The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)


Chapter 9. History Refracted: The Poets and Their Poems

ALL POEMS ARE about God, love, or depression.

Who would have thought my shriveled heart

Could have recovered greenness? It was gone

Quite underground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown,

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

These are thy wonders, Lord of power,

Killing and quickening, bringing down to hell

And up to heaven in an hour.

Making a chiming of a passing-bell.

We say amiss

This or that is:

Thy word is all, if we could spell. . . .

And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing. . . .

—From “The Flower,” by George Herbert

depression: an area lower than the surrounding surface

love: that state of feeling arising from sympathy or natural ties

God: what is invoked

—Adapted from The Oxford English Dictionary

“Poem” is an impossibly broad word. It embraces arrangements of words that may be sensibly direct, as in Robert Frost’s “Birches”:

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice storms do. . . .

obscurely allusive, as in John Donne’s “Air and Angels”:

Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name,
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame,
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be;
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.

or an evocation of physical sensation in syllables, as in Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,

The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,

The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,

The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,

The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,

The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,

The exquisite realization of health. . .

The poem can chronicle some aspect of the past, as history does; the poem can tell us a story about a character, copying the function of the novel. Like autobiography, the poem can reveal the poet’s own developing sense of self; like drama, the poem can bounce dialogue back and forth between speakers, demanding that the onlooker take a part in imagining the scene. But poems are not history, or autobiography, or fiction. They are written in poetry.

Novels, autobiographies, histories, and most plays are written in prose. Poetry and prose are words which define each other; as a literary label, “poetry” most commonly means “that which is not prose” (and vice versa). So how are the two different? Most poets—and critics—would probably answer, “I know poetry when I see it”—a useful cop-out that can also be applied to great art and pornography. As you read poetry, you too will develop an eye and ear for that mysterious, ethereal dividing line between poetry and prose. But as you begin the project of poetry reading, consider using this simple definition as an early guide: Poetry is like a periscope. It always involves a watcher (the reader), peering through the periscope at something being watched, the “thing” that the poem is about—a sensation, or mood, or problem, or person, or tree, bush, or river. But the poem’s subject does not imprint itself directly on the watcher’s eye; it bounces from one mirror to another first, and each mirror becomes part of the image that eventually strikes the eye’s lens.

The two mirrors in this “periscope” are the poet and the language of the poem. In a poem, the poet never disappears; his mind, his emotions, and his experiences are part of the poem. The novelist or playwright will often try to stay out of sight, so that the reader can experience the story or play without continually remembering its author. But a poem is an expression of the poet’s presence. Compare these two scenes, both set in eighteenth-century groves, by the novelist Jane Austen and her contemporary, the poet William Wordsworth. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has just turned down Mr. Darcy’s arrogant proposal of marriage. The next morning she goes for a walk to clear her head.

After walking two or three times along that part of the lane, she was tempted, by the pleasantness of the morning, to stop at the gates and look into the park. The five weeks which she had now passed in Kent had made a great difference in the country, and every day was adding to the verdure of the early trees. She was on the point of continuing her walk, when she caught a glimpse of a gentleman within the sort of grove which edged the park; he was moving that way; and fearful of its being Mr. Darcy, she was directly retreating. But the person who advanced was now near enough to see her, and stepping forward with eagerness, pronounced her name. She had turned away, but on hearing herself called, though in a voice which proved it to be Mr. Darcy, she moved again toward the gate. He had by that time reached it also, and holding out a letter, which she instinctively took, said with a look of haughty composure, “I have been walking in the grove some time in the hope of meeting you. Will you do me the honour of reading that letter?”—And then, with a slight bow, turned again into the plantation, and was soon out of sight.

This is prose; Elizabeth and Darcy meet in the grove, he gives her a letter and Jane Austen herself is nowhere to be seen. But William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” put the poet right in the middle of the grove:

I heard a thousand blended notes,

While in a grove I sat reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,

The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;

And ’tis my faith that every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,

Their thoughts I cannot measure:—

But the least motion which they made

It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,

To catch the breezy air;

And I must think, do all I can,

That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,

If such be Nature’s holy plan,

Have I not reason to lament

What man has made of man?

The reader (peering through the periscope) sees the twigs, the birds, and the primrose tufts—and Wordsworth himself, reclining right in the middle of the grove and lamenting what man has made of man. His sensations, hisperceptions, and his conclusions are woven right through the fabric of the scene. We see the grove through his own eyes; and although we also see Elizabeth and Darcy through Jane Austen’s eyes, we are not made aware of it, as we are in Wordsworth’s poem.

The presence of the poet is an essential part of the poem—even in those poems where the poet makes a conscious effort to express his own absence, as Mark Strand does in his 1980 poem “Keeping Things Whole”:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

Mark Strand may be missing a strong sense of his own presence (he defines himself entirely by negations), but he is standing, large as life, right in the middle of this poem.

Because of this presence, the poem always reminds you that the poet is not neutral toward the subject of her work. Rather, she takes one of three positions. She is “depressed,” alienated from the world of the poem, struggling to find her place in it or pushing it away, uneasy and not at home; she is “in love,” embracing the poem’s subject, speaking out of sympathy and affection for it; or she is invoking something from outside herself, channeling some transcendent truth beyond her capacity to understand, something that exists independently from her own ease or discomfort in the world; an outside force to which she stands as witness.

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down. . . .

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come. . . .

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

—Jane Kenyon, “Let Evening Come”

All poetry is about God, love, or depression.

The second “mirror” of the telescope is language. The language of poetry is self-consciously formal—meaning that the form of each poem (its words, their arrangement and sequence) can’t be separated from the poem’s ideas. In prose, words and ideas have a slightly looser relationship. Almost any novel or autobiography can be made into a movie. A play can be turned into a musical or a one-person show; a history can be transformed into a special for the Learning Channel. In each case, the work keeps its essential identity even though its words are altered.

But a poem is only a poem as long as it retains its original words. The six-hour movie version of Pride and Prejudice is still Jane Austen, but a paraphrase of “Keeping Things Whole” is no longer Mark Strand. The poet’s language never becomes a transparent window through which meaning can be seen: In a poem, the language is the meaning. A poem cannot be written in any other way. Its form, its function, and its meaning are all one. And the more “poetic” a piece of prose is, the more it resists paraphrase; Italo Calvino’s poetic novel If on a winter’s night a traveler has never been dramatized, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s prosy masterpiece Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been turned into a movie, a play, a musical, a minstrel show, and a comic book series.


When forced into corners and ordered to cough up definitions of poetry, poets almost always resort to metaphors.

“Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat” (Robert Frost).

“Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing” (W. S. Merwin).

“Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe” (Adrienne Rich).

“Poetry is like ice skating: you can turn quickly. Prose is like wading. It also has a lot of good. You can see your toes, for example” (Robert Pinsky).

“Poetry is like love—easy to recognize when it hits you, a joy to experience, and very hard to pin down flat in a satisfying definition” (Marie Ponsot).

“A poem is like a radio that can broadcast continuously for thousands of years” (Allen Ginsberg).

“Poetry is like shot-silk with many glancing colours, and every reader must find his own interpretation according to his ability and according to his sympathy with the poet” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson).

None of these definitions say anything about rhyme, meter, stresses, or tropes. Although poetry makes use of all of these techniques (and more), poems are not characterized by any poetic technique in particular, sinceconventions of poetic language change from century to century. Ancient listeners knew that they were hearing poetry when they heard an epic simile, a dramatic comparison which implies a connection between two events. Homer’s Penelope, mourning her son’s flight, asks:

Why did my son leave me?

What business had he to go sailing off in ships

that make long voyages over the ocean like sea-horses?1

Horses carried men into battle, just as the ship will carry her son away; Penelope is losing Telemachus to the aftereffects of the Trojan war, just as she lost her husband to the war itself. The epic simile is a structural marker of ancient poetry.

But by medieval times, the epic simile has been replaced by other structural markers: the division of each poetic line into two halves, with at least two words in each line alliterating, beginning with the same sound. Beowulf, we learn, ruled his land for fifty years in peace until a new threat began

to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl

from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow

where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage

unknown to men, but someone managed

to enter by it and interfere

with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed

a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing. . . .2

This too is poetry, but it uses different conventions and different structural markers. Medieval listeners (or readers) knew that they were in the presence of poetry as soon as they heard those alliterative syllables: gem, goblet, gained. (Seamus Heaney’s translation, quoted above, preserves this alliteration.) But the ancient listeners might not have understood this to be poetry at all.

If you rely on structural markers to identify poetry, you’ll be hard-pressed to understand why the Iliad and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl are both labeled “poetry.” My own “Poetry is like a periscope” metaphor (a somewhat unpoetic one, especially compared with Voltaire’s “Poetry is the music of the soul”) is meant to help you begin to understand poetry apart from obvious structural markers such as end rhymes or stanzas, which change from generation to generation. The Iliad and Howl are both self-conscious about language, although in wildly dissimilar fashion; Allen Ginsberg and Homer are both present in their works—although in completely different ways. The very brief history of poetic practice that follows isn’t designed to make you into a critic (or a poet). Rather, it assumes a basic grasp of the ancient-medieval-Renaissance-modern-postmodern progression of thought outlined in the previous chapters; against that background, it aims to lay out the most common features of self-conscious, poetic language, and to introduce you briefly to the changing ways in which poets have thought of their own job.


The Age of Epics

The earliest Western poetry is that of the Greeks, and the earliest Greek poetry is epic poetry—sprawling oral tales of heroes and battles, finally written down by Homer around 800 B.C. In the Iliad, the warrior Achilles falls out with his commander, Agamemnon, and manages to turn Zeus against his own army; in the Odyssey, Odysseus tries to get home after the Trojan War has ended. Incident-filled, plot-driven, centered around the failings and strengths of men and women: These epics seem much more like novels than poems. Why, then, are they considered the first great poems, rather than the first great tales? And where is the “personal presence” of the poet in these stories of bloodshed and sea adventure?

Poetry, for the Greeks, was a term that covered a much broader territory than it does today. “Poetry,” wrote Aristotle, “is more philosophical and more worth-while than history, for poetry speaks in general terms, while history concerns itself with detail.” In other words, poetry was language that sought to demonstrate universal truths; poetry described reality. Mimesis, Aristotle’s term for the poetic process, is the “imitation” or depiction of real life in a way that brings understanding to the listener. The poet was not at the margins of society, as he tends to be today. Rather, he was a combination historian, librarian, and philosopher—rather like the “public intellectual” of the twentieth century, crossed with an archive.

This archive function was particularly important in the earliest days of Greek civilization, when all poetry and history were oral: memorized and passed down from poet to poet, repeated around the fire weekly, resung at each telling in slightly different words. The poet was a reshaper of tales. He took the details of history that had been passed down to him and “re-created” or “made” it for his listeners, putting it together with other facts into a coherent whole, using his own style of language and description. The Iliad begins with a fact, probably an actual historical event: A warrior kidnapped the daughter of a priest and refused to give her back when her father arrived with the required ransom. Homer takes this fact and weaves it into a story, so that it becomes the pivotal conflict in a tale about a clash of wills between two strong and proud men, neither of whom will back down and risk public humiliation. Homer, like the ideal poet Aristotle describes in his Poetics, is a “maker,” a creator; he creates not just a story, but an entire universal system of cause and effect.

So where is the poet in the Iliad and the Odyssey? He is speaking; remember that these epics were oral for centuries, so that the poet was always before the eyes of his audience. He wasn’t hidden behind paper. They could see and hear him; they knew that he was the maker of the poem, constructing a whole theory of human existence around the “bare facts” of history.

The demands of oral composition shaped the language of Greek epic poems. Instead of writing his work down for readers, the poet composed as he spoke, weaving the details of his story together into a fresh version each time he performed. But the basic series of events remained the same. To keep his story in order, the poet made use of formulaic “plot skeletons,” stringing his details into an accepted, familiar sequence. These included: the hero, far from home, struggling to return; the withdrawal of a hero from a conflict, a resulting disaster, and the hero’s return; the death of a much-loved friend, followed by a search for some way to gain immortality and defeat death.

Other memory aids included an oral “table of contents,” a prologue that outlined what the poet was about to do (something which was as helpful to the audience as to the speaker), as well as occasional halts to recap the action before proceeding on to new scenes. Long speeches, complicated descriptions, and flashbacks were often introduced and concluded with the same words; this “ring composition” gave the poet a verbal marker, a way to wrap up the speech or flashback and get back into the action. Scenes that occur often (feasts, battles, insults) were told with the same repetitive structure. If the poet didn’t immediately recollect the details of one particular battle, it made little difference; he could simply follow the already-established pattern.

To keep this repetition from growing wearisome, poets would vary it with extended comparisons, or epic similes. In one battle scene, a commander might fight like a “hill-bred lion, ravenous for meat”; another commander in another battle would instead tread “catlike, compact behind his shield,” while a third would turn on his enemies like a “boar on wild dogs.”

In order to work out the meter of each line correctly on the fly, the poet could drop a “formula phrase” into a line whenever necessary. Greek meter was based on the length of vowels, so poets had a stock of descriptive adjectives (“well-built,” “well-found,” “wine-dark”) and phrases (“of the silvery feet”) of various lengths that could be inserted as needed. (Which explains why the “flowing-haired Achaians” are sometimes “battle-hardened” and sometimes just plain “brave,” depending on how many syllables the rest of the line was lacking.)

The First Lyrics

Epics were the earliest Greek poems, but lyric poetry (all poetry that was nonnarrative and nondramatic) reached its peak three centuries after Homer. Like epic poetry, lyric poetry was written to be performed; lyric meant “accompanied by the lyre.”

And like the epic poet, the lyric poet was seen by his audience. This poetry is still primarily oral, not written; as a matter of fact, all of the Greek lyric poetry that survives is in bits and fragments.

The bits and fragments fall into two categories: choral poetry, performed by a chorus, and “monodic” poetry, recited by the poet or by a trained soloist. Choral poetry was often performed as part of a religious ritual; the paeanwas a song of worship to Apollo, a humnos was a general worship song, a threnos was a dirge (from these, we get the English words paen, hymn, and threnody).

  Then too the god whose splendour bright

  Glads mortals with his radiant light. . .

  And to the goddess every rite divine

With prompt submissive reverence pay!

—Pindar, “Seventh Olympic Ode” (a humnos)3

Monodic poetry had a wider range of subject: love, hate, loss, longing. The elegy was a solo poem with a particular type of meter; the iambos, from which we derive the English meter iambic, was an invective against an enemy. These lyric poems didn’t have the same sweep as the epic poems, but their goal was at once smaller and more innovative. They painted scenes of private emotion, vignettes of personal experience.

Overcome with kisses her faintest protest,

Melt her mood to mine with amorous touches,

Till her low assent and her sigh’s abandon

Lure me to rapture.

—Sappho, “Ode to Anactoria” (a monodic poem)4

The individual voices of the poets shone through, in the verse itself, for the first time. (And eventually, Greek lyric poetry became the model for the seventeenth-century explosion of English “lyric poetry,” which borrowed both its techniques and its technical terms.)

Greek lyric poetry started to lose steam with the invention of writing. Written prose began to gain on spoken poetry as the language of argumentation, or “rational discourse.” At the same time, the Greeks were building larger and more elaborate amphitheaters for the spoken word, which led to an increased emphasis on drama (with its spectacle and costume) rather than recited poetry. The lyric poet, already shoved to the edges of Greek culture, suffered further from Plato’s pronouncement in the Republic that “all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers,” and that lyric poetry, by inflaming the emotions, drove out “law and the reasons of mankind.” Pressed in on by prose, drama, and Plato, the lyric poet folded meekly and devoted his time to epigrams: the succinct, proselike statement of a truth.

Epigrams, which first appeared as inscriptions on tombs, were brief and straightforward. (If you have to carve a poem on granite, you’re likely to make it a short one.) Greek epigrams soon evolved away from tombstone inscriptions toward bon mots of truth, good for all occasions:

No man desires to be
A friend with you in time of doom.5

Roman Odes

Roman writers borrowed Greek forms of poetry just as they did Greek drama. But like Latin drama, Latin verse never quite achieved Greek heights—except, perhaps, for the odes of Horace.

The ode form used by Horace follows a fairly standard pattern: It describes a scene and then reflects on it in the light of life’s brevity and death’s inevitable approach.

  Tomorrow and its works defy;

Lay hold upon the present hour,

  And snatch the pleasures passing by

To put them out of fortune’s power;

  Nor love, nor love’s delights disdain—

  Whatever thou gettest today is gain.

  —Horace, Book 1, Ode 9 (translated by John Dryden)6

In his odes (which were translated by English poets from John Milton to A. E. Housman), Horace took the position of the experienced, salty, slightly cynical but good-hearted observer of life; he is best known for his exhortation Carpe diem (generally, and somewhat inaccurately, translated as “Seize the day!”), which encapsulates his whole philosophy: Enjoy life in the present day, because death is on its way. In these odes, he brings to maturity the individual, personal voice of the poet that first appeared in the Greek lyrics.

Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?

In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebbed away.

Seize the present;

trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.

—Horace, Book 1, Ode 11 (translated by John Conington)7

Medieval Poetics

Medieval poetics, like medieval history, doesn’t descend in a straight line from ancient times; thanks to barbarian invasion and general cultural disintegration, classical poetry (like classical drama) ceded its place, for a time. Writing faded; Greek and Latin lost their immediacy; and the poetry that emerged from the Middle Ages owed more to Germanic oral tradition than to the Latin odes.

