Poetry and Poets: October 2004 Archives

And One From Sara Teasdale


A poet I don't often visit because so much of her work is so dreadfully bad. Nearly the Ed Wood of poetry--perhaps that is strong. But here's a soft piece--not spectacular poetry, but quite fine in Teasdale's oeuvre, and nice for the season.

Sara Teasdale

When, in the gold October dusk, I saw you near to setting,
Arcturus, bringer of spring,
Lord of the summer nights, leaving us now in autumn,
Having no pity on our withering;

Oh, then I knew at last that my own autumn was upon me,
I felt it in my blood,
Restless as dwindling streams that still remember
The music of their flood. There in the thickening dark a wind-bent tree above me
Loosed its last leaves in flight--
I saw you sink and vanish, pitiless Arcturus,
You will not stay to share our lengthening night.

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Hiawatha or Not?

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A somewhat more rarely seen piece by Lewis Carroll. But worthy of greater circulation by virtue of its very clever parody in a a very difficult rhythm.

Hiawatha's Photographing
By Lewis Carroll

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;

But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

This he perched upon a tripod -
Crouched beneath its dusky cover -
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence -
Said, "Be motionless, I beg you!"
Mystic, awful was the process.

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William Cullent Bryant

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To think that the wisdom of this poem came from a mere 17 year old! Most interesting of all, Mr. Bryant created no other works of such power or interest. And this definitely bears the imprint of Wordsworth, and perhaps even of the remarkable Thomas Gray, whom I may post later today.

William Cullen Bryant

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And gentle sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.

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Richard Crashaw, I reintroduce as one of the two major Catholic poets of the Metaphysical Era. There may have been others, my study has been broad, but not terribly deep. Nevertheless, Crashaw and Vaughn are well worth our attention at their best.

The Recommendation
Richard Crashaw

THESE Houres, and that which hovers o’re my End,
Into thy hands, and hart, lord, I commend.
Take Both to Thine Account, that I and mine
In that Hour, and in these, may be all thine.
That as I dedicate my devoutest Breath         
To make a kind of Life for my lord’s Death,
So from his living, and life-giving Death,
My dying Life may draw a new, and never fleeting Breath.

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An Odd Ode by Thomas Gray


I stumbled on this this morning while looking for "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." The notes to the poem (at Representative Poetry On-Line) say that it is a free paraphrase from an Icelandic tale called "Lay of the Darts." Translated from Icelandic to Norwegian and Latin, Gray apparently got hold of the Latin version and produced this oddity.

The Fatal Sisters: An Ode
Thomas Gray

            Now the storm begins to lower,
            (Haste, the loom of Hell prepare.)
            Iron-sleet of arrowy shower
            Hurtles in the darken'd air.

            Glitt'ring lances are the loom,
            Where the dusky warp we strain,
            Weaving many a soldier's doom,
            Orkney's woe, and Randver's bane.

            See the grisly texture grow,
            ('Tis of human entrails made,)
            And the weights, that play below,
            Each a gasping warrior's head.

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This is one of those poems about which your teacher would require you to write a compare and contrast "theme." Don't do that. Just enjoy the language and the message--distinct, straightforward, clear.

Passing away, Saith the World
Christina Rossetti

            Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
            Chances, beauty and youth, sapp'd day by day:
            Thy life never continueth in one stay.
            Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
            That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
            I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
            Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
            On my bosom for aye.
            Then I answer'd: Yea.

            Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
            With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play,
            Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
            Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
            A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
            At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
            Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
            Watch thou and pray.
            Then I answer'd: Yea.

            Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
            Winter passeth after the long delay:
            New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
            Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
            Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray.
            Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
            My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
            Then I answer'd: Yea.

