But, beyond that there is a perennial lesson about the inescapable and destructive forces of time, history, and nature. There are yet more layers of meaning here that elevate this into one of the greatest poems. In terms of lost civilizations that show the ephemeralness of human pursuits, there is no better example than the Egyptians—who we associate with such dazzling monuments as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza that stands far taller than the Statue of Liberty —yet who completely lost their spectacular language, culture, and civilization.
If all ordinary pursuits, such as power and fame, are but dust, what remains, the poem suggests, are spirituality and morality—embodied by the ancient Hebrew faith. What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Ah, happy, happy boughs! Who are these coming to the sacrifice? What little town by river or sea shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? O Attic shape! Fair attitude! The art on the Grecian urn—which is basically a decorative pot from ancient Greece—has survived for thousands of years. While empires rose and fell, the Grecian urn survived. Musicians, trees, lovers, heifers, and priests all continue dying decade after decade and century after century, but their artistic depictions on the Grecian urn live on for what seems eternity.
This realization about the timeless nature of art is not new now nor was it in the s, but Keats has chosen a perfect example since ancient Greek civilization so famously disappeared into the ages, being subsumed by the Romans, and mostly lost until the Renaissance a thousand years later. Further, what is depicted on the Grecian urn is a variety of life that makes the otherwise cold urn feel alive and vibrant. Thus, we can escape ignorance, humanness, and certain death and approach another form of life and truth through the beauty of art.
This effectively completes the thought that began in Ozymandias and makes this a great poem one notch up from its predecessor. Tiger Tiger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire? And what shoulder, and what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? What the hammer? What the anvil?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? Tiger Tiger burning bright, In the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? This poem contemplates a question arising from the idea of creation by an intelligent creator. The question is this: If there is a loving, compassionate God or gods who created human beings and whose great powers exceed the comprehension of human beings, as many major religions hold, then why would such a powerful being allow evil into the world. Evil here is represented by a tiger that might, should you be strolling in the Indian or African wild in the s, have leapt out and killed you.
What would have created such a dangerous and evil creature? To put it another way, why would such a divine blacksmith create beautiful innocent children and then also allow such children to be slaughtered. The battery of questions brings this mystery to life with lavish intensity. Does Blake offer an answer to this question of evil from a good God? It would seem not on the surface. The answer comes in the way that Blake explains the question. This indirectly tells us that the reality that we ordinarily know and perceive is really insufficient, shallow, and deceptive.
Where we perceive the injustice of the wild tiger something else entirely may be transpiring. What we ordinarily take for truth may really be far from it: a thought that is scary, yet also sublime or beautiful—like the beautiful and fearsome tiger. Thus, this poem is great because it concisely and compellingly presents a question that still plagues humanity today, as well as a key clue to the answer.
His eyesight gradually worsened and he became totally blind at the age of To put it simply, Milton rose to the highest position an English writer might at the time and then sank all the way down to a state of being unable read or write on his own. How pathetic! The genius of this poem comes in the way that Milton transcends the misery he feels. First, he frames himself, not as an individual suffering or lonely, but as a failed servant to the Creator: God. While Milton is disabled, God here is enabled through imagery of a king commanding thousands.
This celestial monarch, his ministers and troops, and his kingdom itself are invisible to human eyes anyway, so already Milton has subtly undone much of his failing by subverting the necessity for human vision. This grand mission from heaven may be as simple as standing and waiting, having patience, and understanding the order of the universe. Thus, this is a great poem because Milton has not only dispelled sadness over a major shortcoming in life but also shown how the shortcoming is itself imbued with an extraordinary and uplifting purpose.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream! For the soul is dead that slumbers, And things are not what they seem. Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul. Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way; But to act, that each tomorrow Find us farther than today. Art is long, and Time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums, are beating Funeral marches to the grave.
