Category Archives: Poetry

Shelley: “To A Skylark”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets, and is regarded as one the best and most influential lyric poets in the English language. Shelley wasn’t famous during his lifetime, but recognition of his poetry grew steadily after his death. He drowned in a storm on the Gulf of Spezia in his sailing boat, just before his 30th birthday.

Long ago as an undergraduate, I took a class in the Romantic poets, and subsequently memorized these few lines from “To a Skylark.” I don’t necessarily agree with them but they demonstrate, as does the rest of the poem, Shelley’s command of the language.

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

We surely live in the past and future, and our joy is always tinged with sadness. But I disagree that the evil is necessary for good—a common claim. That claim exemplifies the idea of an adaptive preference. Since we can’t have our preference for unmitigated joy, we claim to that hate, pride, fear, and tears are somehow necessary. But if we could rid of ourselves of those things, I think we would. Still, we do learn from suffering. But then again, maybe what we learn is that suffering is not good and should be vanquished.

Analysis of Tennyson’s “Tears Idle Tears”

Alfred Lord Tennyson is one of my favorite poets. I think that “Tears, Idle Tears” is his most moving poem about longing for a past that we can’t recapture, and the melancholy this elicits. The poem was inspired by a visit to Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, which was abandoned in 1536. (William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” was also inspired by this location.)

Tintern Abbey

While Tennyson’s visit may have prompted the poem, scholars think he must have had more in mind than just an abandoned abbey. His rejection by Rosa Baring and her family may have played a part in the sadness of the poem. Her family disapproved of her relationship with the son of an alcoholic clergyman. This may explain lines like, “kisses . . . by hopeless fancy feign’d/on lips that are for others” and “Deep as first love, and wild with all regret” which have little to do with Tintern Abbey. 

But whatever prompted these beautiful lyrics, all of us have looked out over a field, mountain or lake, an old school, home or neighborhood, or have simply been alone with one’s thoughts and felt the longing for the past which, in retrospect, was fleeting and ephemeral. What was so real then has now receded into oblivion, as will also the minds that have those rich memories.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

Alfred Lord Tennyson 1869.jpg

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Analysis of Emily Jane Brontë’s Poem “Life”

Emily Brontë cropped.jpg

A portrait of Emily Brontë made by her brother, Branwell Brontë

Emily Jane Brontë  (1818 – 1848) was an English novelist and poet who is best known for her only novel Wuthering Heights, a classic of English literature. Her sister Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855) was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood, and is best known for the novel Jane Eyre, another classic of English literature. Anne Brontë (1820 –1849) was the youngest member of the Brontë literary family. Her best-known novels are Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

(Left to right – Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. Their brother Branwell, is the shadowy figure in the middle. He apparently painted himself out of the portrait.)

Together the sisters also published a volume of poetry called Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. (The pen names of the sisters.) In that volume Emily penned a short poem titled “Life.” She was in her twenties when it was written, and some might think it juvenile, naive, childish or overly optimistic.

But to me it is simple yet unpretentious, both hopeful and reassuring, displaying a pleasant youthful innocence that so many cynics have forgotten. I like the poem. And it rhymes!

LIFE, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
O why lament its fall?

Rapidly, merrily,
Life’s sunny hours flit by,
Gratefully, cheerily,
Enjoy them as they fly!

What though Death at times steps in
And calls our Best away?
What though sorrow seems to win,
O’er hope, a heavy sway?
Yet hope again elastic springs,
Unconquered, though she fell;
Still buoyant are her golden wings,
Still strong to bear us well.
Manfully, fearlessly,
The day of trial bear,
For gloriously, victoriously,
Can courage quell despair!

Analysis of William Butler Yeats: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”


Innisfree sits in the middle of Lough Gill, a lake in County Sligo in northwest Ireland.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
by William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

What I like about this beautiful poem is its simplicity and clarity. The first stanzas tell you he is going to an island, and he can already imagine himself there. Next, he tells you about his physical needs for food and shelter. The second stanza turns to his spiritual needs. What he needs most is peace. The final stanza signals his intent to leave but, surprisingly, he continues to hear the sounds of the island when he’s in the city. Now we understand. Innisfree is an internal place that we find in our hearts. Yeats wants to be somewhere better than where he is.  What a wonderful poem; it is worth the memorizing.


Analysis of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”

William Ernest Henley young.jpg

William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903)

William Ernest Henley had a difficult life. His family was poor, his father died when he was young, and at age twelve tuberculosis necessitated the amputation of one of his legs below the knee. His other foot was later saved only after radical surgery. Henley was in and out of the hospital from the ages of eighteen to twenty-six, including a continuous three-year span from 1873-1875. He wrote “Invictus,” which is Latin for unconquered while recovering in the infirmary. It is one of the most memorable poems in the English language.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The stirring finale of this poem is as fresh as the day it was written, still acting as a buttress against encroaching determinism. I have studied the philosophical issue of freedom enough to know that a sustained defense of free will is nearly impossible, but neither can its reverse be definitely established.

So we might as well believe in freedom. For if we have no choice but to believe in the freedom of will, then by necessity we will believe in it. And if we have a choice to believe in freedom of will, then by definition we are free. There is little to lose and much to gain by acting as if we are free as if we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls.