All around the web, industrious people are making lists of the 100 best poems of all time. Can you imagine? I couldn’t do one hundred of anything, except maybe peanut M&Ms on a very bad day. But I like thinking about poetry, so I thought I’d try ten at a time, starting with Chaucer and, proceeding in groups of ten until I ended with Seamus Heaney. Sadly, I managed to write down three poems and why I love them before I had to quit and reach for the M&Ms. At this rate, it’ll take me until the dawn of the next millenium to get to Wordsworth. Which is fine. I’ve got a stash of M&Ms and all the time and poetry books in the world.
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer seems like the best place to start. When I was in college, every English major had to take a really hard class called English 125. One reason it was thought to be difficult is because you were required to memorize the first eighteen lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. People didn’t like memorizing Middle English. And so this requirement regularly drove English majors into Economics. Coming from my small, crappy public high school, I was so scared of it I waited until I was a junior to sign up for it.
Funny thing is, it wasn’t that difficult. All you had to do was go to the language lab. Once there, the recorded voice of a woman who sounded exactly like Ingrid Berman murmured the lines into my headphones, over and over, for an hour or two until I got it just right. I still remember walking out of the language lab into the twilight, the bells from the churches on the little New England green sounding the hour. There were a lot of cobblestoned paths, and I picked my way along, reciting to myself, feeling vaguely foreign and very far away from Tacoma, Washington. Every once in a while, I’d run across somebody else, doing exactly the same thing. You didn’t say anything, you just nodded at one other, fellow pilgrims, setting out on a wonderful journey.
Figuring out what the prologue meant, line by line, phrase by phrase, sometimes word by word, was a heartening exercise in slow, deep reading. By the time I had memorized the first piece of it and looked it all over closely, I knew it down to my bones. In the prologue, Chaucer sets a wonderful scene: It’s April. Spring is arriving — the sweet showers have come and there’s new life springing up everywhere. People are beginning to feel restless. When that happens, they go on pilgrimages, particularly to Canterbury, which apparently was a good place to go on a pilgrimage. When you’re through with the prologue, you’re ready for the pilgrims to take a long rest at an inn to introduce themselves, which is what they seem to spend the rest of the Canterbury Tales doing.
If you’d like to read the prologue, in Middle English, it’s here.
Ariel’s Song from The Tempest. It’s silly to think you could make just one choice from all of Shakespeare, and that from a play, but Ariel’s song, from the Tempest, is quite wonderful. In many of the comedies, you see people going into the forest, or being shipwrecked, or putting on a disguise or even some combination of these things. What matters is that they lose themselves somehow. And then, by the end of the play, they emerge, transformed. Ariel’s Song is about that, in a way. In her hands, of course, the sea change makes a sort of precious fossil out of a man. But it gestures toward the living transformations that are happening on the island as she sings. You could memorize this song, and walk around, singing it, feeling very sprite-like:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
It’s this: the sea change/Into something rich and strange, that I love about Shakespeare.
The Relic. Donne is incredibly sexy. I was shocked when I found that out. I’d never expected poetry by someone dead to be sexy. When I was 18, I had a huge, fateful, hopeless thing for a guy who happened to like Donne. This poem reminds me of how I felt about him when I was 18. Actually, to tell the truth, it reminds me of how I wished he would feel about ME when we were 18. The amount of desire that’s encapsulated in this poem is astonishing. And although Donne suggests this love was never consummated physically, it’s the denial and holding back that’s truly erotic. I love the “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” and how completely Donne loved this woman, this miracle.
WHEN my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
—For graves have learn’d that woman-head,
To be to more than one a bed—
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls at the last busy day
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?
If this fall in a time, or land,
Where mass-devotion doth command,
Then he that digs us up will bring
Us to the bishop or the king,
To make us relics ; then
Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby ;
All women shall adore us, and some men.
And, since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.
First we loved well and faithfully,
Yet knew not what we loved, nor why ;
Difference of sex we never knew,
No more than guardian angels do ;
Coming and going we
Perchance might kiss, but not between those meals ;
Our hands ne’er touch’d the seals,
Which nature, injured by late law, sets free.
These miracles we did ; but now alas !
All measure, and all language, I should pass,
Should I tell what a miracle she was.
There you have it: three wonderful poems. 97 to go.