Travels Through the History of English Poetry
10 mini masterclasses with Dr Ben Hickman
Open to everyone – whether or not you know your Wyatt from your Keats, or your Shakespearean sonnet from your satire. This series explores some of the greatest poems in the English language, selected from across more than 600 years of works.
Dr Ben Hickman, senior lecturer at the University of Kent, is our guide for the journey. He steers us through interpreting each of his selected poems, and the different poetic genres they represent.
Thoughts from Dr Ben
For this Introduction to Poetry series, the task of choosing ten works by ten poets was both daunting and exciting. Where do you start, and finish, and why?
To narrow things down, I’ve chosen ‘lyric poems’ – that is, short and expressive ones. The English lyric poem is also one of the richest artistic traditions in the world, so we can look at some of the greatest imaginative objects in the language.
It’s also the perfect place to start because we can tell a story of the whole tradition of English poetry through it. Let’s consider this the official story, the canon, the authorised version. What they used to call The Greats. Starting with the sixteenth-century origins of the English poem (Sir Thomas Wyatt) and finishing in the early 20th century just before the Second World War (Stevie Smith), just before modernism makes everything more complicated.
And as the theme for this series is ‘Travels Through the History of English Poetry’, think of this selection also as a journey where we stop off at significant points through 500 years, but each stop is connected to the previous and the next. The tradition of English poetry is such an institution that these poets are not only students of the previous poet, they are also speaking directly to them. On this tour we’ll see a variety of forms, and how certainly forms have changed – we will see, for example, how the sonnet has evolved and been moulded through the centuries of this journey.
There are some dominant themes – love, religion and spirituality, satire, nature. And crucially, English poetry has been central to how we think of ourselves as ‘individuals’, as people with an inner life and subjectivity.
I hope you enjoy the journey.
The Long Love that in my Thought doth Harbour
by Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1557
The long love that in my thought doth harbour
And in mine hert doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.
She that me learneth to love and suffer
And will that my trust and lust’s negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewithall unto the hert's forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.
Download poem (PDF 34KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 4.8MB)
The Long Love that in my Thought doth Harbour by Sir Thomas Wyatt is of the first sonnets and first love poems, written by the first lyric poet in the English language. This poem was likely written in the 1530s (first published in 1557) when Wyatt's work was circulating in the court of Henry VIII; the poem is one of a number speculated to have been addressed to Anne Boleyn. This very early poem of unrequited love would be followed by thousands more over the centuries that followed.
Sonnet 27: Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed
by William Shakespeare, 1609
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body's work's expired:
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
Download poem (PDF 35KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 5.3MB)
After Sir Thomas Wyatt (see poem 1 in this series) reinvented the Italian sonnet for the English language in the early sixteenth century, it was William Shakespeare who really established it as a recognisable art form. Writing 154 of them, which were all published in 1609, his characteristic structure and rhyme scheme became known as the ‘Shakespearean Sonnet’ and helped to establish the early seventeenth century as the golden era for the English love sonnet.
A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
by John Donne, 1633
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Download poem (PDF 37KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 10.4MB)
After two sonnets (Wyatt and Shakespeare) Poem 3 in our weekly series introduces a very different form of lyric poetry.
John Donne’s 36-line love poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning takes us into the world of the Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century, who innovated with a new, less formal style, combining everyday life with wider topics like philosophy and science and, crucially, using ‘conceits’ – long and sometimes surprising metaphors to link physical and abstract concepts.
This poem has been chosen because its central conceit – the comparison of two lovers with a pair of compasses – is one of the best-known extended metaphors in the history of English poetry.
Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent
by John Milton, 1663
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
‘Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?’
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.’
Download poem (PDF 36KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 5.8MB)
Writer of arguably the greatest poem in the English language – the epic Paradise Lost – John Milton is the subject of Episode 4 in our series.
And we are back to the Sonnet. In this case: one of Milton’s most famous short poems, Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent, also known as On his blindness.
It follows directly in the tradition of Wyatt and Shakespeare, yet with his own mid-seventeenth century evolution of the form. The religious and personal tone – a devout man coming to terms with visual impairment – gives this poem a particular autobiographical poignancy.
A Receipt to Cure the Vapours
by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 1748
Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
’Tis too soon for harts-horn tea.
All those dismal looks and fretting
Cannot Damon’s life restore;
Long ago the worms have ate him,
You can never see him more.
