National Poetry Month: Our Favourite Classic Poems
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Magali Prel
In April we celebrate National Poetry Month and for 2023’s celebration, the Classics team have decided to explore some of our favourite poets and poems. It is without a doubt that English literature has a plethora of poetical greats that it became difficult to narrow down our selection. Poetry is a well celebrated form as through the power of the written word, structured in remarkable ways, it has paved the way for some of the most successful contributions. As it is National Poetry Month, there are so many British poets that deserve a mention from William Shakespeare to William Blake. Here are our favourite poets to read this month.
Percy Shelley was an influential poet of the Romantic era, writing on themes such as love, religion and nature. ‘Mutability’ is one of his poems on the theme of the sublime, a concept which explains an experience which goes beyond the norm and provokes a sense of awe.
‘Mutability’ is a poem concerning the everchanging state of nature and how fleeting human life is. Shelley compares human life to aspects of nature. In the first line of the poem, “we are clouds that veil the midnight moon,” Shelley describes how “restlessly they speed'' to highlight how fleeting and temporary human life is. The title itself, ‘Mutability’, indicates how nothing in life is permanent, but that is what makes everything even more beautiful.
‘Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni’
‘Mont Blanc’ is, again, a poem about the sublimity of nature and was written whilst on a visit to the mountains of Chamonix. This poem inspired Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley, when she wrote Frankenstein. The inspiration can be seen in the passage where Victor Frankenstein aimlessly wanders in a boat on a lake between the mountains and contemplates his choices.
Shelley compares human imagination to the beauty and vastness of nature: “The everlasting universe of things // Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves.” Here, Shelley presents the idea that you need both nature itself and the power of human imagination to create its meaning.
‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be’
‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be’ is a sonnet by the Romantic poet John Keats. After studying Keats at school, I connected with his understanding of the natural world and appreciation for literature and art. Keats was masterful at approaching large subjects and landscapes before focusing on the smaller and seemingly insignificant aspects. In this poem, Keats is lamenting about the fear of dying before his literary dreams were achieved. The sentiment of unfulfilled dreams is so poignant for many readers that Keats’ anxiety is shared as he reflects on the futility of his life. The heaviness of the topic is interwoven with beautiful imagery and vocabulary which highlight the beauty of life and its treasures. The final ”till love and fame to nothingness do sink” highlights the importance of appreciating life and engaging with our surroundings while we can. The poem is tinged with a greater sadness because of Keats’ death at aged twenty-five. His headstone reads “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water” reflecting his belief that he was a literary failure and would be forgotten. The poem also references the “shore” and the idea of our lives being washed away. However, Keats’ legacy lives on through the richness of his poetry and his ability to connect with the intrinsic human anguish about our life’s purpose.
Like her sisters Emily Brontë was a prolific poet and her work was published alongside her sisters under their pseudonyms Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell in 1846. This collection only sold two copies and Emily’s contributions received the most praise. Emily Brontë might be more notable as a novelist with her only published book Wuthering Heights remaining a significant classic in English literature. However, Brontë wrote close to 200 poems in her lifetime which were published posthumously in a complete collection by C. W. Hatfield. A lot of her poems, like her novel, were set in the picturesque landscape of Yorkshire, where she lived all her life in Haworth. However, the themes of her poetry, again like her novel, do not just focus on the uncanny and beautiful nature of the landscape. She also reflects on the isolation faced and complexities surrounding nature which the following details.
‘R Alcona to J Brenzaida’
In this poem, Brontë transports readers to her fictional land of Gondol, which with her sister Anne they wrote multiple poems featuring. Also titled ‘Remembrance,’ the sombre tone laments Alcona’s loss of Brenzaida in the ballad form. The speaker explores “rapturous pain” through memory of her loss and suffering, which is aligned with time connecting these imperative themes.