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A Song for Our Time


The follow excerpt from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem speaks volumes both then and now. Think about our modern plight and see if it is not well reflected in this past of the song.

from "The Lotos-Eaters"--8th Strophe of the Choric Song
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Lotos blooms below the barren peak,         
The Lotos blows by every winding creek;
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone;
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
We have had enough of action, and of motion we,         
Roll’d to starboard, roll’d to larboard, when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea.
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.         
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world;
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,         
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,         
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.       
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

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"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"


From the original 1819 "Lamia" version, in which "wretched wight" is used instead of "knight-at-arms."

from "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
John Keats

            And there we slumber'd on the moss,
                 And there I dream'd, ah woe betide,
            The latest dream I ever dream'd
                 On the cold hill side.

            I saw pale kings, and princes too,
                 Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
            Who cry'd--"La belle Dame sans merci
                 Hath thee in thrall!"

For the complete poem, read further.

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Goblin Market


Perhaps Christina Rosseti's most famous poem. Perfect for this season of slow decline and waning light.

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One of the less-well-known patter-songs. Inspired by Mrs. Bradley's disdain for The Mikado as I was watching the first season last night.

from " The Sorcerer's Song"
Gilbert and Sullivan

He can raise you hosts of ghosts
And that without reflectors
And creepy things with wings
And gaunt and grisly spectres
He can fill you crowds of shrouds
And horrify you vastly
He can rack your brains with chains
And gibberings grim and ghastly
Then, if you plan it, he changes organity
With an urbanity full of Satanity
Vexing humanity with an inanity
Fatal to vanity
Driving your foes to the verge of insanity
But in tautology on demonology
'Lectro biology, mystic nosology
Spirit philology, high class astrology
Such is his knowledge, he
Isn't the man to require an authority. . .

from Iolanthe "The Lord Chancellor's Song--The Nightmare"
Gilbert and Sullivan

When you're lying awake with a dismal headache, and repose is
taboo'd by anxiety,
I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in,
without impropriety;
For your brain is on fire--the bedclothes conspire of usual
slumber to plunder you:
First your counterpane goes, and uncovers your toes, and your
sheet slips demurely from under you;. . .

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From the very end of an agony in eight fits--

from The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits
Lewis Carroll

          "It's a Snark!" was the sound that first came to their ears,
              And seemed almost too good to be true.
          Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
              Then the ominous words "It's a Boo-"

          Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
              A weary and wandering sigh
          Then sounded like "-jum!" but the others declare
              It was only a breeze that went by.

          They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
              Not a button, or feather, or mark,
          By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
              Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

          In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
              In the midst of his laughter and glee,
          He had softly and suddenly vanished away---
              For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

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Two by Longfellow


Too long to include in their entirety, but poems everyone should have encountered at least once, perferably more often.

The Wreck of the Hesperus
Skeleton in Armor

Read the notes as well, they offer some interesting insights into the composition of these ballads.

Oh, and while we're at it anyway,

The Children's Hour

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Somber Autumnal Poems

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One of the things I love about the season is a return to some of the splendid poems of early youth, but also returns to some like the excerpt below, that came in later studies. See here for the complete poem.

from "Ode to the Confederate Dead"
Alan Tate

What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl's tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

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From Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Typically syntactically tortured, but transcendantly beautiful.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Gerard Manley Hopkins

            As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
                As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
                Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
            Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
            Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
                Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
                Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
            Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
              I say more: the just man justices;
               Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
            Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
               Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
            Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
               To the Father through the features of men's faces.

"The just man. . . acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--Christ." That says it all. And the unjust. Well, see psalm 1 for the answer there.

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Has ever been a favorite. Tightly repressed, and somewhat pursed-lipped, nevertheless, she whispers through the ages poems that have no age. I have no idea how she would vote, and I like it that way.

The Snake
Emily Dickinson

The Snake

            A narrow fellow in the grass
            Occasionally rides;
            You may have met him,--did you not,
            His notice sudden is.

            The grass divides as with a comb,
            A spotted shaft is seen;
            And then it closes at your feet
            And opens further on.

            He likes a boggy acre,
            A floor too cool for corn.
            Yet when a child, and barefoot,
            I more than once at morn,

            Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
            Unbraiding in the sun,--
            When, stooping to secure it,
            It wrinkled, and was gone.

