To improve my own poems, I read the masters. Here are selections from those poems which I find most inspiring and noteworthy.
- Poems are arranged by poet. Poets will be arranged alphabetically by last name, but alphabetization is work-in-progress as of 2020-01-26. Alphabetization excludes titles and other post-nominals. Poets are listed under their full birth names, unless, like Lord Byron, they are better known by another moniker.
- Unless otherwise noted, I provide excerpts, not full poems.
- All entries here are favorites, but strong markup indicates one which made a particularly powerful impression.
- Citations are from Great Poems of the English Language (GPEL), edited by Wallace Alvin Briggs. In checking texts against Poetry Foundation or Bartleby versions, I frequently find differences in spelling and lineation. I’m not questing for the one true version of anything, but you have been warned.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Give Place, Ye Lovers. GPEL pg 20.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(1828-1882). Wikipedia.Sonnet X: The Portrait.
That he who seeks her beauty's furthest goal, Beyond the light that the sweet glances throw And refluent wave of the sweet smile, may know The very sky and sea-line of her soul.
Sir Philip Sydney
(1554-1586). Wikipedia.Doubt You to Whom My Muse. GPEL pg 43. Originally from Astrophel and Stella. This is beautiful; I’d love to hear it set to music.
Doubt you to whom my Muse these notes intendeth, Which now my breast, o'ercharged, to music lendeth? To you! to you! all song of praise is due; Only in you my song begins and endeth.
(1564–1616).The Tempest (4.1). GPEL pg 63.
The Tempest (5.1). GPEL pg 63.Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air; And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
Measure for Measure (2.2). GPEL pg 64.Where the bee sucks, there suck I In a cowslip's bell I lie
Measure for Measure (3.1). GPEL pg 64.But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd, His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make the angels weep.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.1). GPEL pg 67.Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible! The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise To what we fear of death.
Henry V (4.3). GPEL pg 79.Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say 'Behold!' The jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion.
Sonnet 76. GPEL pg 108.By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires: But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.
Why is my verse so barren of new pride? So far from variation or quick change? Why with the time do I not glance aside To new-found methods and to compounds strange? Why write I still all one, ever the same, And keep invention in a noted weed, That every word doth almost tell my name, Showing their birth and where they did proceed? O, know, sweet love, I always write of you, And you and love are still my argument; So all my best is dressing old words new, Spending again what is already spent: For as the sun is daily new and old, So is my love still telling what is told.
(c. 1540-c. 1597). Wikipedia.The Lover to His Lady. GPEL pg 21. In full.
My Girl, thou gazest much Upon the golden skies: Would I were Heaven, I would behold Thee then with all mine eyes.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
Blame Not My Lute. GPEL pg 24.
This cat-centric section from Jubilate Agno.
(1572-1637).On the Portrait of Shakespeare. GPEL pg 127. In full.
A Celebration of Charis, Part 4: The Triumph. GPEL pg 127. [The version at Poetry Foundation differs slightly from the one given in GPEL; I’m quoting the latter.]This figure that thou here seest put, It was for gentle Shakespeare cut, Wherein the graver had a strife With Nature, to outdo the life. Oh, could he but have drawn his wit As well in brass, as he has hit His face, the print would then surpass All that was ever writ in brass. But since he cannot, reader, look Not on his picture, but his book.
Song–To Celia. GPEL pg 130. In full.Have you seen but a bright lily grow Before rude hands have touched it? Have you mark'd but the fall of snow Before the soil hath smutch'd it? Have you felt the wool of beaver, Or swan's down ever? Or have smelt of the bud of the brier, Or the nard in the fire? Or have tasted the bag of the bee? O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she!
Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine; Or leave a kiss but in the cup, And I'll not look for wine. The thirst that from the soul doth rise, Doth ask a drink divine; But might I of Jove's nectar sup, I would not change for thine. I sent thee late a rosy wreath, Not so much honouring thee, As giving it a hope, that there It could not withered be; But thou thereon didst only breathe, And sent'st it back to me; Since when it grows and smells, I swear, Not of itself, but thee.
William ShenstoneWritten at an Inn in Henley. GPEL pg 283.
Whoe'er has travelled life's dull round, Where'er his stages may have been, May sigh to think he still has found The warmest welcome, at an inn.
Karle Wilson BakerDays. GPEL pg 1264. In full.
