The HyperTexts

Dark Poetry: The Best Poems about Death, Pain, Loss, Grief, Sadness, Madness, Depression and Despair

Many of the best poems of all time are sad, dark, haunting poems―often about death and loss. This page contains some of the best dark poems in the English language.—Michael R. Burch, Editor, The HyperTexts

Related pages: The Best Vampire Poetry, The Best Dark Poetry, The Best Dark Christmas Poems, The Best Halloween Poetry, The Best Supernatural Poetry, The Best Elegies, Dirges & Laments



How Long the Night (anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong
now grieve, mourn and fast.

In my opinion this is one of the very best short lyrics in the early English stable.



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.

This is a wonderfully moving poem about memory and lost childhood. Man is a nostalgic animal, and in this poem D. H. Lawrence captures the very essence of nostalgia . . .



Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And 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 reminds us of the totality of loss we experience in the death of a loved one. How can we accept the fact that someone "beautiful and wise" is no more?



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 wrote a small handful of poems that are among the strongest in the English language. I consider him one of the very best "unknown" or "under-known" major poets, along with Louise Bogan.



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.

This is a deliciously scary poem about human alienation. It seems we can be not only alienated from each other, but even from ourselves. Madness ran in Frost's family, along with a dark Calvinism, and yet he also wrote one of the loveliest, most tender love poems in the English language, "To Earthward."



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, in her strongest poems, is one of the best of the Romantics, and a stronger poet than her more famous brother, the poet/painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.



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" is like a ghost story in which the reader becomes one with the ghost. When we recognize our affinity with the poem's protagonist, the poem becomes all the more terrifying.



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.

This is a powerful poem by one of the very best early modern poets, Wilfred Owen.



Sea Fevers
by Agnes Wathall

No ancient mariner I,
   Hawker of public crosses,
Snaring the passersby
   With my necklace of albatrosses.

I blink no glittering eye
   Between tufts of gray sea mosses
Nor in the high road ply
   My trade of guilts and glosses.

But a dark and inward sky
   Tracks the flotsam of my losses.
No more becalmed to lie,
   The skeleton ship tosses.

While I'm sure that few readers have heard of Agnes Wathall, her "Sea Fevers" is a poem that warrants reading and remembering.



The Light of Other Days
by Thomas More

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.

Sir Thomas More (aka Thomas Moore) was a gifted poet who became a saint of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately the penner of "Utopia" sometimes sent Protestant "heretics" to be burned at the stake. Small wonder we now call those forbidding days the Dark Ages.



The Lovemaker
by Robert Mezey

I see you in her bed,
Dark, rootless epicene,
Where a lone ghost is laid
And other ghosts convene;

And hear you moan at last
Your pleasure in the deep
Haven of her who kissed
Your blind mouth into sleep.

But body, once enthralled,
Wakes in the chains it wore,
Dishevelled, stupid, cold,
And famished as before,

And hears its paragon
Breathe in the ghostly air,
Anonymous carrion
Ravished by despair.

Lovemaker, I have felt
Desire take my part,
But lacked your constant fault
And something of your art,

And would not bend my knees
To the unmantled pride
That left you in that place,
Forever unsatisfied.

This is one of my favorite poems by a contemporary poet. Robert Mezey manages to turn earthly love into an endlessly haunting ghost story.



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.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

This is one of my favorite story poems. It rivals "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes as the best ghost story in English poetry.



Depths
by Richard Moore

Once more home is a strange place: by the ocean a
big house now, and the small houses are memories,
   once live images, vacant
        thoughts here, sinking and vanishing.

Rough sea now on the shore thundering brokenly
draws back stones with a roar out into quiet and
    far depths, darkly to lie there
         years, yearsthere not a sound from them.
New waves out of the night's mist and obscurity
lunge up high on the beach, spending their energy,
    each wave angrily dying,
        all shapes endlessly altering,

yet out there in the depths nothing is modified.
Earthquakes won't even moveno, nor the hurricane
    one stone there, nor a glance of
         sun's light stir its identity.

This is a wonderfully haunting poem by the contemporary poet Richard Moore, who lived in a dilapidated mansion close by the sea, until his death.



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.

