A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines with strict patterns of rhythm and rhyme that give it both formality and musicality.
I have read and studied many sonnets, and have written two that I love and one very poor one that shall never see the light of day, let alone be published. Let’s call that third one an important exercise in keeping the poet humble!
This sonnet by Charles Best, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is beautifully evocative, bringing to mind images of moonlight on the water and the movement of the tides before transforming, as sonnets often do, into a declaration of love and devotion.
Sonnet of the Moon
Look how the pale queen of the silent night Doth cause the ocean to attend upon her, And he, as long as she is in his sight, With her full tide is ready her to honor. But when the silver waggon of the moon Is mounted up so high he cannot follow, The sea calls home his crystal waves to moan, And with low ebb doth manifest his sorrow. So you that are the sovereign of my heart Have all my joys attending on your will; My joys low-ebbing when you do depart, When you return their tide my heart doth fill. So as you come and as you do depart, Joys ebb and flow within my tender heart.
I learned this poem when I was in 5th grade. My teacher loved poetry sand set us all a poem to memorise and recite. ‘Going to School’ was mine.
Published in ‘A Book for Kids’ in 1938 with a collection of similarly excellent poems, this is a fun poem with a very musical rhythm and rhyme pattern that are instantly engaging. It conjures images of a time when kids in Australian country schools might ride a horse to school if they loved too far away to walk and didn’t own a bicycle or three.
Dennis was a man of many talents: in addition to working as a journalist and poet, he also illustrated his own books with delightful pictures that were almost as much fun as the poetry.
Going to School
Did you see them pass to-day, Billy, Kate and Robin,
All astride upon the back of old grey Dobbin?
Jigging, jogging off to school, down the dusty track-
What must Dobbin think of it – three upon his back?
Robin at the bridle-rein, in the middle Kate,
Billy holding on behind, his legs out straight.
Now they’re coming back from school, jig, jog, jig.
See them at the corner where the gums grow big;
Dobbin flicking off the flies and blinking at the sun-
Having three upon his back he thinks is splendid fun:
Robin at the bridle-rein, in the middle Kate,
Little Billy up behind, his legs out straight.
Dennis’ images for ‘Going to School’ from ‘A Book for Kids’ Public Domain via Project Gutenberg
If you’d like a copy of A Book for Kids, Project Gutenberg has it available in a variety of formats, including for Kindle and other eReaders, free of charge. This is a legal download as the copyright on both the work and the illustrations included has expired.
Last year during Poetry Month, I shared Paterson’s magnificent poem ‘The Man From Snowy River’. This year, I thought it would be good to share a city-dweller’s perspective of the Australian stockman’s life in the 19th century through another of Paterson’s much-loved works.
Clancy Of The Overflow
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just “on spec”, addressed as follows: “Clancy, of The Overflow”.
And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
‘Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”
In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.
And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.
And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.
And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.
And I somehow fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal —
But I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of “The Overflow”.
An elegy is a formal poem that usually delivers a lament for someone who has died, but there is also an element of praise or reflection that makes it positive, even while it’s sad. It’s different to a eulogy – a speech given about someone’s life, usually at their funeral, and also to a dirge, which is entirely mournful.
In this poem, Thomas Gray paints a picture of a mourner, alone in a church yard as evening falls. Left to his contemplation, he reflects on those buried nearby and what their lives may have been. Because this poem is about people who were unknown to him, and not specific to one particular person, Gray’s poem is actually more of an ode than an elegy, but given that he was the poet, he was free to call it whatever he wished.
The imagery of the evening scene before him is breathtaking. The reader can almost feel the weariness in the way the first stanza forces them to slow down and contemplate, alongside the poet, by the use of assonance on long vowel sounds in words like ‘curfew’, ‘lowing’, ‘plowman’, ‘home’, ‘leaves and ‘world’, and alliteration on the ‘m’ and ‘l’ sounds that do, indeed, evoke the plodding of the plowman. Gray continues using these devices throughout the poem, maintaining careful control of the pace and rhythm and ensuring that the reader’s reflections will not be rushed.