Be a hero in the strife! Let the dead Past bury its dead! Act,—act in the living Present! Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time;—. Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait. In this nine-stanza poem, the first six stanzas are rather vague since each stanza seems to begin a new thought. Instead, the emphasis here is on a feeling rather than a rational train of thought.
What feeling? Longfellow lived when the Industrial Revolution was in high gear and the ideals of science, rationality, and reason flourished. From this perspective, the fact that the first six stanzas do not follow a rational train of thought makes perfect sense. The last three stanzas—which, having broken free from science by this point in the poem, read more smoothly—suggest that this acting for lofty purposes can lead to greatness and can help our fellow man.
We might think of the entire poem as a clarion call to do great things, however insignificant they may seem in the present and on the empirically observable surface. That may mean writing a poem and entering it into a poetry contest, when you know the chances of your poem winning are very small; risking your life for something you believe in when you know it is not popular or it is misunderstood; or volunteering for a cause that, although it may seem hopeless, you feel is truly important. Thus, the greatness of this poem lies in its ability to so clearly prescribe a method for greatness in our modern world.
Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed—and gazed—but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought:. For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.
First, the poem comes at a time when the Western world is industrializing and man feels spiritually lonely in the face of an increasingly godless worldview. The daffodils then become more than nature; they become a companion and a source of personal joy. Second, the very simplicity itself of enjoying nature—flowers, trees, the sea, the sky, the mountains etc. Any common reader can easily get this poem, as easily as her or she might enjoy a walk around a lake. Third, Wordsworth has subtly put forward more than just an ode to nature here.
This, coupled with the language and topic of the poem, which are both relatively accessible to the common man, make for a great poem that demonstrates the all-encompassing and accessible nature of beauty and its associates, truth and bliss. One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. Death is a perennial subject of fear and despair. But, this sonnet seems to say that it need not be this way. Second, all great people die sooner or later and the process of death could be viewed as joining them.
Third, Death is under the command of higher authorities such as fate, which controls accidents, and kings, who wage wars; from this perspective, Death seems no more than a pawn in a larger chess game within the universe. They must make unpleasant coworkers! You can almost see Donne laughing as he wrote this. The sixth, most compelling, and most serious reason is that if one truly believes in a soul then Death is really nothing to worry about.
Further, this poem is so great because of its universal application. Fear of death is so natural an instinct and Death itself so all-encompassing and inescapable for people, that the spirit of this poem and applicability of it extends to almost any fear or weakness of character that one might have. Thus, Donne leaves a powerful lesson to learn from: confront what you fear head on and remember that there is nothing to fear on earth if you believe in a soul.
How then could this possibly be number one? After the bad taste of an old flavor to a modern tongue wears off, we realize that this is the very best of poetry. This is not pompous because Shakespeare actually achieves greatness and creates an eternal poem. It is okay to recognize poetry as great if it is great and it is okay to recognize an artistic hierarchy. In fact, it is absolutely necessary in educating, guiding, and leading others.
The unabashed praise for someone without a hint as to even the gender or accomplishments of the person is not irrational or sycophantic. It is a pure and simple way of approaching our relationships with other people, assuming the best. It is a happier way to live—immediately free from the depression, stress, and cynicism that creeps into our hearts. Thus, this poem is strikingly and refreshingly bold, profound, and uplifting.
He wields such sublime power that he is unmoved and can instead offer remedy, his verse, at will to those he sees befitting. How marvelous! What an interesting enterprise, Evan? I have always loved lists. Thank you for taking the time to write out all of these insightful analyses.
While my list may be different than yours I probably would add a Yeats and Millay or a Hardy , it would obviously be difficult to bench any of the all-stars you have in your present lineup. What would make it easier, or more amenable to more great poems being subsumed in more lists, would be to narrow the scope of the lists. For what constitutes a poem? We are obviously excluding Epics. I have invariably been drawn to your brazenness though. You know how to get a crowd into it…. Thanks, Reid. I mention at the beginning that it is only short poems, not longer works or excerpts of longer works, so epics are out.
