By Reid McGrath

I forewarn you that these are the 10 greatest English Sonnets addressed to or concerning other poets and are not even the 10 greatest short poems concerning other poets. There are innumerable other short poems addressed to other poets which are wonderful and remarkable, from Ezra Pound’s modernist poem “A Pact” to W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” I have also had to leave out some extraordinary sonnets, such as Longfellow’s “Milton” (—in which he depicts Milton as the “ninth-wave,” a nautical allusion to the largest wave in a sequence of waves and at which point the sequence starts over again. The sea-metaphor, to me, is a mundane one, albeit Longfellow captures the essence of Milton’s stature amidst his peers by alluding to the nautical ninth-wave, which is quite original.) I could have perhaps swapped Jeffers’ sonnet for Longfellow’s, but I wanted to canvas a larger time-period and include at least one or two poems with a more negative intonation (poor Wordsworth gets the brunt of it), and Jeffers’ poem, although embittered, appeals to me because of its contemporary vigor and density and also its timelessness.

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10. “When I Behold the Greatest” by Robinson

https://lighthousedenver.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/robinson_jeffers.jpg

Jeffers

Jeffers (1887-1962)

When I behold the greatest and most wise
Fall out of heaven, wings not by pride struck numb
Like Satan’s, but to gain some humbler crumb
Of pittance from penurious granaries;
And when I see under each new disguise
The same cowardice of custom, the same dumb
Devil that drove our Wordsworth to become
Apologist of kings and priests and lies;
And how a man may find in all he loathes
Contentment after all, and so endear it
By cowardly craft it grows his inmost own;—
Then I renew my faith with firmer oaths,
And bind with more tremendous vows a spirit
That, often fallen, never has lain prone.

Wordsworth

Analysis

Frankly, this is a poem about not giving up. It is about being lionhearted. The determined and resolute Jeffers, living in his ascetic’s abode in rural California, was an outcast and recluse. He spurned the world in order to pursue his poetry. Wordsworth, to Jeffers as well as Shelley, denied his liberty as a poet when he became the Poet Laureate of England. He took up political and religious matters whereas he should have concerned himself with the aesthetically True and Beautiful. While Wordsworth received monetary compensation for his eminent position, such money would be “blood money” in Jeffers’ as well as Shelley’s opinion: It is like serving Mammon ere God; it is sacrificing the poetical to the political.

 

9. “To Wordsworth” by Percy Shelley (1792-1822)

Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return:
Childhood and youth, friendship and love’s first glow,
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honored poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,–
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint_crop

Shelley

 

 

Analysis

In order to engender such revulsion and grievance, Wordsworth had to at first inspire affection and adoration. We loathe traitors more than the enemy because traitors are supposed to know what is right; they are supposed to know better. The poet who writes, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in Nature that is ours, / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” slaps Shelley and Jeffers in the face when he renounces his old creed, forgoes his erstwhile principles.

Shelley “deplores” Wordsworth’s entrance into the “blind and battling” horde. Like Jeffers’ poem, this is also a poem about not giving up. It juxtaposes a poet who has purportedly given up (i.e. Wordsworth), with one who has allegedly not—Shelley. It connotes the true poet’s loneliness and yet his resolute exultation in the liberty in which his exile and isolation produces.

 

8. “Poets and Their Bibliographies” by Lord Alfred

Tennyson

Tennyson (1809-1892)

Old poets foster’d under friendlier skies,
Old Virgil who would write ten lines, they say,
At dawn, and lavish all the golden day
To make them wealthier in the readers’ eyes;
And you, old popular Horace, you the wise
Adviser of the nine-years-ponder’d lay,
And you, that wear a wreath of sweeter bay,
Catullus, whose dead songster never dies;
If, glancing downward on the kindly sphere
That once had roll’d you round and round the sun,
You see your Art still shrined in human shelves,
You should be jubilant that you flourish’d here
Before the Love of Letters, overdone,
Had swamped the sacred poets with themselves.

Virgil

Analysis

I like this poem because it is a historical encyclopedia of sorts. I have heard two versions of the Virgil tale. One is presented here by Tennyson: that Virgil wrote ten lines in the morning and then spent the rest of the day tinkering with them in order to improve them. The second one is that Virgil wrote early in the morning, at dawn, and spent the rest of the day condensing what he had written to fit into ten immaculate lines. From what I gather, in the second stanza, Tennyson is referring to Horace’s meticulousness and scrupulosity and his espousal of letting a piece sit (or marinate, as I like to call it) for nine-years before (or while) revising it and pondering it. A “songster” can be a poet, one who sings songs, or a songbird. Tennyson obviously contradicts himself when he says “whose dead songster never dies;” and yet the mysticism in the line, and which will be evinced in the following sestet, is that good poetry, “overdone” poetry, achieves a sort of eternal immortality, lasting longer than the poet—who naturally dies—himself.