The poem above was the first ever to appear on the pages of The HyperTexts. The darkness of poetry begins with the contemplation of death, and the realization that death does not spare even the young, bold and courageous.



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" appears in Horace's Odes. The "old lie" means: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." Wilfred Owen died just before the armistice that ended World War I. There's no telling what he might have accomplished if he had lived, but he left behind a good number of immortal poems: all of them penned within the short period of time between his enlistment and death.



The Eagle and the Mole
by Elinor Wylie

Avoid the reeking herd,
Shun the polluted flock,
Live like that stoic bird,
The eagle of the rock.

The huddled warmth of crowds
Begets and fosters hate;
He keeps above the clouds
His cliff inviolate.

When flocks are folded warm,
And herds to shelter run,
He sails above the storm,
He stares into the sun.

If in the eagle's track
Your sinews cannot leap,
Avoid the lathered pack,
Turn from the steaming sheep.

If you would keep your soul
From spotted sight or sound,
Live like the velvet mole:
Go burrow underground.

And there hold intercourse
With roots of trees and stones,
With rivers at their source,
And disembodied bones.

This is wonderfully scary poem by a poet who is under-known and under-appreciated today. One can seldom trust the "advice" of poets. If I apprehend the wily Wylie correctly, it seems she offers us three options: (1) the dubious warmth of the reeking herd, (2) the alien loneliness of the aloof eagle, or (3) the blind burrowing of the velvet mole.



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.

When T. S. Eliot began to write, modern poetry began to change. This is a wonderfully haunting poem about love unrealized, or only half realized . . . 



Sarabande On Attaining The Age Of Seventy-Seven
by Anthony Hecht

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark;
White is their colour; and behold my head.
-- George Herbert

Long gone the smoke-and-pepper childhood smell
Of the smoldering immolation of the year,
Leaf-strewn in scattered grandeur where it fell,
Golden and poxed with frost, tarnished and sere.

And I myself have whitened in the weathers
Of heaped-up Januaries as they bequeath
The annual rings and wrongs that wring my withers,
Sober my thoughts, and undermine my teeth.

The dramatis personae of our lives
Dwindle and wizen; familiar boyhood shames,
The tribulations one somehow survives,
Rise smokily from propitiatory flames

Of our forgetfulness until we find
It becomes strangely easy to forgive
Even ourselves with this clouding of the mind,
This cinerous blur and smudge in which we live.

A turn, a glide, a quarter turn and bow,
The stately dance advances; these are airs
Bone-deep and numbing as I should know by now,
Diminishing the cast, like musical chairs.

Hecht's poem makes aging seem like sitting in a foxhole, waiting for the inevitable end, but with the somewhat hopeful note that "it becomes strangely easy to forgive / even ourselves with this clouding of the mind, / this cinerous blur and smudge in which we live." Should we thank God, perhaps, for small favors, like eroding memories?



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.

Louise Bogan is a major poet, in my opinion. Hopefully the rest of the reading world will soon catch on. Please be sure to read her other poems on this page, especially "After the Persian."



Epitaph for a Palestinian Child
by Michael R. Burch

I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.

I suppose I shouldn't publish my own poems on such an auspicious page, but what the hell: I think this one deserves to be read and considered. Christians and Jews need to understand that when they do things that cause Muslim children to suffer and die, the "golden rule" can come back to pursue them like an avenging demon. What happens when we talk the talk, but don't walk the walk, and innocent women and children suffer and die as a result? Terrible things like 9-11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why? Because Muslim men love and want to protect their women and children, just as Christian and Jewish men love and want to protect their women and children. Until we understand this elemental truth, and respect and honor it, we are doomed to repeat the errors of the past, which always begin with with "chosen few" practicing injustices against their "inferiors," who quite understandably never agree with the beliefs of their "superiors."



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.

Wallace Stevens called the poet the "priest of the invisible." In this poem and in certain other poems of his, he seems to be the "priest of the nonexistent" who takes "negative capability" to new heights (depths?). But his best poems are wonders, whether or not one agrees with their conclusions, or understands them.



Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas wrote this stunning poem for his dying father.



