Poem: ‘Good Friday’ by Christina Rosetti

This poem expresses what I suspect many people, even very committed Christians, feel on Good Friday: we should weep more than we do, we should feel more than we feel, in response to Christ’s death on the cross.

While it’s true that faith and feelings are very different and distinct from one another, Rosetti observes here the misery and doubt that comes from knowing and believing in Jesus yet feeling as though she remains unaffected by her knowledge and faith, and expresses most eloquently the desire for God to help her to believe more fervently.

Whether or not one is a Christian does not limit their ability to be affected by the pathos in this poem, nor to consider the power of the imagery with which the poet evokes that sense of lonely difference from other people that pervades it. 

‘Good Friday’

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon–
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

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Poem: ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ by Thomas Gray

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. 

Image: Used with permission. St Giles Church, Stoke Poges
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mark Percy – geograph.org.uk/p/5571063

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. 

Poem: ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ by A.E. Housman

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?

Poem: ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ by T.S. Eliot

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.”

The last twist of the knife.

Never Too Busy For Poetry!

This weekend is crazy busy. One evening and two full days of rehearsal for the show I’m in, which hits the stage on the first two weekends of May. 

The show is Monty Python’s Spamalot, performed by Camperdown Theatre Company. We’re working hard and having a blast rehearsing it, although one of the hardest parts is not laughing at the genuine comic talent of the actors.

It’s enormous fun, but it’s fair to say it’s exhausting. 

While most of my social media for the weekend could be scheduled and was organised by Friday, and there were only a few “on the spot” things I needed to do, I decided ahead of time to spend as little time online as I could over the weekend. Any spare time I have will be spent resting and relaxing, which means reading.

One of the lovely things about poetry is you can read it, and keep thinking about it at odd moments during the day. It adds a dimension of beauty and calm to a hectic schedule, and opportunities for reflection that might not otherwise offer themselves.  Even just a few lines can change a perspective and transform a moment into something that lifts the entire day. 

Another lovely thing about poetry is the sense of connection the reader has with the poet. Despite the fact that many of my favourite poets have been long dead, I can still experience a moment of empathy and understanding that reminds me that I’m not doing life in a bubble.

That is my hope for my own poetry. I may not become famous, or even widely known, for the poems I write, but I know that my own readers experience that same connection with me because their reviews and communications tell me so. 

So, even in the midst of a busy weekend, I’ll always make time for a little poetry. 

Poem: ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ by Eugene Field

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.

Goodnight.

Poem: ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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. 

Ozymandias

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. 

Poem: ‘Meeting at Night’ by Robert Browning

This poem is something of a tardis – it’s bigger on the inside. It’s not very long, but it tells a story that takes the reader from the wide-angle scenery of the landscape at night and a small boat on the water to the intimacy of a cabin in which the secretive lovers meet. It’s Romantic, but it’s really all about the stealth and secrecy that was even more typical of Victorian England than its Romanticism.

The imagery is magnificent and the storytelling is clever: the meaning is clear, even though much is left to the reader’s own imagination. This is the art of poetry: to evoke what the reader already knows, and yet to make it new at the same time.

Meeting at Night


The grey sea and the long black land; 
And the yellow half-moon large and low; 
And the startled little waves that leap 
In fiery ringlets from their sleep, 
As I gain the cove with pushing prow, 
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

II 
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach; 
Three fields to cross till a farm appears; 
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch 
And blue spurt of a lighted match, 
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears, 
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Daniel Radcliffe and Poetry

Daniel Radcliffe is a man who obviously loves good poetry. This is an indication to me that he has good taste. In fact, in my mind it’s a genre recommending a person, instead of the other way around. 

Quote by Daniel Radcliffe: Good poetry has an amazing ability to be communicative before it's even understood. I get emotional just from the beauty of words.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/search_results?q=Daniel+Radcliffe+poetry
Source: BrainyQuotes.com Image by WordyNerdBird

He’s mentioned his love for poetry more than once. 

Quote: "As an actor, there is room for a certain amount of creativity, but you're always ultimately going to be saying somebody else's words. I don't think I'd have the stamina, skill or ability to write a novel, but I'd love to write short stories and poetry, because those are my two passions."
Source: BrainyQuotes.com Image by WordyNerdBird

While I’m thrilled to see that short stories and poetry are his two literary passions- they are, after all, my favourite forms of writing- I do dispute that writing a novel takes more stamina, skill or ability.  In fact, it’s a different set of skills and abilities, and using them requires as much stamina as writing a novel.

He is right, though, about the ability to use one’s own words to create and communicate meaning. It’s incredibly liberating and empowering. 



Poem: ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ by John Donne

Many people think that ‘For whom the bell tolls’ is a phrase coined by Hemingway. Not so.

In his famous novel set during the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway was quoting this poem by John Donne.

In a very direct and yet still poetic manner, Donne delivers the key idea of the poem: what happens to all of humanity happens to each of us individually.  The tolling of the funeral bells is a reminder that when someone— anyone— dies, we are all diminished.

These days, bells are seldom rung for funerals. It’s really only the famous or important – and they are different things in my mind – whose passing is announced in that way.  Yet every funeral I attend, or death notice I read, or social media post announcing someone’s passing, brings this poem to my mind.  

For Whom The Bell Tolls

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Photo by John Finkelstein on Pexels.com

Further reading:

Another of my favourites among Donne’s poetry is his Holy Sonnet 10, also known as Death, Be Not Proud, in which Death receives a blow to the ego.

Another poem about the tradition of ringing bells on important occasions is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Bells’