Some days my thoughts are just cocoons—all cold, and dull, and blind, They hang from dripping branches in the gray woods of my mind; And other days they drift and shine—such free and flying things! I find the gold-dust in my hair, left by their brushing wings.
William BlakeTo the Muses. GPEL pg 332. Stanza 4.
How have you left the ancient love That bards of old enjoyed in you! The languid strings do scarcely move, The sound is forced, the notes are few!
G. K. ChestertonA Ballade of Suicide. Cited from The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
The gallows in my garden, people say, Is new and neat and adequately tall; I tie the noose on in a knowing way As one that knots his necktie for a ball; But just as all the neighbours–on the wall– Are drawing a long breath to shout “Hurray!” The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all I think I will not hang myself to-day. To-morrow is the time I get my pay– My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall– I see a little cloud all pink and grey– Perhaps the rector’s mother will not call– I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall That mushrooms could be cooked another way– I never read the works of Juvenal– I think I will not hang myself to-day. The world will have another washing-day; The decadents decay; the pedants pall; And H.G. Wells has found that children play, And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall, Rationalists are growing rational– And through thick woods one finds a stream astray So secret that the very sky seems small– I think I will not hang myself to-day. Envoi Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal, The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way; Even to-day your royal head may fall, I think I will not hang myself to-day.
Putting In The Seed. I know it from Mountain Interval.
Charles LambHester. GPEL pg 486.
My sprightly neighbour, gone before To that unknown and silent shore, Shall we not meet, as heretofore, Some summer morning. When from thy cheerful eyes a ray Hath struck a bliss upon the day, A bliss that would not go away, A sweet forewarning?
Joseph Blanco WhiteTo Night. GPEL pg 487. In full.
Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew Thee from report divine, and heard thy name, Did he not tremble for this lovely frame, This glorious canopy of light and blue? Yet 'neath the curtain of translucent dew, Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame, Hesperus with the host of heaven came, And lo! creation widened on man's view. Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find, While fly, and leaf, and insect stood revealed, That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind! Why do we, then, shun Death with anxious strife?— If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?
As Slow Our Ship. GPEL pg 494.
Thomas Love PeacockThe War Song of Dinas Vawr. GPEL pg 498. Stanzas 1, 3.
The mountain sheep are sweeter, The valley sheep are fatter; We therefore deemed it meeter To carry off the latter. We made an expedition; We met a host and quelled it; We forced a strong position, And killed the men who held it. [...] He fled to his hall-pillars; And, ere our force we led off, Some sacked his house and cellars, While others cut his head off.
She Walks in Beauty. GPEL pg 501.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
One Hour With Thee. GPEL pg 443. Originally from Woodstock.
William WordsworthComposed Upon Westminster Bridge (September 3, 1802). GPEL pg 386. In full.
Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. GPEL pg 371. In full. This is the unedited, original 1789 text, as presented by Prospero’s Isle1; I’ve copied it out here in full as a precaution against that website being unavailable2.Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth, like a garment, wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, Which on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect The landscape with the quiet of the sky. The day is come when I again repose Here, under this dark sycamore, and view These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts, Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits, Among the woods and copses lose themselves, Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb The wild green landscape. Once again I see These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke Sent up, in silence, from among the trees, With some uncertain notice, as might seem, Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire The hermit sits alone. Though absent long, These forms of beauty have not been to me, As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart, And passing even into my purer mind With tranquil restoration:—feelings too Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps, As may have had no trivial influence On that best portion of a good man’s life; His little, nameless, unremembered acts Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust, To them I may have owed another gift, Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world Is lighten’d:—that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on, Until, the breath of this corporeal frame, And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things. If this Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft, In darkness, and amid the many shapes Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, Have hung upon the beatings of my heart, How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods, How often has my spirit turned to thee! And now, with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought, With many recognitions dim and faint, And somewhat of a sad perplexity, The picture of the mind revives again: While here I stand, not only with the sense Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts That in this moment there is life and food For future years. And so I dare to hope Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first I came among these hills; when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, Wherever nature led; more like a man Flying from something that he dreads, than one Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then (The coarser pleasures of my boyish days, And their glad animal movements all gone by,) To me was all in all.