The HyperTexts

The Best Poem of All Time

by Michael R. Burch

Counting down to the greatest poem of all time was an interesting endeavor, since most readers have probably never heard of my choice for number one. But of course my list is subjective, a matter of personal taste and fancy. Perhaps the most interesting thing about my personal canon is that many of the poems are contemporary, having been written only recently. This leads me to believe that the "death" of poetry has been greatly exaggerated.

Poem #50: Requiescat
by Oscar Wilde

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, Peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life's buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

Oscar Wilde was the most notorious of English poets, because he was Wilde-ly outspoken and flagrantly gay at a time when English society was murderously homophobic. Despite being one of London's most successful playwrights, Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labor in Reading Gaol for practicing "gross indecency." After being released from prison, he set sail for Dieppe by the night ferry, never to return to Ireland or Britain.

Poem #49: The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
               of a sort of emotional anemia. 

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
             will commit that indiscretion.

This poem by Ezra Pound is a wonderful miniature of English society, captured in a poem for the ages. It is also one of the best early free verse poems written in the English language.

Poem #48: Distant light
by Walid Khazindar
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Bitterly cold,
winter clings to the naked trees.
If only you would free
the bright sparrows
from the tips of your fingers
and release a smile—that shy, tentative smile—
from the imprisoned anguish I see.
Sing! Can we not sing
as if we were warm, hand-in-hand,
shielded by shade from a glaring sun?
Can you not always remain this way,
stoking the fire, more beautiful than necessary, and silent?
Darkness increases; we must remain vigilant
and this distant light is our only consolation—
this imperiled flame, which from the beginning
has been flickering,
in danger of going out.
Come to me, closer and closer.
I don't want to be able to tell my hand from yours.
And let's stay awake, lest the snow smother us.

This is a wonderfully moving poem by Walid Khazindar, who was born in 1950 in Gaza City. He is considered to be one of the very best Palestinian poets; his poetry has been said to be "characterized by metaphoric originality and a novel thematic approach unprecedented in Arabic poetry." He was awarded the first Palestine Prize for Poetry in 1997.

Poem #47: The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses? ...

"The Layers" is one of my favorite poems by a contemporary poet. Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) was an American poet who was appointed Poet Laureate twice, first in 1974 and then again in 2000, at age 95! Now there's a poet with real staying power!

Poem #46:
My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold
by William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

William Wordsworth was one of the Big Six (the great Romantic poets who ushered in what we now call Modernism). Along with William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, George Gordon (Lord Bryon) and his close friend and partner in poetic crime, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth helped create a new type of poetry that was simultaneously more spiritual and more heretical than most of the classical poetry that preceded it.

Poem #45: Wulf and Eadwacer (Anonymous Ballad, circa 960-990 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The outlanders pursue him like crippled game.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like a panting hound.
Whenever it rained and I woke disconsolate
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, there was pleasure, but its end was loathsome.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, but why should I eat?
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A she-wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.

"Wulf and Eadwacer" has been one of my favorite poems since the first time I read it. In fact, I liked the poem so much that I ended up translating it myself! This is one of the oldest poems in the English language, and in all likelihood the first extant poem by a female poet. It is also one of the first English poems to employ a refrain, and its closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in English literature.

Poem #44 (tie): To Daffodils
by Robert Herrick

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
    You haste away so soon.
As yet the early-rising sun
    Hath not attained his noon.
        Stay, stay,
    Until the hasting day
        Has run
    But to the even-song;
And, having prayed together, we
    Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you;
    We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
    As you, or any thing.
        We die.
    As your hours do, and dry
        Away
    Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew
    Ne'er to be found again.

Herrick is pleasing to the ear, and should continue to be read always, or at least as long as the English language endures.

Poem #44 (tie): Go, Lovely Rose
by Edmund Waller

     Go, lovely Rose,—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
     That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

     Tell her that's young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
     That hadst thou sprung
In deserts where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.

     Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retir'd:
     Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desir'd,
And not blush so to be admir'd.

     Then die, that she
The common fate of all things rare
     May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share,
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.

This a near-perfect poem that still reads wonderfully well today.

Poem #43: Full Fathom Five
by William Shakespeare

Full fathom five thy father lies;
    Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
    Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
        Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them — ding-dong, bell.

I think Shakespeare's songs are superior to his sonnets, but why quibble? The fact that Shakespeare ranks no higher than number 43 only indicates how competitive this list is.

Poem #42:
Song
by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
  Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
  Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
  With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
  And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
  I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
  Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
  That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
  And haply may forget.

