‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

For my Granddad, who steered his ship by the brightest star in the sky. This was the last poem he asked me to read to him.

‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail :
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war !
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

When I was 18 I wrote half a very bad and naive novel in which the hero died, and this hero’s epitaph consisted of the last two lines of this poem. I mention this embarrassing anecdote simply because the fact that I chose these lines to sum up my hero’s life demonstrates what in incredible impact this poem had on me at that time. When I first read Kubla Khan I couldn’t believe its beauty and had to read it again and again. And another thing that happened, and that happens with all my favourite poems, is this: I felt the need to read it aloud. I feel like that is the sign of a poem that I will keep: one that I want to read aloud.

I think that perhaps it is the pure music of this poem that has made it so famous and enduring. And then there is also the story. The story is one with which Coleridge prefaced his poem, asserting that he wrote Kubla Khan upon waking from an opium-induced sleep. He supposedly had a dream about Kubla Khan and when he woke up this beautiful verse simply poured out of him, without strain or effort (I know, I don’t believe him either.) Then poor Coleridge was interrupted by a visitor at the door, and this broke his flow of poetry. So, he could not finish the poem. This is why, in his poetry collection, Kubla Khan is categorised as a Fragment. I think the “damsel with a dulcimer” part and beyond is the post-interruption part of the poem. Up until this point you have this incredibly rich description of the fictional land of Xanadu with its “sacred river”, its “caverns measureless to man” and the “forests ancient as the hills”. Then the latter part of the poem seems to be the poet grasping frantically in the dark for the “vision once [he] saw”, which he cannot recover.

If only the poet could “revive within [himself]” the “symphony and song” of his vision, he could write the most glorious, heavenly poetry, in fact, he would “build that dome in air,/ That sunny dome! those caves of ice!” This unattainability of a vision which has come from some source uncontrolled by the poet (i.e. the Muse?) is a very Romantic notion.

But it is the last part of the poem that I love the most — the part where Coleridge tells us what he would do if he could only recreate the magnificence of his vision. When he says, “And all who heard should see them there” it makes me think that Coleridge longs to recreate what he has seen so faithfully that readers would physically “see” the vision for themselves. Then there is that couplet I love so much:

And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !

I just adore the drama of these words, the delicious rhyme setting you up for the crashing finale:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This weaving a circle round him thrice brings to mind the idea of ritual for me, and that “holy dread” reinforces it. There is certainly something holy or sacred about this poem — about all great poems. The poet who can recreate his visions is one to be revered, one to ritualise (haven’t we made some sort of ritual or religion of our greatest authors? Shakespeare? Criticising Shakespeare is like blasphemy, even to people who have never heard one of his poems or plays.) The final two lines — my poor hero’s epitaph — express, in my opinion, the awe we can feel before the works of great artists, poets and musicians. Heaven is occasionally attained in art — by those blessed artists who have “drunk the milk of Paradise” — and when it is, it leaves us in a slightly dazed state, not quite sure where we are anymore. As a final thought I will say that that I think the last lines of this poem are akin in tone to those of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “fled is that music: – do I wake or sleep?”

‘My heart is heavy’ by Sara Teasdale

My heart is heavy with many a song
Like ripe fruit bearing down the tree,
But I can never give you one –
My songs do not belong to me.

Yet in the evening, in the dusk
When moths go to and fro,
In the gray hour if the fruit has fallen,
Take it, no one will know.

I find Sara Teasdale’s poems to be incredibly touching. This one in particular moves me with its sad, wistful tone and sense of secrecy.

The way the poet describes her heart as being heavy with “song” is starkly unusual. Normally, I think of song as a joyful thing, or at least a thing that gives release to creativity; I don’t think of song as something that would make the heart heavy. These songs are “ripe fruit”, full of goodness and potential for pleasure, but the poet’s heart is heavy because she cannot “give you one”. Her songs or poems have become a weight on her heart because they “do not belong to [her]”. She cannot give her song, her poem, her heart, to the person she wants.

It seems likely that this poem was written for Vachel Lindsay, who courted Teasdale when they were young and wrote her many love letters, yet who did not have enough money to marry her. Sara Teasdale married a wealthy business man called Filsinger instead, but the marriage was very unhappy and ended in divorce. Teasdale never dropped her friendship with Vachel Lindsay, though he also married and had children with another woman, and they both committed suicide within two years of each other.

When I read this poem I feel like it is full of regret and full secret love for Vachel Lindsay. The way she says “My songs do not belong to me” evokes the idea that her heart, her body, even her soul no longer belong to her, but to her husband. She cannot write a poem for Lindsay, or a love letter, or see him because she is married. Yet I love the way she asks her loved one to take the fallen fruit — to take her song — in the evening when “no one will know.” It is irresistibly secretive and sad.