The poem leaves the reader with the understanding that death really is the great equaliser – it doesn’t matter whether one is nobly or humbly born, famous or not: eventually we’ll all end up the same way.
Like Donne’s ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, this is another classic poem from which another author took a line as the title for a novel. Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy was published in 1874, 23 years after the poem was published by Gray in 1751.
Although it is likely Gray had written at least part of this poem before taking up residence there, the churchyard referred to in the title is that of St Giles Church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, England. In 1788, thirty-seven years after self-publishing this poem, Thomas Gray was himself buried in the very same churchyard.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, The plowman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight, And all the air a solemn stillness holds, Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r The moping owl does to the moon complain Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r, Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade, Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap, Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn, The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed, The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn, No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn, Or busy housewife ply her evening care: No children run to lisp their sire’s return, Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield, Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke; How jocund did they drive their team afield! How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys, and destiny obscure; Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault, If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise, Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Can storied urn or animated bust Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust, Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire; Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d, Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll; Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage, And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast The little tyrant of his fields withstood; Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command, The threats of pain and ruin to despise, To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land, And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,
Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d; Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne, And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,
The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame, Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray; Along the cool sequester’d vale of life They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect, Some frail memorial still erected nigh, With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d, Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse, The place of fame and elegy supply: And many a holy text around she strews, That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey, This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d, Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day, Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies, Some pious drops the closing eye requires; Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead Dost in these lines their artless tale relate; If chance, by lonely contemplation led, Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say, “Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn Brushing with hasty steps the dews away To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.
“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high, His listless length at noontide would he stretch, And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn, Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove, Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.
“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill, Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree; Another came; nor yet beside the rill, Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
“The next with dirges due in sad array Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne. Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay, Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”
THE EPITAPH Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown. Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth, And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, Heav’n did a recompense as largely send: He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear, He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose, Or draw his frailties from their dread abode, (There they alike in trembling hope repose) The bosom of his Father and his God.
This poem is perfect for sharing just a few days before Easter, being the time of the year when it is set.
A.E Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ is a relatively small volume of poetry that he self-published in 1896, containing some really lovely poetry and delightful imagery such as that we see in this poem, the second in that collection.
While the poet is young – twenty years old – and acknowledges that he probably still has fifty years ahead of him, his life expectancy is framed in terms of only fifty more opportunities in his life to see such a beautiful tree. That’s why he’s going to take every opportunity to observe the beauty around him while he can.
This brings to mind the Latin phrase made popular by the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’: carpe diem! Sieze the day!
The poem is a great reminder to embrace the joys we find in life while we can, and to make the most of our opportunities to stop and smell the… blossoms.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough, And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten, Twenty will not come again, And take from seventy springs a score, It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the cherry hung with snow.
That certainly lays to rest the popular misconception that Indie poets are somehow lesser than others, doesn’t it?
While it is common knowledge that the enormously popular musical CATS was based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, it’s less common for people to actually go and read the poetry.
Should they do so, however, they’ll find some lovely poems that reflect the poet’s observations of life as well as the delightful poems about cats that Eliot wrote for children.
This poem was the inspiration for the song ‘Memory‘, the most popular song from the musical, which has been a commercial hit for a number of singers.
The poem has a musical quality of its own, evoking images of city streets in the dead of night and the things that occur while the world is asleep. The imagery is somewhat disjointed, with childhood images interspersed in the street scenery- much like a dream sequence that doesn’t always make sense, or perhaps that phase of tiredness when one drifts off into thoughts and memories and then recovers with a start to observe what is around them with keen perception that belies their prior haze. At the end of the poem, the observer returns home and is urged to sleep: the reminder of the need to prepare for the day ahead is ‘the last twist of the knife’, a concept to which any insomniac will readily relate.
Unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song, this poem is more about realism than romance, demonstrating Eliot’s trademark style of poetry in which he tended to dismiss emotion and focus on impersonal observations and descriptions.
Rhapsody on a Windy Night
Twelve o’clock.Along the reaches of the street Held in a lunar synthesis,Whispering lunar incantations Dissolve the floors of memory And all its clear relations,Its divisions and precisions, Every street lamp that I pass Beats like a fatalistic drum, And through the spaces of the dark Midnight shakes the memory As a madman shakes a dead geranium.