Christina Rossetti wrote a handful of immortal poems, and that makes her an immortal poet. Two of her poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #41:
The Listeners
by Walter De La Mare

'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said ...

This is a wonderfully haunting poem that should make its author, Walter De La Mare, immortal.

Poem #40: Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden is probably an unknown or undervalued poet to most readers today, but every reader should be intimately familiar with this magnificent poem. "Those Winter Sundays" illustrates how one poem can make a poet immortal. I may never remember another poem by Hayden, but I will certainly never forget this one.

Poem #39: To Celia
by Ben Jonson

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 back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

Ben Jonson wrote another immortal poem, his eulogy to his son, but I'm going to go with this perfectly-rendered love song ...

Poem #38: In The Dark Season
by Richard Moore

I

I fall out of the foliage of my feelings.
That is the beginning, the ending,
when the orange peels appear
from the shrinking lips of the snow
and broken bottles, still clinging to their labels,
in the gutter outside the church.
A silk stocking coils in the mud.
In the dark season, someone has sown
the seed of confusion. The church will graze
on the flowers, the fruits of love,
the soft nutritious pulp of remorse.
Do these events signify
summertime in another hemisphere?
One studied a new language in the darkness,
looked far down into the well,
into the hints of sunlight in its depths.

II

We are dead such a long time before
and will be dead such a long time after
this leaping into light
as a dolphin leaps from the sea
and carries the glare of that moment
back among the curious creatures
who have not known the light.
Don't tell me this is like Plato's cave;
I know that. But in death, our element,
who swims with us? Do we even?
If God is light...No, but there may be,
as the poet says, a soft monster 
deeply sleeping among his thousand 
arms under millennia
unnumbered, and enormous polypi.
I think we have been frightened into life
as fish leap from greater fish below.
We cry angrily in our cradles,
then overcome, grow tranquil through the years,
hopefully, ready ever for the depths
ever ready for us.

III

Yes, but of course, there is the need
for symmetry. Matter calls out
for antimatter, which forthwith
sings in the shadows. Thus, tonight
streetlight fingers new foliage
with breezes making light of it,
where unseen trunk divides itself
into a multitude of tips
above ground and below, as in
a mirror, strangers to each other,
two lives, depending on each other,
therefore the same life: in dark depth
and moisture one, in dry sunlight
the other: God and Satan, one,
female and male in each one, one.
Dolphins from darkness visit light.
Who from her glitter visits us?
These, lost inside you: look outside
in the not-you: you find them there.

Richard Moore is one of my favorite contemporary poets. He specialized in writing formal poetry, and was a strong proponent of "perfect rhyme." But he still managed to write one of my favorite free verse poems, "In the Dark Season."

Poem #37: The Light of Other Days
by Tom Moore

Oft, in the stilly night,
  Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
  Of other days around me:
    The smiles, the tears
    Of boyhood's years,
  The words of love then spoken;
    The eyes that shone,
    Now dimm'd and gone,
  The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
  Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
  Of other days around me.

When I remember all
  The friends, so link'd together,
I've seen around me fall
  Like leaves in wintry weather,
    I feel like one
    Who treads alone
  Some banquet-hall deserted,
    Whose lights are fled,
    Whose garlands dead,
  And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
  Ere slumber's chain has bound me.
Sad Memory brings the light
  Of other days around me.

Tom Moore was an Irish tenor, songwriter and poet; this wonderfully haunting poem demonstrates his virtuosity as a poet.

Poem #36: Song
by John Donne

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devils foot;
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights
Till Age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one let me know;
Such a pilgrimage were sweet.
Yet do not; I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet.
Though she were true when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three.

John Donne wrote some of the sexiest poems in the English language, and some of the best devotional poems as well. Talk about range!

Poem #35: Luke Havergal
by Edward Arlington Robinson

Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,
And in the twilight wait for what will come.
The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;
But go, and if you listen, she will call.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal—
Luke Havergal.

No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies
To rift the fiery night that's in your eyes;
But there, where western glooms are gathering
The dark will end the dark, if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half of paradise.
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies—
In eastern skies.

Out of a grave I come to tell you this,
Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss
That flames upon your forehead with a glow
That blinds you to the way that you must go.
Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,
Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this—
To tell you this.

There is the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There are the crimson leaves upon the wall,
Go, for the winds are tearing them away,—
Nor think to riddle the dead words they say,
Nor any more to feel them as they fall;
But go, and if you trust her she will call.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal—
Luke Havergal.