Beowulf, the earliest medieval epic, features a beleaguered Christian community living on a hill, in a place of light and feasting, while a prowling monster—a “God-cursed” descendent of Cain—lives in the swamps below and storms up the hill occasionally to eat the inhabitants, driven by a jealous rage of their eternal security. The epic was probably performed orally long before it was written down, sometime around A.D. 800, in Old English, and it makes use of techniques familiar from Greek oral epics—formulaic phrasings (“God-cursed Grendel”) and metaphoric descriptions that fill out the meter. In Old English, these metaphors are called kennings. They describe an object in terms of its characterstics, often using a hyphenated phrase to do so:

Before long

the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood,

the ones who had let down their lord earlier,

the tail-turners, ten of them together.

Beowulf, trans. by Seamus Heaney (ll. 2845–48)

Each line of Old English poetry was divided into two half lines; every half line contained at least two stressed (emphasized) syllables. Often those stressed syllables were also alliterated (they began with the same opening sound).

Nor did the creature / keep him waiting

but struck suddenly / and started in;

he grabbed and mauled / a man on his bench,

bit into his bone lappings, / bolted down his blood,

and gorged on him in lumps, / leaving the body

utterly lifeless, / eaten up. . .

Beowulf, trans. by Seamus Heaney (ll. 738–43), stresses and line divisions mine

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a slightly later tale of courtly love and honor, probably originated as a written, not an oral, composition, but the anonymous author copied Beowulf’s poetic conventions; Gawain too makes use of alliterative formulas (“Guinevere the goodly queen,” “the most noble knights”) and a pattern of half-lines with alliterative syllables:

And in guise all of green, / the gear and the man:

coat cut close, / that clung to his sides,

And a mantle to match, / made with a lining

Of furs cut and fitted— / the fabric was noble. . .

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. by Marie Boroff (ll. 151–78), stresses and line divisions mine

Like Beowulf, Sir Gawain also has its hero confronting a supernatural being from an earlier time: a Green Man who can pick up his severed head and walk away with it. In both cases, the poet (like the Greek epic poet) serves both as entertainer and as historian, while dutifully glorifying God; in both epics, the Christian hero triumphs over paganism—but just barely.

Later medieval poems—Dante’s Inferno, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—continued to be driven by Christian themes. Like the epic poet, the medieval poet had a prophetic role: He revealed truth, often by telling a tale of pilgrimage, a spiritual quest for a great heavenly treasure. Yet medieval poetics inherited from Augustine a certain reservation about how truthful these poetic tales could actually be. After all, language—like the rest of creation—was fallen, inherently corrupt, and so could not come into direct contact with the divine.

Instead, the poet told truths at one remove, as reflected in a dream. Language might reveal the divine, but at the same time it had the potential to obscure it from view. Words, which were part of the physical realm, could point to falsehood as easily as to truth. “The art of rhetoric,” Augustine wrote, in his formative On Christian Doctrine, is “available for the enforcing either of truth or falsehood. . . . To strive about words is not to be careful about the way to overcome error by truth, but to be anxious that your mode of expression should be preferred to that of another. . . . [T]he man who cannot speak both eloquently and wisely should speak wisely without eloquence, rather than eloquently without wisdom.”8

This ambivalence about words reflects an even deeper suspicion of poetry. The self-conscious language of poetry seemed, inevitably, to imply that the poem might be more preoccupied with the language of the poem than with the truth that lies behind it, and this preoccupation with language is the “eloquence” that Augustine warns of. So Dante’s Inferno takes place in a dream, the narrator seeing the truth at one remove, and Chaucer ends his stories of pilgrimage with a retraction of everything he has just said, assuming (ironically) the character of a pilgrim tempted away from the right path by eloquence, turned to wrong ends by the wrong use of language.

For our Book says, “all that is written, is written for our edification,” and that is my intention. Wherefore I beseech you meekly for the mercy of God to pray for me, that Christ have mercy on me and forgive my sins; and especially for my translations of worldly vanities, which I revoke . . . the Tales of Canterbury, which tend toward sin . . . and many a song and many a lecherous lay, that Christ in his great mercy forgive me the sin.9

Medieval theologians suggested that words were so malleable that they might well contain four levels of sense. Every story in Scripture bore four meanings: the literal (the actual story or surface meaning); the allegorical (sometimes also known as “typological,” an illustration of a spiritual truth having to do with Christ or the heavenly realm); the tropological (the “moral” of the story, an application to the actual life of the Christian); and the anagogical (which inevitably had to do with the last times: death, judgment, and eternal destiny). Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land, for example, was interpreted as revealing a literal truth about Israel’s history; an allegorical truth about Christ’s leadership of his people in a fight against the kingdom of Satan; a tropological truth for the believer, who needed to destroy “strongholds” of Satan in order to achieve a moral life; and an anagogical foreshadowing of the Christian’s final triumphant entry into heaven (symbolized by the Promised Land).

This multilevel interpretation—based on an Augustinian suspicion of the ability of words to convey simple unvarnished truth and laid out by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica—became not just a way of interpreting Scripture, but a poetic method. Dante, trained in medieval hermeneutics, himself understood the Bible as containing these four distinct levels of meaning: “If we consider the letter [literal meaning] alone,” he wrote of Psalm 113, which contains an account of the Exodus from Egypt,

the thing signified to us is the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace is signified; if the anagogical, the passing of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory.10

And so Dante’s pilgrim, literally lost in a dark wood, is also, allegorically, lost on the way to heaven, between the kingdom of God and the reign of Satan; he is, tropologically, grappling with the moral demands of daily life; and, anagogically, is heading toward his final and eternal destination—Inferno or Paradise.

Renaissance Verse

The Renaissance saw a shift in this skepticism about language; the new science of the Renaissance understood the world (and its language) not as essentially flawed, needing to be cleansed by fire, but as a puzzle to be solved by the intellect. Renaissance and Enlightenment scholarship depended on a post-Augustinian reliance on language as a clear means of communication. The poet could become, not a mystic, but a word scientist; he could reveal truth not through ecstatic experience, but through the careful, exact choice of syllables. “Is there in truth no beautie?” protested the English poet-parson George Herbert. “Must all be veiled, while he that reads, divines, / Catching the sense at two removes?”

So Renaissance poetry became increasingly precise in metaphor, vocabulary, meter, and rhyme. Strict and inflexible meters forced the poet to account for every single syllable; particularly popular was iambic meter, an artificial alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

all alone beweep my outcast state,

And troub’l deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate. . .

—William Shakespeare, Sonnet XXIX

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, poetry was understood to be more precise than prose. In fact, because it forced its writer to choose words so carefully, poetry was seen as the best way to speak truth; Sir Philip Sidney, writing his enormously influential essay The Defense of Poesy around 1580, concludes, “Of all sciences . . . is our poet the monarch. . . . He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margin with interpretations and load the memory with doubtfulness; but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion.”

This respect for words had something to do with science, but also something to do with Protestantism; new efforts to translate the Bible into “reliable prose,” rather than relying on the interpretation of the Holy Spirit speaking through churchmen, put a high premium on the ability of plain words to reveal God. “In this milieu,” writes Barbara Lewalski in Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, “the Christian poet is led to relate his work not to ineffable and intuited divine revelation, but rather to its written formulation in scripture.”11




Rhyme scheme


Petrarchan (Italian)

An 8-line octet poses a question, idea, or argument; a 6-line sestet resolves, responds to, or illustrates the octet. Octet and sestet are connected by the volta, the turning point, where the shift between problem and resolution occurs.

Octet: abba abba
Sestet: cd cd cd
OR cde cde
OR some variation

John Donne, Holy Sonnet 10, “Death, be not proud”

Shakespearian (English)

Three quatrains present three parallel ideas or develop a related three-point argument; the final couplet links, explains, or concludes the argument.

Quatrains:  abab

Couplet:    gg

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”


Three quatrains develop each other (rather than standing in parallel); the final couplet states a final overarching concept or idea.

Quatrains:  abab

Couplet:    ee

Sir Edmund Spenser, Sonnet 75, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand”

The sonnet, the queen of all Renaissance poetic forms, displays this faith in the power of precise words to convince and to demonstrate. Written in iambic pentameter (five pairs of syllables per line, each following the pattern “unstressed STRESSED”), the sonnet always contained fourteen lines, followed a rigid rhyming pattern, and developed its argument according to a strict logical scheme. Petrarchan sonnets posed a question in the first eight lines (the octet) and resolved it in the concluding six (the sestet); Shakespearian sonnets used three quatrains (sets of four lines) to develop related ideas, and then concluded with a couplet making a final conclusion about the grand implications of those ideas; Spenserian sonnets also contained three quatrains and a concluding couplet, but the quatrains tended to develop a single idea with more and more complexity.

No matter what its scheme, the sonnet had the power to take the most complex and baffling aspects of human existence—the inevitability of death, the unruliness of love, man’s fear of the unknown—and resolve it, neatly, by the final couplet.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment also saw a return to classical forms, as the West rediscovered classical civilization. The mark of an Enlightenment scholar was a familiarity with the classics, and an ability to use classical poetic forms. John Milton used Greek conventions to produce what C. S. Lewis labeled a “secondary epic”—a form that copies the conventions of the oral epic, but which has its birth in writing, not in speech. In imitation of Homer, Milton’s Paradise Lost invokes the Muse, makes a formal statement of its theme, chronicles grand battles between fallen and heavenly demons, and even catalogues demons just as Homer catalogued his ships.

But Paradise Lost, which assures us that it will “justify the ways of God to man,” reflects a very different reality than the Homeric chaos of competing divine and human ambitions. Milton chronicled an orderly and ordered world, neatly hierarchical and bound together by a Great Chain of being. His story of rebellion against God is both theology and social commentary: order is all important, and rebellion against authority is always devastating.


William Blake, the first Romantic poet, rebelled.

Lashing out not only against authority (governmental, religious, and educational) but against institutions and against the Enlightenment reduction of man to a “thinking machine,” Blake aimed to bring humanity’s mysterious, inexplicable, spiritual side back into focus. He wrote his own mythologies (long, odd sets of poems: The Marriage of Heaven and HellThe Book of Urizen); in Songs of Innocence and of Experience he wrote against reason, against rational education, against theological precision, all of which destroyed creativity and caged the unfettered human soul.

I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And “Thou shalt not” write over the door;

So I turned to the Garden of Love

That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tomb-stones where flowers should be;

And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars my joys & desires.

—William Blake, “The Garden of Love,” Songs of Experience

Blake and the Romantic poets who came after him had at least two lasting effects on poetry. Rationality certainly didn’t disappear, but (as in early Greece), it shifted sideways into written prose. The poet spoke for the less rational, more emotive, more imaginative side of humanity—a role poets continue to fill today. Regaining their role as prophets, the poets reached for contact with the divine.

But this divine was not a godlike Muse, separate from humanity and greater; it was a Divine that infused both humanity and nature, a sublime force that reason could not explain away. With the publication of their Lyrical Ballads in 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge offered a mysticism less “religious” than Blake’s, and a little more mainstream; an impersonal Divine Force, a Sublime that resided both in the beauties of the world and in the human soul. Like Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge rebelled against the logical, the orderly, and the hierarchical; they were antieducation (education simply quenched the divine spark born into each man), seeing men as containing at birth a diverse spark of the divine which society did its best to flatten into uniformity. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” Wordsworth wrote,

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy. . .

—From William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Ironically, many Romantics (Lord Byron being a notable exception) led somewhat stodgy personal lives; Wordsworth even ended up as Stamp Distributor for his home county, a quintessentially bureaucratic position. And although they rejected the rules of taste imposed by reason, Romantic poets tended to retain the classical forms (the odes, lyrics, epigrams).

But even within the limits of these forms, the I in the poem became ever more present. Sometimes the I is identical with the poet, as in Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” (“I heard a thousand blended notes, / While in a grove I sate reclined”) or Coleridge’s equally famous “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” written as he sat in the garden with a sprained ankle while his guests went off for a walk: “Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,” the poet sighs, conversationally, “This lime-tree bower my prison!” Occasionally the “I” is an imaginative, mythical persona, identified with the poet’s imagination. “As I was walking among the fires of hell,” Blake writes in the introduction to his poem “Proverbs of Hell,” “delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs.”

Rather than “I think, therefore I am,” the Romantic poets substituted, “I imagine, therefore I am.” Sometimes this imagining I was active, exercising its creative power to produce myth and legend; sometimes it was passive, receiving truth from the mystical, infusing Divine.

Since the Romantics saw nature and the human soul as the two most likely locations for the divine, their poems tended to begin with either natural scenes or emotional states. The scene, or emotion, is described with care, and then connected to a larger, more cosmic idea (the pleasant garden idyll of “Lines Written in Early Spring” spirals rapidly into, “Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?”). Romantic poets also made heavy use of the monologue, a single-speaker dramatic poem with the psychology of the speaker as its primary focus.

My genial spirits fail;

And what can these avail

To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?

—From Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode”

American “Romanticism” (The American Renaissance)

Romanticism, the great flowering of English poetry, was in essence a European phenomenon. A similar flowering, some decades later, happened in the United States, just after the Civil War. This so-called American Renaissance, late in the nineteenth century, saw American poets incorporating the ideas of the Romantic—the divine presence in nature, the supremacy of the imaginative, the speaking I as the poetic voice, the focus on mood and experience rather than on argument and reason—but trying to do so within an American context. The English Romantic tradition, speaking as it did with a peculiarly English voice, did not suit the Americans; Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and others had their own “I” to speak of.

Given the intense individualism of the American democratic experience, it is perhaps inevitable that these poetic voices should be self-absorbed. “I sing myself, and celebrate myself,” announces Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson asks anxiously, “Why—do they shut Me out of Heaven? Did I sing—too loud?” This poetry of the American Renaissance went one step beyond the English Romantics: Self -discovery (rather than a discovery of the world through the eyes of the self) became the primary purpose of the poem. Autobiography was its most dominant theme; both Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Dickinson’s poems explore the identity of the common, uncelebrated, ordinary American man or woman. The poetry of the “American Renaissance” grapples with the implications of English Romanticism: If everyone is unique, diverse, bearing a spark within him-or herself, then no one can give guidance on how we are to think of ourselves; we must each struggle to an understanding of who we are alone.

The poets of the American Renaissance show varying degrees of faith in the ability of language to actually express this understanding. Walt Whitman, with sheer confidence that he will be heard and understood, writes in free-flowing verse that borrows prophetic biblical cadences and epic lists, and often possesses neither rhyme nor meter:

This is the city and I am one of the citizens.

Whatever interests the rest interests me,

politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools,

The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores,

real estate and personal estate.

—From Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

But Emily Dickinson writes carefully, formally, finding words barely adequate for what she has to say. She fits her thoughts neatly into metered, rhythmic lines, but distorts them with nontraditional capitalization, strained syntax, and dashes to show uncertainties she cannot convey in any other way.

’Tis Coronal— and Funeral—

Saluting— in the Road—

—From Emily Dickinson, “Upon concluded lives”


The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth saw the rise of irony in poetry. “Irony,” in the words of James Kincaid, comes about when “every life becomes tragic, and the element of the special case is removed. . . . Catastrophic disillusionment and destruction are not the lot of the godlike hero, invoking by his stature the terrible laws of retribution, but of every ordinary person going about the business of common life. . . . We are all victims.”12

Modernist poetry remains autobiographical, exploring the self and the self’s place in the world, but the uneasiness of the American Renaissance has settled into a pervasive worry: The self is under attack, constantly pushed in upon from the outside, looking for a firm place to stand in a world where cosmic certainties have begun to break down and where chaos seems more likely than order.

In this chaos, the poet is consumed by an effort to find some sort of harmony among the discords of existence. But as they searched for order, modernist poets rejected many of the certainties held by earlier writers. Logical thought was unreliable: “The use of logic in place of perception is hostile to principles,” Ezra Pound wrote in 1931. “The logician never gets to the root.” This suspicion of logic led naturally to a dismissal of cosmic theories produced by deduction: Intellectual concepts, the great overarching theories that gave previous generations a way to place themselves within the world, were no longer usable.

William Carlos Williams instead chose to find meaning in the physical and unique existence of things, their “quiddity.” “No ideas except in things,” Williams wrote, and made it his job to immortalize the quiddity of things (a red wheelbarrow, a plum) on the page. William Butler Yeats (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”) chronicled chaos and despair, but held on to metrical patterns; his “accentual verse” is a new kind of meter, counting only stressed syllables rather than the total number of syllables in a line (a method that allowed him to keep the form of a metered poetic line, while stretching or compressing it at will). T. S. Eliot chose to find order by making careful connections between experiences—experiences in the past and in the present, experiences in the poet’s daily life. The poet, Eliot once remarked, is always “amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”13

Like poets of the Romantic era and the American Renaissance, modernist poets seemed to believe wholeheartedly in the potential of the human self. Adrift in anarchy, unable to reason its way to a governing explanation of life, the self nevertheless possessed the ability to find, in some mysterious and half-understood way, a firm place (however tiny) to stand in the middle of whirling disorder.