Half-past one, The street lamp sputtered, The street lamp muttered, The street lamp said, “Regard that woman Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door Which opens on her like a grin.You see the border of her dress Is torn and stained with sand, And you see the corner of her eye Twists like a crooked pin.”
The memory throws up high and dry A crowd of twisted things; A twisted branch upon the beach Eaten smooth, and polished As if the world gave up The secret of its skeleton, Stiff and white. A broken spring in a factory yard, Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left Hard and curled and ready to snap.
Half-past two, The street lamp said, “Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter, Slips out its tongue And devours a morsel of rancid butter. “So the hand of a child, automatic, Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay. I could see nothing behind that child’s eye. I have seen eyes in the street Trying to peer through lighted shutters, And a crab one afternoon in a pool, An old crab with barnacles on his back, Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.
Half-past three, The lamp sputtered, The lamp muttered in the dark.
The lamp hummed: “Regard the moon, La lune ne garde aucune rancune, She winks a feeble eye, She smiles into corners. She smoothes the hair of the grass. The moon has lost her memory. A washed-out smallpox cracks her face, Her hand twists a paper rose, That smells of dust and old Cologne, She is alone With all the old nocturnal smells That cross and cross across her brain. “The reminiscence comes Of sunless dry geraniums And dust in crevices, Smells of chestnuts in the streets, And female smells in shuttered rooms, And cigarettes in corridors And cocktail smells in bars.
The lamp said, “Four o’clock, Here is the number on the door. Memory! You have the key, The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair, Mount. The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall, Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.”
When I was young, my parents had a set of World Book Encyclopaedia and a matching set of themed books, one of which was full of children’s literature. I spent many hours reading and re-reading the poems in one of those volumes, which is where I discovered the poetry of Eugene Field, Ogden Nash, Gelett Burgess and many other poets who became favourites.
‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ weaves together elements of fantasy, lullaby and Dutch heritage to create a delightful children’s poem. It is one that I remember fondly from my childhood, along with another of Field’s poems, ‘The Duel’ about a gingham dog and a calico cat.
Wynken, Blynken and Nod
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night Sailed off in a wooden shoe– Sailed on a river of crystal light, Into a sea of dew. “Where are you going, and what do you wish?” The old moon asked of the three. “We have come to fish for the herring fish That live in this beautiful sea; Nets of silver and gold have we!” Said Wynken, Blynken, And Nod.
The old moon laughed and sang a song, As they rocked in the wooden shoe, And the wind that sped them all night long Ruffled the waves of dew. The little stars were the herring fish That lived in that beautiful sea– “Now cast your nets wherever you wish– Never afeard are we!” So cried the stars to the fishermen three: Wynken, Blynken, And Nod.
All night long their nets they threw To the stars in the twinkling foam— Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe, Bringing the fishermen home; ‘T was all so pretty a sail it seemed As if it could not be, And some folks thought ‘t was a dream they ‘d dreamed Of sailing that beautiful sea– But I shall name you the fishermen three: Wynken, Blynken, And Nod.
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes, And Nod is a little head, And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies Is a wee one’s trundle-bed. So shut your eyes while mother sings Of wonderful sights that be, And you shall see the beautiful things As you rock in the misty sea, Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three: Wynken, Blynken, And Nod.
Shelley lived at a time when there was enormous interest in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East, following Napoleon’s victories in Egypt. Archaeological finds were being brought back to British and European museums, fuelling the creative imaginations of writers and stimulating a most fashionable interest in ancient history.
‘Ozymandias’ was inspired by a fallen statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, who is believed by many to be the arrogant pharaoh of Exodus in the Bible. It should be noted, though, that this is not the same statue that Shelley writes about.
There isn’t any archaeological evidence for the existence of the statue Shelley describes in this poem, which instead seems to be based on a statue and inscription described by the 1st century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus- but that isn’t the point: the poem is about the fact that the statue created in honour of one so powerful and wealthy ended up broken down and surrounded by nothing but endless desert.