"Luke Havergal" by E. A. Robinson is one of the eeriest, most haunting poems in the English language. Robinson wrote a number of other very strong poems and remains one of America's best early modern poets. Several of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.


Poem #34: Naming of Parts
by Henry Reed

"Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine glori"


Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
   And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
   Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easily
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
   Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
   They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
   For today we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed is likely to be remembered by this one poem, but fortunately for him (and for us) it should make him immortal.

Poem #33: Bagpipe Music
by Louis MacNeice

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

Louis MacNeice is an undervalued poet, and "Bagpipe Music" is a tour-de-force.

Poem #32: Ozymandias
by Percy Bysshe 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 lip, 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.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the great Romantics. His touch with meter and rhyme was exquisite. Several of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #31: One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Poem #30: The Windhover
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
  dom 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: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

G. M. Hopkins did things with the language no poet before or since has done, or at least not as well and to the same extent. His influence can be seen in the work of Dylan Thomas, but no one has ever duplicated his "sprung" rhythms.

Poem #29: The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
     When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
     The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
     Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
     Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
     The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
     The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
     Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
     Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
     The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
     Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
     In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
     Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
     Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
     Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
     His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
     And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy wrote a number of truly great poems, including "The Darkling Thrush," "The Convergence of the Twain" and "Channel Firing." Several of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #28:
Come Lord and Lift
by T. Merrill

Come Lord, and lift the fallen bird
   Abandoned on the ground;
The soul bereft and longing so
   To have the lost be found.

The heart that cries—let it but hear
   Its sweet love answering,
Or out of ether one faint note
   Of living comfort wring.

"Come Lord and Lift" is one of my favorite poems by a contemporary poet. I find it wonderfully touching and moving, and always a pleasure to read.

Poem #27: The Unreturning
by Wilfred Owen

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.
But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled,
And never one fared back to me or spoke.

Then peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men's sighs are drained.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,
Gagged by the smothering Wing which none unbinds,
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

Wilfred Owen is a war poet without peer, and one of the first great modern poets. His poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" is probably the best anti-war poem in the English language, perhaps in any language. If man ever grows wise enough as a species to abolish war, Wilfred Owen's voice, echoed in thousands of other poems and songs, will have been a major catalyst.

Poem #26: Excerpts from "More Poems," XXXVI
by A. E. Housman

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

I have loved the four lines above by Housman, since I first read them. He could write movingly without indulging in images, melodrama or sophistry, and rivals Shakespeare in what he accomplished with direct statement. Housman is certainly a major poet, and one of our very best critics of society and religion, along with Blake, Twain and Wilde. A good number of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #25: Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

William Dunbar's wonderful "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is one of my favorite poems from the early days of English poetry. I chose to translate it myself, to make it more accessible to modern readers.

Poem #24: The Death of a Toad
by Richard Wilbur

|        A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.

I can't remember where I first read "The Death of a Toad" by Richard Wilbur, but it haunted me until I finally rediscovered it many years later, flipping through the pages of a poetry anthology in a bookstore. I had forgotten the poem's title and its poet's name, but I had never been able to forget its words' magic.

Poem #23: La Figlia Che Piange (The Weeping Girl)
by T. S. Eliot

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair —
lean on a garden urn —
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair —
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise —
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and a shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight, and the noon's repose.

Along with Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot helped create modern free verse. This poem demonstrates his remarkable talent. While Eliot was a sophisticated, urbane poet, his main theme was human love and he often comes across as a somewhat "nerdy," disillusioned romantic.

Poem #22: They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
with naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Thomas Wyatt lived during the reign of King Henry VIII. Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" may have been written to Anne Boleyn, the mistress of Henry who became his queen, only to be beheaded.

Poem #21: In My Craft Or Sullen Art
by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

In poems like "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," "In My Craft or Sullen Art" and "Fern Hill" the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas ranks with any poet who ever wrote in English. Several of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #20:
Cradle Song
by William Blake

Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.

Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.

As thy softest limbs I feel
Smiles as of the morning steal
O'er thy cheek, and o'er thy breast
Where thy little heart doth rest.

O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful night shall break.

"Cradle Song" by William Blake is one of the most touching, moving poems in the English language. It is probably the best lullaby in the English language, along with "Lullaby" by W. H. Auden. Blake wrote a number of truly great poems, several of which can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #19: Lullaby
by W. H. Auden

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm:
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost.
All the dreaded cards foretell.
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought.
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Auden's "Lullaby" is one of the truly great poems in the English language. His elegy to William Butler Yeats is another.