‘Luck’ by Langston Hughes

Sometimes, a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given.
To others
Only heaven.

I love the plain eloquence of this poem. And I randomly translated it into French on Valentine’s Day this year. Here is my translation:

Parfois, une miette tombe
Des tables de la joie,
Parfois, un os
est jeté.

Certaines personnes
Sont bénies par l’amour,
Et d’autres,
Que par le paradis.

‘Living Beloveds’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

All are not taken; there are left behind
Living Belovèds, tender looks to bring
And make the daylight still a happy thing,
And tender voices, to make soft the wind:
But if it were not so – if I could find
No love in all this world for comforting,
Nor any path but hollowly did ring
Where ‘dust to dust’ the love from life disjoin’d;
And if, before those sepulchres unmoving
I stood alone (as some forsaken lamb
Goes bleating up the moors in weary dearth)
Crying ‘Where are ye, O my loved and loving?’ –
I know a voice would sound, ‘Daughter, I AM.
Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?’

I love the title of this poem. The use of the word “beloved” reminds me of Rumi’s use of it when referring to God. And so Barrett Browning’s phrase “Living Beloveds” for me invokes the notion that, though we may lose loved ones, the face of God is in everybody. There is certainly a sense of something divine at work in of the transformative power of these “Living Beloveds”, who are able to “make the daylight still a happy thing” and “to make soft the wind” with their tender looks and voices. I find it incredibly beautiful how the poet has made friendship divine here, and presents it to us as an infinite comfort when we lose a loved one.

But even “if it were not so”; even if one could find “no love in all this world for comforting”; even if one felt so depressed and alone that “‘dust to dust’ the love from life disjoin’d”, there would be a voice. I love this line that I just quoted — it is such a beautifully phrased expression of grief, describing how love can seem to have died, to have dissolved to dust, to have been removed from life along with the person who has died. Even if one stood alone before those “sepulchres unmoving” — those frighteningly solid, unmovable tombs; even if one felt like a “forsaken lamb” and went crying for “my loved and loving” through a hollow, emptily echoing world… there would be a voice.

“A voice would sound ‘Daughter, I AM./ Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?” This is the voice of God, and the divine answer to the question “‘Where are ye, O my loved and loving'”. To me, the speaker seems to be asking two questions here: where has their dead loved one gone, but also, I think, where has God gone. And the answer to both questions is “I AM” (which, of course, reminds us of “I am that I am” from Moses and the burning bush). God — and the dead — are not to be found in any specific location, he simply exists — he is existence — eternal and all-pervading.

And the final line, “Can I suffice for Heaven and not for earth?” is one that I am not sure I understand completely, but I find it quite fascinating. On a first reading, it felt to me like it means that the dead are in Heaven, with God, and that God is all that they need — like they have ‘become one’ with God. God can suffice for Heaven, and ought to suffice for us on earth, too. However, when I thought about it a little more, I starting thinking that of course God does not suffice for earth. In Heaven, God suffices because we are fit to go there. On earth, we are are still full of doubt and fear and capacity for evil and free will etc. On earth, God cannot suffice; godliness is a constant struggle on earth because of human nature. So now I think maybe this question should be read rather as a challenge, encouraging us to embrace the struggle to be better and make God suffice.

But I don’t think any of these last thoughts detract from the over-all comforting nature of this poem. Comfort was what I got from my first reading of it, and I still think that is its most powerful message.

‘Romeo Kiffe Juliette’ by Grand Corps Malade

Roméo habite au rez-de-chaussée du bâtiment trois
Juliette dans l’immeuble d’en face au dernier étage
Ils ont 16 ans tous les deux et chaque jour quand ils se voient
Grandit dans leur regard une envie de partage
C’est au premier rendez-vous qu’ils franchissent le pas
Sous un triste ciel d’automne où il pleut sur leurs corps
Ils s’embrassent comme des fous sans peur du vent et du froid
Car l’amour a ses saisons que la raison ignore

[Refrain]
Romeo kiffe Juliette et Juliette kiffe Roméo
Et si le ciel n’est pas clément tant pis pour la météo
Un amour dans l’orage, celui des dieux, celui des hommes
Un amour, du courage et deux enfants hors des normes

Juliette et Roméo se voient souvent en cachette
Ce n’est pas qu’autour d’eux les gens pourraient se moquer
C’est que le père de Juliette a une kippa sur la tête
Et celui de Roméo va tous les jours à la mosquée
Alors ils mentent à leurs familles, ils s’organisent comme des pros
S’il n’y a pas de lieux pour leur amour, ils se fabriquent un décor
Ils s’aiment au cinéma, chez des amis, dans le métro
Car l’amour a ses maisons que les darons ignorent

[Refrain]