For many of the modernist poets, this firm place could be found only in a specific image. Pound, Williams, and other modernists were influenced by Japanese haiku, which took a strict syllabic structure (three lines, the first with five syllables, the second with seven, the third with five) and combined it with a tight thematic strategy: The poem opens by focusing in on a particular detailed image and then, after the fifth or twelfth syllable, opens out to consider a larger, more general idea. Without holding to the strict syllables of haiku, a subgroup of Modernists (known, after 1912 or so, as Imagists) focused in on this careful anchoring of the poem in a precise visual picture. Often, the picture itself stood for the rest of the poem, without the subsequent turn to the cosmic. The Imagist poets aimed to render particular, specific images, not vague generalities; to write clear “hard” poetry, not blurred or vague verse; to distill poetry down to its most comcentrated forms.14

Grass, and low fields, and hills,
And sun,
Oh, sun enough!
Out and alone, among some
Alien people!
—From Ezra Pound, “Plunge”

“Modernism” is an enormously broad label for a group of poets who saw themselves as sui generis, and who often did their best to kick each other (or themselves) out of the modernist fold (“Modernism,” T. S. Eliot complained in 1929, is a “mental blight”). Nevertheless, these poets were linked most strongly by two common suspicions. They were suspicious of the human community; the speakers of their poems are profoundly alone, alienated from other men. And they were skeptical of language’s capacity to express both the reality of chaos and the attempt to find order. “You have no cosmos until you can order it,” Ezra Pound wrote, in an early draft of his massive work The Cantos, but as he aged he grew less and less convinced that poetic language could order anything. The idea of the poem as a “place to stand,” a solid spot in quicksand (“A poem is a momentary stay against confusion,” in Robert Frost’s phrase) stood in tension with the growing modernist conviction that language itself was distorted and fractured beyond any repair. “A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote modernist poet Gertrude Stein, celebrating the quiddity of a thing while stretching syntax to its limits in order to demonstrate its inadequacy.


Modernism too had its dissenters.

In England, a group of younger poets known as the “Movement” turned away from a modernist, fragmented poetry, toward a neo-Romantic style which returned to plainer syntax and style, to poetic form, to the exploration of nature and the acts of everyday life. Movement poets such as Philip Larkin turned their focus away from psychological explorations, back toward the physical world and the actual lives of real people.

In America, slightly later, the beat poets expressed their own alienation by focusing, not on the insufficiencies of language, but on the evils of the military-industrial complex. Beat poets, led by Allen Ginsberg (and also including the writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs) set out to create a subculture, a neo-Romantic alternative society that rejected the conventions that shaped American culture. Ginsberg, a homosexual and a communist at a time when neither was socially acceptable (or even legal) strikes out, as Blake did, against the authorities. Like Blake, Ginsberg—who once had had a vision of William Blake talking to him, in his Spanish Harlem apartment, in a voice that had “all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son”—rejected discipline, order, and theology in favor of a wild mysticism. (“The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy!” he howled.)15

Meanwhile, modernism was dying—but as a poetic movement, modernism was almost too fractured to have a coherent “after.” Modern poetry had been dominated by white, upper-class, well-educated males; now women and African American poets attempted to find their own path into the modern age. African American poets, building on the early poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and later on the work of Langston Hughes, struggled to find a balance between “white” styles of speech and the black folk tradition. Women, writing in a poetic tradition that was overwhelmingly male, often found themselves pigeonholed as “feminist poets.”

The pact we made was the ordinary pact

of men & women in those days.

I don’t know who we thought we were that our personalities

could resist the failures of the race. . .

—Adrienne Rich, from “From a Survivor”

But there is no sense in which women, or African American poets, or poets from other cultural groups, or white male poets formed a unified literary movement after the death of modernism. Modernism’s legacy had been the intensely inward, individualistic character of the late-twentieth-century poet; the poet, like the madman, was a solitary figure, not following “schools.” The closest thing to a poetic “school” in late twentieth-century poetry is Postmodernism, which celebrates fragmentation to the point of incoherence. John Ashbery, self-declared Postmodernist, illustrates the difficulty of reading “postmodern poetry”:

  The “second position”

  Comes in the seventeenth year.

  Watching the meaningless gyrations of flies above a sill

  Heads in hands, waterfall of simplicity

  The delta of living into everything.

  —John Ashbery, from “The Skaters”

as does Leslie Scalapino, a generation Ashbery’s junior.

“There” is neither—by simply bypassing existing — by

observation occurring at the same time (one is outside literally

looking, seeing is more passive, within one’s own husk at dye — at

the moment then — is not observation which is sole, itself)

nor is it experience —as it is occuring

—Leslie Scalapino, from “As: All Occurence in Structure,

Unseen—(Deer Night)”

The late twentieth century saw an ongoing struggle not between competing poetic visions, but between poetry written by and for poetic specialists, and poetry written for the “common reader.” The poet Vernon Scannel complained that “much contemporary poetry seems to be written for specialist exegesists in the universities in order that they may practise their skills in ‘deconstruction.’ ” “I gave up on new poetry myself thirty years ago,” remarked journalist Russell Baker, a thirty-year veteran of the New York Times op-ed page, “when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens on a hostile world.”

In 1983, Philip Larkin, reflecting on the growing abstruseness of “academic” poetry, remarked that poets—thanks, in part, to the impossibility of earning any money writing poetry unless they also teach and write about writing poetry—have become critics and professors, and thus pass judgment on poetry as well as writing it. The result is that poetry is in danger of becoming the province of experts: “It is hardly an exaggeration,” Larkin writes, “to say that the poet has gained the happy position wherein he can praise his own poetry in the press and explain it in the classroom, that the reader has been bullied into giving up the consumer’s power to say ‘I don’t like this, bring me something different.’ ”16 John Ashbery’s career (he won the Pulitzer Prize and became both a critic and a professor) seems to confirm the truth of Larkin’s remarks; the Times Literary Supplement called Ashbery’s poems “sophisticated, thickly referential and almost totally impenetrable,” an admiring remark that illustrates the ongoing preference of the literary elite toward abstruse poems that must be decoded, rather than coherent poems that must be interpreted.

Postmodernism continues strong, and yet in the last decades, poetry has been partially rescued from the postmodern; in the United States, the Poet Laureate position has become more visible; new translations of classic poetry have brought poets such as Robert Pinsky and Seamus Heaney to a larger audience; Jane Kenyon writes comprehensible poetry, Mark Strand incomprehensible poetry with strong narrative threads, Billy Collins conversational and witty poems that are much simpler on the surface than in their subtexts, Adrienne Rich poetry that connects with political and social issues.

In the meantime, the careful reader of poetry should be willing to work hard at understanding poetry: to take it on its own terms, chew it over, reflect on it, and analyze its forms, and then to praise it or to conclude, “This is a disorganized mess” and put the book down.


The First Level of Inquiry: Grammar-Stage Reading

It’s wonderful to discover and read a poem when you know nothing about the poet, have never read critical commentary on the work, and have to figure out what the poet is doing with language.17


The first step in reading poetry is to begin reading.

Poetry is a meeting between reader and the poet. Sometimes, arming yourself ahead of time with too much information on technique, historical milieu, and the poet’s biographical background can keep you from meeting the poet; the background information serves to keep the poet at arm’s length.

Consider the following poem:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!18

Now read the poem again, slowly. Make an imaginative effort; put yourself into the place of the one who wears the mask; picture yourself smiling and mouthing “subtleties” while you feel the exact opposite of what your face shows. Imagine the “world” before which you are putting on this act. Who is in it; why are you forced into such false happiness?

Have you exercised your imagination?

The poem is by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African American poet who wrote “We Wear the Mask” in the late nineteenth century, in the days of Jim Crow. Now you know, a little better, why Dunbar chose this image; he is writing about the “veil” that W. E. B. Du Bois also described, the “double vision” forced on African Americans by a world that requires them to view their own blackness through white eyes.

If you’re an African American reader, perhaps you immediately identified with Dunbar’s problem in just the way that he intends. But what if you are white, Hispanic, Asian? You should still be able to make the imaginative leap into Dunbar’s difficulty. At some point in your life, you too have worn a mask; perhaps you’ve had the serious, life-shaping experience of constructing a whole life around someone else’s image of who you are; maybe you’ve only had the fleeting experience of behaving one way at a party while thinking something else entirely. But even if your “mask” experience seems trivial and unimportant, in light of Dunbar’s more comprehensive complaint, it is important for you to identify with the problem of the poem. Then you can make an emotional identification with Dunbar. That initial jolt of emotional recognition (“Yes! I know what it’s like to wear a mask—even if it’s only for an evening!”) connects you to the poet. Without that connection, you might as well read a sociological description of the problem of black double consciousness; there’s no reason for you to read a poem.

If you know, before reading, that Dunbar is an African American poet of the early twentieth century, that he was the only black student at Central High School in Dayton, Ohio, that his color kept him from attending college, and that he died an alcoholic at age thirty-three, it may hamper your emotional understanding of the lyric. You may feel that your own jolt of identification is trivial. (After all, what are your problems in comparison?) Or, if you already know something about African American life at the turn of the century, you may gloss over the unique experience Dunbar is trying to share, putting your own previous knowledge in its place, and missing Dunbar’s own particular twist on the subject.

Coming to a poem without background knowledge, then, can actually be a plus; it helps you to identify with a familiar emotion or experience, before grappling with its difference. The exception to this rule is poetry that seems completely foreign in subject or form; if, for example, you tackled the Inferno with no understanding of the Christian distinction between heaven and hell, you might legitimately give up before reaching the end. But in most cases, you’ll find that an initial try at a poem will yield you a surprising level of understanding; even Homer’s epics, crammed with unfamiliar names and odd conventions, tell a fairly straightforward story full of recognizable emotions.

Read 10–30 pages of poetry.   So your first step in reading a poem is simply to read, without preparation. If the poem is a lengthy epic, try to read at least the first section, or “book.” If you are reading a number of shorter poems, aim to read five to ten poems (anywhere from ten to thirty pages of poetry). As you read, jot down your initial reactions in your reading journal. Can you find a familiar emotion, experience, or mood? If the poem is a narrative tale, note down the two or three major events that happen in the first book, and write a sentence describing the tale’s hero.

Read the title, cover, and table of contents.    Now that you’ve had an initial chance to connect with the poet and the poem, go back and do a little bit of elementary background work. Read the title page, the copy on the book’s back cover, and any biographical sketches provided. Jot down in your journal the title, the author’s name, the span of time over which the poems were composed, and any other facts you might find interesting.

Glance at the table of contents. For a narrative poem, the table of contents may read like a list of chapters in a novel, giving you a preview of the plot; for a poetry collection, the titles of poems may provide an overview of the poet’s preoccupations. (The first thing you’ll notice about the table of contents in W. H. Auden’s Selected Poems, for example, is that none of the poems have titles; each is listed by its first line, and those lines are very often directed straight at the reader: “Watch any day his nonchalant pauses,” “Will you turn a deaf ear,” “Consider this and in our time,” “What’s in your mind, my dove.”

Read the preface.    In most cases, prefaces to poetry collections give you valuable information about the poet’s techniques and ideas. In the case of modern poems the preface can give you a leg up on understanding the poet’s preoccupations (you may discover, for example, that Mark Strand is particularly interested in absence, and is prone to write about the ways in which he is not present; or that Jane Kenyon wrote her last collections of poems while ill with leukemia, which adds to the meaning of “Let evening come”). In the case of an older work, you may discover information that the original audience would already have known: “The stylistic tradition represented by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” writes Marie Boroff in the preface to her translation, “calls for the frequent use of such explicitly qualitative adjectives as noble, worthy, lovely, courteous, and—perhaps most frequent of all—good. These adjectives may be used frequently and freely because, within the traditional world portrayed in this poetic style, knights are inevitably noble and worthy, ladies lovely, servants courteous, and indeed everything, aside from monsters and villainous churls, ideally good.”19 The medieval listener would have known that Gawain inhabited such a fairy-tale world, and would have taken this information for granted.

Finish reading.    Now that you’ve had a chance to make an initial emotional identification and then to fill in some background information, go back to reading. As you read, follow these steps:

1. For narrative poems (poems that tell a story), make a quick list of major characters as you read, and jot down the main events, just as you did when reading the novel. You’ll find this particularly helpful in the epic poems, which are longer than some novels and boast dozens of characters. For a long poem (the Odyssey, Paradise Lost), try to limit yourself to two or three major events per section; otherwise you’ll end up with an outline so long and detailed that it won’t serve to jog your memory. You’ll also find this outline helpful for such works as Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man,” in which the major events are implied through the dialogue.

2. For nonnarrative poems, simply make notes on the poem’s ideas, moods, or experiences as you read. Is the poem describing a scene, portraying a mood, investigating a thought? Use the process of writing as a way to reflect on the poem’s content. Don’t worry about making these notes complete sentences; poems do not always propose complete, well-rounded thoughts for your intellect to grasp. A poem may put evocative words close together to create a reaction or build a sense of fear, or exhilaration, or foreboding, or peaceful repose. Write down whatever words or phrases seem to capture your response to the poem.

3. As you read, circle phrases or lines that catch your eye or ear; turn down the edge of your page, or write the phrases and lines in your journal. You can return to these later.

4. Mark any section of the poem that you find confusing or obscure—but don’t give up. Keep reading.

The Second Level of Inquiry: Logic-Stage Reading

Now that you’ve read the poem (or poems) once, you’ll need to pay a little more attention to the poem’s form; remember that the shape of the poem is essential to its meaning. Poetry analysis can be a highly technical activity; the full analysis of rhythm alone requires you to learn scansion, the graphing out of a poem’s meter. What follows is a nonspecialist’s guide, a broad outline of basic poetic techniques meant to increase your appreciation of poetic form. If you want to go beyond this simple analysis, consider investing in a poetry handbook such as Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry (1999) and a guide to scansion, such as Derek Attridge’s Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction(1996).

Look back at the poem; identify its basic narrative strategy.    Narrative strategy has to do with the way in which the poem presents its ideas. There are five distinct “narrative strategies” poets may use:

Has the poet chosen to tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end?

Does the poet make an argument, with premises and a final conclusion?

Does the poet describe an experience? If so, is this experience physical or mental? (Does he walk through a garden, or struggle with guilt?)

Does the poet describe a physical place, object, or sensation, and allow this to stand for some other nonphysical reality?

Is the poem evocative of a mood, feeling, idea, or emotion?

Of course, a poet may choose to use a combination of methods, but (especially in a short poem) one is likely to be dominant.

Identify the poem’s basic form.    Form has to do with the way in which a poem is put together. A sonnet can make an argument or describe an experience; an ode can evoke a mood or recount an event. Of the many basic poetic forms, these are the ones you will see most often:

Ballad: Also a narrative, but on a smaller scale, featuring one main character or a small group of characters. Generally, a ballad has two- or four-line stanzas and a repeating refrain.

Elegy: A lament. Greek elegies were not necessarily mournful, but all had a certain meter; modern elegies tend to be laments for dead people or dead times.

Epic: A long narrative tale featuring the great deeds of legendary heroes—deeds with some sort of cosmic significance.

Haiku: This Japanese form, adapted into English, conveys a single impression. Haiku, used by some modern writers, have seventeen syllables, arranged into three lines with the syllable pattern five-seven-five. The haiku begins with an image and then widens its focus, after the fifth or after the twelfth syllable, to a larger idea or spiritual perception connected to the idea.

Ode: In English, a poem of exalted character, often addressing the reader directly (“apostrophe”).

Sonnet: A poem of fourteen lines, written in iambic pentameter, with a very particular rhyme scheme.

Petrarchan sonnet: The first eight lines (the octet), rhymed abbaabba, pose a question, an idea, or an argument; the last six lines (the sestet), rhymed cdcdcd (or, occasionally, cdecde; other variations are also possible) resolve, respond to, or illustrate the idea presented in the first eight lines. Between the octet and sestet is a volta, or turning point, where the shift between problem and resolution occurs.

“Shakespearian” or “English” sonnet: The first twelve lines of the poem are divided into three “quatrains” of four lines each, with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef, and the last two lines of the poem are a rhyming couplet (gg).

Spenserian sonnet: This form also contains three quatrains and a couplet, but the rhyming scheme is abab bcbc cdcd ee.

Villanelle: A poem with five three-line stanzas and one last four-line stanza. The villanelle only has two rhymes; the first and third lines of the first stanza reappear as an alternating refrain in the following stanzas and appear as the last two lines of the final stanza. (Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is the best known modern villanelle.)

Examine the poem’s syntax.    Find the subjects and verbs in each poetic sentence. Although this seems like a simple exercise, it will immediately show you whether the poet is using natural diction or a heightened, poetic form. In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which uses formal poetic diction, the lines

Saying which she seized,

And, thro’ the casement standing wide for heat,

Flung them, and down they flash’d, and smote the stream.

have a subject and verb together (“she seized”) but the next verb that goes with the subject “she” (“flung”) is separated from the subject by an entire line, where it would be more natural to say, “She seized and flung them through the casement.” Separation of subject and verb, or reversal of the two, or an understood (“elided”) subject or verb, demonstrates “poetic diction”; a more speechlike pattern is found in Carl Sandburg’s “Working Girls”: “The working girls in the morning are going to work.”

Try to identify the poem’s meter (or meters).    There are two major kinds of meter: syllabic meter, which counts the number of syllables in each line, and accentual meter, which only counts the stresses, or strong syllables.

In syllabic meter, each group of syllables is called a foot. English verse has five common feet, or patterns:

The anapest is two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one (the “limerick” meter):

There ONCE was a MAN of BlackHEATH,

Who SAT on his SET of false TEETH.

The dactyl is one accented syllable followed by two unaccented ones:

KNOW ye the LAND of the CEdar and VINE,

Where the FLOwers e’er BLOSsom, the BEAMS ever SHINE

—Byron, “The Bride of Abydos”

The iamb is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one.

The spondee, two accented syllables together, generally occurs as a variation in a line based on another pattern. The spondee often comes before or after a pyrrhic foot (two unaccented syllables).

The trochee is an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable:

TYger! TYger, BURning BRIGHT

“Meter” names the number of feet in each line: dimeter (two feet), trimeter (three feet), tetrameter (four feet), and so on up: pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, and octameter (eight). The lines from Byron above are in dactylic tetrameter; there are four dactyls in each line. (Even though there are not four full dactyls in each line, the overall pattern is dactylic.)