—I cannot paint What then I was. The sounding cataract Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock, The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, Their colours and their forms, were then to me An appetite: a feeling and a love, That had no need of a remoter charm, By thought supplied, or any interest Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past, And all its aching joys are now no more, And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur: other gifts Have followed, for such loss, I would believe, Abundant recompence. For I have learned To look on nature, not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity, Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods, And mountains; and of all that we behold From this green earth; of all the mighty world Of eye and ear, both what they half-create, And what perceive; well pleased to recognize In nature and the language of the sense, The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of all my moral being. Nor, perchance, If I were not thus taught, should I the more Suffer my genial spirits to decay: For thou art with me, here, upon the banks Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend, My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch The language of my former heart, and read My former pleasures in the shooting lights Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while May I behold in thee what I was once, My dear, dear Sister! And this prayer I make, Knowing that Nature never did betray The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege, Through all the years of this our life, to lead From joy to joy: for she can so inform The mind that is within us, so impress With quietness and beauty, and so feed With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men, Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all The dreary intercourse of daily life, Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb Our chearful faith that all which we behold Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon Shine on thee in thy solitary walk; And let the misty mountain winds be free To blow against thee: and in after years, When these wild ecstasies shall be matured Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, Thy memory be as a dwelling-place For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then, If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief, Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts Of tender joy wilt thou remember me, And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance, If I should be, where I no more can hear Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams Of past existence, wilt thou then forget That on the banks of this delightful stream We stood together; and that I, so long A worshipper of Nature, hither came, Unwearied in that service: rather say With warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget, That after many wanderings, many years Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs, And this green pastoral landscape, were to me More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake.
Resolution and Independence. William Wordsworth. GPEL pg 382.
Samuel RogersA Wish. GPEL pg 360.
Oft shall the pilgrim lift the latch, And share my meal, a welcome guest.
A Toccata of Galuppi’s. GPEL pg 844.
A Grammarian’s Funeral. GPEL pg 853. Excellent polysyllabic rhyming.
Walter Savage Landor
(1775–1864).Death. GPEL pg 478. In full.
Twenty Years Hence. GPEL pg 479.Death stands above me, whispering low I know not what into my ear; Of his strange language, all I know Is, there is not a word of fear.
Resignation. GPEL pg 481.Twenty years hence my eyes may grow, If not quite dim, yet rather so, Yet yours from others they shall know Twenty years hence.
Separation. GPEL pg 481. In full.I see the rainbow in the sky, The dew upon the grass, I see them, and I ask not why They glimmer or they pass.
Plays. GPEL pg 482. In full.There is a mountain and a wood between us, Where the lone shepherd and late bird have seen us Morning and noon and eventide repass. Between us now the mountain and the wood Seem standing darker than last year they stood, And say we must not cross—alas! alas!
How soon, alas, the hours are over, Counted us out to play the lover! And how much narrower is the stage, Allotted us to play the sage! But when we play the fool, how wide The theatre expands; beside, How long the audience sits before us! How many prompters! what a chorus!
(1822-1888).Epilogue To Lessing’s Laocooen.
The World’s Triumphs. GPEL pg 909. In full."Behold at last the poet's sphere. But who," I said, "suffices here? "For, ah! so much has he to do; Be painter and musician too! The aspect of the moment show, The feeling of the moment know! The aspect not, I grant, express Clear as the painter's art can dress; The feeling not, I grant, explore So deep as the musician's lore— But clear as words can make revealing, And deep as words can follow feeling. But, ah! then comes his sorest spell Of toil—he must life's movement tell! The thread which binds it all in one And not its separate parts alone. The movement he must tell of life Its pain and pleasure, rest and strife; His eye must travel down, at full, The long, unpausing spectacle;"
So far as I conceive the world's rebuke To him address'd who would recast her new, Not from herself her fame of strength she took, But from their weakness who would work her rue. "Behold," she cries, "so many rages lull'd, So many fiery spirits quite cool'd down; Look how so many valours, long undull'd, After short commerce with me, fear my frown! Thou too, when thou against my crimes wouldst cry, Let thy foreboded homage check thy tongue!"— The world speaks well; yet might her foe reply: "Are wills so weak?—then let not mine wait long! Hast thou so rare a poison?—let me be Keener to slay thee, lest thou poison me!"
Percy Bysshe ShelleyStanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples. GPEL pg 558. Stanzas 2 and 3.