Poem #18: A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

"A Noiseless Patient Spider" is a wonderfully mystical poem by America's Merlin. You can find a number of his poems on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #17: When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman is one of the most important poets of all time, not only because his best poems are masterpieces, but because of his influence on other poets, and on the modern psyche.

Poem #16: The Broken Tower
by Hart Crane

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun's ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals ... And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain! ...

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure ...

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) but slip
Of pebbles, visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower ...
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

Poem #15: Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is from Horace's Odes and means: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." This is one of the first and best ultra-realistic anti-war poems in the English language.

Poem #14: in Just-
by e. e. cummings

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame baloonman

whistles      far      and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old baloonman whistles
far      and      wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
it's
spring
and

      the
               goat-footed

 baloonMan      whistles
far
and
wee

E. E. Cummings (or e. e. cummings) has long been one of my favorite poets. I love his musicality, his whimsy, and his defiance of convention. In his darker poems like "I sing of Olaf, glad and big," I love his fierce wrath against injustice. In my opinion he is one of the major poets of the modern era. Several of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #13: Acquainted With The Night
by Robert Frost

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost wrote a number of magnificent poems, including "Directive," "Acquainted with the Night" and "The Most of It." "Directive" is one of the scariest pieces of writing in the English language: much scarier than anything written by Poe or Stephen King, in my opinion. Frost stands out among his peers because he wrote so many great and near-great poems, and may be rivaled only by W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens among modern poets. You can find a number of his poems on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #12: The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Poem #11: The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad
by Wallace Stevens

The time of year has grown indifferent.
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow
Are both alike in the routine I know:
I am too dumbly in my being pent.

The wind attendant on the solstices
Blows on the shutters of the metropoles,
Stirring no poet in his sleep, and tolls
The grand ideas of the villages.

The malady of the quotidian . . .
Perhaps if summer ever came to rest
And lengthened, deepened, comforted, caressed
Through days like oceans in obsidian

Horizons, full of night's midsummer blaze;
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate
Through all its purples to the final slate,
Persisting bleakly in an icy haze;

One might in turn become less diffident,
Out of such mildew plucking neater mould
And spouting new orations of the cold.
One might. One might. But time will not relent.

Wallace Stevens is one of the very best modern poets, if not the best. My favorites among his poems include "Sunday Morning," "The Snow Man," "The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad" and "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon." Some of his poems seem overly obscure to me, and I find it hard to understand why anyone likes (or pretends to like) his "jar in Tennessee" stuff, but for sheer music and the beauty of words, Stevens is hard to beat. Several of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Poem #10: Song for the Last Act

by Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd's crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music's cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat's too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

Poem #9: After the Persian
by Louise Bogan

I do not wish to know
The depths of your terrible jungle:
From what nest your leopard leaps
Or what sterile lianas are at once your serpents' disguise and home.

I am the dweller on the temperate threshold,
The strip of corn and vine,
Where all is translucence (the light!)
Liquidity, and the sound of water.
Here the days pass under shade
And the nights have the waxing and the waning moon.
Here the moths take flight at evening;
Here at morning the dove whistles and the pigeons coo.
Here, as night comes on, the fireflies wink and snap
Close to the cool ground,
Shining in a profusion
Celestial or marine.

Here it is never wholly dark but always wholly green,
And the day stains with what seems to be more than the
      sun
What may be more than my flesh.

II

I have wept with the spring storm;
Burned with the brutal summer.
Now, hearing the wind and the twanging bow-strings,
I know what winter brings.

The hunt sweeps out upon the plain
And the garden darkens.
They will bring the trophies home
To bleed and perish
Beside the trellis and the lattices,
Beside the fountain, still flinging diamond water,
Beside the pool
(Which is eight-sided, like my heart).

III

All has been translated into treasure:
Weightless as amber,
Translucent as the currant on the branch,
Dark as the rose's thorn.

Where is the shimmer of evil?
This is the shell's iridescence
And the wild bird's wing.

IV

Ignorant, I took up my burden in the wilderness.
Wise with great wisdom, I shall lay it down upon flowers.

V

Goodbye, goodbye!
There was so much to love, I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.

Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.

Louise Bogan is one of the best unknown or under-known poets of all time. Her best poems make her a major poet, in my opinion. She's a poet who deserves to be read and studied. In particular, her "After the Persian," "Juan's Song" and "Song for the Last Act" are "must reads."

Poem #8: Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

"Dover Beach" may be the first modern poem. When Arnold speaks of the "Sea of Faith" retreating, he seems to be setting the stage for Modernism, which to some degree was the reaction of men who began to increasingly suspect that the "wisdom" contained in the Bible was hardly the revelation of an all-knowing God.