            Several of nature's people
            I know, and they know me;
            I feel for them a transport
            Of cordiality;

            But never met this fellow,
            Attended or alone,
            Without a tighter breathing,
            And zero at the bone.

That last stanza is a clencher, and the last line, sheer genius--in fact it inspires the very feeling it describes--a delicious chill, an ominous ringing.

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I'm convinced that were he alive today, Whitman would vote for John Kerry.

from "Song of Myself"
Walt Whitman

              I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
              And what I assume you shall assume,
              For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

              I loafe and invite my soul,
              I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

              My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
              Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
              I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
              Hoping to cease not till death.

            Creeds and schools in abeyance,
            Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
            I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
            Nature without check with original energy.

I will leave it to others (including Whitman himself) to celebrate the genius of Whitman, it has ever eluded me.

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To Autumn
John Keats (1795-1821)

             Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
                   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
             Conspiring with him how to load and bless
                   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
             To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
                   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
                        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
                   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
             And still more, later flowers for the bees,
            until they think warm days will never cease,
                       For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

            Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
                  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
            Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
                  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
            Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
                  Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
                       Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
            And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
                  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
                  Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

                       Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
            Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
                  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
            While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
                  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
            Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
                  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
                       Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
            And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
                  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
                  The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
                       And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

When I first encountered this poem in a Keats class in College the professor claimed that it was flawed in its near perfection. At the time I found that profound, and I suppose there is still some merit in the notion, but I think now that it is perfect in its near perfection, in its capturing of the spirit of the season so well.

(And yes, OBJ., I know you'd prefer I didn't wander so frequently in the groves of poetry. But then, I'd prefer that you would wander there more, and lead by the hand the little ones in your charge. And this goes for all you home-schooling moms! If it is within your power, give your children poetry early and often. And don't beat them over the head with analysis and with talk of symbolism and all sort of other nonsense that too often accompanies the reading of poem. Rather, savor the language, the richnesses, the rhythms, the sheer beauty of what is there and the symbolism and all the rest will follow, more or less naturally. Keats did not have to instruct his public in how to read his poetry, and they were a good deal less sophisticated than we claim to be. Poetry is an enormous gift to children--from sing-song rhymes to epic verse. Let it be an experience of immersion, not of distant intellectual approach.)

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Wordsworth on Contemplative Silence


Though he would not have called it that. Look at this second strophe of Tintern Abbey and see if it does not recall the states described by the mystics. Wordsworth does not attribute it to God, and yet, in his own way, I think that it is because he encounters God most directly in the freedom of nature, as Paul said in Romans (?), the second scripture.

from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798

William Wordsworth

                                                    These beauteous forms,
            Through a long absence, 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 have no slight or 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 lightened:--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.

We see into the life of things. We see into the life of the most important things, the life of the three persons of God. We do not understand it, nor can we begin to grasp it in its fullness. Nevertheless, the contemplative experience is a window into the life of God, a glimpse into His Holiness and His perfection. And with a window into God, we have a window into all that matters in life. Wordsworth captured it well here. He summarizes it in a way that would befit St. John of the Cross in his mystical transports. Go and read the whole thing and enjoy. Literature is not the highest good, but it is certainly a great good--greater yet when it offers us a picture of the divine.

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This is one of my favorite psalms, and for a variety of reason, I truly love this setting of it.

Psalm 139
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke

Psalm 139
by Mary (Sidney) Herbert,
Countess of Pembroke

      O LORD, O Lord, in me there lieth nought
    But to thy search revealed lies,
            For when I sit
            Thou markest it;
    No less thou notest when I rise;
Yea, closest closet of my thought
    Hath open windows to thine eyes.

Thou walkest with me when I walk;
    When to my bed for rest I go,
            I find thee there,
            And everywhere:
    Not youngest thought in me doth grow,
No, not one word I cast to talk
    But yet unuttered thou dost know.