Buffalo Bill's defunct
by e. e. cummings

Buffalo Bill's
        defunct
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
                                        stallion
        and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                         Jesus
        he was a handsome man
                             and what i want to know is
        how do you like your blueeyed boy
        Mister Death

Cummings was perhaps the most whimsical of the major poets, but he was also capable of savage irony, in poems like this one.



Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchohare longam
by Ernest Dowson

"The brevity of life forbids us to entertain hopes of long duration" —Horace

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Dowson died at age 32 and is only known for a few poems today, but his best poems are highly memorable. He's one of my favorite lesser-known poets.



A Last Word
by Ernest Dowson

Let us go hence: the night is now at hand;
The day is overworn, the birds all flown;
And we have reaped the crops the gods have sown;
Despair and death; deep darkness o'er the land,
Broods like an owl; we cannot understand
Laughter or tears, for we have only known
Surpassing vanity: vain things alone
Have driven our perverse and aimless band.
Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
Find end of labour, where's rest for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands! O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.

Dowson's influence on the language and other writers can be seen in phrases like "gone with the wind" and "the days of wine and roses." His work certainly influenced T. S. Eliot, who once said that certain lines of Dowson "have always run in my head."



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.

Wyatt's poem seems remarkably fresh and stunningly original today, although it was one of the earliest-written sonnets in the English language. Wyatt was a ladies' man who may have had an affair with Anne Boleyn. His other best-known poem, "Whoso List to Hunt," may have been written with her in mind.



The Skeleton's Defense of Carnality
by Jack Foley

Truly I have lost weight, I have lost weight,
grown lean in love’s defense,
in love’s defense grown grave.
It was concupiscence that brought me to the state:
all bone and a bit of skin
to keep the bone within.
Flesh is no heavy burden for one possessed of little
and accustomed to its loss.
I lean to love, which leaves me lean, till lean turn into lack.
A wanton bone, I sing my song
and travel where the bone is blown
and extricate true love from lust
as any man of wisdom must.
Then wherefore should I rage
against this pilgrimage
from gravel unto gravel?
Circuitous I travel
from love to lack / and lack to lack,
from lean to lack
and back.

I love this wicked little poem by the contemporary poet Jack Foley. The male skeleton is missing an important "member" required for lovemaking, so "lean" really does "turn into lack" when the "bone is blown."



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.

This poem (the poet is an atheist) seems like both an earnest, heartfelt prayer and a condemnation of religion's dubious "God" to me. Why doesn't God have compassion on fallen fledglings, one wonders? . . .



Willy Nilly
by Michael R. Burch

for the Demiurge aka Yahweh/Jehovah

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You made the stallion,
you made the filly,
and now they sleep
in the dark earth, stilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You forced them to run
all their days uphilly.
They ran till they dropped—
life’s a pickle, dilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
They say I should worship you!
Oh, really!
They say I should pray
so you’ll not act illy.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

While some aspiring intellectuals might turn up their noses at this poem of mine, sniffing and calling it "doggerel," I think it makes a point similar to Tom Merrill's, in a humorous way. If God is all-loving, all-wise and all-just, why do people have to pray so diligently to him not to act unlovingly, unwisely and unjustly?



VIII from "Sunday Morning"
by Wallace Stevens

She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay."
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old despondency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

"Sunday Morning" is one of the greatest poems in the English canon. The final stanza of "Sunday Morning" contrasts human faith and its revelations to nature and its ambiguities. As the pigeons sink downward to darkness, what can we make of the "ambiguous undulations" of their wings?



Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

This is a wonderfully simple poem, but hardly simplistic. Most poets raptly praise God and Nature, but Robert Frost seems too honest and wise for such shenanigans.



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?

I believe Robert Hayden became an immortal poet with this poem. I wonder how many children will read it and suddenly realize how much of their lives their parents sacrificed to their upbringing.



Juan's Song
by Louise Bogan

When beauty breaks and falls asunder
I feel no grief for it, but wonder.
When love, like a frail shell, lies broken,
I keep no chip of it for token.
I never had a man for friend
Who did not know that love must end.
I never had a girl for lover
Who could discern when love was over.
What the wise doubt, the fool believes
Who is it, then, that love deceives?