I saw the Deep's untrampled floor With green and purple seaweeds strown; I see the waves upon the shore, Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown; I sit upon the sands alone,— The lightning of the noontide ocean Is flashing around me, and a tone Arises from its measured motion, How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion. Alas! I have nor hope nor health, Nor peace within nor calm around, Nor that content surpassing wealth The sage in meditation found And walked with inward glory crowned— Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure. Others I see whom these surround— Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;— To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.
Felicia Dorothea Hemans
The Graves of a Household. GPEL pg 592.
William Cullen BryantTo a Waterfowl. GPEL pg 597. Stanza 2.
Vainly the fowler's eye Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong As, darkly painted on the crimson sky, Thy figure floats along.
This is from Michael Kandel’s English translation of Lem’s masterful Cyberiad.
Klapaucius thought, and thought some more. Finally he nodded and said:
“Very well. Let’s have a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit.”“Love and tensor algebra? Have you taken leave of your senses?” Trurl began, but stopped, for his electronic bard was already declaiming:Come, let us hasten to a higher plane, Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn, Their indices bedecked from one to n, Commingled in an endless Markov chain! Come, every frustum longs to be a cone, And every vector dreams of matrices. Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze: It whispers of a more ergodic zone. In Riemann, Hilbert, or in Banach space Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways. Our asymptotes no longer out of phase, We shall encounter, counting, face to face. I'll grant thee random access to my heart, Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love; And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove, And in our bound partition never part. For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel, Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler, Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers, Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell? Cancel me not — for what then shall remain? Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes, A root or two, a torus and a node: The inverse of my verse, a null domain. Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine! The product of our scalars is defined! Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind Cuts capers like a happy haversine. I see the eigenvalue in thine eye, I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh. Bernoulli would have been content to die, Had he but known such a^2 cos 2phi
The Eve of St. Agnes. GPEL pg 607.Ode on a Grecian Urn. GPEL pg 619. Stanza 4.
Sonnet. GPEL pg 625. In full.Who are these coming to the sacrifice To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? What little town by river or by sea-shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain, Before high-piled books, in charactery, 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.
Thomas HoodThe Song of the Shirt. GPEL pg 631. Stanzas 4 and 6.
"O men with sisters dear! O men with mothers and wives! It is not linen you're wearing out, But human creatures' lives! Stitch—stitch—stitch, In poverty, hunger, and dirt,— Sewing at once with a double thread, A shroud as well as a shirt! [...] "Work—work—work! My labour never flags; And what are its wages? A bed of straw, A crust of bread—and rags. That shattered roof—and this naked floor— A table—a broken chair— And a wall so blank my shadow I thank For sometimes falling there!
Edward Coate PinkneyA Health. GPEL pg 645. Stanza 2. I especially like the last two lines of this stanza.
Her every tone is music's own, Like those of morning birds, And something more than melody Dwells ever in her words; The coinage of her heart are they, And from her lips each flows As one may see the burdened bee Forth issue from the rose.
Ralph Waldo EmersonFriendship. GPEL pg 681. In full.
A ruddy drop of manly blood The surging sea outweighs, The world uncertain comes and goes; The lover rooted stays. I fancied he was fled,— And, after many a year, Glowed unexhausted kindliness, Like daily sunrise there. My careful heart was free again, O friend, my bosom said, Through thee alone the sky is arched, Through thee the rose is red; All things through thee take nobler form, And look beyond the earth, The mill-round of our fate appears A sun-path in thy worth. Me too thy nobleness has thought To master my despair; The fountains of my hidden life Are through my friendship fair.
Charles Fenno Hoffman
Monterey. GPEL pg 694.
Henry Wadsworth LongfellowMaidenhood. GPEL pg 696.
Childhood is the bough, where slumbered Birds and blossoms many-numbered;— Age, that bough with snow encumbered.
Belfry of Bruges. GPEL pg 699.
Arthur Hugh Clough
Say Not, the Struggle Not Availeth. GPEL pg 874.
Where Lies the Land. GPEL pg 876.
(c. 1320-1395). Wikipedia.Freedom. GPEL pg 13.
A! Fredome is a noble thing! Fredome mayse man to half liking; Fredome all solace to man giffis, He livis at ese that frely livis! A noble hart may haif nane ese, Na ellys nocht that may him plese, Gif fredome fail'th; for fre liking Is yharnit ouer all othir thing.