I am not a poet, nor am I the daughter of a poet*. Even so, I like a little lyrical literature now and again. Listed below are five of my favourite poems.
“Night Mail” WH Auden
It’s a shame that steam trains and paper letters are mainly a thing of the past. Granted, I appreciate the efficiency of the sky-train and e-mails, but they’re not as poetic. Aside from aesthetics, one highlight of the poem is the way the letters are described. They are remarkably human: chatty and catty, adorned with doodles, and misspelled. But regardless of what sort of letter it is, one is glad to receive it, to stay connected and be remembered.
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Auden wrote this piece for a short documentary of the British mail train, and pulls it off wonderfully. The rhythm, matching the churning of a train, caught my attention immediately… and remained in my train of thought on a looping circuit.
“The Prisoner of Chillon” Lord Byron
Some years ago, I stood inside the dungeon of Chillon. I remember thinking it was actually quite nice, as dungeons go, because it was empty of prisoners and full of light. The pillars were etched with many signatures, but only one was preserved behind glass: Byron’s. It was much later that I read the poem, and found the dungeon a far sadder place than the one I remembered.
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprison’d ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
Honestly, I was not so much drawn to the poem itself but rather to the idea behind it—that someone would be so moved by a life story that they would find a way to retell it so that others could be moved as well. The story was also referenced, along with other great Swiss stories, in Patricia St. John’s Treasures of the Snow.
‘She would tell of the brave prisoner of the lakeside castle of Chillon, who paced his cell until the very paving stones were worn by his footsteps.’
“The Hound of Heaven” Francis Thompson
The poem may not be my absolute favourite, but I thrill at the theme. The story of a fallen, fleeing man and the almighty sovereign and saving God is a story I can never grow tired of hearing. The terror and futility of endless running, the shattering of the inevitable surrender, turn out to be an immense comfort and restoration—and I am glad to be reminded of the fact, as one who has also been chased and found.
But with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat, and a Voice beat,
More instant than the feet:
All things betray thee who betrayest me.
Echoes of The Hound of Heaven can be found in Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Starflower.
“I deserve to choose for myself. I deserve my freedom . . . and yet you chase me down, driving me before you!”
“You know where the road you walk will lead you. You have seen the Dark Water.”
“I was minding my own business,” the cat-man whispered, “but you had to set upon me. You’re worse than the Black Dogs, and they hound a fellow to Death!”
“I hound you to life.”
(Thanks to the knights at the Knights of Farthestshore for supplying the quote)
“Lepanto” G. K. Chesterton
I must admit I have no great love for 16th century Spain, since she often was killing people I loved. But when I learned about the battle of Lepanto, and read the poem by Chesterton, I found a reason to respect Spain, and her Don John. The rhythm and imagery are cinematic. With rising anticipation as Don John prepared for battle, and stunned joy as Christian galley slaves are freed, the reader is swept along by the emotion of the story.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Lepanto has the same sort of feel that the ballads of old have, the same love of great heroes and great deeds, told with great passion.
“Clancy of the Overflow” Banjo Patterson
I don’t think there’s a man, woman, or child who hasn’t had—for a moment at the very least—a romantic wish to don a Stetson, sit astride a horse, and drive livestock over an open landscape. Patterson’s poem invites the reader to dream a little, to pretend one is in the outback and not in the office.
And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I’ve always been drawn to Patterson’s poetic picture of the outback. The other highlight of the poem is the letter from the shearing mate, so roughly made and mysterious.