This is a wonderfully honest and ironical poem about love, from a woman's perspective. I believe Bogan may give men too much credit (most men are just as susceptible to the myths of love as most women are), but perhaps it avails nothing for anyone to be "wise" in matters of love.



Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, 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.

This may be the first truly great modern poem, along with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot. Matthew Arnold stopped writing poetry when he could no longer "create joy," but this magnificent poem will undoubtedly remain a joy forever.



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.

I believe this poem is a wonderful validation of the art and craft of the Romantic Poet, who writes for the sake of love, even if lovers misapprehend or ignore him.



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 is a wonderful bit of commentary on the utter strangeness of human societies and their castes. How many of us long for companionship, but are reluctant to seek it below our station? Is it worse to be alone, or to associate with our "inferiors"?



I ― Easter Hymn
by A. E. Housman

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

Housman is among the most direct and plainspoken of poets, and therefore among the very strongest. He is also one of our best critics of human societies and religion, along with Blake, Wilde, Whitman and a few others. Housman didn't create art for art's sake, but art for humanity's sake.



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.

If I remember things correctly, this poem was written at the close of the nineteenth century, perhaps to usher in the twentieth. If so, at least it closes on a somewhat hopeful note. Perhaps there is a Hope of which humanity is unaware, and which Religion (hopefully) misapprehends.



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.

Many of the best poems are stories. This poem tells a compelling story in a meter that seems both natural and effortless. Later poets like Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane would also manage to write poems that remained metrical without descending into "sing-songy-ness."



When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

This is a near-perfect loose translation of a poem by the French poet Ronsard. Yeats no doubt wrote it with the love of his life, Maude Gonne, in mind.



An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

by William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Yeats wrote this poem for Robert Gregory, the son of his patron, Lady Gregory. To understand the pilot's dilemma, we have to understand that many Irishmen had no more love for their English conquerors than for their would-be German conquerors.



the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
by e. e. cummings

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings
daughters, unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

This poem by e. e. cummings makes a number of interesting points about the role of religion in American society. Does Christianity result in "comfortable minds" able to simultaneously undertake small acts of charity, coyly bandy gossip, and ignore the reality of a universe which is obviously not controlled by a loving, compassionate, benevolent "God"?



The Convergence Of The Twain
by Thomas Hardy

Lines on the loss of the "Titanic"


           In a solitude of the sea
           Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
           Steel chambers, late the pyres
           Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
           Over the mirrors meant
           To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls—grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
           Jewels in joy designed
           To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
           Dim moon-eyed fishes near
           Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?"...
           Well: while was fashioning
           This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
           Prepared a sinister mate
           For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
           And as the smart ship grew
           In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
           Alien they seemed to be;
           No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
           Or sign that they were bent
           By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
            Till the Spinner of the Years
           Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

This is a near-perfect poem by one of the first modern masters. Hardy didn't seem to believe in a benevolent God, but in some sort of inexorable process of Fate.



Love Is Not All
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote some damn strong poems, and should also be recognized as one of the first female poets to write honestly (and perhaps sometimes brag) about the power of her sexuality over men.



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.

This poem demonstrates how a poet can be made immortal by a single stellar poem. Chidiock Tichborne was held prisoner in the Tower of London, then executed before his thirtieth birthday for allegedly plotting to murder Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.



Mouse's Nest
by John Clare

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away;
And when I looked I fancied something stirred,
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats;
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me,
I ran and wondered what the thing could be,
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood;
Then the mouse hurried from the craking brood.
The young ones squeaked, and as I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o'er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

John Clare does a good job of conveying the horror and humor of a chance encounter between a human being and a mother mouse with a bevy of baby mice hanging from her teats.



Cold-Blooded Creatures
by Elinor Morton Wylie

Man, the egregious egoist
(In mystery the twig is bent)
Imagines, by some mental twist,
That he alone is sentient

Of the intolerable load
That on all living creatures lies,
Nor stoops to pity in the toad
The speechless sorrow of his eyes.

He asks no questions of the snake,
Nor plumbs the phosphorescent gloom
Where lidless fishes, broad awake,
Swim staring at a nightmare doom.