Once again consult your toilette,
In the glass your face review:
So much weeping soon will spoil it,
And no Spring your charms renew.
I, like you, was born a woman,
Well I know what vapours mean:
The disease, alas! is common;
Single, we have all the spleen.
All the morals that they tell us,
Never cured the sorrow yet:
Choose, among the pretty fellows,
One of honour, youth, and wit.
Prithee hear him every morning,
At least an hour or two;
Once again at night returning—
I believe the dose will do.
Download poem (PDF 44KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 6.7MB)
As we move into the eighteenth century, we also embrace our first humorous poem – A Receipt to Cure the Vapours by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. This work is a biting satire on the way women’s behaviour was monitored, judged and controlled by men at the time.
Montagu is well known as a writer of historically important letters and was also responsible for early advances in smallpox inoculation in England. Her “answer” poems – where she used satire to challenge the misogynistic writings of her male contemporaries like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift – are a rich body of work for us to enjoy from a modern perspective.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
by William Wordsworth, 1807
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced;
but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Download poem (PDF 30KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 7.1MB)
With William Wordsworth, we move into the early nineteenth century and the first generation of Romantic Poets. The period also marks the beginning of the ‘Modern Age’ – where people really started to think of themselves truly as individuals, which is clear in this work as it is as much about self-consciousness as it is about nature.
This poem – I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, also known sometimes as Daffodils – is one of the best-known pieces in this series, inspired by and written about a specific moment during Wordsworth’s time living in the Lake District. This also marks a moment in the history of English poetry as, alongside Coleridge and Southey, Wordsworth was known as one of the ‘Lake Poets’.
‘Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art’
by John Keats, 1838
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death..
Download poem (PDF 34KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 5.7MB)
After Wordsworth, John Keats was part of the second generation of Romantic Poets. This poem returns us to the tradition of the sonnet – the fourteen line form we saw earlier in the series from Wyatt, Shakespeare and Milton, all of whom influenced him. Keats was prolific in his short life and many of his works are well known – notably his six Odes (Autumn, Nightingale and Grecian Urn in particular).
Bright Star has been chosen because, as one of the last poems he wrote, it is a good example of how poetry evolved in the nineteenth century to address how nature, mortality, intimacy, self-consciousness and the sublime all intersect.
In the Bleak Midwinter
by Christina Rossetti, 1872
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Download poem (PDF 32KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 8.3MB)
Christina Rossetti was a nineteenth century writer, known as a poet of restraint and – in the tradition of Wordsworth – simplicity.
In The Bleak Midwinter is an example of that quintessentially Victorian form: the Christmas Carol. In fact, A Christmas Carol was the title under which this poem was first published in 1872.
While it is better-known as a seasonal choral song, it wasn’t set to music until the twentieth century after Rossetti’s death. As such, this is a good opportunity to evaluate the poem in its original form as a telling of the nativity story, and the way in which Rossetti links the religious with the personal.
The Journey of the Magi
by T. S. Eliot, 1927
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Download poem (PDF 37KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 12.9MB)
The Suburban Classes
by Stevie Smith, 1937
There is far too much of the suburban classes
Spiritually not geographically speaking. They’re asses.
Menacing the greatness of our beloved England, they lie
Propagating their kind in an eightroomed stye.
Now I have a plan which I will enfold
(There’s this to be said for them, they do as they’re told)
Then tell them their country’s in mortal peril
They believed it before and again will not cavil
Put it in caption form firm and slick
If they see it in print it is bound to stick:
‘Your King and your Country need you Dead’
You see the idea? Well, let it spread.
Have a suitable drug under string and label
Free for every Registered Reader’s table.
For the rest of the gang who are not patriotic
I’ve another appeal they’ll discover hypnotic:
Tell them it’s smart to be dead and won’t hurt
And they’ll gobble up drug as they gobble up dirt.
Download poem (PDF 42KB)
Listen to a reading (WAV 6MB)
About Dr Ben Hickman
Dr Ben Hickman is Senior Lecturer in Modern Poetry at the University of Kent, and supervises PhD work in post-war British and American poetry. He is also Director of the Centre for Modern Poetry. He has published a variety of research and writings on a range of English and American poetry, from John Donne to Frank O’Hara. His books include John Ashbery and English Poetry (2012), and Crisis and the US Avant-Garde: Poetry and Real Politics (2015), both published by Edinburgh University. His new book, Labour and American Culture, 1930-2020 will be released with Palgrave MacMillan next year.