Poem #7: The Wild Swans at Coole
by William Butler Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

W. B. Yeats is probably the last of the great Romantics, and the first of the great Modernists. He wrote a good number of truly great poems, and remains an essential poet of the highest rank.

Poem #6: To Brooklyn Bridge
by Hart Crane

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day ...

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn ...
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon ... Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year ...

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Poem #5: His Confession
by the Archpoet
circa 1165; translated from the original medieval Latin by Helen Waddell

Seething over inwardly
with fierce indignation,
In my bitterness of soul,
Hear my declaration.
I am of one element,
Levity my matter,
Like enough a withered leaf
For the winds to scatter.

Since it is the property
Of the sapient
To sit firm upon a rock,
it is evident
That I am a fool, since I
Am a flowing river,
Never under the same sky,
Transient for ever.

Hither, thither, masterless
Ship upon the sea,
Wandering through the ways of air,
Go the birds like me.
Bound am I by ne'er a bond,
Prisoner to no key,
Questing go I for my kind,
Find depravity.

Never yet could I endure
Soberness and sadness,
Jests I love and sweeter than
Honey find I gladness.
Whatsoever Venus bids
Is a joy excelling,
Never in an evil heart
Did she make her dwelling.

Down the broad way do I go,
Young and unregretting,
Wrap me in my vices up,
Virtue all forgetting,
Greedier for all delight
Than heaven to enter in:
Since the soul is in me dead,
Better save the skin.

Pardon, pray you, good my lord,
Master of discretion,
But this death I die is sweet,
Most delicious poison.
Wounded to the quick am I
By a young girl's beauty:
She's beyond my touching? Well,
Can't the mind do duty?

Hard beyond all hardness, this
Mastering of Nature:
Who shall say his heart is clean,
Near so fair a creature?
Young are we, so hard a law,
How should we obey it?
And our bodies, they are young,
Shall they have no say in’t?

Sit you down amid the fire,
Will the fire not burn you?
To Pavia come, will you
Just as chaste return you?
Pavia, where Beauty draws
Youth with finger-tips,
Youth entangled in her eyes,
Ravished with her lips.

Let you bring Hippolytus,
In Pavia dine him,
Never more Hippolytus
Will the morning find him.
In Pavia not a road
But leads to venery
Nor among its crowding towers
One to chastity.

Yet a second charge they bring:
I'm forever gaming.
Yea, the dice hath many a time
Stripped me to my shaming.
What an' if the body's cold,
If the mind is burning,
On the anvil hammering,
Rhymes and verses turning?

Look again upon your list.
Is the tavern on it?
Yea, and never have I scorned,
Never shall I scorn it,
Till the holy angels come,
And my eyes discern them,
Singing for the dying soul,
Requiem aeternam.

For on this my heart is set:
When the hour is nigh me,
Let me in the tavern die,
With a tankard by me,
While the angels looking down
Joyously sing o'er me,
Deus sit propitius
Huic potatori.


'Tis the fire that's in the cup
Kindles the soul's torches,
'Tis the heart that drenched in wine
Flies to heaven's porches.
Sweeter tastes the wine to me
In a tavern tankard
That the watered stuff my Lord
Bishop has decanted.

Let them fast and water drink,
All the poets' chorus,
Fly the market and the crowd
Racketing uproarious.
Sit in quiet spots and think,
Shun the tavern's portal
Write, and never having lived,
Die to be immortal.

Never hath the spirit of
Poetry descended,
Till with food and drink my lean
Belly was distended,
But when Bacchus lords it in
My cerebral story,
Comes Apollo with a rush,
Fills me with his glory.

Unto every man his gift.
Mine was not for fasting.
Never could I find a rhyme
With my stomach wasting.
As the wine is, so the verse:
'Tis a better chorus
When the landlord hath a good
Vintage set before us.

Good my lord, the case is heard,
I myself betray me,
And affirm myself to be
All my fellows say me.
See, they in thy presence are:
Let whoe’er hath known
His own heart and found it clean,
Cast at me the stone.

The Archpoet should be required reading! He is simultaneously funny, irreverent and wise. He wrote on the cusp of the Inquisition, which probably explains his use of a pseudonym.

Poem #4 (tie): Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
Bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

Conrad Aiken, in his best poems, rivals Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane as masters of modern English poetic meter. Aiken's "Bread and Music" is one of my very favorite poems, regardless of era.