In English verse, the most common foot is iambic, and the most common iambic meter is iambic pentameter. Since “iambic” means that the basic poetic unit, or foot, is a set of two syllables, the second of which is stressed:

Of MAN’S first DISoBEd’ence, AND the FRUIT

Of THAT forBIDden TREE whose MORtal TASTE

and “pentameter” means that there are five feet in each line, iambic pentameter contains five pairs of syllables. “Blank” means that the lines are unrhymed. Iambic meter becomes trochaic if the weak and strong stresses are reversed, as they are in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”:



OVer MANy a QUAINT and CURious . . .

In the first two lines, the voice tends to stress the first (technically unstressed) syllables of each foot rather than the second syllable, which in terms of meaning is less important; this creates a singsong, more proselike meter.

“Accentual verse,” practiced by Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats (among others), counts the number of strong or stressed syllables in a line, rather than the total number of syllables. You find a strong syllable by reading the line in a normal voice; you naturally place the accents on the strong syllables. Modern verse tends to combine accentual and syllabic meter.

Examine the lines and stanzas.    First, ask yourself, Does each line sound like a whole, or does the line naturally divide into halves (hemistichs)? Then find the beginnings and ends of each sentence. Are the sentences and lines identical? Do the sentences run over the ends of the lines (enjambment)? If they do, is the enjambment natural, or does the line break come at an awkward place? If the poet chooses a line length that clashes with his sentence length, he has decided to draw attention to one or the other; why?

Then look for stanzas. Stanzas are sets of lines that impose structure on the poet; if she decides to use them, she is making a choice to confine herself; why? How many lines does each stanza have? Does each stanza follow a similar pattern of rhyme and meter, or does the poet relax the technical confines of the stanza and vary the pattern? Where do the stanzas fall; do they show a change of meaning, a reversal, a further development?

Examine the rhyme pattern.    Poetic notation uses a letter of the alphabet for each unique rhyme sound; you can use these to note a rhyme scheme in your journal. “End rhyme” is the most common type of poetic rhyme, but don’t forget to also look for internal rhyme or middle rhyme (a rhyme within a line, as in Shelley’s poem “The Cloud”: “I sift the snow on the mountains below”). Once you’ve found the rhymes, you can classify them. A feminine rhyme is a rhyme on a last syllable that is unaccented, a masculine rhyme is a rhyme on an accented last syllable or a one-syllable word; slant rhymes or near rhymes occur when two syllables have a similar but not identical sound.

Examine diction and vocabulary.    Does the poet use allusive, abstract, idea words, or concrete, particular words? Does he prefer rounded, multisyllabic, Latinate vocabulary, or brief, plain monosyllables? What images are present in the poem? What do these images stand for? What senses do the images appeal to: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel? Does the poet appeal primarily to the body, to the emotions, or to the intellect of the reader? If the poem contains explicit similes (using the words like or as), pay particular attention to both parts of the image: What two things are being compared? How are they alike; how are they different? And is the writer highlighting their sameness—or their distinctiveness?

Look for monologue or dialogue.    Is there dialogue between the narrator of the poem and another person? If so, how would you characterize it: hostile, friendly, kind, interrogative? Does the narrator carry on a dialogue with herself? If so, what does this internal dialogue result in—resolution, or a further kind of complication? Does it improve or complicate the poet’s relationship with the outside world? Does it improve or complicate the poet’s relationship with others?

The Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading

Now you’ll need to finish your examination of the poem by asking: What ideas does this poem convey to me—and how is the form of the poem related to those ideas? The answers to the following questions will vary tremendously from poem to poem, but remember: Resist the urge to reduce the poem to a declarative sentence. If the poet had been able to put his ideas into a simple declarative sentence, he’d have had no need to write a poem.

Is there a moment of choice or of change in the poem?    Is the poem set in one unchanged world? Or does a change take place from the poem’s beginning to its end? If there is a change, does it happen to the poem, or is there a moment of choice for the poet/narrator? (Sometimes this choice is very obvious, as in Robert Frost’s famous “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”; sometimes it is much more subtle.)

Is there cause and effect?    Does the writer link her state of mind or experience to any particular event or cause? If so, does this link resonate for you? Is there causality at all? If there is no causality in the poem, do emotions or events arise for no particular reason?

What is the tension between the physical and the psychological, the earthly and the spiritual, the mind and the body?    Do the objects and physical settings in the poem work for or against the emotions expressed? In the world of the poem, does the physical lead to spiritual enlightenment—or block it? Are mind and body at war? Are earthly and spiritual aspects of the poem in tension? Or is only one of these aspects present? If so . . . where is the other?

What is the poem’s subject?    What is the poem about? Remember, this doesn’t need to be a declarative sentence: you can answer it with a single word. “Grief.” “Friendship.” “Ireland.” What word or phrase seems to name the core around which the poem resolves?

Where is the self?    Is the poet’s “self” in the poem? If so, what is the relationship between that self and the subject of the poem?

Do you feel sympathy?    To ask “Do you feel sympathy with this poem?” is to ask, “Do you agree?” Does the poem resonate with you—or is it foreign to your experience? Can you identify which parts of the poem you recognize, and which seem alien?

How does the poet relate to those who came before?    Where does the poet stand in the rhetoric of ideas? In the past, critics have seen younger poets as rebelling against their elders, developing their own poetic styles in reaction to an older generation; or they have viewed younger poets as taking the techniques, themes, and even the language of older poets and incorporating them into new poetic works. Do you recognize either of these relationships among the poetic works that you have read?


In the list that follows, poets are organized in chronological order of their birth date. When you read a novel, you read a work; when you read a series of poems, you read a life. So in many cases I have recommended a collected “greatest works” rather than a particular volume published during the poet’s lifetime. Because poems are meant not to be read once, but returned to again and again, the list of recommended editions is aimed at helping you build a poetry library. There are many other editions of most of these poets available; I have listed some “Be sure to read” poems so that if you wish to use another edition, you can still experience the poet’s most characteristic works.

You can go as far as you please into investigating a poet who seizes your fancy; for the collected poems, I have suggested a brief list of poems that you should be certain to read. If you find this hard going, you don’t necessarily need to read on: A poem, like a spice, is not going to suit every taste. The recommended poems are not necessarily the poet’s “best” (an impossible judgment by any means). Instead, they have been chosen as that poet’s most commonly referred to, criticized, and quoted poems. Reading them will allow you to understand the place the poet occupies in the larger world of poetry.

As with fiction, some of these poem collections are available in much cheaper editions, if you’re willing to put up with small print and narrow margins. For ancient works, I suggest that you use the recommended translations, rather than the out-of-date or anonymous versions often used in cheaper paperbacks and low-cost ebook versions.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

(c. 2000 B.C.)

Recommended translations: An excellent, lyrical poetic rendering is the Stephen Mitchell translation, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (Atria Books, reprint edition, 2006); it is also available on Audible in an unabridged audio reading by George Guidall. David Ferry’s 1993 verse translation, Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, puts the story into anachronistic heroic couplets that are sometimes difficult to read, and makes some imaginative leaps over places where the tablets bearing the Sumerian story were broken or missing, but the story reads as a unified whole. Maureen Gallery Kovacs’s The Epic of Gilgamesh (Stanford University Press, 1989) is a more scholarly and literal translation that indicates missing text and fragments. Two prose renderings are also available; the well-regarded Penguin Classics translation by N. K. Sandars (1960) and the Benjamin R. Foster translation for W. W. Norton (2001) (this critical edition uses brackets and ellipses for missing text, which breaks the story up).

Gilgamesh is one of the oldest stories in the world; these collected tales about the legendary king Gilgamesh (probably based on a real king who lived in modern-day Iraq around 3000 B.C.) were told orally for hundreds of years before they were written down. The first written version of the epic seems to date from around 2000 B.C., although the version we have is a later copy from the library of the Assyrian king Asshurbanipal, who began his reign in 669 B.C. Although Asshurbanipal’s primary interest was conquest, he bears the distinction of being the world’s first librarian; he employed a team of scholars to collect the history, poetry, religious literature, and medical and scientific writings of the surrounding peoples for his library at Nineveh. The Gilgamesh we know was translated from some unknown source, probably in ancient Sumerian, into the Akkadian language the Assyrians used, and was copied onto clay tablets in cuneiform script. Asshurbanipal’s library was smashed when the Babylonians stormed through the Assyrian capital in 612 B.C., so although several of the tales (“Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living” and “Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven”) are complete, others (“The Death of Gilgamesh”) are fragments of longer texts. “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld” is apparently a tale from a separate tradition that was copied onto the Assyrian tablets with no attempt to reconcile it with the contradictory tales already given. The story of Gilgamesh and the flood probably comes from a later tradition as well, since the story has also been discovered in the Sumerian language starring another hero named Ziusudra; at some unknown point, it was incorporated into the set of Gilgamesh tales as well.

Gilgamesh, part human and part god and supernaturally strong, is the king of Uruk. When he oppresses his people, they call out to the sky god Anu for relief. Anu creates a wild man, Enkidu, and sends him to challenge Gilgamesh’s strength. Eventually the two become friends; Enkidu curbs Gilgamesh’s excesses, and himself learns how to live among civilized men. The two go on an adventure to kill the demon Humbaba the Terrible, who lives in the Cedar Forest south of Uruk; later they also fight against the Bull of Heaven, who rampages through Gilgamesh’s kingdom, killing hundreds of his people. The gods, annoyed by the strength of the two, send sickness to Enkidu. When he dies, the grief-stricken Gilgamesh goes on a quest to find the secret of immortality, held by Utnapishtim, an old and mysterious man who survived the great flood that drowned the world long ago. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how to find the magic plant that will make him live forever, but on his way back to Uruk Gilgamesh loses the plant forever: “For whom have I labored and taken this journey?” he laments. “I have gained absolutely nothing!” Gilgamesh is a tragic hero; although possessing divine blood and strength, he is helpless against death and the passage of time, and suffers from the loss of his friend like any mortal man.


the Iliad and the Odyssey

(c. 800 B.C .)

Recommended translations: There are three excellent translations of Homer available in paperback. The contemporary Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad (Penguin Classics, 1998) and The Odyssey (Penguin Classics, 2006) are energetic, straightforward, clear, and easy to understand, with a good narrative flow. The Robert Fitzgerald translations, The Iliad (Anchor Books, 1989) and The Odyssey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), are several decades older; these translations are more poetic, with echoes of Shakespearean cadences. And yet a third translation, by Richmond Lattimore, has kept its place as a brilliant work of English poetry in its own right: The Iliad (University of Chicago Press, 2011) and The Odyssey (HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2007).

Stephen Mitchell has recently translated both the Iliad (Atria Books, 2012) and the Odyssey (Atria, 2013) into energetic, contemporary poetry. His Iliad is based on a Greek text edited by Martin West, who pruned of hundreds of lines that he judged to be later interpolations; as a result it is significantly shorter than the versions above.

The Fitzgerald, Lattimore, and Mitchell translations of the Iliad are available unabridged on Audible; the Fagles translation is only available as an abridged version, but since it’s read by Derek Jacobi, it’s worth a listen anyway. The Fagles translation of the Odyssey is read, unabridged, by Ian McKellen; the Fitzgerald Odyssey is also available on Audible.

Both Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, and Odysseus, hero of the Odyssey, suffer from their own brilliance: Too strong, too influential, too powerful for their own good, they cannot yield to even the slightest public humiliation; jealously guarding their own reputations, they create havoc in the lives of everyone else. The Iliad is set in the last year of the ten-year Trojan War; the Greeks, who have sailed across the Aegean Sea to Troy, are camped around Troy in makeshift tents and huts, laying siege to the city. The Greek commander Agamemnon and Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, quarrel over captive women, and Achilles—publicly humiliated by Agamemnon, but bound in loyalty to his king by an oath—complains to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis. Thetis turns Zeus’s wrath against Agamemnon and the other Greeks, and Agamemnon is convinced by a dream to make a disastrous attack on Troy. But when the gods become involved in the battle, it spirals into chaos; eventually Zeus halts the fighting and scolds his divine colleagues for weighing in on the side of the Greeks. When the battle restarts, Zeus himself gives instructions to Hector, the son of Troy’s king and the most powerful Trojan warrior, but the sea god Poseidon throws his weight behind the Greek hero Ajax. Hector is wounded and the Trojans are driven back. Hector, bandaged, returns to the fighting; Zeus eventually gives all of the gods permission to reenter the fighting, and the war turns into a two-level fight, between the armies of men on the one hand and the quarreling gods on the other. When Athena, who loves the Greeks, tricks Hector into fighting Achilles, Hector is killed, and Achilles drags his body around the city; but Zeus intervenes again, telling Thetis to instruct her son Achilles to give the body back to Priam, the king of Troy. Priam ransoms his son’s corpse from Achilles, and the tale ends with a great funeral.

The Odyssey takes place after the end of the Trojan war. Odysseus, a Greek king, sets sail for home; but although the other Greeks return without incident, Odysseus is sidetracked by the hostility of Poseidon, who sends storms to wreck Odysseus’ ship and maroon him. Meanwhile his wife Penelope is under intense pressure to remarry; she has stalled her suitors for ten years, but has run out of excuses. Odysseus struggles home; on the way he escapes the land of the Lotus-Eaters (where his men are drugged into sloth when they eat a magic plant), the cave of the one-eyed Cyclops (Poseidon’s son; when Odysseus blinds him, Poseidon grows even angrier), the goddess Circe (who turns his men into pigs and seduces Odysseus), and a side journey to Hades. Then he passes the island of the Sirens (who tempt men to their deaths with their song) and survives a journey through a narrow strait between the six-headed monster Scylla and the enormous whirlpool Charybdis, only to land on the shores of an island owned by the sun god, Helios. When his men eat Helios’s sacred cows, Zeus kills them all and destroys their ship; Odysseus, fleeing, is sucked into Charybdis and spewed out onto the island of the nymph Calypso, who tries to marry him. Finally he escapes Calypso and returns home just as Penelope is running out of techniques to stall her suitors. When he sees his house filled with hostile warriors who hope to marry his wife, he disguises himself as a beggar until he is able to arrange a shooting contest, the winner to be awarded Penelope in marriage. Bow in hand, he turns on the suitors, kills them all, and reclaims his throne.


(c. 600 B.C.)

Recommended editions (choose one): Greek Lyrics, trans. Richmond Lattimore, rev. ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1960); Greek Lyrics: An Anthology in Translation, trans. Andrew M. Miller (Hackett, 1996); or Archaic Greek Poetry: An Anthology, trans. Barbara Hughes Fowler (University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

At the very least, be sure to read the poems of Sappho, Pindar, and Solon; this will expose you to a range of poetic styles and themes.

The Greek lyric poems, which exist now only in fragments, were written to be performed onstage to the accompaniment of the lyre. Choral poetry was sung in unison by a trained chorus; monodic poetry was recited by the poet. All Greek lyric poetry was rooted in the worship of the gods, and the poems are almost all framed by invocations to deities and pleas for divine favor. But within that framework, the Greeks wrote poems that range from the passionate pleadings of Sappho, to the religious, impersonal hymnlike choral lyrics of Pindar, to the political and philosophical musings of Solon.

Although the choral lyrics and hymns to the gods are archaic now, the Greek monodic lyrics (which paint a particular moment of time or an instant of emotional experience with great detail, as Sappho does) were startlingly innovative in their day—and remain completely comprehensible to us, centuries later. The epigram, a slightly later form of verse, encapsulated a single mood, experience, or conclusion into a compressed, polished sentence or two. Later English poets borrowed the Greek terms ode and elegy (names that originally referred to different kinds of meter) for their own poems—and found, in the Greek ability to capture a single vivid impression in verse, a goal for their own poetry.



(65–8 B.C.)

Recommended translations: Odes: With the Latin Text, trans. James Michie (Modern Library Classics, 2002), a lyrical translation that includes the Latin on the facing page. The translations by David West in The Complete Odes and Epodes (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008) are also readable and engaging.

Be sure to read: For a sampling of the best-known odes, try book I, Odes 1–9, 17, and 30; book II, Odes 19–20; book III, Odes 1–6 and 13; book IV, Odes 1 and 7.

Life is brief and death is coming, so enjoy each moment. Horace’s odes are organized around this philosophy; they tend to begin with a scene from nature or from society (a great banquet, a drinking party, a forest at dawn) and to progress from this concrete image to a brief argument that explains why (and how) the reader should enjoy what each day brings, without dreading the future. The odes aren’t united by any one subject; Horace addresses, in turn, various women, virgin maidens, his friend Septimus, and gods ranging from Calliope to Bacchus. He writes of the weather, nature, farm life (“All the farm beasts on the green ground / Gambol, and with time to spare / The world enjoys the open air”), the meaning of Roman citizenship, festivals, feasts, and love. But his philosophy of carpe diem (“pluck the day,” seizing whatever it brings without apprehension) shapes every poem. This pragmatic advice is given in full knowledge that death is inevitable, but Horace doesn’t see this as cause for mourning. Rather, the unstoppable approach of death becomes a moral center for his work: Accept your mortality and always act in the knowledge that time is short.

Horace’s composition of poetry is his own effort to “seize the present moment.” In his first ode, he describes the various ways that men choose to “grasp the day”; the charioteer competes for the victory palm, “others the civic crown desire,” still others accumulate wealth, or sail abroad for adventure, or fight in wars. “But learning renders me divine,” Horace concludes. “If I to lyric fame arise / My brow shall touch the very skies” (translation by Herbert Grant).


