Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry

Reading a book of poems can be such a pleasure. There’s the thrill of discovering a poem that absolutely bowls you over, the pleasure of re-reading an old favourite and learning something about the life of the poet or poets whose poetry fills the book. I derived all three pleasures from Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry, Introductions to Great Poets by Josephine Hart.

Josephine Hart
Josephine Hart

Josephine Hart, a writer, theatrical producer and television producer who was married to the advertising magnate Maurice Saatchi, does not directly answer the question, why we need poetry. The book was put together by her husband after she died of cancer at the age of 69 in 2011. But she did write the introductions to the poets presented in this book, whose poems were read out by famous actors, playwrights and singers such as Edward Fox, Harold Pinter and Bob Geldof in London, New York and Dublin in poetry readings organized by her.

Hart’s introductions to the poets are brief and intimate. She recalls little details and writes about them in such a light that makes you think you are getting to know the poets and you begin to like them.

I like the poems of Philip Larkin, but he has been alleged to be a misogynist and racist, though you won’t know that from reading Hart’s introduction to him. “In his private life he was a much loved man,” she says and recalls his talent, intelligence and professional success.


I was moved by Harts’ introduction to Keats.

“‘I believe in the holiness of the heart’s affections.’ And it is perhaps because of that belief that John Keats could fashion so much beauty from so much sorrow.”

With those opening words, Harts goes on to recall Keats’ tragic life. He lost his father when he was only eight or nine years old, his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 14, and tuberculosis killed him too when he was only 25 years old. “He was passionately in love with, and loved in return, by Fanny Brawne, a Hampstead belle with many suitors,” says Hart, but tuberculosis doomed their relationship. “Their love was impossible to consummate, due to the risk of infecting her,” adds Hart.

She ends her introduction to Keats by quoting the words on his gravestone:

“This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a Young English Poet, Who, on his Death Bed, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone. Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

“In this, John Keats was absolutely wrong,” concludes Hart. “He is an immortal.”

I was moved by those words, which are absolutely true: Keats is immortal. He died in Rome when he was only 25 years old, and yet in such a short life he wrote such unforgettable poems as Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Chapman’s Homer is included in this book along with another sonnet, When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be.

When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be

By John Keats (October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821)

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

It’s a moving experience, reading Keats’ fears that he may not live to write all he has to say.


Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hart does not offer a complete introduction to Gerard Manley Hopkins, but has this to say about him:

“Gerard Manley Hopkins, like Blake, was an ecstatic… And like all ecstatics wished, I think, to be a saint. He became a Jesuit and burnt his poems but, thank heavens, many of them remain. His work was turned down as incomprehensible, even by Catholic journals. Eventually, his genius, his search for a unifying sacramental view of life so clear in Pied Beauty, made him one of the nineteenth century’s great poets.”

I am not sure what Hart means by “unifying sacramental view of life”, but I have always liked the poem Pied Beauty, which is included in this book. The poem is remarkable for its language and colourful imagery. And the last two lines, in praise of God, are sublime.

Pied Beauty
By Gerard Manley Hopkins (July 28, 1844 – June 8, 1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

One of the pleasures of reading an anthology is chancing on an old favourite and liking it even more than before.


So We’ll Go No More a Roving is a poem by Byron that I have always liked. It seemed even more beautiful and romantic, though, when I read it again in Hart’s collection. It’s not the most passionate or deepest love poem, but it’s perfect in its way, in its brevity, imagery and choice of words. It has a certain elegance.

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

By George Gordon Byron (January 22, 1788 – April 19, 1824)

So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker

Finally, here’s a poem, from the book, that I read for the first time. One Perfect Rose by Dorothy Parker.  Dorothy Parker was known for her wit and urbanity and both these qualities are present in this urbane, elegant poem about a lover’s gift.

One Perfect Rose

By Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967)

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet–
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
“My fragile leaves,” it said, “his heart enclose.”
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

This poem is light, elegant and witty. It’s not passionate or poignant, intense or lyrical, the poet says nothing very memorable here, but it’s charming in its elegance. We need this kind of poetry, too, for light relief from more stirring, more moving, more profound poems.

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