Le père de Roméo est vénèr, il a des soupçons
La famille de Juliette est juive, tu ne dois pas t’approcher d’elle
Mais Roméo argumente et résiste au coup de pression
On s’en fout papa qu’elle soit juive, regarde comme elle est belle
Alors l’amour reste clandé dès que son père tourne le dos
Il lui fait vivre la grande vie avec les moyens du bord
Pour elle c’est sandwich au grec et cheese au McDo
Car l’amour a ses liaisons que les biftons ignorent

[Refrain]

Mais les choses se compliquent quand le père de Juliette
Tombe sur des messages qu’il n’aurait pas dû lire
Un texto sur l’i-phone et un chat Internet
La sanction est tombée, elle ne peut plus sortir
Roméo galère dans le hall du bâtiment trois
Malgré son pote Mercutio, sa joie s’évapore
Sa princesse est tout prêt mais retenue sous son toit
Car l’amour a ses prisons que la raison déshonore
Mais Juliette et Roméo changent l’histoire et se tirent
A croire qu’ils s’aiment plus à la vie qu’à la mort
Pas de fiole de cyanure, n’en déplaise à Shakespeare
Car l’amour a ses horizons que les poisons ignorent

[Refrain]

Roméo kiffe Juliette et Juliette kiffe Roméo
Et si le ciel n’est pas clément tant pis pour la météo
Un amour dans un orage réactionnaire et insultant
Un amour et deux enfants en avance sur leur temps.

 

My Translation:

Romeo lives on the ground floor of building 3
Juliet, in the building opposite, on the top floor
Both are 16 and every day, when they see each other
There grows in their eyes a desire to share things
It’s on their first date that they take that step
Under a sad autumn sky that rains on their bodies
They kiss like crazy, unafraid of the wind or the cold
For love has its reasons that the seasons don’t understand

[chorus]
Romeo digs Juliet, Juliet digs Romeo
And if the sky is not clement, too bad for the weather
A love in the storm – that of the gods, that of men –
A love, courage and two unconventional kids

Juliet and Romeo often meet each other in secret
They’re not the only ones who could get made fun of

Because Juliet’s father wears a kippa on his head
And Romeo’s father goes to mosque every day
So they lie to their families, they plan it all like pros,
If there’s no place for their love, they make themselves a setting
They love each other in the cinema, at friend’s, on the metro,
For love has its houses which parents don’t understand

[chorus]

Romeo’s father is angry and suspicious
“Juliet’s family is Jewish, you mustn’t go near her”
But Romeo argues back and stands up to the pressure
“Dad, who cares if she’s a Jew–look how beautiful she is”
So their love remains secret behind his father’s back,
He gives her all he can with whatever he has
For her it’s sandwiches at the Kebab shop and cheeseburgers at MacDo
For love has its bonds which money doesn’t understand

[chorus]

Things get complicated when Juliet’s father
Comes across messages he should never have read
A text on her iphone and an instant message chat
The sentence is passed: she’s not allowed out.
Romeo struggles in the hall of buiding 3
Despite his mate Mercutio, his happiness is fading
His princess is very close, but detained under her roof
For love has its prisons which Reason dishonours
But Juliet and Romeo change the story and get out of there
Like they loved each other more in life than in death
No vials of cyanide, whether Shakespeare likes it or not
For love has its horizons which poisons don’t understand

[chorus]

Romeo digs Juliet, Juliet digs Romeo
And if the sky is not clement, too bad for the weather
A love in a reactionary and contemptuous storm
A love and two children ahead of their time.

 

Grand Corps Malade is a French slam poet. I think he’s great. He’s very popular and his texts are even studied in France for the baccalauréat. This is still my favourite of his songs.

You can watch the video for this (i.e. with the music) on YouTube — it’s brilliant.

‘May’ by Christina Rossetti

I cannot tell you how it was,
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny day
When May was young; ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird foregone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was,
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and gray.

I love this poem for its gentleness, and because of the way it is mysterious; at the end the reader is still wondering what happened. The poet will not tell us anything about the event, or even what it was. All we are told is that it happened “When May was young”, when the “last egg had not hatched”, and before “any bird [had] foregone its mate”. The mentioning of the birds’ mates, and of all those images of fertility, such as the eggs not yet hatched, the flowers — the poppies not yet “born” — makes me feel like what happened was a love affair.

The poem enforces the notion of the fleetingness of everything: of the seasons, of life, of nature, of “all sweet things”. And that final line is so sad and poignant. Everything passes away; this event “came to pass” and “did but pass” and finally “passed away”. There is some revelling in the happiness of the event (“ah, pleasant May!”) but not too much, and once it has passed away, there is mourning, but, again, not too much (she is left “old, and cold, and gray.”) I like that, because there seems to be some measure of acceptance there.

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