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In other news, I realized that I’d been talking a lot about fiction and prose, but I’ve barely said anything at all about poetry. Maybe this is because I don’t write poetry. I’m no good at it, and believe me I’ve tried a number of times. I only seem to be good at free verse.
However, I am a voracious reader of poetry. From Ginsberg to Homer I love it all. However, my favorite poems tend to be spine chilling or goose bump lifting verses. So as a way to steer the blog in the direction of poetry, here is my list of ten poems that will give you awe-inspiring chills.
10. The Charge of the Light Brigade-Lord Alfred Tennyson
Tennyson’s poem about a military miscommunication between British command and cavalry at the Battle of Balaclava is awe-inspiring. First you need to know the story. During the battle the light brigade received orders to rapidly move up the field though they would be annihilated against Russian cannon fire. Remarkably they followed the orders with sense of suicidal duty. Tennyson’s poem reveals not just the courage and dutiful valor of the light brigade, but it also depicts the horror of war.
“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.”
The poem is a wonderful mix of gruesome battlefield causality and noble acts of courage, which makes it the great poem that it is. There is a stark realism that goes along with the opening line “half a league, half a league onward.” The price of following orders is gruesome but in Tennyson’s mind it is the noble pursuit of serving one’s country that allows the noble six hundred to still be honored.
9. Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s day speech-William Shakespeare
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”
Yes I know that this is from a play but the whole speech can stand alone as great work of poetry. Even before I had seen Henry V, I knew all the words to the Saint Crispains day speech. I’m a bit of a sucker for great military dialogue, which you’ve probably figured out by now given my first two choices. Speeches in war movies and plays have the power to move us in ways that other writing can’t. Lord of the Rings, Saving Private Ryan, The Paths to Glory; all these movies have great speeches where the general rallies the troops for one last charge. However, they all take their cues from Shakespeare. There is no one better at writing rallying cries than Shakespeare. In Henry V, he shows his finest writing with the Henry’s Saint Crispain’s day speech. The whole speech is pure poetry and will make you want to jump up with the rest of the fictitious British army before they charge the French.
Laurence Olivier as Henry V
If you haven’t seen Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Brannagh perform the role I suggest you go on youtube and look it up. Chills will go down your spine.
8. Ozymandias-Percy Bysshe Shelley
Besides being married to Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, Shelly was a bit of a drama queen. He was basically the perfect image of a Romantic poet. A little nostalgic for a time he’d never known and constantly thinking about death and the afterlife. He also managed to write some amazing poetry, including Ozymandias. The poem tells the story of a traveller who tells the narrator about a ruin in the desert that once marked the power and might of a great king named Ozymandias. Now the king’s power and the civilization he rules is gone with the only hint that it ever existed being the ruined statue.
Shelly’s poem is a statement on the role of art and poetry and it’s power to signify. While the actual king may be long gone his statue has outlasted him. However, what power art may have over humanity is questioned within the line “Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.” The line is ironic since the mighty statue has become a mere ruin, crumbling with the passing of time. This poem is particularly chilling because of it’s theme of mortality and fading legacies. We’d like to think that our greatest achievements will stand as a testament to our greatness long after we have gone. Shelly challenges that, saying that even our legacies will crumble and be forgotten. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Shelly tried to commit suicide…twice.
7. If you Forget me-Pablo Neruda
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.”
Neruda has a flare for the nostalgic and somber and he really shows it in this poem. The words are hauntingly beautiful. On the surface it’s about two people parting ways and their relationship possibly ending. But deep down it’s so much more than that. It’s loss incarnate and sorrow within text. While their is a happy sentiment of hope at the very end the feeling is that such hope of being united with the beloved is for nothing. I won’t go much more into it because trying to translate Neruda’s poetry into prose is a crime. I suggest you read this for yourself, especially if you’ve ever had to end a relationship when you didn’t want to.
6. Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night-Dylan Thomas
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,”
This might be Thomas’s most famous poem. It’s another somber poem about death and dying that has such beautiful language that you will want to beat your chest against the injustice of mortality. The line that gives me goosebumbs is “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they, Do not go gentle into that good night.” The reason is because it highlights the inevitability of death and the very human response to fight the inevitable.
5. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner-Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Along with medieval honor and chivalry, I like any writing about sea voyages and pirates. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be the creepiest sea tale I’ve ever read, mostly because it was the inspiration for other creepy sea tales of the 19th century. The main story is that two wedding guests are walking along a country road when they are stopped by an old sailor who tells them about a sea voyage where the entire crew except himself died due to dehydration and starvation. It’s a gruesome tale about death, but it’s also a poem on the 19th century’s search for truth in art.
Besides the thematic content, the language is unctuous, it makes you feel like you’ve devoured a greasy cheeseburger and need a shower. For example, the description of a rotting sea and the ghost ship will make you shudder.
4. The Divine Comedy-Dante
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”
Yeah I know the Commedia is a bit cliche, but it still is one of the most chilling and beautiful pieces of writing that has ever been created. The inferno may be the most well known section of the poem and it is truly a great piece of writing. The imagery of hell will give you nightmares. However, the last section, the Paradiso, is utterly awe-inspiring.
3. And Death Shall Have No Dominion-Dylan Thomas
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
While Do Not go Gentle into that Good Night was dark and somber, And Death Shall Have No Dominion is much more gruesome and forceful. This poem also captures the human response to fight against death and the possibility of conquering it.
2. The Waste Land-T.S. Eliot
“A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter.”
Eliot’s masterpiece gave rise to literary modernism in the early twentieth century. With themes like the fractured nature of reality and the lost generation, Eliot created one of the creepiest pieces of poetry that has ever been composed. The idea that modern civilization had become a barren desert of frivolity permeates throughout this poem. Due to Eliots amazing ability to create stark images in the minds eye, the imagery of a fallen post enlightenment society is haunting.
1. The Tempest- William Shakespeare
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Yes I know this is a play. But there are so many great verses and lines in this play that I couldn’t decide which to pick. For me, the Tempest is Shakespeare’s greatest achievement as a writer. It has drama, comedy and depth, not to mention some of the best writing that has ever, or will ever be produced. It’s the kind of writing that will bring you to your knees.