(c. 1000)

Recommended translations: Seamus Heaney’s translation, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (W. W. Norton, 2001), is head and shoulders above the rest. Heaney himself narrates an abridged audio version for Audible; it is worth a supplementary listen. J. R. R. Tolkien’s recently published translation, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), completed by his son Christopher, is popular with many readers; it is an enjoyable version with some wonderful lines, but I find Tolkien’s archaisms (“lo, “thou,” “spake,” “recalleth”) unnecessary and distracting. Heaney’s work remains the more lively and energetic read.

Beowulf, probably composed orally in the eighth century, was written down near the end of the tenth century in Old English (a Germanic dialect heavily influenced by Icelandic). It bears marks of its oral origin in its alliterative lines, which contain four stressed syllables, two or three of which begin with the same sound; and in its use of kenning, formulaic hyphenated names that describe people or objects in terms of their character qualities and provide extra syllables to fill out the meter (so, when necessary, the sea becomes the “whale-road,” a ship’s sail becomes the “sea-shawl,” and the monster Grendel is “God-cursed,” the “hall-watcher,” the “shadow-stalker” and “terror-monger”).

At the poem’s beginning, the Danish King Hrothgar has a problem; he has built a beautiful mead hall on a high, well-lit hill, but a monster, descended from the biblical Cain, stalks through the tangled swamps below, forever cut off from God and from man. Grendel attacks at night, eating Hrothgar’s men and terrifying his subjects, and no one can defeat him—until the hero Beowulf travels from Geatland to help. Beowulf fights Grendel with his bare hands and defeats him. But Grendel’s mother, thirsting for revenge, is twice as evil; Beowulf struggles to defeat her and eventually is forced to use a magic sword from the days of the giants to kill her. After his victories, Beowulf inherits the kingdom and rules peacefully for fifty years—until a thief, stealing a jeweled cup from a dragon’s lair, awakens the dragon. It roams through Beowulf’s land, burning houses and killing his subjects, and the old king arms himself for one last battle. He defeats the dragon, but dies in the process, and is burned on the shore as his people mourn.

Beowulf’s battles against the three monsters beg for allegorical interpretation. John Gardner suggests that the three foes represent the malfunction of three different parts of the soul (Grendel represents unreason, Grendel’s mother a lack of moral sense, the dragon a surrender to lust and greed); many other critics have pointed out that Beowulf is an obvious Christ figure who strides out to meet the Satanic dragon with twelve followers and dies to protect his people; Grendel, the monster from the plains, is the pagan soul cut off from God. Yet these undeniably Christian elements are mingled with a thoroughly un-Christian submission to impersonal fate (wyrd), an uncritical acceptance of the warrior ethic that demands revenge for the death of a kinsman, and a fervent belief in spells and ancient demons. Allegorical interpretations aside, the story is just plain good reading; you’ll hear it in phrases stolen by later writers, from Tolkien to Conan Doyle, and in Seamus Heaney’s hands, the verse ranges from beautiful to downright creepy:

A few miles from here

a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch

above a mere; the overhanging bank

is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.

At night there, something uncanny happens:

the water burns. And the mere bottom

has never been sounded by the sons of men.

On its banks, the heather-stepper halts:

the hart in flight from pursuing hounds

will turn to face them with firm set horns

and die in the wood rather than dive

beneath its surface. That is no good place.




Recommended translations: The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, translated by Robert Pinsky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). This idiomatic, energetic translation by an American poet has the Italian on facing pages. Anthony Esolen’s translation for Modern Library Classics (2005) is a lovely, forward-flowing version that also includes the Italian text; the lines are set in unrhymed iambic pentameter. The Allen Mandelbaum translation, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno, has been a standard for years and is still widely read; it is less idiomatic and more formal (Bantam Books, 1982).

On Good Friday, Dante (the narrator of his own poem) becomes lost in a dark wood; uncertain as to whether he is sleeping or waking, he tries to find his path but instead finds wild animals blocking his way. The ghost of the Roman poet Virgil appears, offering to show him the path, which will eventually lead Dante to Heaven and to the spirit of Beatrice, Dante’s lost love—but Virgil warns that the path will lead them through Hell first.

The journey through Hell reveals it to be made up of concentric circles, ranging from an outer belt where the least blameworthy reside (this Ante-Inferno contains the souls of those who lived “without disgrace and without praise,” worthy of neither heaven nor hell) to the innermost Ninth Circle, which contains those who betray their families, their countries, and their benefactors. At the very center of Hell is Lucifer himself, frozen in ice, and chewing on the three greatest sinners of history: Judas, who betrayed Christ, and Cassius and Brutus, who betrayed Caesar. (The point is the betrayal of a close and trusted friend, not a parallel between Caesar and Christ.) From the First to the Ninth Circle, Dante ranks sins from the least to the most reprehensible and provides a punishment for each. These punishments offer profound insights into the nature of evil, which is portrayed first as a choice, and then as an inevitability that traps its devotees in an eternal, sickening cycle. Sinners in Dante’s Inferno spend eternity performing acts that they despise, without any hope of an end.

In writing, Dante had always in mind the fourfold exegesis that Thomas Aquinas had prescribed for the interpretation of Scripture. His journey through hell is a literal adventure, but also an allegorical journey of a soul who glimpses the true nature of Satan’s kingdom, and beyond it the beauties of heaven (“My guide and I came on that hidden road,” Dante concludes, in Mandelbaum’s translation “to make our way back into the bright world . . . until I saw, / through a round opening, some of those things / of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there / that we emerged, to see—once more—the stars”); a tropological journey, showing the inevitable working out of all different varieties of sin; and an eschatological journey as well: it yields a glimpse of final judgment.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

(c. 1350)

Recommended translations from the original Middle English: Simon Armitage’s excellent Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation (W. W. Norton, 2008) has the original text on facing pages. Marie Boroff’s elegant translation, newly revised, is now available in a Norton Critical Edition (2009), edited by Laura L. Howes. Slightly more archaic in its language, but fun to read for echoes of Middle Earth, is the J. R. R. Tolkien translation, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo (Del Rey, 1979).

Gawain is a member of Arthur’s court, that bright, glittering, Hollywood-shiny palace filled with “the most noble knights known under Christ, / And the loveliest ladies that lived on earth ever.” At Christmas, a central feast of the Christian year, a Green Knight rides into Arthur’s hall, sneers at the knights (“There are about on these benches but beardless children!” he scoffs) and throws out a challenge: He will allow any knight to strike him with his axe, as long as he can return the blow a year from now. This challenge meets with silence, until Arthur himself stands up to accept it—at which point Gawain, his nephew and kinsman, offers to play the “game” instead. Gawain cuts off the Green Knight’s head, but the Knight picks his head up and departs, reminding Gawain to meet him at the “Green Chapel” in a year and a day.

A year passes, and Gawain—bound by his oath—sets out to find the Green Chapel. Lost in a wilderness, he prays to the Virgin Mary for guidance, and immediately sees a castle, where he goes for shelter. The lord and lady of the castle offer him hospitality for three days; each morning the lady tries to seduce him while her husband is out hunting, but Gawain rejects each temptation until the last, when she offers him a green girdle that will magically render him invincible. Gawain takes the girdle and keeps it a secret from the lord of the castle, even though he has promised to give his host anything he acquires during his stay. When Gawain finally does meet the Green Knight, the Knight flourishes the axe at him twice, nicks him once, and then reveals his true identity: He is the lord of the castle, and the nick is punishment for Gawain’s weakness in accepting the green girdle and keeping it secret. “True men pay what they owe,” the Green Knight remarks, “You lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there.” Gawain, ashamed at his failing, wears the green girdle afterward as part of his armor; and his fellow knights of the Round Table adopt the green belt as well, the “sign . . . of cowardice and coveting.”

The Camelot of the poem is rich in chivalry, that set of values which encompasses honesty, courtesy, respect for women, unswerving loyalty to leaders, and Christian faith. Yet there is a certain uneasiness at Camelot’s core, a doubt about whether this chivalry—the code that replaced the bloody, primitive warrior’s code of revenge found in Beowulf—is truly a manly substitute. Gawain is able to resist seduction, but in the end his courage fails him.

As you read, look for the poem’s characteristic use of the “bob and wheel” form: a stanza of long, alliterated lines, followed by a line with only two syllables (the “bob”) that connects the long-lined stanza with the “wheel,” a stanza of four short lines rhymed abab:

The stout stirrups were green, that steadied his feet. . .

That gleamed all and glinted with green gems about,

The steed he bestrides of that same green

so bright

A great horse great and thick;

A headstrong steed of might;

In broidered bridle quick,

Mount matched man aright.

—trans. by Marie Boroff (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), part I, lines 168–178


The Canterbury Tales
(c. 1343–1400)

Recommended editions: The Penguin Classics edition, translated by Nevill Coghill (Penguin Books, 2003), and the Oxford World’s Classics translation by David Wright (2011) both turn the Middle English verse into vivid, modern English verse. Wright’s version is a little more idiomatic and contemporary than Coghill’s. If you want to make a run at the Middle English, try the Norton Critical Edition, The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue, edited by V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson (1989); this reader-friendly edition provides plenty of vocabulary notes and explanatory footnotes.

Be sure to read: The Prologue, the Knight’s Tale, the Miller’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, the Pardoner’s Tale, and Chaucer’s Retraction.

Chaucer’s pilgrims set out from London, that secular city, on a journey to Canterbury, the center of the Christian faith in England. The journey, which also has the allegorical significance of man’s journey toward heaven, has its oddities: it is at least a three-day trip, but the pilgrims never seem to sleep; the group of pilgrims is impossibly varied, containing a representative of every level of society, from the aristocratic Knight down to the blue-collar Miller.

Around the fire, each pilgrim tells a story—the Canterbury Tales. For these stories, Chaucer uses common medieval literary forms: the estates satire, a stereotypical portrait of the vices of a particular social class; the romance, a long, serious tale, often historical, told by a serious and trustworthy narrator, usually concerning knights, kings, and other aristocratic personages; the fabliaux, a short story featuring low-class characters and obscene humor; the beast fable, like Aesop’s fables, a moral tale starring talking animals; the exemplum, a brief moral tale, a preacher’s illustration. Yet he uses each form with a wink and a nudge, parodying the conventions of each; the Tales are no more “real” than are the pilgrims, who (although on a religious journey) spend their time drinking, feasting, singing, and telling dirty jokes. The Knight’s Tale, a long (and boring) romance between highborn characters, is immediately followed by the Miller’s Tale, which reverses every single convention of the romance by putting lecherous and stupid characters at the center of the plot and which culminates, not in a chaste kiss, but in scatological humor. The Wife of Bath’s tale, which (she assures us) will reveal what women really want, ends up describing what men really want (a wife who is perpetually young and beautiful and entirely submissive).

At the end of his book, Chaucer primly retracts the Tales along with his other “worldly translations,” thus shifting the blame for enjoying them onto the reader. Scholars argue endlessly about this Retraction. Is it genuine, the product of a deathbed repentance? Was it inserted by later scribes? Is it ironic, a jab from the poet at the idea that tales must be “unworldly” to be worthwhile? The last explanation seems most likely; the Canterbury Tales, told by pilgrims who (theoretically) have their minds on higher things, illustrate the impossibility of keeping the imagination on those things rather than on earthly matters.




Recommended editions: Shakespeare’s sonnets are available online and in multiple editions, including Complete Sonnets (Dover Thrift Editions, 1991), Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004).

Be sure to read: 3, 16, 18, 19, 21, 29, 30, 36, 40, 60, 98, 116, 129, 130, 152.

Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a particular English sonnet form. Each is written in iambic pentameter, a rhythm scheme in which each line has ten syllables; those syllables are divided into pairs, or “feet,” known as iambs. Each iamb has an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable; when these are scanned, or written in poetic notation, they are noted as u —


The sonnets contain fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. The first twelve lines are divided into three quatrains, each containing four lines with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef. These quatrains are related in meaning; they present three parallel ideas, or build an argument in three points. Or the first quatrain presents an idea and then the next two complicate it or explain it. The final two lines, a rhymed couplet, have the rhyme scheme gg (they rhyme only with each other). Although Shakespeare keeps to this rhyme scheme, he occasionally also makes use of the Petrarchan development of meaning, in which the first eight lines pose a problem while the next six solve or react to it. This sonnet form can begin to guide your reading: The sonnets do not convey impressions or moods, or relate stories; they propose problems and search for answers.

Although the sonnets can be read separately (and reams of criticism have been written on every aspect of their construction), they have traditionally also been read as parts of a whole, as one sequence. Read in this way, the poems seem to reveal a “narrator” who is not necessarily Shakespeare himself. The “Poet,” as a fictional character, can be discerned behind the sonnets; he is discontented, restless, resisting calmness and repose. Three other characters can also be found in the sonnets. The “Dark Lady” is referred to in Sonnet 127 as a “black beauty”; “My mistress’ eyes are raven-black,” the Poet explains. The “Dark Lady” is described again in Sonnets 130, 131, and 132, and is referred to elsewhere; a Rival Poet, shows up in nine sonnets (21, 78–80, and 82–86); and a Young Man, addressed in the first seventeen sonnets, is praised for his youth and (fleeting) beauty and is encouraged to marry and pass his beauty on to children: “Then what could death do if thou shoudst depart,” the Poet asks in Sonnet 6, “Leaving thee living in posterity?”



Recommended edition: John Donne: The Complete English Poems, edited by A. J. Smith (Penguin Classics, 1977). This edition has careful endnotes explaining all of Donne’s references and interpreting Donne’s conceits. The Modern Library Classics edition, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne ( 2001), also includes several of Donne’s best-known sermons, a collection of his letters, and other writings.

Be sure to read: Elegy 1 (“To his Mistress Going to Bed”), Elegy 12 (“Nature’s lay idiot”), “The Flea,” “Song [‘Go, and catch a falling star’],” “The Sun Rising,” “The Canonization,” “Air and Angels,” “Love’s Alchemy,” “The Bait,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “The Ecstasy,” and the sixteen-sonnet sequence Holy Sonnets.

John Donne’s reputation as a dissolute, poetry-spouting rake who miraculously mutated into a devout priest and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral isn’t entirely deserved. True, Donne did spend the first part of his life as a courtier and man about town, and he did carry on an affair with his employer’s sixteen-year-old niece, Anne More, when he was himself nearly thirty. But he married Anne (after her father had him jailed) and lived with her faithfully afterward. And although Donne’s poetry is traditionally divided into two parts—the earthy love poetry written in the first part of his life, and the poetry of devotion to God produced during his later years—he actually began writing religious poetry years before he became a priest, and was still producing amorous verses two years after his ordination.

John Donne’s poetry is marked by the use of the “metaphysical conceit,” a device that draws together two unlikely images, objects, or ideas in order to illustrate an unexpected similarity between them (a prime illustration of the new Renaissance belief in the interconnectedness of all things). Probably the most notorious of Donne’s conceits appears in “The Flea,” which compares sex to a blood-swollen flea which has bitten the two lovers; sex and the flea both mingle the blood of the two into one body. “Mark but this flea,” the impatient lover tells his reluctant mistress, “and mark in this, / How little that which thou deny’st me is.” She won’t sleep with him out of her sense of honor, but—he points out—the flea is already combining their bodily fluids, and no one is suffering from shame. (It is, he adds pathetically, more fortunate than he.)

Donne’s Holy Sonnets, written later in his life, are Petrarchan sonnets (combining an eight-line octet, rhymed abbaabba with a six-line sestet; the sestet’s rhyme scheme varies, but the last two lines usually rhyme and provide a conclusion). They make use of less grotesque conceits. “I am a little world made cunningly / Of elements, and an angelic sprite,” begins the fifth meditation, continuing on to describe the little world’s betrayal to sin and the judgment of fire that must consume it. And Donne’s heart becomes first a besieged castle, then an occupied village, and finally a captive maiden in “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” which concludes,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Throughout the Sonnets, Donne’s poetic persona is capable of no good on his own; he is a helpless slave of sin and Satan, needing violent action on the part of God to rescue him. “Not one hour I can myself sustain,” he writes, and concludes “Meditation 2” with a desperate appeal to Christ the Warrior:

Except thou rise and for thine own work fight,

Oh I shall soon despair, when I do see

That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,

And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.




Recommended edition: You can read the Psalms from any “Authorized Text,” but be careful that you’re not reading from the Revised Standard Version, which is a twentieth-century revision of a British revision of the Authorized Version, or from a “New King James,” which is also a contemporary revision. Oxford World’s Classics publishes a paperback version of the 1611 translation, The Bible: Authorized King James Version, edited by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (2008). For a 1611 version that preserves the spelling, original marginal notes, and translators’ preface, look for the hardcover Holy Bible: King James Version, 1611 Edition (Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).

Be sure to read: Psalms 1, 2, 5, 23, 27, 51, 57, 89, 90, 91, 103, 109, 119, 121, 132, 136, 148, 150.

The “Authorized Version” of the Bible, a translation sponsored by King James of England, affected the English language for centuries afterward, and the Psalms—the Bible’s book of poems—has colored the language of poets right through the twentieth century. The translators of this 1611 English-language version of the Bible intended to make a Bible that was accessible to all readers. Translation, they wrote in their preface, “openeth the window, to let in the light . . . breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel . . . putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place . . . removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.” In their attempt to make the Psalms “open” to seventeenth-century English readers, the translators rendered Hebrew poetry into good English, keeping some Hebrew conventions and doing enormous violence to others. They faithfully retained the typical Hebrew structure of a poetic line as involving two (and less frequently, three) parallel phrases, a structure evident in Psalm 2:1–4.

