The blooms called “Bleeding Hearts.” Apt image for Love?
Wrestling with love–the falling, the feeling, and the losing–has probably sent more pens to paper than any other topic. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, It’s the perfect time to spend half an hour of shivers, sighs, and tears to savor some of our great poems about Love. In this post I’ll share some of my favorites from different poets and eras that offer multiple perspectives on “la grande passion.” If, however, no lucky star presides over your love life right now, and Valentine’s Day finds you in no mood to celebrate, despair not. A couple of selections here may just suit your mood.
The Nativity of Christ by Francesco Francia. c. 1490.
By Guest Writer David E. Miller
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” affectionately called The Nativity Ode, is John Milton’s first great poem. The Nativity Ode is an elaborate carol1 that describes how the world, sinful and ashamed, became the reluctant site of Christ’s birth. The poem begins and ends peacefully but contains a surprising, violent commotion in the middle, when all the shrines to pagan gods are paradoxically destroyed by the mere presence of a defenseless baby—Jesus. Such a startling combination of sensuous and shocking images could drown out more lightweight songs like “Frosty the Snowman” that radio stations play on a loop this time of year.
These days, not many people know much of, let alone have read Milton, the poet who wrote the famous work Paradise Lost. Some background: Milton lived from 1608 to 1674. Following the generation of great writers led by Shakespeare, he would have only been 7 years old when Shakespeare died in 1616. Milton was only 21 when he wrote The Nativity Ode.
Let’s take a closer look at this important writer’s first great poem. You can read The Nativity Ode here.
Christmas Bells: longing to ring in the new!
It’s Christmas season for many folk who practice Western classic traditions, a time that used to inspire many a sentimental poet’s pen. Therefore, it’s the perfect time to dip into this sampler of formerly famous poems about Christmas, written in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Currently popular seasonal songs often focus on jollity, mistletoe, and “ho, ho, ho,” but poets who have written about Christmas are far from naïve about the state of the world. Often they struggle to affirm their faith that the birth of Jesus indeed portends ultimate redemption for a troubled globe.
Though the style of these partially forgotten poems may seem vintage, some of the sentiments may surprise you by their modernity. Even if Christmas is not part of your tradition, you may still find these poems of interest for the sentiments that apply to all humans, not just Christians alone.
“A child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*
In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself, first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.
However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher. For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”
I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.
Just Fall In!
With this post, I draw to a close my series of How to Read Poems, Steps 1 – 10. In these posts, I tried to give you knowledge and perspective you need, along with a step-by-step method to follow, to help you unfold the meaning of classic poems and appreciate their beauty. I’ve seen this method work for many students who, by following and practicing these steps, understand and enjoy poetry for the first time. They are amazed by it. They often say they never realized there was so much to enjoy and appreciate in a poem. Having a methodical close reading technique for unfolding meaning in poems really helps. But here’s a secret: method isn’t everything!
Now I want to share with you a different joyous truth: understanding a poem doesn’t usually begin with any method at all. It begins with a shock, with a possession, with a fall. It doesn’t have to happen at the beginning, at the end, or at any particular point in the poem. Somewhere, anywhere, in that flow of words, the poem reaches out and grabs you, shocks you, puzzles you, or seduces you.
It could be a turn of phrase, a startling idea, a beautiful picture, an amazing sound, a tone of voice—anything. At first reading, you might not understand it at all. That’s OK—you don’t have to understand it yet. All you have to do is to fall in. Around this moment in the poem, that point that truly captivates your mind, the meaning will slowly crystallize.
Tune your ear to the sounds of traditional poetry.
Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.
All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls, recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.
We love our pets! But how do we define their natures? Two poems show us two different ways.
Goodness knows, we love our pets. Just look at how cats– silly, cute, or cuddly– dominate the Internet, followed closely, if not recently overtaken, by lovable, funny dogs.1 We live in close relationship to these animals, but how do we define this relationship? How do we conceive of these beings that seem so much like us, and yet so much their own, not-human kind of special beings? Two famous poems about pets showcase two different ways to regard our intimate animals: Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” and Elizabeth Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog.”
Gray’s more formal 18th-century poem views the beloved lost cat Selima from the outside, almost anthropomorphically. Her cat-like qualities seem human, her actions something people can observe and learn from. In her 19th-century work, Browning, on the other hand, praises the personal loyalty and love her Flush has for her, but acknowledges from the beginning that she and her dog are different kinds of beings. The poem celebrates Flush but also ponders the nature of the relationship between person and beast. Is the beast really a lower form? If so, what is the nature of their intense connection?
After reading, all you animal lovers can decide which way is closer to your own way of regarding your beloved pets: almost as another type of human, or as a distinctly different kind of creature? Maybe a bit of both? Replies with any thoughts on the topic will be welcome in the comment section!