If forth I march, thou goest before,
    If back I turn, thou com'st behind:
            So forth nor back
            Thy guard I lack,
    Nay on me too, thy hand I find.
Well I thy wisdom may adore,
    But never reach with earthy mind.

To shun thy notice, leave thine eye,
    O whither might I take my way?
            To starry sphere?
            Thy throne is there.
    To dead men's undelightsome stay?
There is thy walk, and there to lie
    Unknown, in vain I should assay.

O sun, whom light nor flight can match,
    Suppose thy lightful flightful wings
            Thou lend to me,
            And I could flee
    As far as thee the evening brings:
Even led to west he would me catch,
    Nor should I lurk with western things.

Do thou thy best, O secret night,
    In sable veil to cover me:
            Thy sable veil
            Shall vainly fail;
    With day unmasked my night shall be,
For night is day, and darkness light,
    O father of all lights, to thee.

Each inmost piece in me is thine:
    While yet I in my mother dwelt,
            All that me clad
            From thee I had.
    Thou in my frame hast strangely dealt:
Needs in my praise thy works must shine
    So inly them my thoughts have felt.

Thou, how my back was beam-wise laid,
    And raft'ring of my ribs, dost know;
            Know'st every point
            Of bone and joint,
    How to this whole these parts did grow,
In brave embroid'ry fair arrayed,
    Though wrought in shop both dark and low.

Nay fashionless, ere form I took,
    Thy all and more beholding eye
            My shapeless shape
            Could not escape:
    All these time framed successively
Ere one had being, in the book
    Of thy foresight enrolled did lie.

My God, how I these studies prize,
    That do thy hidden workings show!
            Whose sum is such
            No sum so much,
    Nay, summed as sand they sumless grow.
I lie to sleep, from sleep I rise,
    Yet still in thought with thee I go.

My God, if thou but one wouldst kill,
    Then straigh would leave my further chase
            This cursed brood
            Inured to blood,
    Whose graceless taunts at thy disgrace
Have aimed oft; and hating still
    Would with proud lies thy truth outface.

Hate not I them, who thee do hate?
    Thine, Lord, I will the censure be.
            Detest I not
            The cankered knot
    Whom I against thee banded see?
O Lord, thou know'st in highest rate
    I hate them all as foes to me.

Search me, my God, and prove my heart,
    Examine me, and try my thought;
            And mark in me
            If ought there be
    That hath with cause their anger wrought.
If not (as not) my life's each part,
    Lord, safely guide from danger brought.

There is an ease and a beauty here that does not show in the sinewy and strident translations of Milton. There is also a music here that is lost in most other translations (the exceptions being the 1662 BCP and the King James and some of its predecessors.) You can imagine this psalm set to music, to baroque music--trumpets and flourishes. Unlike the weedy, thin and well-nigh indecipherable knots of words that we call our modern translations. No grandeur, no stateliness. What can one say of this:

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;
you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side


Or this:

Psalm 139

O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.
My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.


Sounds like the work of an extraterrestrial stalker.

Consider a point I made a day or so ago. How we speak may have some influence on our thought. It would seem that when we speak of God we should do so in the best way possible. That is, that the prayers we recite and the psalms we sing should be formulated in words the best reflect the majesty of their Subject.

Taste varies, and often people say that poetry is such a subjective art. And yet, we all know, nearly instinctually what makes a great poem, what makes a sing-song rhyme, and what makes an execrable butchery of the language. Can you imagine an ancient Hebrew poem in which the word "probed" is actually used? Or one in which the utterly prosaic and ghastly, "Even though I walk through a dark valley. . ." It is no wonder our prayer lives are so hampered if these are a materials we are given to start with. They treat God and his word as if he were our Home Boy or our local Val. Like, AS IF.

Okay, I've bent your ear enough. But we can do better than what is presently put before us, and we should strive to do so, seeking out not merely adequate, but truly magnificent translations--words that stir the heart and stick in the brain.

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As We Wait and Pray, a Tribute


Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night
Dylan Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Death Shall Have No Dominion
Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from October 2004.

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