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together,

against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,

Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

In each line of Hebrew poetry, the first phrase is followed by a second parallel phrase. The second phrase may restate the first in different words (synonymous parallelism); it may contradict the first (antithetic parallelism); it may repeat the first phrase but add to it (repetitive parallelism), or the second phrase may express an effect, of which the first phrase is the cause (causative parallelism):

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul, he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,

For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

—Psalm 23:1–4

The singsong parallelism of the King James version of the Psalms shows up in the work of later poets, Milton not the least:

By sudden onset, either with Hell fire
To waste his whole creation, or possess
All as our own, and drive as we were driven,
The puny habitants, or if not drive,
Seduce them to our party, that their God
May prove their foe, and with repenting hand. . . .
—Paradise Lost, book II

The connecting “ands” of the King James Bible, a faithful translation of the Hebrew “waw consecutive” which strings Hebrew sentences together, also show up again and again in later poetry, particularly poetry written in a self-consciously biblical mode:

And are there other sorrows beside the sorrows of poverty?

And are there other joys beside the joys of riches and ease?

And is there not one law for both the lion and the ox?

And is there not eternal fire and eternal chains,

To bind the phantoms of existence from eternal life?

—William Blake, “The Vision of the Daughters of Albion”


Paradise Lost


Recommended editions: The Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg (2008), has the explanatory footnotes (extremely helpful, since Milton uses archaic expressions and hundreds of obscure classical references) at the bottom of the page. The Norton Critical Edition, edited by Gordon Teskey (2004), has modernized spelling, explanatory footnotes, and a lot more: essays on sources, backgrounds, reception, and criticism.

Be sure to read: Paradise Lost. No one but Milton scholars ever tackles Paradise Regained.

Milton’s fascination with all things classical is partly a manifestation of his love for order and symmetry; in Paradise Lost, Milton’s retelling of the Genesis 1–3 story of the Fall, Hell is characterized by chaos and pandemonium (a word invented by Milton), while Heaven is a place where everyone speaks in calm voices and moves in preordained patterns. But his sympathy for the ancient epics also stems from his sympathy for the ancient view of man as essentially helpless to change history, able only to act nobly in the face of forces beyond his comprehension or control. In Paradise Lost, a “secondary epic” (a written poem that copies the conventions of oral epic), these forces are Christianized; they are represented by God and by Christ, who have a plan, set into place before the foundation of the world, which even includes Satan’s temptation and Adam’s fall. This plan acts as the organizing backbone of history; Milton promises, in his prologue, that Paradise Lost will “justify the ways of God to man,” and indeed the poem seems to organize all of existence into a flow chart that accounts for every aspect of the universe. Milton’s God is reasonable; his Satan is driven by envy and the lust for revenge, two unreasonable emotions; Eve falls because she allows her sense to triumph over her reason. As the poem progresses, the reader finds much more interest in Satan than in any of the rational, sinless “good guys”; it is difficult to make an emotional connection with Christ’s sinless perfection, but relatively easy to identify with gnawing jealousy.

And this, as Stanley Fish notes in his classic study Surprised by Sin, is exactly Milton’s aim; the poem seduces the reader into reenacting the Fall, allowing emotion and sympathy to triumph over reason and judgment. The true Fall, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, happens not when Eve chooses to eat the apple—Eve, after all, is a vain creature, driven by sensation, who spends more time gazing at her reflection than working in the garden. It happens when Adam, realizing that Eve’s sin will cause God to destroy her, decides to eat as well so that they can remain together. Milton (in Fish’s words) aims to “re-create in the mind of the reader . . . the drama of the Fall, to make him fall again exactly as Adam did and with Adam’s troubled clarity, that is to say, ‘not deceived.’ ” In this, Milton demonstrates that for all his love of reason, he too knows its limits; it is perfectly possible to reason one’s way to a logical but devastating conclusion.


Songs of Innocence and of Experience


Recommended editions: Although the poems themselves have been republished multiple times, you should read them along with the full-color illustrations; the poems were originally published as companion pieces to Blake’s mystical paintings. Editions with the paintings include Songs of Innocence and Experience: Illustrated Throughout in Full Color (Oxford University Press, 1977), with an introduction by Sir Geoffrey Keynes; Songs of Experience: Facsimile Reproduction with 26 Plates in Full Color (Dover Publications, 1984); and Songs of Innocence: Color Facsimile of the First Edition with 31 Color Plates (Dover Publications, 1971).

The poems in Blake’s Songs of Innocence have darker parallels in Songs of Experience; the enlightened, natural, pure state depicted in the Innocence poems is vulnerable to the corruptions of government, society, and organized religion. “Nurse’s Song” in Songs of Innocence tells of children playing, unfettered by parental or school authority: The children cry out to their nurse at bedtime,

  “No, no, let us play, for it is yet day

  And we cannot go to sleep;

  Besides, in the sky the little birds fly

  And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.”

  “Well, well, go & play till the light fades away

  And then go home to bed.”

  The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d

  And all the hills ecchoed.

But the companion piece in Songs of Experience shows a warped and distorted adult, looking back on those children with scorn.

  When the voices of children are heard on the green

  And whisp’rings are in the dale,

  The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,

  My face turns green and pale.

  Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,

  And the dews of night arise;

  Your spring & your day are wasted in play,

  And your winter and night in disguise.

In Blake’s poems, rationality is the straitjacket that reduces the energetic, creative child to a dull, passive adult. An authentic existence is one in which we are free to act on impulse; Energy is Blake’s God, and the God of the church (the one whom, as Blake writes, inscribes “Do Not” on the doors of his chapels) is actually the Devil, out to destroy humanity. “Energy is the only life,” Blake writes, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight. Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained. And being restrain’d, it by degrees became passive.” Blake’s poetry, written in a wild and unfettered mix of rhyme and meter, is exhortation; it aims to set that desire free again.



Recommended editions: The Oxford World’s Classics edition, William Wordsworth: The Major Works, Including the Prelude, edited by Stephen Gill (2008), or the Modern Library Classics paperback, Selected Poetry of William Wordsworth, edited by Mark Van Doren (2002).

Be sure to read: “Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” “The Idiot Boy,” “It Is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free,” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree,” “Lines Written in Early Spring,” “London, 1802,” “Lucy Gray,” “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” “The Prelude,” “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways,” “Simon Lee,” “The World Is Too Much With Us.”

In 1798, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published together a volume called Lyrical Ballads—a collection of Wordsworth’s lyrical poems along with Coleridge’s mystical Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These poems mark, for most critics, the formal beginning of Romantic poetry as a movement. Wordsworth shares Blake’s suspicion of rationality, and his conviction that a divine force exists in humans; but, unlike Blake, Wordsworth interprets the divine not as a wild mystic force, but as a gentle enlightening presence that infuses both man and nature. “I have felt,” Wordsworth wrote, in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,”

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

For Wordsworth, the pastoral poem (the poem of nature) is a device which gives him a glimpse of the Sublime, the divine creative force. He can sense the Sublime in “fleeting moods / Of shadowy exaltation” (to quote his long autobiographical poem The Prelude). But Wordsworth, like all men, constantly struggles for that sense of the Sublime; it is quickly blotted out by the artificial world, by cities, conventional rules of manners, education, the patter of social conversation. Wordsworth longs to shake free from all of this. He is fond of individuals, but not enthusiastic about society; his heroine is Lucy Gray, who disappears from the middle of a snow-covered bridge, leaving no tracks, and is afterward seen singing a “solitary song” alone on the heath; in “Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” he finds the city most majestic when it is empty and sleeping.

In his search for the Sublime, Wordsworth celebrates childhood (a time when man can remember the “clouds of glory” that accompanied his birth, when the “prison house” of education has not yet closed around him) and the natural world; for Wordsworth, the pastoral (“nature”) poem is a window into the divine. Yet his musings on nature have an overtone of the tragic; he is constantly aware of his own separation from the glory that infuses the natural world. At best, he can get only a sideways glimpse of truth; he only sees the glory darkly. In Book I of The Prelude, he describes such a revelation, which comes after he gazes at a mountain, towering over a lake at sunset:

[A]fter I had seen

That spectacle, for many days my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts

There was a darkness—call it solitude

Or blank desertion—no familiar shapes

Of hourly objects, images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields,

But huge and mighty forms that do not live

Like living men moved slowly through my mind.



Recommended editions: The Penguin Classics paperback, The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (1997), or the Oxford World’s Classics edition, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works, edited by H. J. Jackson (2009).

Be sure to read: “Christabel,” “Dejection: An Ode,” “The Eolian Harp,” “Kubla Khan,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”

Coleridge, Wordsworth’s partner in poetry, shares Wordsworth’s view of nature as a place where the divine lives; in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” he writes of the “deep joy” that comes when, “silent with swimming sense,” he gazes at sunset “on the wide landscape . . . of such hues / As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes / Spirits perceive his presence.” But while Wordsworth believed that the poet can serve as a prophet, crafting poems that—in their appeal to the imagination—reveal some kind of truth about human existence, Coleridge was less certain.

In his narrative poems (“Kubla Khan,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) Coleridge makes myths, like Blake; but he lacks Blake’s sublime confidence in his own ability to communicate. The “prophet” of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is unbalanced, if not insane; in “Kubla Khan,” the narrator recalls a mythical city with walls and towers; he hears a maid singing verses, and mourns, “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song . . . I would build that dome in air . . . And all who heard should see them there.” But the poem breaks off; the poet cannot construct the dome again; the maid’s verses are lost, and so is the city. As Coleridge aged, he had (in Jerome McGann’s words) “nightmares: that the love, the knowledge, and the imagination which he has believed in are chimeras, at best momentary defenses against the world’s ancestral violence and darkness.”20 Coleridge himself writes, in “Dejection: An Ode,” “Afflictions bow me down to earth. . . . Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, / Reality’s dark dream!” He turns to the imaginative faculty, hoping to find relief from the darkness of reality: “There was a time, when . . . Fancy made me dreams of happiness: / For hope grew round me, like the twining vine.” But the vine imagery is itself disturbing, implying an ominous stranglehold related to the idea of “hope”; and as the mythical poems reveal, Coleridge’s imagination provided him with little relief.

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody Sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion,

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

—From “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”



Recommended editions: John Keats: The Complete Poems, edited by John Barnard (Penguin Classics, 1977), or Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats, edited by Edward Hirsch (Modern Library Classics, 2001).

Be sure to read: “Endymion,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Hyperion: A Fragment,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “To Autumn.”

Keats, writing a generation after Coleridge and Wordsworth, saw both of these “elder statesmen” of the Romantic movement as hampered by the necessity of explanation. The poet’s job, Keats wrote, is not to explain; rather, the poet is marked by “negative capability,” the ability to hold “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” in the mind, without any “irritable reaching after fact & reason.” The purpose of the poem is not to search for solutions; the purpose of the poem is beauty.

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

—From “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

The poetry of Keats—and his condemnation of the older Romantics for their “irritable reaching”—reveals the ongoing development of Romantic thought. Where Coleridge and Wordsworth were trying to demonstrate the ways in which man could come into direct contact with the Sublime, Keats took it for granted that the depiction of perfect beauty would reveal the Sublime to man, whether or not he was bothering to search for it. Furthermore, Keats’s definition of “beauty” did not have primarily to do with the imagination; it had to do with the senses. Keats’s poetry is full of sound, sight, warmth and cold, smell. Physical sensation, not the imagination (which originates in the mind) was the path to the sublime. When Keats accused Coleridge and Wordsworth of laboring too hard over their poetry, he saw them with furrowed brows, trying to think their way to the Sublime. Instead, Keats suggested, the poet should cultivate a passive receptiveness to the senses.

[L]oad and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel. . . .

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

Among the river shallows, borne aloft

Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies. . . .

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

—From “To Autumn”



Recommended editions: The Penguin Classics paperback, Longfellow: Selected Poems, edited by Lawrence Buell (1988), or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems & Other Writings, edited by J. D. McClatchy (Library of America # 118, 2000).

Be sure to read: “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “Hiawatha’s Childhood,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Village Blacksmith,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus.”

Longfellow, a staple of school readers, tends to be short-shrifted by critics. Writing at the same time as Dickinson and Whitman, he told stories about the American past while they struggled with the American identity. But those stories are, like Frost’s poems, a “momentary stay against confusion”; Longfellow is a poetic conservative, reacting to the uncertainties of the present by building a nostalgic American past. He is the American Milton, finding patterns and writing them overtop of chaos; pouring an orderly foundation underneath a building that already stands. Longfellow has largely been booted out of the academy, partly because he (unlike John Keats) had no interest in literary theory. Longfellow was widely known as a “fireside poet” (which is to say, a poet read for enjoyment). His absence from academic writing on poetry and his ongoing popularity with “regular readers” illustrates the beginning of that split between academic and popular audiences which grew impossibly broad in the early 1990s.

Longfellow’s narrative poems use meter to reinforce the spoken, “epic” quality of his stories, and he matches form to content; the triple rhythms of “Paul Revere’s Ride”:

ONE if by LAND, and TWO if by SEA,

and I on the OPposite SHORE will BE

are reminiscent of galloping hooves. In the Song of Hiawatha Longfellow uses a “trochaic meter,” in which the stress falls on the first syllable of each syllable pair, rather than on the second:

ON the MOUNtains OF the PRArie,

ON the GREAT red PIPE-stone QUARry,

GITche ManiTO, the MIGHty,

HE the MAST’R of LIFE, deSCENding,

ON the RED crags OF the QUARry. . . .

This reversal of iambic meter sounds like an Indian drum.



Recommended editions: Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works, ed. Adam Roberts (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009), or Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poems, ed. Christopher Ricks (Penguin Classics, rev. ed., 2008). Neither contains the complete Idylls of the King, so you may need to add the Penguin Classics edition of the Idylls, edited by J. M. Gray (1989).

Be sure to read: “The Dying Swan,” The Idylls of the King, “In Memoriam,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “Ulysses.”

Tennyson, like Longfellow, is an orderly poet. In the long literary epic The Idylls of the King, Tennyson does for the English past what Longfellow does for the American past: He creates a myth for it, retelling the story of Camelot in blank verse (and creating, almost singlehandedly, the romantic tournaments-and-ladies Camelot that governed English and American imaginations for a hundred years). The Idylls of the King lays out an orderly, Miltonic universe, in which Arthur is determined to make his country work by reasonable regulation: “The old order changeth,” Arthur declares, as he is crowned king, “yielding place to the new.” In Arthur’s new Round Table (which he describes, tellingly, as the “Order” which “lives to crush / All wrongers of the realm”) every knight who follows the rules is rewarded, and knights who break the rules are punished.

At least until Lancelot comes along. Passion wrecks this Order; good knights die, evil knights triumph, Arthur himself weeps, before the final battle,

I found Him in the shining of the stars,

I mark’d Him in the flowering of His fields,

But in His ways with men I find Him not.

I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.

The Table has failed; Arthur kills his own son and is borne off into the West, and the order disintegrates into chaos. Was this disintegration inevitable? Tennyson never makes a final judgment; this resistance to a final conclusion marks some of his most famous poetry.

Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies,

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower—but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.

—“Flower in the Crannied Wall”

This seems to express a faith in an order that starts with the smallest element of creation and extends unbroken to the greatest; an Enlightenment-inspired confidence in the ultimate rationality of the universe. Yet the poem does contain an if; Tennyson’s understanding of God and man depends on his understanding of the flower, and the poem makes no prediction about whether he will ever reach this understanding.



Recommended editions: The Signet Classics paperback, edited by Peter Davison (2013), or Leaves of Grass: The “Death-Bed” Edition, from Modern Library Classics (2001). Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855 and was continually revised and republished by Whitman during his lifetime; the Signet and Modern Library editions both offer the final “deathbed” version of the poem, published in 1892. You can also consult Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition (Dover Thrift Editions, 2007). The Norton Critical Edition, Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, ed. Michael Moon, reproduces both version of the poem.

Be sure to read: Leaves of Grass is less like a book of poems than like one massive poem with multiple parts. However, certain sections of this huge work are more often cited: They are (listed in order of occurrence within Leaves of Grass) “I Hear America Singing,” “Song of Myself,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Song of the Open Road,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” “The Wound-Dresser,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “O Captain, My Captain.”

Whitman isn’t the first modern poet; he’s the last Romantic. Like the English Romantics, he celebrates the immense diversity of human existence; he is convinced that each of us can find sublime knowledge through experiencing the world (“You shall possess the good of the earth and sun,” he writes, in “Song of Myself,” “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand . . . nor feed on the spectres in books. . . . A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books”).

The Romantic poets put themselves squarely into their own poetry, attempting to show readers the Sublime by chronicling their own experiences with it. Whitman takes this Romantic strategy even further. He chronicles not simply his experiences, but himself: “I dote on myself,” he writes, “there is that lot of me and all so luscious.” (Yes, he’s serious; Whitman’s celebrations of his own body occasionally go over the top.) Like an autobiographer, Whitman creates himself in Leaves of Grass, in a compelling and oddly contradictory manner. His purpose is to represent himself, simply, as an American—a “common man” who is, paradoxically, both common and unique. He is both “one of a kind” and representative of all mankind; he is both individual and all men:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,

Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,

No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,

No more modest than immodest.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!

Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

—From “Song of Myself”

Busy breaking down barriers and opening doors, insisting on the complete equality of all humans, Whitman removes the door of traditional poetic form from its jambs and refuses to walk through it. Leaves of Grass, which attempts to capture the natural rhythms of American speech, is mostly without meter or rhythm. (The most notable exception is “O Captain, My Captain,” the elegy for Lincoln, which has a more traditional form.) This confident rejection of formal poetics reveals Whitman’s complete and total confidence in his own poetry. No Coleridgean dejection for Whitman; he is Blake minus God, confidently sure that poetry can serve as a kind of new Scripture for a new kind of American, set free from superstition and able to shape his or her own life. Whitman never seems to doubt his own authority, and Leaves of Grass continually announces its own status as a book of truth for all.

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy. . . .

