On Julia’s Clothes and 99 other most popular poems

This must be one of the shortest, heavily anthologized poems in the English language. On Julia’s Clothes, by Robert Herrick, runs to only six lines. But, witty and playful, this 17th century poem is one of the 100 most anthologized poems in the English language, according to the Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry. Here are links to the top 100. But first…

On Julia’s Clothes
By Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

Roguish but charming, isn’t it?

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TS Eliot Britain’s favourite poet

TS Eliot is Britain’s favourite poet, according to a BBC online poll. More good news: John Donne came in second and Yeats and Dylan Thomas also ended up in the top 10. I am surprised Auden didn’t make the list. How couldn’t he?

More than 18,000 votes were cast and the top 10 favourite poets are:

  1. TS Eliot
  2. John Donne
  3. Benjamin Zephaniah
  4. Wilfred Owen
  5. Philip Larkin
  6. William Blake
  7. WB Yeats
  8. John Betjeman
  9. John Keats
  10. Dylan Thomas

Other contenders included Simon Armitage, WH Auden, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Roger McGough, John Milton, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith, Lord Tennyson, and William Wordsworth.I have never read Zephaniah.

Here one can hear TS Eliot reading from The Waste Land and Four Quartets. The Poetry Archive site also has readings by Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin and Betjeman.

It’s revealing that Keats was the only Romantic to make the list and none of the Victorians did. The fact that Blake is also on the list suggests people today still like the kind of poetry that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Personally, I would have included Auden, Wordsworth and Kipling in place of Zephaniah, Owen and Blake.

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A Dylan Thomas poem for the restless

Dylan Thomas’ most famous poems such as Fern Hill or In My Craft Or Sullen Art can be easily found online, but I have never come across this poem on the Net. It’s haunting. Maybe it will appeal to anyone who has moved from one place to another or is thinking of moving on. It captures the restlessness and anxiety one feels when, tired of the old life, one seeks a new beginning. The poem is called Ears In The Turrets Hear.

By the way, do listen to Dylan Thomas reading In My Craft Or Sullen Art. It’s on the Poetry Archive website, a treasure house for poetry lovers.

There are similarities between the two poems. Both are  romantic, atmospheric and vivid in their imagery.

Ears in the turrets hear
Hands grumble on the door,
Eyes in the gables see
The fingers at the locks.
Shall I unbolt or stay
Alone till the day I die
Unseen by stranger-eyes
In this white house?
Hands, hold you poison or grapes?

Beyond this island bound
By a thin sea of flesh
And a bone coast,
The land lies out of sound
And the hills out of mind.
No birds or flying fish
Disturbs this island’s rest.

Ears in the island hear
The wind pass like a fire,
Eyes in the island see
Ships anchor off the bay,
Shall I run to the ships
With the wind in my hair,
Or stay till the day I die
And welcome no sailor?
Ships, hold you poison or grapes?

Hands grumble on the door,
Ships anchor off the bay,
Rain beats the sand and slates,
Shall I let in the stranger,
Shall I welcome the sailor,
Or stay till the day I die?

Hands of the stranger and holds of the ships,
Hold you poison or grapes?

Must a poem have a meaning?

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”

I love those lines by Robert Browning though I am not quite sure what he means. They sound grand in their limitless ambition. The irony is the speaker is the painter Andrea Del Sarto who has no illusions left. He knows his wife isn’t listening to what he is saying but is waiting for her lover. But he doesn’t object. In the last line of the poem, he says:

“Again the Cousin’s whistle! Go, my love.”

It’s pathetic, letting his wife go to meet her lover, after those heroic words that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. But read the next line, “Or what’s a heaven for?” Does he mean heaven’s outside man’s grasp? I don’t care what he means, they sound grand.

Am I being foolish? But I am not the first to think it doesn’t matter so much what a poem means.

TS Eliot thought so too. Terry Eagleton, reviewing the poet Craig Raine’s book on TS Eliot, writes in Prospect magazine:

The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said.

Yay! Poetry should stir feelings that can’t be explained in any other words than the poet’s own. Poetry has to be word-perfect. Like Eliot’s famous opening lines from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats      
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …       
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The words are magical in themselves, leading us on almost like a movie scene with an incantatory soundtrack. Do we want to break that spell by asking, “But why are the women talking of Michelangelo and not Picasso? Or Tiffany’s?” I don’t.

Poetry is something that you can’t put in any other words. Like these last lines from my favourite poem, Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Beautiful, aren’t they?