This is another scary poem by the wily Wylie. If the bent twig refers to the garden of Eden myth, as I suspect, Wylie may be making the point that since cold-blooded creatures understand evil (death), man was taken to the cleaners by his "god" or his religion, or both, since he got nothing of value from the "forbidden fruit."  



On My First Son
by Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry,
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much."

This is a strong poem by a strong poet. While there are more flowery elegies, there may never have been a more honest one.



Anthem For Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen is one of my favorite poets; no one has ever exceeded or even rivaled him as an anti-war poet. If the human race ever has the good sense to abandon war, Owen will have been one of the first causes.



The Bustle In A House
by Emily Dickinson

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth.

The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

While critics like Harold Bloom seem to love Emily Dickinson for her difficulty, I love this poem because it is so accessible and moving. When I'm upset, I sometimes find myself suddenly tidying up things.



At Melville's Tomb
by Hart Crane

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death's bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Crane might have prophetically written "This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps" about himself, since he committed suicide by leaping from the deck of an ocean liner into the Atlantic Ocean.



Cirque d'Hiver

by Elizabeth Bishop

Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,
fit for a king of several centuries back.
A little circus horse with real white hair.
His eyes are glossy black.
He bears a little dancer on his back.

She stands upon her toes and turns and turns.
A slanting spray of artificial roses
is stitched across her skirt and tinsel bodice.
Above her head she poses
another spray of artificial roses.

His mane and tail are straight from Chirico.
He has a formal, melancholy soul.
He feels her pink toes dangle toward his back
along the little pole
that pierces both her body and her soul

and goes through his, and reappears below,
under his belly, as a big tin key.
He canters three steps, then he makes a bow,
canters again, bows on one knee,
canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me.

The dancer, by this time, has turned her back.
He is the more intelligent by far.
Facing each other rather desperately—
his eye is like a star—
we stare and say, "Well, we have come this far."

This is another of Elizabeth Bishop's finely crafted poems, in which every image and word seem perfectly aligned.



Time in Eternity
by  T. Merrill

When you were as an angel in my arms,
Had laid your bare head just below my chin,
Your length pressed up to mine, entrusting charms
My whole youth's starward longing could not win;
With still the murmur of your love in me,
Miracle-tones of all my lifelong hope,
I wished that there might start eternity
And seal forever that sweet envelope;
And as it did, my thoughts are now for you
As every star is blotted by the sun,
And so the sun itself
Has perished too,
And with it, every dream of mine
But one.

This is a wonderfully tender poem about love and loss.



Resume
by Dorothy Parker

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

It seems that for all man's inventiveness, particularly in matters of mayhem, he still hasn't figured out a really good way to end his own existence.



Requiem

by Robert L. Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

Robert L. Stevenson is better known as a novelist today, but he wrote one of the better epitaphs in the English language. It reminds me a bit of the epitaph William Butler Yeats wrote for himself.



So We'll Go No More A-Roving

by George Gordon, Lord Byron

So we'll go no more a-roving
    So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
    And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
    And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
    And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
    And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
    By the light of the moon.

Lord Byron is best known today for his madcap mock epic, "Don Juan," and his famous love poem "She Walks in Beauty Like the Night," but this poem will do nicely for my purposes here. Like a number of the other Romantics, Byron died prematurely, perhaps before reaching the height of his powers.



The Sick Rose
by William Blake

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This is an interesting if somewhat cryptic poem by one of the more mystical poets to have written in English. The rose is a symbol of love, so perhaps the "invisible worm" is the Invisible Friend of the black-robed priests that Blake so despised.



Methought I Saw
by John Milton

Methought I saw my late espousèd saint
     Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
     Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
     Rescued from Death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washed from spot of childbed taint
     Purification in the Old Law did save,
     And such, as yet once more I trust to have
     Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
     Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight
     Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
     But O, as to embrace me she inclined,
     I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

John Milton went blind and dictated his later work to his daughters. When he says that "day brought back my night," he is referring to his blindness.



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.

While I am not a great fan of Shakespeare's sonnets, preferring his songs and plays, I like the way he builds dramatic tension in this poem, to a fever pitch.



When I have fears that I may cease to be
by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Like several other of the great Romantics, John Keats died at a young age. He left behind a number of immortal poems, including this one.



