I have had a tricky relationship with poetry in the past, most especially when I’ve studied it. Whenever I had to examine poems I mostly experienced the same reaction that sure, some poems were nice to read and contemplate for a little while, but that’s where my thoughts stopped.
My Experience Studying Poetry
Analysing poetry became more complicated for me to analyse than novels during my A-levels, and I simply decided during this time, that poetry was not for me, nor did I want to study an English course at university that drew heavily on poetry. Doing a combined A-level of English Language and Literature meant that so many technical terms had to be applied and then interpreted which I was not successful at. I did get better at it eventually, but looking back I think it just took all of the appreciation out of the poems for me, being so focused on trying to pick them apart that I couldn’t enjoy them how they were. My lack of confidence in my lessons didn’t help either, and so when I picked modules for my university course, I tried to avoid poetry where I could.
Which now is pretty fun, since my first year had so much poetry, and in my first week I ended up switching a module to one solely focused on poetry, which became my favourite module of the term. Studying poetry at university brought back the enjoyment I’d been lacking in my A-Levels, and doing just English Literature for my degree meant the technical side of analysis was pushed aside (though not gone completely). The encouragement of independent thought and the numerous interpretations that people could present meant that I could appreciate or not appreciate the poems by themselves, and make my own arguments without being completely bound to technicalities. Even if my lectures or assignments themselves didn’t engage me, I could still be able to foster my own understandings and interest of poems and separate them from any negative aspects of my degree. As my interest in history was still growing at the point, I was (and still am) attracted to the historical context in each poem, and the differences in each period of poets, and the impact of society.
There are still poems I dislike, and analysis that is difficult or dull, but I’m glad that my opinions have developed and helped me further in my degree. I’ve picked five of my favourite poems, a lot of them are from the nineteenth century and the Romantic period which I studied a lot of this year.
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I’ve studied a lot of Percy Bysshe Shelley, but this poem was the first, back during my A-Levels. This was one of the few poems from the anthology we studied that I really liked, and I’ve studied it twice more whilst at university.
A short but incredibly powerful poem Shelley published in 1818, Ozymandias was written in a competition between Shelley and fellow poet Horace Smith. The narrator in the poem is retelling a story told to him by a traveller about a statue of pharaoh Ramses II, which now lies ruined and decaying in the desert, forgotten. Shelley conveys that even the mightiest of leaders will be undone by time, and eventually dismissed. Power is only temporary, and tyranny will not be remembered, time making ordinary humans and leaders trivial.
Mont Blanc by Percy Shelley
One of Shelley’s most praised poems, Mont Blanc is a poem I studied extensively this year. I did one of my assignments on the image of the Sublime Shelley presents, and though I didn’t do as well as I hoped, it is one of the poems I can appreciate without it being diminished by the stress I went through writing about it. It’s a long poem, so I’ll only put the beginning up. Written by Shelley on his trip to Mont Blanc in 1816, the feeling of the Sublime (an experience of the infinite, reaching the limit of thought and language) was so experienced by Shelley, that he called his feelings “not unallied to madness’, (Shelley also had to be that little bit extra by signing his name in the guestbook as ‘Democrat, Philanthropist and Atheist’ in Greek).
The Poem emphasises the extraordinary power of nature, Shelley being transfixed and terrified by the overwhelming beauty and power of the mountains. Shelley doesn’t credit this creation to God or any higher power, nature reigning supreme over itself, making humans and the imagination seem pointless and insignificant. However Shelley realises that the human imagination is vital, as it can give the mountains meaning and uncover any lessons this power has to teach. Without mankind, nature has no purpose, it being our job to assign meaning to its beauty.
Last Lines by Anne Bronte
It seems I’m impossible of writing a post without mentioning the Bronte family somehow, but I couldn’t leave this one out. Anne’s last poem, she began writing Last Lines after finding out she had consumption in January 1848, and that she was going to die. Her sister Emily had passed away from consumption only a few weeks before, and her poem shows a crisis of faith, and a wish to remain longer in the world. Anne’s accepted God’s plan for her, though she may not understand it. However after the first eight verses, the poem’s meaning shifts. Anne added on nine more verses after her treatment started, this addition being one of determination and hope, hope that Anne will live and that she will make the most of the time she has left, though still accepting of whatever God’s plan may be. Anne wanted to do more good in the world, and this poem reflects the bravery this young woman had, and I’ll always be so sad she did not get to live longer.
And hope of life away,
And bid me watch the painful night
And wait the weary day.
The Prisoner by Emily Bronte
I shall try not to repeat myself by talking too much about Emily Bronte, since I wrote my last post about Wuthering Heights and her poetry, including The Prisoner. Emily and Anne had an imaginary world called Gondal, and Emily’s writing was mainly for this universe, and the rest of her work is clearly inspired by it. She was absorbed in this world, preferring it to reality, and her genius is portrayed in these works, her poetry full of passion, power and a love of nature. The Prisoner was a Gondal poem, and a long fragment of the poem was selected for publication, in the Bronte sister’s first attempt at publishing with their poetry collection Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell published in 1846. This poem I love especially, as I always get transfixed by the language, and the emotions are so vividly expressed I find it difficult not to be mesmerised.
He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars.
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire.
“Desire for nothing known in my maturer years,
When Joy grew mad with awe, at counting future tears.
When, if my spirit’s sky was full of flashes warm,
I knew not whence they came, from sun or thunder-storm.
“But, first, a hush of peace–a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast–unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.
“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free–its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulph, it stoops and dares the final bound,
“Oh I dreadful is the check–intense the agony–
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.
“Yet I would lose no sting, would wish no torture less;
The more that anguish racks, the earlier it will bless;
And robed in fires of hell, or bright with heavenly shine,
If it but herald death, the vision is divine!”
She ceased to speak, and we, unanswering, turned to go–
We had no further power to work the captive woe:
Her cheek, her gleaming eye, declared that man had given
A sentence, unapproved, and overruled by Heaven.
To Autumn by John Keats
This was one of the poems I really didn’t like when I studied it during my A-Levels. The language was confusing, and it felt too dated to me at the time to understand. My class didn’t like it either, and so I was disappointed when I had to look at it again in my Poetry module in my first semester of university. However this time around I really liked it. It helped that it was autumn at the time, and Keats’s wonderful imagery made the season feel more beautiful, and after the seminar me and my friend went and took pictures of the trees on campus, and found other people from our seminar doing the same thing. One thing I appreciate so much about poetry is how it has heightened my love for nature, (cheesy as it sounds), but poems like To Autumn help me notice small wonders of my everyday settings that I might not have noticed before. Written in 1819 after Keats took a walk in Winchester, it was one of several Odes he composed in the year. I wanted to include this poem in my post as it encapsulates how my relationship with poetry has changed whilst studying my degree.
- Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
- Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
- Conspiring with him how to load and bless
- With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
- To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
- And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
- To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
- With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
- And still more, later flowers for the bees,
- Until they think warm days will never cease,
- For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
- Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
- Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
- Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
- Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
- Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
- Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
- Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
- And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
- Steady thy laden head across a brook;
- Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
- Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
- Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
- Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
- While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
- And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
- Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
- Among the river sallows, borne aloft
- Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
- And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
- Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
- The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
- And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
There were more poems I wanted to discuss so I will hopefully do a follow up post in the future, featuring some modern poetry.