Ten perfect poems and one little brown man

PAUL JOHNSON

It is said that when the British public is asked, ‘What is your favourite poem?’, the one chosen by most people is Kipling’s ‘If’.

Is there any evidence for this? And is it still true? And what would the Americans choose? Walt Whitman’s ‘Captain’? No, obviously not. But then what? Longfellow’s ‘The Ship’, I hope. Musing on these things, I decided to compile a list of the best ten short poems in English. That is, my favourite ten: I stake no claims to canonical authority. Here is the result, in no strict chronological order, but according to whim.

First I would pick Shelley’s sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, because it illustrates perfectly the essential merits of a good short poem. It is multum in parvo; it has a definite point; the point is moral as well as intellectual; it conjures up a striking visual image; it has one or two lines that cling tenaciously to the memory. Was Shelley in a position to make a moral point? No matter. A good poet is still a messenger of God, albeit shopsoiled by life. Next I would pick Milton’s ‘Light’. It is not exactly short — 55 lines — but it is so much better than his more famous sonnet, ‘On His Blindness’, and is the best celebration of the spiritual joy of physical disablement ever written. Every line is a jewel and sparkles with insight. It is a reminder that Milton is second only to Shakespeare among our poets, and at his best his equal.

Picking the best short poem of Shakespeare is almost impossible. There are at least 20 superb sonnets to begin with, of which four (‘Shall I compare thee’, ‘Like as the waves’, ‘When in disgrace with fortune’, ‘Full many a glorious morning’) are of the highest class. There are over a score of magnificent songs, too, from the plays. Of these, I would choose the evocation of winter from Love’s Labours Lost, beginning ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ — 16 lines of pure joy, which amazes one by the ground it covers. Twelve distinct images flash across the mind-screen, each perfect and distinct. We also meet four characters, Dick the shepherd blowing on his hands, Tom piling in the logs, Marion about whom we know nothing except that her nose is raw and red, poor thing, and Greasy Joan, keeling her pots, the lowest skivvy in all Shakespeare but who, I suspect, still sings at her work.

Next, works by two poets not enough read today, George Herbert and Robert Herrick. Herbert’s ‘The Pulley’ is a wonderful exercise in mystic theology but I prefer his dialogue with God, to which he gave the name ‘Love’. For sheer dexterity with words (and thoughts) it is hard to find the equal. Herrick wrote better of flowers than anyone, and ‘Gathering Rosebuds’ is a winner. But I prefer ‘Delight in Disorder’, which is superbly erotic, more so than a triple-X movie, but could not offend the strictest maiden aunt (if there are such these days).


Every line is a jewel and sparkles with insight. It is a reminder that Milton is second only to Shakespeare among our poets, and at his best his equal.


I am in a dilemma over the Romantics. Wordsworth’s short poems are too hackneyed, so I can’t pick ‘Daffodils’, which anyway was largely Dorothy’s work I think. Some of his ‘fourteeners’, as Lamb called them, are remarkable but overshadowed by the sheer quantity of his production — amazing to think he wrote at least 14 sonnets defending capital punishment. Keats is my favourite poet but the things I love of his are too long — even ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ is 50 lines. ‘Kubla Khan’ has a claim to be the best poem in our language, and despite what Coleridge said about writing it, is complete, and not composed under the influence of opium. Despite being no more than 54 lines, it covers such an enormous space that we cannot call it short. I love Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ and ‘We’ll go no more a’roaming’, but they are not quite first-class. I prefer indeed Charles Lamb’s two winners, the poem about Hester, the Quaker girl, and ‘The Old Familiar Faces’, but as he wrote the best half-dozen essays ever penned, and gave up poetry, it seems unfair to others to put him in.

Gerard Manley Hopkins has always been a favourite of mine, and I once won a prize for reciting his difficult verse. The thing is: forget all about ‘sprung rhythm’ and follow the sense. He wrote at least a dozen superb short poems, including ‘Felix Randall’, ‘Pied Beauty’ and a sonnet on Oxford, which is actually about Duns Scotus. I am tempted to pick it if only to spite the dim, dumb materialists who have taken over there, riding herd on the terrified undergraduates and firing cap-pistols in their ears. I am also tempted to pick his ‘Habit of Perfection’, with its marvellous first line, ‘Elected silence, sing to me’. Instead I choose ‘Heaven-Haven’, a mere eight lines which perfectly encompass the notion of enclosure from the world, ‘out of the swing of the sea’.

Another favourite is Francis Thompson, that poor, lost, bewildered man, though I do not like his masterpiece, ‘The Hound of Heaven’. His great short poem on cosmology and spirits, which has various titles but which I call ‘The Many Splendoured Thing’, is a near-perfect short treatment of a gigantic theme. But I prefer his cricket poem, ‘At Lord’s’, because of its pathos and its ingenious triple image. One sees his batsmen, ‘my Hornby and my Barlow long ago’, as he presents them to us, as he saw them once, and as he sees them in his mind now, the ‘run-stealers flickering’ in misty grey, and the ‘noiseless clapping host’ applauding silently. This is the poet as conjuror, pulling amazing rabbits out of insubstantial hats. Another example is Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, a perfect poem in imagery, power to move and bestow comfort, all achieved by mastery of words. Yeats was our greatest 20th-century poet, though his position might have been challenged if Wilfred Owen had survived the first world war. Owen’s sonnet ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, another of my choices, comes as close to perfection as can be, each line, each word-sound, chosen with musical precision, like a Mozart aria but with solemn sadness.


Gerard Manley Hopkins has always been a favourite of mine, and I once won a prize for reciting his difficult verse. The thing is: forget all about ‘sprung rhythm’ and follow the sense.


The last of my ten short poems is Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’, perhaps the best thing he ever wrote, though it came very late. I think it was inspired by the Solent crossing. A friend, shown it, said: ‘This crowns your life’s work.’ ‘Yes. It came to me in a moment.’ Tennyson believed strongly in two things: God, and a future life. When he was 40 and living in Twickenham, he said to William Allingham: ‘If I thought there was no life to come I would rush out of the house and throw myself off Richmond Bridge.’ Allingham laughed. ‘Why do you laugh?’ ‘Well, the idea of such an act strikes me as comic.’ ‘I’d rather come to a comical end than a tragic one.’

In fact, Tennyson loved jokes, stored them up, and told them beautifully. Many were rustic items from his Lincolnshire youth. Others were modern. He said: ‘They say I write about fairies as if I knew them, and they ask, “What are fairies really like?”’ He then told the story of the New Forest gnome: Holman Hunt went into the forest to get some studies of foliage on paper. Sitting in a glade he was so absorbed in his work that he did not notice that a little brown man, not three feet high, had crept up behind him. Then he saw a little brown arm stretch out and take his bottle. He looked round, and the little brown man said eagerly: ‘Gin?’ ‘No,’ said Hunt, firmly. ‘Water.’ The little brown man vanished immediately.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Johnson. "Ten perfect poems and one little brown man." The Spectator (February 27, 2008).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Johnson



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