If you want to make a top ten or five? I am contemplating one on war poems again, short poems, not epics or excerpts. Any ideas? This was the time of the Wild West and Manifest Destiny the pitfalls in expansion can be seen in Little House on the Prairie and that was 40 years later. Doing things by the numbers would not have meant a healthy, expanding U. This also fits in with the recurring war theme since enlisting is a similarly risky proposition.
Arabic poetry is the best in history, it has far more words for description and it has deep meanings. It was my first time reading the poem and I thought it meant the mournfully high number of people who say such things. I like it. We may be reading too much into it. Thank you! This was my first thought too. I remember my high school teacher interpreting it in a similar way. Simple and succinct.
Well chosen. I love this series of the ten best. So brilliantly synchronous! In this data-rich period of the last years, we have seen myriads of lists composed, the top 10 vehicles of the last fifty years, the top 40 songs of the week, the top contributers to humanity of the last years, the richest people in the World this year, and so forth.
It is a way for us in mass society to make sense of all the information that comes our way. Another reason for compiling such lists is that it clarifies our own visions, artistic, scientific, philosophical, etc. However, all lists are at best provisional. They are works in progress. Things change. The most popular meme this week might not be the most popular meme next week.
Our favourite cuisine this season may not be our favourite the next. In fact, we are creatures of change. We thrive on variety. So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that even our own lists will alter over time. Evan Mantyk has done us a great service in posting his list of the 10 Greatest Poems Ever Written, not because he was right after all, who could be right?
De gustibus non est disputandum. As Mr. Mantyk knows, by emphasizing poems of 50 lines or less not his exact requirement, but his example , one must exclude epics, poetic plays, narrative poems, dramatic monologues, didactic verse essays, satires and epistles, etc. One of the paradoxes of making a list of the greatest short poems ever written is in attributing greatness to the smaller works, when the very meaning of greatness implies a largeness of expanse, of vision, etc. Even he, I suspect, will change his list over time.
Here is his list. Daffodils William Wordsworth 4. On His Blindness John Milton 6. The Tyger William Blake 7. Ode on a Grecian Urn John Keats 8. Ozymandias Percy Bysshe Shelley 9. The New Colossus Emma Lazarus The Road Not Taken Robert Frost What is remarkable about his list is its specificity and his analyses, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. As I read his list, however, I kept thinking, but what about this poem, or that poem? Other Shakespearean sonnets are also in competition with Sonnet Sonnet for me has always had a special place, because in its delivery, Shakespeare even goes so far as to suggest that if true love does not exist, then he never wrote a thing.
It is the Shakespearean sonnet that most moves me, so much so I recited it at the wedding of my college roommate many years ago. This shows one of the pitfalls of poetic placement; various poems may suggest more to us than others because of our own particular circumstances. One more example will suffice. What appeals to me in that sonnet is its unusual vantage point, its precision, the use of particular words, like steep, and its terse landscaping.
Death thou shalt die. But for me, the John Donne poem that takes my breath away is A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, with its extraordinary conceit of love with a mathematical compass. It is a linguistic tour de force that sweeps me away with its idealism, its learning, and its paradoxically intricate simplicity. For me, nothing like it in English poetry reaches such a refined, intellectual brilliance; and for a long time, it has seemed a worthy paradigm to emulate in my poetry.
I agree with Reid McGrath that it would be difficult to bench any of the all-stars Mr. Edwards and the Spider, etc. And Ezra Pound and T. O Captain!
O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. This arm beneath your head! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. Critics such as Harold Bloom have suggested the Tyger is actually a gentle, playful creature.
It is seen in his carvings as a smiling, toy-like beast. There was an error in Romantic literature that Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost but contemporary analysis suggests Adam is the hero, with Satan as an antihero. Satan became a mythical revolutionary telling God where to stick it for His oppressions. Symmetry implies that order is addressed, a fearful order because it is misunderstood or new to the seer. The fact that Blake uses the word immortal in reference to eye and hand makes the poem extra enchanting— because he is calling poetry an immortal art that would not be what it is without a touch of the forbidden and the divine frenzy.