Through me many long dumb voices,

Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves. . . .

Through me forbidden voices,

Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,

Voice indecent by me clarified and transfigured. . . .

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,

Seeing, hearing, feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,

The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,

This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

—From “Song of Myself”



Recommended edition: Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems, edited by Thomas Johnson (Back Bay Books, 1976). Dickinson’s poems have been published in many different editions, but this is one of the few to maintain Dickinson’s own punctuation and capitalization, which make up part of her poetic strategy.

Be sure to read: “A bird came down the walk,” “A narrow fellow in the grass,” “A word is dead,” “Because I could not stop for Death,” “Before I got my eye put out,” “Each life converges to some center,” “Hope is the thing with feathers,” “I died for beauty,” “I felt a funeral in my brain,” “I had been hungry all the years,” “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “I never saw a moor,” “I took my power in my hand,” “I’m nobody? Who are you?” “Much madness is divinest sense,” “Safe in their alabaster chambers,” “There is a pain so utter,” “The soul selects her own society,” “ ’Twas just this time last year I died.”

Dickinson, not Whitman, is the first American modernist. Where Whitman overflows with boundless confidence in the power of poetry, Dickinson remains skeptical; where Whitman sees an America filled with the energetic enthusiasm of the common man, Dickinson sees the inevitability of chaos and decay. She did not deny the possibility of ecstatic experience, but she had no hope that any glory would linger:

Except the heaven had come so near,

So seemed to choose my door,

The distance would not haunt me so;

I had not hoped before.

But just to hear the grace depart

I never thought to see,

Afflicts me with a double loss;

’Tis lost, and lost to me.

—“Except the heaven had come so near” [XXXI]

In her poems, Dickinson (famously remaining in her home in Massachusetts almost all of her life) turns away from the Romantic preoccupation with “encountering the Sublime” and instead attempts to account for a world in which she is constantly confronted with the reality of approaching death. Dickinson’s poems have flashes of delight, but joy is not her natural home:

I can wade grief,
Whole pools of it, —
I’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet
—From “I can wade grief”[IX]

She is not, in the end, on good terms with the world; her experiences in it are always marked by discomfort, by doubt, and by the inability to settle on a definite interpretation of her experiences, one that makes sense of the different parts of her life according to some overall plan. This alienation becomes one of the characteristic marks of modern poetry.

In her poetry, Dickinson seems to battle with the constraints of language—not to rejoice in its expressiveness, as Whitman does. She retains a careful poetic meter, often using a “hymn rhythm” (an alternation of four-beat and three-beat lines):

Not knowing when the dawn will come

I open every door

—From “Dawn” [VII]

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

—From “The Chariot” [XXVII]

or a similar four-line pattern of three/three/four/three beats:

The bustle in a house

The morning after death

Is solemnest of industries

Enacted upon earth,—

—From “The bustle in a house” [XXII]

But the regular meters are complicated by her tendency to use irregular stresses, lengthy pauses noted by dashes, and distorted syntax—as though normal English syntax were inadequate for her thoughts. As Dickinson grew older, her use of poetic form became less and less regular; she began to refuse to choose among words, sometimes writing three and four choices in a row without crossing any out. Before her death, she was writing poems in fragments, sideways, on scraps, upside down—straining for a form of expression unbounded by print.



Recommended editions: The Complete Poems, edited by R. W. Crump and Betty S. Flowers (Penguin Classics, 2001), or Rossetti: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Be sure to read: “A Better Resurrection,” “A Birthday,” “After Death,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Convent Threshold,” “De Profundis,” “Dream Land,” “Goblin Market,” “Good Friday,” “Maude Clare,” “Monna Innominata,” “The Prince’s Progress,” “Remember,” “Sister Maude,” “The Three Enemies,” “Up-Hill,” “When I am dead, my dearest.”

While only eleven of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime, Christina Rossetti gained a fair degree of fame. Rossetti’s poetry is preoccupied with the problem of different passions existing side by side: poetry and love, the love of God and the love of men, the love of men and friendship with women, poetry and God. Exploring these tensions, Rossetti always seems to conclude that one passion will have to be renounced so that the other can flourish. In most cases, it is earthly love that proves flawed, or destructive; in her most famous narrative poem, “Goblin Market,” she writes of a young (virgin) girl tempted away by goblins who offer her luscious “goblin fruits.” She eats them and is immediately addicted. Her innocence and creativity diminish into an obsession with physical satisfaction:

While with sunken eyes and faded mouth

She dreamed of melons, as a traveller sees,

False waves in desert drouth. . . .

But in other poems, Rossetti writes of the equally frightening possibility that no “goblin” will ever offer fruit at all:

You took my heart in your hand

With a friendly smile,

With a critical eye you scanned,

Then set it down,

And said: It is still unripe,

Better wait awhile.

—From “Twice”

These poems are full, not only of disappointment, but of betrayal; in both the lyric poems and the narrative poems, those who hope to find true fulfillment in love always end up disillusioned.

Rossetti, like her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the poet Charles Swinburne, and the painter William Morris, belonged to an informal circle of artists known as “Pre-Raphaelites,” who thought that art and poetry (which they saw as two methods of expressing the same ideas) had been distorted by the Romantics into a preoccupation with beauty instead of a discovery of truth. With the detailed works of medieval artists (those who came before Raphael) as their models, the Pre-Raphaelites set out to discover a new simplicity in the portrayal of people and landscapes. In poetry, this Pre-Raphaelite emphasis appears as close attention to detail and to the senses: sight, sound, color, and taste. In its glorification of the past, Pre-Raphaelite poetry also made heavy use of medieval (or at least medieval-sounding) myths and tales; Rossetti’s poetry is a mix of lyric explorations of renunciation and rich, detailed, sensuous narrative fables. Her attention to detail extends to the form of her poems as well; Rossetti pays close attention to meter and rhyme, never writing “free verse” or conversational verse as Whitman does, but often juggling the stresses of her lines, cutting them short or changing her meter unexpectedly:

“We must not look at goblin men,

We must not buy their fruits;

Who knows upon what soil they fed

Their hungry thirsty roots?”

“Come buy,” call the goblins. . . .

The customary cry,

“Come, buy, come, buy,”

With its iterated jingle,

Of sugar-baited words . . .

That goblin cry.



Recommended editions: Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009), or Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, ed. W. H. Gardner (Penguin Classics, 1953).

Be sure to read: “God’s Grandeur,” “Pied Beauty,” “The Caged Skylark,” “The Windhover,” “Carrion Comfort,” “No worst,” and “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

Hopkins’s poems are remarkable for two reasons: in them, a genuine and deep religious faith coexists with an equally genuine and deep despair; and he manages to express this contradiction in entirely original meters, rhymes, and even words. Attempting to explain an impossible relationship between belief and anguish, one which could not be contained within accepted religious language, he did violence to language itself.

Hopkins’s poetry is governed by his theory of “individuation”: Each created thing has a beauty that “inheres” in it and makes it distinct. He coined two terms to help him express this principle: “inscape,” the individual, distinct, “oneness” of each natural thing; and “instress,” the force or unique energy which maintains this individuality. Instress keeps objects together, but it also makes them distinct to the looker: “Instress,” to quote W. H. Gardner, is “a sudden perception of that deeper pattern, order, and unity which gives meaning to external forms.”21 For Hopkins, instress keeps him from final despair; it shows him, if only fleetingly, the “deeper pattern” behind the dis-order that threatens to overwhelm him. The “beauty of inscape,” Hopkins wrote in his journal, is “near at hand . . . if [we] had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again.” In poetry, he attempts to make this beauty clear.

To do so, Hopkins makes the poems themselves into unique objects with their own “inscape.” His innovative “sprung rhythm,” which he first used in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” is a complicated meter that (in Hopkins’s own words) counts “accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong.” Each line of the poetry may be a different length, but each contains the correct number of “strong” syllables. (It’s very difficult to find these syllables without help; Hopkins used to mark the strong syllables in his poems, but most modern editions of his poetry eliminate the marks.) He also used nontraditional rhyming schemes (alliteration, assonance, internal rhymes) along with traditional end rhymes, and makes up his own adjectives (and nouns) whenever existing words seem inadequate:

I kiss my hand

To the stars, lovely-asunder

Starlight, wafting him out of it; and

Glow, glory in thunder;

Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west;

Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,

His mystery must be instressed, stressed;

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

—From “The Wreck of the Deutschland

Hopkins became a Catholic priest, entering a theological world in which the physical always gives witness to God; his days are never “just” days, birds never “just” birds, a field never “just” dirt; God inheres in all of creation.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

—From “Pied Beauty”



Recommended edition: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 2nd rev. ed., edited by Richard J. Finneran (Scribner’s, 1996).

Be sure to read: “A Prayer for My Daughter,” “The Cap and Bells,” “Down by the Salley Gardens,” “Easter 1916,” “The Coming of Wisdom with Time,” “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Leda and the Swan,” “The Magi,” “Memory,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Second Coming,” “The Secret Rose,” “September 1913,” “Three Things,” “The Wheel,” “When You Are Old,” “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

Yeats, an Irish Protestant with a mystical bent, constructed his own cosmology; he saw the world as progressing through two-thousand-year cycles, each cycle dominated by one particular civilization and that civilization’s set of myths. The close of each cycle is marked by disintegration, chaos, and disorder; this disorder in turn leads to the birth of a new cycle. “The Second Coming” describes the end of the cycle before the coming of Christ, which led in turn to the beginning of Yeats’s own age:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats, like the other great Modernists, sees chaos, dissolution, and violence in his own age—but unlike later poets, he finds a pattern behind the chaos. The current age, he suggested, was even now decaying downwards to its end, but its death would lead to rebirth. He pictures each two-thousand-year cycle as a “gyre,” a spiraling cone of time; each gyre rotates completely around, and as it draws to an end, a new beginning emerges.

What matter though numb nightmare ride on top. . . .

What matter? Heave no sigh, let no tear drop,

A greater, a more gracious time has gone. . . .

What matter? Out of cavern comes a voice,

And all it knows is that one word “Rejoice!”

—From “The Gyres”

These “gyres” reappear, consistently, throughout Yeats’s poetry and prose. They represent the connected nature of all time; each cycle appears separate, but if viewed from above (from a God’s-eye perspective), they all prove to be part of a single pattern. Disorder always leads to order, death to life, chaos to a new pattern.

Yeats, Irish by birth, made himself into a poet of Ireland and a spokesman for “Irish folk culture”; sympathetic to Ireland’s wish for independence from Britain, he became a senator of the Irish Free State at the age of fifty-seven. “Easter 1916,” one of his most enduring poems, commemorates the defeat of Irish nationalists by British troops in an Easter uprising in Dublin, and ascribes to the uprising itself a “terrible beauty.” But the Protestant Yeats did not share the faith of the Irish Catholic nationalists, and as he grew older he seems to have become increasingly discontented with the violence of the nationalist movement. As the great contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney puts it, he was plagued by “self-divisions.” “He famously declared,” Heaney writes, “that the man who sat down to breakfast was a bundle of accident and incoherence, whereas the man reborn in a poem was ‘intended’ and ‘complete’; one way to see his life’s work is as a pursuit of that intention of completeness.”22 Yeats’s poetry shows a keen awareness of the struggle between opposing forces that seemed to mark every aspect of life at the beginning of the twentieth century—and also a longing for this struggle to give birth, finally, to peace.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made. . . .

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow. . . .

—From “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”



Recommended edition: The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Joanne M. Braxton (University Press of Virginia, 1993).

Be sure to read: “A Negro Love Song,” “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” “At the Tavern,” “Colored Band,” “The Debt,” “Douglass,” “Little Brown Baby,” “Ode to Ethiopia,” “The Old Front Gate,” “The Poet and His Song,” “The Seedling,” “Signs of the Times,” “Sympathy,” “We Wear the Mask,” “When Malindy Sings,” “When de Co’n Pone’s Hot,” “When Dey ’Listed Colored Soldiers.”

Dunbar’s poetry speaks in voices borrowed both from black folk culture and from the educated, white culture of American poetry. Dunbar finds himself balancing between the two, adopting the voice of the poetic mainstream when he writes of ideas:

I am no priest of crooks nor creeds,

For human wants and human needs

Are more to me than prophets’ deeds. . . .

Go, cease your wail, lugubrious saint!

You fret high Heaven with your plaint.

—From “A Creed and Not a Creed”

and the African American folk voice when he writes of experience.

Fol’ yo’ han’s an’ bow yo’ haid—

Wait ontwell de blessin’s said;

“Lawd, have mussy on ouah souls—”

(Don’ you daih to tech dem rolls—)

“Bless de food we gwine to eat—”

(You set still—I see yo’ feet;

You jes’ try dat trick agin!)

“Gin us peace an’ joy. Amen!”

—From “In the Morning”

To appreciate Dunbar, you need to make a serious attempt to read his dialect poetry out loud. My own attempts to teach Dunbar to undergraduates have been hampered by the reluctance of readers (particularly white readers) to do this; in the highly politicized university classroom, “mimicking” black speech seems like a risky thing to do. But if you can, do this in private, without worrying about listeners.23

Any tension you might feel in reading this dialect out loud would have been fully appreciated by Dunbar himself. In “The Poet,” he fretted about his own career:

He sang of life, serenely sweet,

With, now and then, a deeper note. . . .

He sang of love when earth was young,

And Love, itself, was in his lays.

But ah, the world, it turned to praise

A jingle in a broken tongue.

Dunbar divided his own poetic work into “Major Books” and “Minor Books,” assigning his dialect poetry to the “Minors,” yet critics as prominent as William Dean Howells preferred the dialect: “It is when we come to Mr. Dunbar’s Minors that we feel ourselves in the presence of a man with a direct and a fresh authority.” “Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse,” Dunbar retorted, bitterly.24He felt trapped not so much by Howells’s preference as by the white critic’s insistence that this dialect verse displayed “vistas into the simple, sensuous, joyous nature of his race.” Dunbar—like Dickinson and Hopkins—struggles with the limitations of language; when he writes in a “black voice,” other readers see simple joyousness and are unable to peer past their own ideas about the dialect to the more complex experience from which it rises.



Recommended edition: The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, 2nd rev. ed. (Holt Paperbacks, 2002).

Be sure to read: “A Boy’s Will,” “After Apple-Picking,” “Birches,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Departmental,” “Design,” “Fire and Ice,” “Home Burial,” “Mending Wall,” “Mowing,” “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “The Pasture,” “Putting In the Seed,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “To Earthward,” “Trespass,” “The Wood-Pile.”

“There are two types of realists,” Robert Frost once remarked, “the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real one, and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. I’m inclined to be the second kind. To me, the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form.” Where William Butler Yeats used his poetry to express an order which he could sense beyond the apparent chaos of the world, Frost uses the poetry to create order. He writes straightforward scenes: a bird balancing on a weed, a traveler stopping at a crossroads, a man kneeling and staring down into a well. In many of the poems, his characters are solitary:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other. . . .

—From “The Road Not Taken”

But the straightforward forms of these stories conceal a deeper purpose. The carefully painted scenes have blurred edges; much is left unsaid. William H. Pritchard writes that the proper way to analyze Frost is to say, “We know what this poem is about, we know how it sounds, just so long as you don’t ask us to say exactly.”25 Frost himself called his poetry “synecdochic,” with synecdoche meaning “small points of entry to larger significance.”26 He follows an almost Augustinian poetic, providing a literal meaning (a traveler standing in the wood, a man mending a wall) that serves as a door into another, mystical layer of meaning. This deeper meaning resists being put into words. Frost himself used religious terms to describe it: The first layer of meaning in a poem, he told a group of poets in 1954, is like the hem of a garment; touching the hem of the garment (the reference is to a miracle of Jesus’ in the Gospels) leads to a mystical understanding of the whole. The reader can “get the meaning by touch . . . the way the woman did from Jesus. . . . [T]he virtue went out of him. . . . [T]ouching the hem is enough.”27

So how should you read Frost? Not by reducing the poems to allegory (“The two woods are two kinds of careers, and he chose one instead of the other and always regretted it”) but rather by imagining yourself into the scene. What happens then?

Ideally, some mysterious and fleeting connection that Frost himself could not quite describe. In “For Once, Then, Something,” the poet is staring down at the water, looking for the picture reflected back at him:

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb

I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,

Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,

Something more of the depths—and then I lost it. . . .

[A] ripple

Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,

Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?

Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.



Recommended edition: Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems, edited by George and Willene Hendrick (Harvest Books, 1996).

Be sure to read: “Chicago,” “Cool Tombs,” “Elizabeth Umpstead,” “Fog,” “Grass,” “I Am the People, the Mob,” “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard,” “The People, Yes (No. 57),” “Planked Whitefish,” “Skyscraper,” “Smoke and Steel,” “Window.”

Sandburg is best known for his “Chicago poems,” which celebrate America with a wince. Like Whitman, Sandburg was a journalist before he was a poet, and like Whitman he describes the people of America in careful, journalistic detail:

The working girls in the morning are going to work—
long lines of them afoot amid the downtown stores
and factories, thousands with little brick-shaped
lunches wrapped in newspapers under their arms.
Each morning as I move through this river of young-
woman life I feel a wonder about where it is all
going, so many with a peach bloom of young years
on them and laughter of red lips and memories in
their eyes of dances the night before and plays and
walks. . . .
—From “Working Girls”

But unlike Whitman, Sandburg admires America with reservations. All that boundless American energy turned Chicago into an enormous city—but also built the factories and offices that blot every consideration but profit from the minds of Americans. Sandburg is a common-man prophet, avoiding “technique” and refusing to display poetic expertise in favor of run-on lines and the natural rhythms of speech. He protests the shape America has begun to take:

She and her man crossed the ocean and the years that
marked their faces saw them haggling with landlords
and grocers while six children played on the stones
and prowled in the garbage cans.
One child coughed its lungs away. . . .
one is in jail, two have jobs in a box factory
And as they fold the pasteboard, they wonder what the
wishing is and the wistful glory in them that flutters
faintly when the glimmer of spring comes on
the air. . . .
—From “Population Drifts”

Sandburg does sometimes find a sort of stately beauty in industrialism, but the “Chicago Poems” are alarmed more often than celebratory. Where Whitman found immense diversity, Sandburg found an increasing and disturbing sameness—a factory-run country where a colorful, heterogeneous American people was becoming standardized into uniformity.