Poem #4 (tie): Piano
by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

D. H. Lawrence is better known today for his novels than for his poetry, but "Piano" is an immortal poem, and thus makes Lawrence an immortal poet.

Poem #4 (tie): Music When Soft Voices Die (To )
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Shelley's "Music When Soft Voices Die" has some of the sweetest, most tender sounds in English poetry.

Poem #3: Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae
by Ernest Dowson

"I am not as I was under the reign of the good Cynara"—Horace

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to you, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long;
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Ernest Dowson's influence on T. S. Eliot is obvious, and anyone who reads his best poems can easily understand the attraction. Other writers unabashedly "borrowed" phrases from Dowson: "gone with the wind," "the days of wine and roses," "hollow lands," etc. The best poets write memorable lines, and Dowson's best poems are full of memorable lines. Several of his poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.


Poem #2 (tie): Tom O' Bedlam's Song
Anonymous ballad, circa 1620

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
The spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons, defend ye.
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken,
Nor wander from your selves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon,
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragèd,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagèd.
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips, ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty,
    And now I sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With a thought I took for Maudlin,
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
With a thing thus tall, sky bless you all,
I befell into this dotage.
I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never wakèd,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stript me nakèd.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

When I short have shorn my sow's face
And swigged my horny barrel,
In an oaken inn, I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel;
The moon's my constant mistress,
And the lovely owl my marrow;
The flaming drake and the night crow make
Me music to my sorrow.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The palsy plagues my pulses
When I prig your pigs or pullen
Your culvers take, or matchless make
Your Chanticleer or Sullen.
When I want provant, with Humphry
I sup, and when benighted,
I repose in Paul's with waking souls,
Yet never am affrighted.
    But I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at mortal wars
In the wounded welkin weeping.
The moon embrace her shepherd,
And the Queen of Love her warrior,
While the first doth horn the star of morn,
And the next the heavenly Farrier.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The Gypsies, Snap and Pedro,
Are none of Tom's comradoes,
The punk I scorn, and the cutpurse sworn
And the roaring boy's bravadoes.
The meek, the white, the gentle,
Me handle not nor spare not;
But those that cross Tom Rynosseross
Do what the panther dare not.
    Although I sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end:
Methinks it is no journey.
    Yet I will sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Anyone who hasn't read "Tom O'Bedlam" hasn't really lived. Reading the final stanza is like reading (and getting) the gist of Don Quixote in burst of magnificent language.

Poem #2 (tie): Directive
by Robert Frost

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

In my opinion this is the scariest poem in the English language, and doubly so because multitudes of children have actually lived through such experiences. In "Directive," Robert Frost shows us the horror of children growing up under the dark cloud of Christianity, with its guide who "only has at heart your getting lost," because according to the Bible most human beings are predestined for an "eternal hell." According to Saint Mark (considered by many Christians to be the author of the Gospel of Mark), Jesus spoke in parables to the common folk in order to deliberately mislead them, so they wouldn't be saved. Frost implores us to "Weep for what little things could make them glad," knowing how very difficult it is for children to be happy when their parents have such dark visions of God.

Poem #2 (tie): The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T. S. Eliot

         S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona l mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
 Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo
. [1]

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

     In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

     The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

     And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

     In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

     And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

     For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
     So how should I presume?

     And I have known the eyes already, known them all-
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
     And how should I presume?

     And I have known the arms already, known them all-
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
     And should I then presume?
     And how should I begin?

                                .      .      .      .      .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?. . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

                                .      .      .      .      .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

     And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
     Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
     That is not it, at all."

     And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
     "That is not it at all,
     That is not what I meant, at all."

                                .      .      .      .      .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

     Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

     I do not think that they will sing to me.

     I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

     We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

[1] Dante, Inferno 27.61-66 "If I thought my answer were given / to anyone who would ever return to the world, / this flame would stand still without moving any further. / But since never from this abyss / has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true, /without fear of infamy I answer you."


If Shakespeare invented the modern human, as Harold Bloom has suggested, then perhaps T. S. Eliot invented the modern poet, with his creation of Prufrock.

Poem #2 (tie): Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard
by Thomas Gray

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share,

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:—
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

Yet e'en these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd Muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
E'en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who, mindful of th' unhonour'd dead,
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,—

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;

'There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high.
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

'Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with care, or cross'd in hopeless love.

'One morn I miss'd him on the custom'd hill,
Along the heath, and near his favourite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

'The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne,—
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.'

The Epitaph

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),
The bosom of his Father and his God.


Thomas Gray's magnificent elegy to a dead rustic youth remains one of the great poems of the English language, and an inexplicable wonder.