The list was great, like all lists go by, interesting …… But once the shopping done, To the bin of time it goes. For another one is on its way, for needs are different every day. So forget it. Learn to shop from your heart.
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Where do I start? While known more in America as a storyteller for children, he is best known in Ireland as a poet…. I hear in the darkness Their slipping and breathing. You can spend at the fair But your face you must turn To your crops and your care. And soldiers—red soldiers! The poems are beautiful, but the title is wrong. But, anyway, I love your list. Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. Nothing by Goethe, Rilke, or Schiller? Or are great poems written only by native English speakers?
First Letter by M. And as I pull the drapes in my room to the right, The moon engulfs everything with its warm light. It retrieves from my memory, endless thoughts. I feel the whole lot like in dreams that come in lots. Virgin one you, thousand of wilds glow in your light.
How many forests hide shimmer of water in their shade? As on top of the rough sheer size of the seas you drift, Over how many thousands of waves does your light shift? How many blossoming shores, what forts and castles too, Which flooded by your beauty, to yourself you put on view. Into how many thousands of homes, you gently touch? How many heads full of thought, you quietly watch?
You spot a king, who webs the globe with plans for a century, While a poor guy dares not to think about the next day… While a new rank was drawn from the urn of fate for each guy, Your ray and the skill of death, rule them in the same way. To the same chain of passions, both guys are addicted, Be they weak or strong, stupid or smart.
Some guy looks in the mirror and his hair he styles. Some other guy seeks the truth in this world, and in these times. From stained old files, thousand small pieces he folds. Their short-lived names he writes down on the script he holds. And some guy at his office desk carves up the world, and he tallies How much gold, the sea is hauling in its dark ships hulls. And there is the old professor, with his coat faded at the elbows.
He searches, and in an endless count, he assesses. And he buttons up his old robe, of cold he freezes, He sinks his neck in his collar, plugs his ears, and he sneezes. Skinny as he is, frail and feeble as he appears, The vast Universe is in his reach, and it nears. Since at the back of his brow, the past and the future unite. Like Atlas of ancient times, who propped the sky on his shoulder, So, our professor props the space and the eternal time in a number.
While over the old scripts, the moon lights with its glow, His thought takes him back billions of years, right now: To the beginning, when a living or nonliving thing there was not, When life and will, lacked for the whole lot, When hidden was nil, though the lot was out of sight, When weighed down with wisdom, the Hidden One relaxed His might. Was it a deep rift? Was it a sheer fall? Was it a vastness of water? Because there was darkness, like a sea without a ray of light, But there was nothing to look at, nor eye to see into the night.
The shape of the un-formed did not start yet to work loose And the endless peace rules at ease… But all of a sudden, the first and the only one, a point stirs rather… Look how out of the chaos it forms a mother, and it grows to be the Father. That point of motion, even weaker than a bubble, It has total control over the entire Universe, without any trouble… Since then, the endless night sorts out in galaxies.
Since then, come to light the Sun, the Earth, the Moon and the stars… Since then, up until now, colonies of lost worlds — with tales — Come from grey valleys of chaos on unknown trails. And they spring in swarms that glow from outer space. And by a boundless craving are lured to existence. Tiny nations, kings, soldiers and the well read, We come in generations and we think we know everything from A to Z. Like flies that live a day, in a tiny world that is measured by the foot, In that deep space with no end, we spin following the same route.
And we quite forget that this entire life is a poised instant, And at the beginning and at the end night is revealed, although is distant. And so, in the on and on night that never ends, We have the instant; we have the ray that still stands… When it will switch off, everything will vanish, like a shadow into the night. Since the hazy deep space is a dream of nothingness. The Sun that now shines, he sees it dim and red, like veiled in dust, How, like a wound among dark clouds, it goes bust.