 

7. “To John Keats” by Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

Lowell

Great master! Boyish, sympathetic man!
Whose orbed and ripened genius lightly hung
From life’s slim, twisted tendril and there swung
In crimson-sphered completeness; guardian
Of crystal portals through whose openings fan
The spiced winds which blew when earth was young,
Scattering wreaths of stars, as Jove once flung
A golden shower from heights cerulean.
Crumbled before thy majesty we bow.
Forget thy empurpled state, thy panoply
Of greatness, and be merciful and near;
A youth who trudged the highroad we tread now
Singing the miles behind him; so may we
Faint throbbings of thy music overhear.

 

Analysis

Lowell’s poem is a veritable cornucopia of sensory details. It is a poem to drink in like a cold glass of water on a sunny day; or wafted like an apple-cider sweetness in an aleish, autumnal wind. This is the kind of poem which makes creative writing teachers salivate or jeer with creative envy. It is an invocation to a muse, and the muse, for Amy Lowell, is the young John Keats. In it Keats is almost the troubadour bohemian figure who would become popular in Twentieth Century Fiction. It is a poem about youth aspiring to greatness, to taking the highroad (whether it be rough or rocky or smooth); and I love it because of its splendorous color and compactness.

 

6. “On Sitting down to Read King Lear Once Again” by

Keats

John Keats (1795-1821)

O golden tongued Romance, with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren, Queen of far-away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit:
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme!
When through the old oak Forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But, when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.

King Lear

Analysis

I think I enjoy this poem because it seemingly has very little to do with King Lear. Or does it? For one, King Lear is a Tragedy and not a Romance. Is Keats addressing a Romantic book which he is presently reading but which he will discard in exchange for Shakespeare’s Tragedy? Who is the “Syren” Keats is referring to? Is it one of the Sirens of Greek Mythology distracting him from reading works in his native tongue (i.e. Shakespeare, the Chief Poet of Albion or Great Britain)? Keats is nearly as mad as Lear in this poem; and perhaps that is why it is so perfect. It is so powerful. The Phoenix image of a madman or demented person, such as Lear, rising out of his own ashes and flying at his own desire is a beautiful image, especially when thinking of it as the act or sensation of reading itself.

 

5. “Dante” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Longfellow

Tuscan, that wanderest through the realms of gloom,
With thoughtful pace, and sad, majestic eyes,
Stern thoughts and awful from thy soul arise,
Like Farinata from his fiery tomb.
Thy sacred song is like the trump of doom;
Yet in thy heart what human sympathies,
What soft compassion glows, as in the skies
The tender stars their clouded lamps relume!
Methinks I see thee stand, with pallid cheeks,
By Fra Hilario in his diocese,
As up the convent-walls, in golden streaks,
The ascending sunbeams mark the day’s decrease,
And, as he asks what there the stranger seeks,
Thy voice along the cloister whispers, “Peace!”

Analysis

Dante

The more I read this poem the more I feel that Longfellow got Dante so right. He hit the proverbial nail on the head or the Tuscan on his big, aquiline nose. I’ve even come to like his allusions after a spell. This seems like a sonnet Poe could have wrote: dark and esoteric and gloomy, and yet also complemented by an avowal of Dante’s “soft” “human sympathies,” his “compassion” and

tenderness, and which Dante—no matter how many people he put in Hell—indubitably had (especially when we think of his love for Beatrice or even his tears shed over the sins of Francesca and Paolo).

 

But while Poe could have wrote this, it was Longfellow who did, and probably, on second thought, only Longfellow who could have: Longfellow loved Dante and translated most of his work into English. When we hearken back on the death of Longfellow’s wife by burning, a tragically infernal way to die, and a death which haunted Longfellow for years, we arrive at the realization that what makes this tribute so great is that it is not only Dante craving “Peace!” in the Italian cloister, it is Longfellow, alas, as well.

 

4. “Chaucer” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Chaucer.

An old man in a lodge within a park;
The chamber walls depicted all around
With portraitures of huntsman, hawk, and hound,
And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark,
Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
He listeneth and he laugheth at the sound,
Then writeth in a book like any clerk.
He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote
The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
Made beautiful with song; and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odors of ploughed field or flowery mead.