Shelley’s message is clear: whatever we build for ourselves in this life does not last, and people may not actually remember us for the things we’d like them to remember.
This short poem presents some powerful contrasts: vanity and ruin, honour and despair, sculpture and degradation, commemoration and mockery.
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.”
If you’d like to know more about the relationship between Shelley’s poem and the history of Ozymandias, you can read this article by Stephen Hebron that provides a detailed explanation in plain English.
This is a poem that makes history really memorable. Longfellow tells the story of Paul Revere riding through Massachusetts late at night in 1775, warning of the impending arrival of the British military during the American War of Independence.
A story well known to Americans, Paul Revere’s ride became known to me- and probably many other Australians- through this poem long before I knew anything else about why it mattered that the British were coming.
It is an exciting poem that draws the reader in, even though they know how it ends. The pace and rhythm seem to echo the galloping of the horse’s hooves, evoking the urgency and importance of Revere’s late-night mission, and taking the audience along for the ride.
Paul Revere’s Ride
Listen my children and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; Hardly a man is now alive Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march By land or sea from the town to-night, Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch Of the North Church tower as a signal light, One if by land, and two if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be, Ready to ride and spread the alarm Through every Middlesex village and farm, For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore, Just as the moon rose over the bay, Where swinging wide at her moorings lay The Somerset, British man-of-war; A phantom ship, with each mast and spar Across the moon like a prison bar, And a huge black hulk, that was magnified By its own reflection in the tide.
Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street Wanders and watches, with eager ears, Till in the silence around him he hears The muster of men at the barrack door, The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet, And the measured tread of the grenadiers, Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church, By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread, To the belfry chamber overhead, And startled the pigeons from their perch On the sombre rafters, that round him made Masses and moving shapes of shade, By the trembling ladder, steep and tall, To the highest window in the wall, Where he paused to listen and look down A moment on the roofs of the town And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead, In their night encampment on the hill, Wrapped in silence so deep and still That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread, The watchful night-wind, as it went Creeping along from tent to tent, And seeming to whisper, “All is well!” A moment only he feels the spell Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread Of the lonely belfry and the dead; For suddenly all his thoughts are bent On a shadowy something far away, Where the river widens to meet the bay, A line of black that bends and floats On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride, Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere. Now he patted his horse’s side, Now he gazed at the landscape far and near, Then, impetuous, stamped the earth, And turned and tightened his saddle girth; But mostly he watched with eager search The belfry tower of the Old North Church, As it rose above the graves on the hill, Lonely and spectral and sombre and still. And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height A glimmer, and then a gleam of light! He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns, But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight A second lamp in the belfry burns.
A hurry of hoofs in a village street, A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark, And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet; That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light, The fate of a nation was riding that night; And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight, Kindled the land into flame with its heat. He has left the village and mounted the steep, And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep, Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides; And under the alders that skirt its edge, Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge, Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.
It was twelve by the village clock When he crossed the bridge into Medford town. He heard the crowing of the cock, And the barking of the farmer’s dog, And felt the damp of the river fog, That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by the village clock, When he galloped into Lexington. He saw the gilded weathercock Swim in the moonlight as he passed, And the meeting-house windows, black and bare, Gaze at him with a spectral glare, As if they already stood aghast At the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village clock, When he came to the bridge in Concord town. He heard the bleating of the flock, And the twitter of birds among the trees, And felt the breath of the morning breeze Blowing over the meadow brown. And one was safe and asleep in his bed Who at the bridge would be first to fall, Who that day would be lying dead, Pierced by a British musket ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have read How the British Regulars fired and fled, How the farmers gave them ball for ball, From behind each fence and farmyard wall, Chasing the redcoats down the lane, Then crossing the fields to emerge again Under the trees at the turn of the road, And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere; And so through the night went his cry of alarm To every Middlesex village and farm, A cry of defiance, and not of fear, A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, And a word that shall echo for evermore! For, borne on the night-wind of the Past, Through all our history, to the last, In the hour of darkness and peril and need, The people will waken and listen to hear The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed, And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
It is no secret that I love Tennyson’s poetry, and consider him one of my great literary inspirations.