Everything freezes up. And the altar screen of the world has dimmed altogether its ray Like the autumn leaves, all the stars have gone astray. And all is quiet. All plunges into the night of non-existence. And in a state of ease, the eternal peace gets going again in this instance.
The same as one is in all, all is in one. Ahead of the others, gets the one who can. While others with meek heart stand-alone and sigh, And do not grasp that like the unseen foam they quietly die. Whatever they want or think, what should the blind fate agonize? Shall the whole world accept him? Shall writers cause him to feel at ease?
Lord Byron (George Gordon)
What will the old professor gain out of all of these? Eternal life, they shall say. It is true that all his time, Like ivy on a tree, he clings to an aim. Forever, in all places they shall pass it on, all the same, By word of mouth, by means of my fame, My writings shall find shelter in a spot of some head.
What crossed in front of you? Not much. And he shall stack your work on two lines, in a tiny footnote. On a silly page, he shall put you last, with a dot. You can build a whole way of life. You can wreck it. Whatever you say, a shovel of dust shall stack over the whole lot. The hand that wanted the sceptre of the Universe, and higher ranks… And with vision to grasp the Cosmos, fits perfect in four planks.
Lord Byron (George Gordon) | Poetry Foundation
And with cold stares, like they are mocking you too, In the best funeral-procession, they shall walk behind you. And a shortie shall speak above everybody, reading your eulogy, Not to praise you… to polish himself in the shade of your celebrity. Look what awaits you. Oh yes, you shall see… The time yet to come, is even with more impartiality.
You were a man like they are… everyone is content. And in literary meetings, each guy with an ironic expression Will widen his or her nose, when about you they talk in session. It has to be said sincerely, With words, they shall praise you dearly. And so, fallen in the hands of anyone, they shall assess your toil. And apart from that, about your life, they shall stick their nose in. They shall look for dirt, faults and for some sin. All these brings you closer to them… Not the enlightenment That you shed on the world, but the sins, flaws and excitement, And blunders, and weak moments, and guilt from the past, Which, are linked in a fatal way to a hand of dust.
As, it opens the star gate to our own dimension in a twinkling, And once the candle is quenched, it releases much inkling. Many a wilderness, glares in your glow, virgin one you. How many a forest, hide in its shade shimmer of springs, from your view? Over how many thousands of waves, does your glow shift When, over the rough expanse of the seas, your light shall drift?
I absolutely love this one! I wish I could say I have achieved the privilege of mastering the worlds greatest poets, but blessed that I can appreciate ones beauty of expression! Can I ask who the poet is who wrote this and where you found it? Thank you!! Great list. Ozymandias my favorite short-form poem ever. But where is something from Dickinson, the Bard of Amherst? Brilliant poems too numerous to enumerate…. A good list apart from number one by Shakespeare. Number two by Donne is not bad.
Perhaps he should have listed off her favorite foods. Or even something about her physical appearance would have been better than nothing. There really is nothing about her, assuming it is a she. Shakespeare is grossly overrated. Most of his work is unremarkable but gets more attention because when he was writing hardly anyone had written anything.
If you read their poems you will sea they were great. Many people on the world have ridden them for many years…. Very clever. Persian poems are as great as the sea is expansive. No mention of Invictus? It evokes such raw willpower as to overcome any inner demon.
That said, there is a sense, to me anyway, of godlessness to it. These strike me as relatively hollow reflections compared to those on the list. I came across your list only yesterday. Great choices. By the way, I happen to agree with you regarding Invictus.
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Your list is so beautiful, inspiring and for me personally extremely therapeutic! Again in my personal opinion ones own view is by far more interesting, pure and appreciated! Thank you for this list! Most importantly it is not right nor wrong and should just simply not literally be appreciated! Thank you, Kelly! For instance, suppose you feel someone has wronged you, say a politician or perhaps someone close to you, and the actions you take driven by irrational emotion you realize later were silly.
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