 

Analysis

How facilely Longfellow can change moods? Poe’s genius was incapable of such a switch. As compared to “Dante,” here we have a more lighthearted poem, replete with organic and natural life, provincial and rustic, humorous and crude, and very representative of Chaucer’s poetry. I could easily switch “Dante” and “Chaucer” in my rankings. I had originally placed “Chaucer” 4th because, upon first reading, it is more accessible to the everyday reader, as he or she does not stumble over the allusions in “Dante.” With that being said, depending on the day, whether it be overcast or luminous, summer or winter, I may prefer “Dante” to “Chaucer.”

 

3. “To an American Painter Departing for Europe” by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

William Cullen Bryant portrait by Samuel F.B. Morse

Thine eyes shall see the light of distant skies:
Yet, Cole! thy heart shall bear to Europe’s strand
A living image of thy native land,
Such as on thy own glorious canvass lies.
Lone lakes—savannahs where the bison roves
Rocks rich with summer garlands—solemn streams—
Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams—
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves
Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest—fair,
But different—everywhere the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight,
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.

Analysis

I am biased towards this poem because I had to memorize it for class and I am a great champion of the Hudson River School Painters. Before anyone comments on Thomas Cole not being a poet—and hence ruining my theme of sonnets addressed to other poets—don’t speak to soon; for Cole was a more than passable poet himself, writing under the influence of Wordsworth, although undoubtedly he was a better painter.

Thomas Cole portrait by Asher Durand

Bryant is encouraging Cole, his friend, who is about to embark for Europe on a Grand Tour which would inspire such immense and epic paintings as The Course of Empire (1833-36), to remember his “native land” (i.e. America), which, ironically, is not even Cole’s native land at all, as Cole was born in England. This is a poem of patriotism. Whereas no square acre of land in Europe had been left untouched, America was a wild and sublime expanse tarrying to be explored.

Musically, I love Bryant’s cadence in this sonnet; I love his fast paced listing of “paths, homes, graves, ruins,” etc. It is a fun poem to recite in Bryant Park to your fiancée while you go Christmas shopping and drink hot-cocoa by the scintillate city lights: remembering that, at the northernmost stop on the Metro-North, there is an “earlier, wilder image bright.”

 

 

2. “Scorn Not the Sonnet” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Petrarch

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

 

Analysis

At last, Wordsworth gets his revenge. This is a sonnet addressed to a Critic and yet it’s also a commentary on good poetry versus bad poetry, and consequently is concerned with numerous instrumental poets. This is a very prevalent poem for anyone who supports traditional and classical poetry in our “arid,” contemporary age. Wordsworth’s message is rather clear: You who scorn the sonnet, looky here, gentlemen! Look at these Giants, friends! Look at these Monsters and Masters of Poetry! Whose side are you on, fools? I am on their side.

 

 

1. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats (1795-1821)

Chapman

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 

Analysis

I don’t want to pollute this poem with too much analysis. I will say one thing: In this enterprise to rank my Top Ten Favorite English Sonnets Concerning Other Poets, it surprises me that my favorite, by John Keats, is not even addressed to Homer, but pertains to a certain George Chapman, an English playwright who freely translated Homer into English. Good translators are good poets too; and thus Keats’ famous poem fits my criteria. Chapman may have gained immortality through the inimitable genius of Keats, but doesn’t that say something about the reusable and recyclable nature of Literature? This is what makes tradition so important: Literature is built out of other Literature as our corporeal selves are built out of the elements and cells of our forebears, both animal and vegetable and human. Keats’ poem is about the indescribable revelation of reading: about the epiphanic quality in discovering a new book, a new author, or a new poet. I have experienced this sensation time and time again. It involves an indescribable and ineffable happiness and luxury; and yet Keats describes the sensation so poignantly, powerfully, and unforgettably. Turning precisely at the Volta (between lines eight and nine), with unfathomable skill, I smile serenely and silent, at this boy genius, upon a peak in Darien.

 

Reid McGrath is a poet living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

Featured Image: “Kindred Spirit” by Asher Durand (Hudson River School)

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One Response

  1. Skip Hughes

    Of your number 1: in the Keats poem, line 11, he was of course thinking not of Cortez but Balboa, which detracts no slightest whit from his own genius or the wonder of the poem. He might thus have eliminated the word “stout,” however. But perhaps in view of the greatness of these men of literature, such a matter is unworthy the notice.

    Reply

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