It’s hard to pin down which of his poems is my favourite, because so many of them are brilliant. Several of my favourites, though, do belong to the poetry he wrote about the world of King Arthur and Camelot: The Lady of Shalott, The Idylls of the King, and Morte d’Arthur.
Morte d’Arthur is written in blank verse, which means it doesn’t rhyme, but it flows naturally because of its rhythm. Iambic pentameter means there are five sets of a ‘ba-boom’ rhythm in each line – think of a heart beat, or the way we say words like ‘beyond’ or ‘afar’. It gives poetry an easy lilt that lures the reader into the feeling of the poem and the words, which is why it has proven to be very popular among poets and readers alike.
This poem tells the story of the end of King Arthur’s life, and his conversations with Sir Bedivere about what should be done with Excalibur, the sword which he had received from the Lady of the Lake. As with all great fantasy stories, there is tragedy, a challenge to loyalty, and some lovely magical moments.
It’s a long poem, but well worth reading. I hope you enjoy it.
So all day long the noise of battle roll’d Among the mountains by the winter sea; Until King Arthur’s table, man by man, Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord, King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep, The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him, Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights, And bore him to a chapel nigh the field, A broken chancel with a broken cross, That stood on a dark strait of barren land. On one side lay the ocean, and on one Lay a great water, and the moon was full.
Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: “The sequel of to-day unsolders all The goodliest fellowship of famous knights Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep They sleep—the men I loved. I think that we Shall never more, at any future time, Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds, Walking about the gardens and the halls Of Camelot, as in the days that were. I perish by this people which I made,— Tho’ Merlin sware that I should come again To rule once more—but let what will be, be, I am so deeply smitten thro’ the helm That without help I cannot last till morn. Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur, Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how In those old days, one summer noon, an arm Rose up from out the bosom of the lake, Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, Holding the sword—and how I row’d across And took it, and have worn it, like a king: And, wheresoever I am sung or told In aftertime, this also shall be known: But now delay not: take Excalibur, And fling him far into the middle mere: Watch what thou seëst, and lightly bring me word.”
To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere: “It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus, Aidless, alone, and smitten thro’ the helm. A little thing may harm a wounded man. Yet I thy hest will all perform at full, Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word.”
So saying, from the ruin’d shrine he stept And in the moon athwart the place of tombs, Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men, Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock, Came on the shining levels of the lake.
There drew he forth the brand Excalibur, And o’er him, drawing it, the winter moon, Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt: For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth work Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long That both his eyes were dazzled, as he stood, This way and that dividing the swift mind, In act to throw: but at the last it seem’d Better to leave Excalibur conceal’d There in the many-knotted water-flags, That whistled stiff and dry about the marge. So strode he back slow to the wounded King.
Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: “Hast thou perform’d my mission which I gave? What is it thou hast seen, or what hast heard?”
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: “I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, And the wild water lapping on the crag.”
To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale: “Thou hast betray’d thy nature and thy name, Not rendering true answer, as beseem’d Thy fealty, nor like a noble knight: For surer sign had follow’d, either hand, Or voice, or else a motion of the mere. This is a shameful thing for men to lie. Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing I bade thee, watch, and lightly bring me word.”
Then went Sir Bedivere the second time Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere, Counting the dewy pebbles, fixed in thought; But when he saw the wonder of the hilt, How curiously and strangely chased, he smote His palms together, and he cried aloud,
“And if indeed I cast the brand away, Surely a precious thing, one worthy note, Should thus be lost forever from the earth, Which might have pleased the eyes of many men. What good should follow this, if this were done? What harm, undone? deep harm to disobey, Seeing obedience is the bond of rule. Were it well to obey then, if a king demand An act unprofitable, against himself? The King is sick, and knows not what he does. What record, or what relic of my lord Should be to aftertime, but empty breath And rumours of a doubt? but were this kept, Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings, Some one might show it at a joust of arms, Saying, ‘King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake; Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps Upon the hidden bases of the hills.’ So might some old man speak in the aftertime To all the people, winning reverence. But now much honour and much fame were lost.”
So spake he, clouded with his own conceit, And hid Excalibur the second time, And so strode back slow to the wounded King.
Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily: “What is it thou hast seen, or what hast heard?”
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: “I heard the water lapping on the crag, And the long ripple washing in the reeds.”
To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath: “Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue, Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me! Authority forgets a dying king, Laid widow’d of the power in his eye That bow’d the will. I see thee what thou art, For thou, the latest-left of all my knights, In whom should meet the offices of all, Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt; Either from lust of gold, or like a girl Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes. Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice, And the third time may prosper, get thee hence: But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur, I will arise and slay thee with my hands.”
Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran, And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged Among the bulrush-beds, and clutch’d the sword, And strongly wheel’d and threw it. The great brand Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon, And flashing round and round, and whirl’d in an arch, Shot like a streamer of the northern morn, Seen where the moving isles of winter shock By night, with noises of the northern sea. So flash’d and fell the brand Excalibur: But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, And caught him by the hilt, and brandish’d him Three times, and drew him under in the mere. And lightly went the other to the King.
Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath: “Now see I by thine eyes that this is done. Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?”
And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: “Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems Should blind my purpose, for I never saw, Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die, Not tho’ I live three lives of mortal men, So great a miracle as yonder hilt. Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him; But when I look’d again, behold an arm, Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, That caught him by the hilt, and brandish’d him Three times, and drew him under in the mere.”
And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard: “My end draws nigh; ‘t is time that I were gone. Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight, And bear me to the margin; yet I fear My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die.”
So saying, from the pavement he half rose, Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm, And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere Remorsefully regarded thro’ his tears, And would have spoken, but he found not words, Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee, O’er both his shoulders drew the languid hands, And rising bore him thro’ the place of tombs.
But, as he walk’d, King Arthur panted hard, Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed When all the house is mute. So sigh’d the King Muttering and murmuring at his ear, “Quick, quick! I fear it is too late, and I shall die.” But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge, Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walk’d Larger than human on the frozen hills. He heard the deep behind him, and a cry Before. His own thought drove him like a goad. Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves And barren chasms, and all to left and right The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels— And on a sudden, lo! the level lake, And the long glories of the winter moon.
Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern, Beneath them; and descending they were ware That all the decks were dense with stately forms Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream—by these Three Queens with crowns of gold—and from them rose A cry that shiver’d to the tingling stars, And, as it were one voice, an agony Of lamentation, like a wind, that shrills All night in a waste land, where no one comes, Or hath come, since the making of the world.
Then murmur’d Arthur, “Place me in the barge,” And to the barge they came. There those three Queens Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept. But she that rose the tallest of them all And fairest, laid his head upon her lap, And loosed the shatter’d casque, and chafed his hands, And call’d him by his name, complaining loud And dropping bitter tears against his brow Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white And colourless, and like the wither’d moon Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east; And all his greaves and cuisses dash’d with drops Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls— That made his forehead like a rising sun High from the daïs-throne—were parch’d with dust; Or, clotted into points and hanging loose, Mix’d with the knightly growth that fringed his lips. So like a shatter’d column lay the King; Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest, From spur to plume a star of tournament, Shot thro’ the lists at Camelot, and charged Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.
Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere: “Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go? Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes? For now I see the true old times are dead, When every morning brought a noble chance, And every chance brought out a noble knight. Such times have been not since the light that led The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh. But now the whole Round Table is dissolved Which was an image of the mighty world; And I, the last, go forth companionless, And the days darken round me, and the years, Among new men, strange faces, other minds.”
And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me? I have lived my life, and that which I have done May He within Himself make pure! but thou, If thou shouldst never see my face again, Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice Rise like a fountain for me night and day. For what are men better than sheep or goats That nourish a blind life within the brain, If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer Both for themselves and those who call them friend? For so the whole round earth is every way Bound by gold chains about the feet of God. But now farewell. I am going a long way With these thou seëst—if indeed I go— (For all my mind is clouded with a doubt) To the island-valley of Avilion; Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard-lawns And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea, Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.”
So said he, and the barge with oar and sail Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan That, fluting a wild carol ere her death, Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere Revolving many memories, till the hull Look’d one black dot against the verge of dawn, And on the mere the wailing died away.