldn’t help but write poetry. At Oxford he became a Jesuit; subsequently he burned every scrap of poetry he had written up until then, thinking it sinful. For much of the rest of his life he was torn between the joy poetry brought him and the guilt it later caused him. It was only toward the end of his short life that he reconciled the two and was able to write the glorious poems we have from him today. He died in his forties. This is the kind of thing that makes Brit Lit folks weep, thinking of all the what-ifs; what if he hadn’t burned his older works? what if he’d lived to be 90? Up until G-Man came around, most innovations in poetry took the form of subject changes; what was written about and how it was addressed. Gerard was the first to incorporate substantial wordplay into his poetry. And he went largely unnoticed; formal Victorian and Romantic poetry continued around him, leading into Modern poetry at the turn of the century (1900, that is). It’s not until the Beats and other Postmodern movements that we begin to see such a focus on language again. This poem features sprung rhythm, which the G-Man invented. The funny thing about sprung rhythm is that its intent is to mimic the natural speech patterns of the Irish and the English; thus, to read sprung rhythm correctly, you simply read it as normal. Because sprung rhythm is a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables, it reflects this poem’s subject, pied beauty; pied being synonymous with dappled, and both meaning a combination of dark and light colors. Kind of like Hopkins’ life! Oh, how it all comes together!

Issa and Lord Tennyson


hokku by Issa

New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa was a 16th century writer famous in Japan for his haikus, or hokkus, as they should technically be called. The hokku is a short poem, usually a single vertical line in the original Japanese. It’s only through Western translation that we get the familiar three lines. The traditional hokku does follow the 5/7/5 format we all know (and love!), but the units being counted were not syllables but morae, which are related to, but not entirely synonymous with syllables. A traditional hokku was not a stand-alone poem, but actually the opening verse of a longer poem called a renga–although later on, when poets wanted to write hokku and nothing more, they implied a theoretical renga to follow it. It was only in the 19th century that the hokku became haiku and was stripped of its connection to the renga.

Although this poem relates the Japanese New Year, which is in springtime, the sentiment seems just about the same.

And because it’s such a momentous day, here’s another MOSNTER OF POETRY! Alfred, Lord Tennyson–or Al, as I like to call him–is one of England’s most famous and revered poets. Today’s passage from Al comes from one of his most famous works, In Memoriam, written on the death of his closest friend. In Memoriam is a long poem, written in iambic tetrameter (-‘ -‘ -‘ -‘) with an enclosed rhyme (abba). The rhyme and meter are often noted when talking about this work, because there is a general sense that the strict rhythm contributes to the poem’s somber, mourning mood almost as much as the text itself.

However this passage is one of the poem’s most joyous and hopeful; it is from this passage that the phrase “ring out the old, ring in the new” originates. It’s a beautiful poem. Enjoy.

“Ring out, wild bells” from In Memoriam, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


During my travels I started thinking about doing a weekly post chronicling some of the bigwigs of poetry. You know, those jokers your lit teacher wanted you to read but you never did. I never read them, not until college anyway. So I thought about it…and now here it is. Every Sunday—the day of rest, naturally—I’ll post a poem and whatever biographical info I can rustle up in my brain. Simple enough. No parsing or close reading. Just poems. I’d like to hear what people think, too. Don’t be afraid, it’s only poetry. It doesn’t bite.

Well first up is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge, or “STC” as I like to call him came up in conversation last night (and really, why wouldn’t he?), with both my mom and aunt reciting the first lines from one of his most famous works, Kubla Khan. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…” I don’t recall ever memorizing lines in grade school. STC was a contemporary and friend of Wordworth and Byron, and with those two helped create a new kind of poetry: English Romantic. I hold STC in particularly high regard because his poem Frost at Midnight, which I now present to you, was one of the poems I read in college that kindled my love of poetry in the first place. I hope you enjoy it.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mick study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity, doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

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