Recommended edition: William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems, edited by Charles Tomlinson (New Directions, 1985).

Be sure to read: “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “The Descent of Winter,” “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” “The Last Words of My English Grandmother,” “Proletarian Portrait,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “Self-Portrait,” “Sonnet in Search of an Author,” “Spring and All,” “This Is Just to Say,” “Tract,” “To Elsie.”

Williams avoids the stance of prophet as well as the position of storyteller. His lyrics are, instead, influenced by Japanese haiku, which describe a small, vivid physical object and then turn to open out from that object to a larger, cosmic idea. But unlike the haiku, Williams’s lyrics don’t open out. Williams was skeptical of the mind’s ability either to find meaning, or to create it; he was suspicious of logic, which he saw as creating an illusory relationship between cause and effect where none existed; he was suspicious (therefore) of traditional English syntax, since syntax makes rules about the logical connections between parts of speech. “Kill the explicit sentence,” he wrote, suggesting instead that poetry should use “verbal sequences. Sentences, but not grammatical sentences.” This sort of “verbal sequence” appears at the beginning of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” one of his best-known poems.

Williams was willing to accept that words themselves had some kind of value; he saw language itself (although not the rules that govern language) as a kind of material object. For Williams, words are things, superior to theuntrustworthy and elusive ideas that they are supposed to represent. In his essay “The Embodiment of Knowledge” (1929), he calls words “materials” that “supersede in themselves all ideas, facts, movements which they may under other circumstances be asked to signify.” Even the “spaces between the words” are important, as important as words themselves—they are physical objects. Williams writes, famously, that much depends on a wheelbarrow—but does not then tell us what depends (or why, or how). “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words,” Williams wrote. “Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”28



Recommended editions: Selected Poems of Ezra Pound (New Directions, 1957). This text contains excerpts from The Cantos, along with other Pound poems; the entire text of The Cantos, an enormous epic poem, can be read in The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New Directions, 1998). Or invest in the 1400-page Library of America hardcover, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (2003).

Be sure to read: “Canto One,” “Canto Two,” “Exile’s Letter,” “In a Station of the Metro,” “Mauberly,” “The Return,” “The River-Merchant’s Wife,” “The Sea-Farer,” “Sestina: Altaforte,” “The White Stag.”

Pound combines Imagist tendencies (commitment to exactness, to particularity, to “distilled” poetry that avoided cosmic generalities) with classical learning (which lent Greek rhythms and allusions to his lines) and anti-American sentiment. Writing in 1912, he accused the country of wallowing in a spiritual “Dark Age,” with all beauty and sensitivity wiped out by the loud, raw, crass, rising tide of capitalism. “Nine out of every ten Americans,” Pound sneered, “have sold their soul for a [stock] quotation.” Pound’s earlier poetry is almost Pre-Raphaelite, borrowing medieval images and archaic language and combining it with precise images:

See, they return, one, and by one,

With fear, as half-awakened;

As if the snow should hesitate

And murmur in the wind,

and half turn back;

These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”


Gods of the wingèd shoe!

With them the silver hounds, sniffing the trace of air!

—From “The Return” (1912)

But Pound’s later work breaks away from this Romantic influence; the Greek influences remain, but The Cantos, his most massive work, moves away from any coherent narrative line, toward a fragmentized assembly of phrases and pieces, incomplete and rambling sentences that demand hard labor with an encyclopedia and thesaurus. A mere fourteen lines from Canto LXXXI veers between English and Spanish, references Zeus, Ceres, and the English painter Sargent, skates from the Chinese city Taishan to the Greek island Cythera, and records pieces of a conversation between a priest and a communicant over the taking of the Sacrament. This poetic technique abandons, as Williams does, grammatical syntax; it too views words as physical “things” and places them in the poem as objects, without attempting to make clear logical connections between them. It also abandons any attempt to make contact with the “common reader.” It is an elitist poetics, one which dazzles the reader with allusion but conveys no single impression.

Pound’s other poems tend to fall between these two extremes. The earlier Cantos also retell bits of legends and assemble pieces of Pound’s reading together into a whole, but the sentences have a more familiar shape; readers can find their way, even without a dictionary of Greek mythology. Even here, though, Pound continually halts the reader’s eye with “rapid switches in language and contexts, exclusive private musing, obscure references, multiple allusions”—all techniques to “impede reading.”29 As we read, he reminds us that reading is not likely to yield anything like truth—or even simple coherence.



Recommended edition: The Waste Land and Other Writings, ed. Mary Karr (Modern Library Classics, 2002).

Be sure to read: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” “Ash Wednesday,” “The Journey of the Magi,” “The Four Quartets.”

Eliot, Williams, and Pound are the “high modernists” of poetry, marked by their conviction that the world is chaotic and fragmented and their skepticism over the ability of language to convey any truth, in such a disordered universe. The poems of the “high modernists” tend to be more interested in themselves than in the world; the focus of the poetry is often not what is being described but just exactly how the poem is describing it. But while Pound’s poetry becomes increasingly more inward focused, commenting on itself rather than on anything outside of its own lines, T. S. Eliot still holds out the possibility of describing the chaos of the world in some meaningful fashion. This may have something to do with Eliot’s Anglicanism; his poetry shows a groping for the “still point” of a spiritual life. “At the still point, there the dance is,” he writes in Quartet 1, “Burnt Norton”: it is the place where the self can make sense out of everything that surrounds it.

Eliot’s poetry, like Pound’s, is difficult and self-referential (“The Waste Land” carries with it an apparatus of footnotes almost as long as the poem itself, although the footnotes themselves are a sly, tongue-in-cheek wink at the reader’s expectations). But the Four Quartets, written later in Eliot’s life, suggest that the disorder of this life may someday resolve itself into a different existence, outside of time, where we might find “release from action and suffering, release from the inner / And the outer compulsion.”

In Eliot’s poetry, it is still possible to glimpse the eternal—and those glimpses are frightening, not (as for the Romantics) warm and glorious. The Magi, visiting the Christ Child in “The Journey of the Magi,” find a swaddled child who bears a message, not of comfort, but of “hard and bitter agony.” Glimpsing God incarnate, they return to their old lives to find themselves displaced, uneasy, longing for their own deaths to set them free. When the eternal and the earthbound intersect (the rose garden in the Four Quartets is another example), we get a glimpse of truth—and are terrified by it.

Although you might expect an Anglican poet to insist that language has some sort of relationship to truth (or at least can make a stab at communicating truth), Eliot isn’t quite ready to admit this. Words, he writes in “Burnt Norton,” are strained, cracked, broken things, perishable, imprecise, and decaying. But his willingness to put at least a provisional, tentative trust in language appears in the syntax of his poems; even Eliot’s obscure sentences tend to have subjects and verbs.



Recommended edition: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics, 1995).

Be sure to read: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “The Weary Blues,” “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” “Dream Variations,” “I, Too, Sing America,” “The South,” “Still Here,” “Interne at Provident,” “Dream Boogie,” “Democracy,” “The Negro Mother.”

Like Dunbar, Langston Hughes struggled with two languages and with a philosophical dilemma: He wrote of the black experience for black readers, yet knew that many of his intended readers would not have the education to understand his more formal verse. “Hughes’s poetic practice of social portraiture was one almost entirely unrestricted, imaginatively speaking,” writes Helen Vendler. “But this wonderfully inclusive inventory was restricted in another way. . . . [I]t limited itself to language that the most uneducated person could hear and understand. For a man of Hughes’s far-ranging mind and reading, that linguistic self-restriction was a sign of unquestioned moral commitment to the black reader.”30 Committed to making his poems accessible to all readers, Hughes has tended to be ignored by critics. And he stands out of the poetic mainstream; in 1929, Hughes wrote in his journal that his “ultimate hope” was to “create a Negro culture in America—a real, solid, sane, racial something growing out of the folk life, not copied from another, even though surrounding race.”31

So rather than using modernist conventions or lyric forms, Hughes’s poems draw their idioms from folktales and hymns, songs and ballads. Hughes rooted them not in any idealized rural setting, but in Harlem, and consciously avoided any techniques which might fit into a European, modernist pattern: “The mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America,” he wrote in the essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” is the “urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”32



Recommended edition: Collected Poems: Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson (Vintage Books, reprint edition, 1991).

Be sure to read: “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “The Common Life,” “Compline,” “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “The Fall of Rome,” “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” “Lullaby,” “The More Loving One,” “On the Circuit,” “Prospero to Ariel,” “September 1, 1939,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “Under Which Lyre,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Walk After Dark.”

Auden’s earlier poetry, like Imagist verse, is concise, condensed, and clipped, but the center of his poetic work is a set of four long poems: “For the Time Being” (a Christmas poem), “New Year Letter” (a reflective poem), “The Age of Anxiety” (an alliterative poem), and “The Sea and the Mirror” (a commentary on Shakespeare’s Tempest). This reflects Auden’s immense range of both technique and topic; he is a political poet, a social poet, a philosophical poet. If there is a unifying theme in his work, it is the possibility that friendship and love can provide that “still place” in the chaotic world that the modernist poets so often seek. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” written at the beginning of World War II, reflects this preoccupation: “We must love one other or die,” the poem begs, even as the poet himself faces the death, evil, and despair of the coming war.

As he aged, Auden developed an interest in Christianity, which he saw both as the embodiment of his ideal of friendship and as a philosophy which promised equality between all men. You can listen to Auden’s own reading of his poems (in New York, March 27, 1972), at an audio archive site archived by the New York Times; see for the link.

After the Modernists

After the modernists, the number of “must-read” poets swells exponentially; time has not yet sorted out the great from the very good. The following poets are worth your further exploration:



Recommended edition: The Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

Be sure to read: “Annus Mirabilis,” “Aubade,” “Deceptions,” “Essential Beauty,” “Far Out,” “High Windows,” “I Remember, I Remember,” “The Importance of Elsewhere,” “Is It for Now or for Always,” “Long Sight in Age,” “Modesties,” “The Old Fools,” “Story,” “Since the Majority of Me,” “This Be the Verse,” “To Put One Brick upon Another,” “Toads,” “Why Did I Dream of You Last Night?”



Recommended edition: For the “minimal Ginsberg experience,” read the Pocket Poets Series edition of his most famous volume, Howl and Other Poems (City Lights Publishers, 2001); for more Ginsberg, invest in the much larger Collected Poems 1947–1997 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, reprint edition, 2007).

Be sure to read: All of Howl and Other Poems; or, in Selected Poems 1947–1995, “Metaphysics,” “Love Poem on Theme by Whitman,” “Howl,” “Footnote to Howl,” “America,” “Kaddish,” “Elegy for Neal Cassady,” “New York Blues,” “Manhattan May Day Midnight,” “Do the Meditation Rock,” “The Ballad of the Skeletons.”



Recommended edition: Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (W. W. Norton, 1993). Since Rich’s poetry has been published in many small volumes, this collection is the best way to read a collection of her most important poems.

Be sure to read: “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” “Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” “Diving into the Wreck,” “I Am in Danger—Sir—,” “The Necessities of Life,” “Living in Sin,” “The Phenomenology of Anger,” “Planetarium,” “Power,” “Shooting Script,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” “Sources,” “Trying to Talk with a Man,” “Twenty-One Love Poems.”



Recommended edition: The Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition, Plath: Poems, edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook (1998). This volume contains all of Plath’s best-known poems. The more extensive Collected Poems, edited and annotated by Ted Hughes, contains fifty poems written before 1956 along with all of Plath’s work after 1956, including previously unpublished poems (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, reprint edition, 2008).

Be sure to read: “Two Sisters of Persephone,” “Suicide off Egg Rock,” “Poem for a Birthday,” “Zoo Keeper’s Wife,” “Barren Woman,” “Crossing the Water,” “The Bee Meeting,” “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” “Stings,” “The Swarm,” “Wintering,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” “Event,” “Ariel,” “Child,” “Edge.”



Recommended edition: Mark Strand: Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 2014).

Be sure to read: “The Accident,” “The Coming of Light,” “Eating Poetry,” “From the Long Sad Party,” “Giving Myself Up,” “Keeping Things Whole,” “The Mailman,” “My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer,” “Sleeping With One Eye Open,” “The Tunnel,” “The Way It Is.”



Recommended editions: New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1 (Beacon Press, reprint edition, 2004) and New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2 (Beacon Press, 2007).

Be sure to read: “The Journey,” “Wild Geese,” “At Black River,” “The Summer Day,” “A Thousand Mornings,” “Sometimes a Rare Music,” “When Death Comes.”



Recommended edition: Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, reprint edition, 1999).

Be sure to read: “Blackberry-Picking,” “Bogland,” “Casualty,” “Digging,” “Death of a Naturalist,” “Field Work,” “Hailstones,” “The Haw Lantern,” “Lightenings,” “The Ministry of Fear,” “Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication,” “Personal Helicon,” “ ‘Poets Chair,’ ” “Squarings,” “Tollund.”



Recommended edition: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

Be sure to read: “Everywhere I Go, There I Am,” “The Figured Wheel,” “The Ice Storm,” “Impossible to Tell,” “The Night Game,” “Poem with Refrains,” “The Refinery,” “Shirt,” “The Unseen.”



Recommended edition: The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems (Ecco, reprint edition, 2011).

Be sure to read: “Meditation at Lagunitas,” “Songs to Survive the Summer,” “Between the Wars,” “Faint Music,” “Privilege of Being,” “Berkeley Epilogue,” “Then Time.”



Recommended edition: Collected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2007).

Be sure to read: “Briefly It Enters, And Briefly Speaks,” “Depression,” “Dutch Interiors,” “Eating the Cookies,” “February: Thinking of Flowers,” “Happiness,” “Having It Out with Melancholy,” “Let Evening Come,” “Otherwise,” “Rain in January.”



Recommended edition: Selected Poems (Vintage Books, 1993).

Be sure to read: “Small Town,” “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, In a Dream,” “Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove,” “Primer for the Nuclear Age,” “Thomas and Beulah.”

1Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Samuel Butler (London: A. C. Fifield, 1900), book IV, lines 706–10.

2Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), lines 2, 212–18, p. 151.

3Quoted from Pindar, trans. C. A. Wheelwright (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1837), p. 53.

4Quoted from The Poems of Sappho: An Interpretative Rendition Into English, trans. John Myers O’Hara (Portland: Smith & Sale, 1910), p. 7.

5Quoted from Ancient Greek Epigrams: Major Poets in Verse Translation, trans. Gordon L. Fain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), p. 16.

6Quoted from Horace: The Odes, Epodes, Satires, and Epistles, Translated by the Most Eminent English Scholars and Poets (London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1889), p. 15.

7Quoted from The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace, trans. John Conington (London: Bell and Daldy, 1863), p. 13.

8Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. J. F. Shaw (1873), book IV, chapter 2, section 3, and book IV, chapter 28, section 61; available online at /doctrine.html.

9Geoffrey Chaucer, “Retraction,” from The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill (New York: Penguin, 2000).

10In Epistolae: The Letters of Dante, trans. Page Toynbee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 199.

11Barbara Lewalski, Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 6.

12James R. Kincaid, Tennysons Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 1.

13Quoted in Modernism: 1890–1930, eds. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (New York: Viking, 1991), p. 83.

14These are three of the six Imagist goals found in Amy Lowell’s Some Imagist Poets (1915).

15From Allen Ginsberg, “Footnote to Howl.” In Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006).

16Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955–1982 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

17Herbert R. Kohl, A Grain of Poetry: How to Read Contemporary Poems and Make Them a Part of Your Life (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1999), p. 3.

18Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.” In Selected Poems, by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dover Publications, 1997), p. 17

19Marie Boroff, preface to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Boroff, p. x.

20Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 99.

21W. H. Gardner, introduction to Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. xxi.

22Seamus Heaney, “All Ireland’s Bard,” Atlantic, vol. 280, no. 5 (November 1997): 157.

23To hear the poems read by an expert, go to, which contains audio files of the Dunbar scholar Herbert Woodward Martin performing Dunbar’s dialect and nondialect poems.

24A fuller account of this exchange between poet and critic can be found in Gregory L. Candela, “We Wear the Mask: Irony in Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods,” American Literature, vol. 48, no. 1 (March 1976): 60–72.

25William H. Pritchard, “Wildness of Logic in Modern Lyric,” in Forms of Lyric, ed. Reuben A. Brower (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. 132.

26In Gerard Quinn, “Frost’s Synecdochic Allusions,” Resources for American Literary Study, vol. 25, no. 2 (1999): 254–64.

27Ibid., p. 255.

28William Carlos Williams, “The Embodiment of Knowledge,” in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1969), p. 256.

29Margaret Dickie, “The Cantos: Slow Reading,” ELH: English Literary History, vol. 51, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 819.

30Helen Vendler, “Rita Dove: Identity Markers,” Callaloo, vol. 17, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 381–98.

31Quoted in David R. Jarraway, “Montage of an Otherness Deferred: Dreaming Subjectivity in Langston Hughes,” American Literature, vol. 68, no. 4 (December 1996): 821.

32Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” The Nation, June 23, 1926.