Athenian Epitaphs

Now that I am dead sea-enclosed Cyzicus shrouds my bones.
Faretheewell, O my adoptive land that nurtured me, that held me;
I take rest at your breast.
Michael R. Burch, after Erycius

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
Michael R. Burch, after Plato

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gulls in their high, lonely circuits may tell.
Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Passerby,
tell the Spartans we lie
here, dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

The epitaphs the ancient Greeks left engraved on their tombstones are the literary ancestors of our modern epigrams. The four epitaphs above are from a collection of loose translations of mine called Athenian Epitaphs.



After the Persian
by Louise Bogan

I.

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.

This has been one of my favorite poems since the day I first read it. It appears in a collection of poems by Louise Bogan entitled Blue Estuaries.



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.

This is a poem about a man's return to the darkness of his childhood religion, Christianity. The guide who "only has at heart your getting lost" is the endlessly strange "savior" of the gospels, who was able to save the thief on the cross with a nod of his head, but for some incomprehensible reason declined to nod his head at everyone. Frost's "there's a story in a book about it" obviously refers to the Bible. When Frost says "You must not mind a certain coolness from him / Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain," he seems to be speaking of Jesus Christ, who of course never speaks personally to the children who pray to him. Frost's "put a sign up CLOSED to all but me" seems to refer to the idea that only the "chosen few" will be saved. His "Weep for what little things could make them glad" is one of the most poignant lines in English poetry. The "broken drinking goblet like the Grail" may refer to the gospel, which is hidden from the "wrong ones" so they "can't find it," according to Saint Mark. Frost's conclusion seems to be that one can only find himself by losing this terrible gospel, and so become "whole again beyond confusion." I wish Christian parents and pastors would read this poem and try to understand what the "good news" that Jesus saves only the "chosen few" really means for innocent children who grow up under the thumb of this dark, terrifying, unjust religion.



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.

The horror of Richard Wilbur's poem about a humble toad is that we see and recognize ourselves in every line.



Wulf and Eadwacer  (Anonymous Ballad, circa 960 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The outlanders pursue him as if he were 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 it also was painful.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, it is not the lack of food
but my hunger for you, that makes me ill.
Your infrequent visits have left me famished, unable to eat.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was enjoined:
our song together.

"Wulf and Eadwacer" is perhaps the first great English poem by a female poet, although it was written in a language closer to German than modern English. I was never completely happy with the "updated" versions of the poem I was able to find, so I decided to translate it myself, borrowing heavily from the work of previous translators. The closing metaphor of a loveless sexual relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized is stunning: one of the first great metaphors in the English poetic tradition. "Wulf and Eadwacer" appeared in the Exeter Book, which has been dated at around 960 AD, but the poem itself may be much older. Is it possible that the first truly great English poem was written by a woman?



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.

William Blake managed to write a poem that is somewhat hopeful, and yet still darker and scarier than hell. The fact that innocents sometimes suffer and die makes the last line only half true, at best.



For Her Surgery
by Jack Butler

I
Over the city the moon rides in mist,
scrim scarred with faint rainbow.
Two days till Easter. The thin clouds run slow, slow,
the wind bells bleed the quietest
of possible musics to the dark lawn.
All possibility we will have children is gone.

II
I raise a glass half water, half alcohol,
to that light come full again.
Inside, you sleep, somewhere below the pain.
Down at the river, there is a tall
ghost tossing flowers to dark water—
jessamine, rose, and daisy, salvia lyrata . . .

III
Oh goodbye, goodbye to bloom in the white blaze
of moon on the river, goodbye
to creek joining the creek joining the river, the axil, the Y,
goodbye to the Yes of two Ifs in one phrase . . .
Children bear children. We are grown,
and time has thrown us free under the timeless moon.

This has long been one of my favorite poems by a contemporary poet. It's a wonderful poem about loss and the acceptance of loss, simply because there seems to be no alternative. 



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 succinctly explains man's existential dilemma: time will not relent.

Related pages: The Best Vampire Poetry, The Best Dark Poetry, The Best Dark Christmas Poems, The Best Halloween Poetry, The Best Supernatural Poetry, The Best Elegies, Dirges & Laments

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