Poem #2 (tie): Ode : Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
by William Wordsworth

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
              To me did seem
           Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
           Turn wheresoe'er I may,
               By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

              The rainbow comes and goes,
              And lovely is the rose;
              The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
              Waters on a starry night
              Are beautiful and fair;
   The sunshine is a glorious birth;
   But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
   And while the young lambs bound
              As to the tabor's sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
              And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the echoes through the mountains throng,

The winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
              And all the earth is gay;
                      Land and sea
              Give themselves up to jollity,
                 And with the heart of May
              Doth every beast keep holiday;—
                 Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy!

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
   Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
   My heart is at your festival,
       My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
              O evil day! if I were sullen
              While Earth herself is adorning,
                  This sweet May-morning,
              And the children are culling
                  On every side,
              In a thousand valleys far and wide,
              Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the babe leaps up on his mother's arm:—
              I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
              —But there's a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look'd upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
              The pansy at my feet
              Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
              Hath had elsewhere its setting,
                  And cometh from afar:
              Not in entire forgetfulness,
              And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
              From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
              Upon the growing Boy,
                         But he
Beholds the light, and whence it flows,
              He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
              Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
              And by the vision splendid
              Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a mother's mind,
              And no unworthy aim,
              The homely nurse doth all she can
To make her foster-child, her Inmate Man,
              Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years' darling of a pigmy size!
See, where 'mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother's kisses,
With light upon him from his father's eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learnèd art;
              A wedding or a festival,
              A mourning or a funeral;
                  And this hath now his heart,
              And unto this he frames his song:
                  Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
              But it will not be long
              Ere this be thrown aside,
              And with new joy and pride
The little actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his 'humorous stage'
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
              As if his whole vocation
              Were endless imitation.

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
              Thy soul's immensity;
Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
              Mighty prophet! Seer blest!
              On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a master o'er a slave,
A presence which is not to be put by;
To whom the grave
Is but a lonely bed without the sense or sight
Of day or the warm light,
A place of thought where we in waiting lie;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

              O joy! that in our embers
              Is something that doth live,
              That nature yet remembers
              What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest—
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:—
                  Not for these I raise
                  The song of thanks and praise;
              But for those obstinate questionings
              Of sense and outward things,
              Fallings from us, vanishings;
              Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
                  But for those first affections,
                  Those shadowy recollections,
              Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
       Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
              To perish never:
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
              Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
              Hence in a season of calm weather
              Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
              Which brought us hither,
          Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
              And let the young lambs bound
              As to the tabor's sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
              Ye that pipe and ye that play,
              Ye that through your hearts to-day
              Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
              Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
              We will grieve not, rather find
              Strength in what remains behind;
              In the primal sympathy
              Which having been must ever be;
              In the soothing thoughts that spring
              Out of human suffering;
              In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquish'd one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
              Is lovely yet;
The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

William Wordsworth's poem about his childhood intimations of immorality is at once the most mystical and philosophical of poems.

Poem #1: Voyages
by Hart Crane

Above the fresh ruffles of the surf
Bright striped urchins flay each other with sand.
They have contrived a conquest for shell shucks,
And their fingers crumble fragments of baked weed
Gaily digging and scattering.

And in answer to their treble interjections
The sun beats lightning on the waves,
The waves fold thunder on the sand;
And could they hear me I would tell them:

O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog,
Fondle your shells and sticks, bleached
By time and the elements; but there is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.
The bottom of the sea is cruel.

II

—And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—
Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

III

Infinite consanguinity it bears—
This tendered theme of you that light
Retrieves from sea plains where the sky
Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones;
While ribboned water lanes I wind
Are laved and scattered with no stroke
Wide from your side, whereto this hour
The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands.

And so, admitted through black swollen gates
That must arrest all distance otherwise,—
Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,
Light wrestling there incessantly with light,
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
Your body rocking!
and where death, if shed,
Presumes no carnage, but this single change,—
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn
The silken skilled transmemberment of song;

Permit me voyage, love, into your hands ...

IV

Whose counted smile of hours and days, suppose
I know as spectrum of the sea and pledge
Vastly now parting gulf on gulf of wings
Whose circles bridge, I know, (from palms to the severe
Chilled albatross’s white immutability)
No stream of greater love advancing now
Than, singing, this mortality alone
Through clay aflow immortally to you.

All fragrance irrefragably, and claim
Madly meeting logically in this hour
And region that is ours to wreathe again,
Portending eyes and lips and making told
The chancel port and portion of our June—

Shall they not stem and close in our own steps
Bright staves of flowers and quills today as I
Must first be lost in fatal tides to tell?

In signature of the incarnate word
The harbor shoulders to resign in mingling
Mutual blood, transpiring as foreknown
And widening noon within your breast for gathering
All bright insinuations that my years have caught
For islands where must lead inviolably
Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes,—

In this expectant, still exclaim receive
The secret oar and petals of all love.

V

Meticulous, past midnight in clear rime,
Infrangible and lonely, smooth as though cast
Together in one merciless white blade—
The bay estuaries fleck the hard sky limits.

—As if too brittle or too clear to touch!
The cables of our sleep so swiftly filed,
Already hang, shred ends from remembered stars.
One frozen trackless smile ... What words
Can strangle this deaf moonlight? For we

Are overtaken. Now no cry, no sword
Can fasten or deflect this tidal wedge,
Slow tyranny of moonlight, moonlight loved
And changed ... “There’s

Nothing like this in the world,” you say,
Knowing I cannot touch your hand and look
Too, into that godless cleft of sky
Where nothing turns but dead sands flashing.

“—And never to quite understand!” No,
In all the argosy of your bright hair I dreamed
Nothing so flagless as this piracy.

But now
Draw in your head, alone and too tall here.
Your eyes already in the slant of drifting foam;
Your breath sealed by the ghosts I do not know:
Draw in your head and sleep the long way home.

VI

Where icy and bright dungeons lift
Of swimmers their lost morning eyes,
And ocean rivers, churning, shift
Green borders under stranger skies,

Steadily as a shell secretes
Its beating leagues of monotone,
Or as many waters trough the sun’s
Red kelson past the cape’s wet stone;

O rivers mingling toward the sky
And harbor of the phoenix’ breast—
My eyes pressed black against the prow,
—Thy derelict and blinded guest

Waiting, afire, what name, unspoke,
I cannot claim: let thy waves rear
More savage than the death of kings,
Some splintered garland for the seer.

Beyond siroccos harvesting
The solstice thunders, crept away,
Like a cliff swinging or a sail
Flung into April’s inmost day—

Creation’s blithe and petalled word
To the lounged goddess when she rose
Conceding dialogue with eyes
That smile unsearchable repose—

Still fervid covenant, Belle Isle,
—Unfolded floating dais before
Which rainbows twine continual hair—
Belle Isle, white echo of the oar!

The imaged Word, it is, that holds
Hushed willows anchored in its glow.
It is the unbetrayable reply
Whose accent no farewell can know.

In my opinion, Hart Crane's "Voyages" is the best love poem of all time, and the second-best love poem isn't even close. It's also my choice as the best poem ever written in the English language. Hart Crane was an "uneven" poet who sometimes borders on being unreadable, but in his best poems, he's a wonder. Other poems of his such as "To Brooklyn Bridge" and "The Broken Tower" also rank with the best poems in the English language. But please keep in mind that these are only my personal choices, and therefore matters of opinion.

So there you have them: the best poems ever written, and the greatest poem of all time, according to me. I'm sure every reader's choices will be different, but if you added a poem or three to your list of favorites, having read mine, hopefully you will consider your time here well spent.

Honorable Mentions:

On the Eve of His Execution
by Chidiock Tichborne

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Tichborne's elegy to himself, written in the Tower of London as he awaited execution, remains one of the most powerful in the English language. That a poem this good is number 50 bodes well for the rest of the countdown ...

The Lie
by Sir Walter Ralegh

Go, soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

Say to the court it glows
And shines like rotten wood,
Say to the church it shows
What's good, and doth no good:
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie ...

Two of the best elegies in the English language were written by poets to themselves as they awaited execution in the Tower of London. Chidiock Tichborne would be unknown today if not for the swan song he penned to himself, but Sir Walter Ralegh was the Richard Branson of his era.

Poem #43 (tie): Sonnet 147
by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed,
       For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
       Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night.

This is my favorite of Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets.


Poem #31 (tie): The Armadillo
by Elizabeth Bishop

for Robert Lowell


This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it's hard
to tell them from the stars —
planets, that is — the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it's still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft! — a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

Elizabeth Bishop wrote a small handful of truly great poems such as "One Art," "The Fish" and "The Armadillo," and can surely be considered a major poet as a result.

Poem #31 (tie): Skunk Hour
by Robert Lowell

for Elizabeth Bishop

Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill—
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
"Love, O careless Love. . . ." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody's here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

Robert Lowell's poetic response to Bishop's poem is very close to hers in quality—a very fecund coupling.

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