Poems Everyone Should Know

Ancient Greek art of a man playing an instrument.Prior to a discussion of poems everyone should know, it would be good to ensure that everyone knows the meaning of the word “poem.” It derives from ancient Greek and means “a thing that is made or created.” A poet is one who makes or creates a thing, and poiesis is the act that brings the thing into being. In this original and broadest sense of the word, we can say that God, the Creator, is the primal Poet who brings things into being ex nihilo, from nothing. We are lesser or secondary poets who bring things into being from other things that already exist. This is why J. R. R. Tolkien distinguished between God’s creation and human sub-creation.

In the primal sense, we can say that all creatures are poems because they are things made or created. A sunrise is a poem; trees are poems; we are poems. We can also say that all things made by men using the faculty of the creative imagination are poems. A cathedral is a poem; an orchestral score is a poem; a painting is a poem.

Having grasped the meaning of poetry in its rooted or radical sense, we can proceed to a discussion of poems in the literary sense.

The great Greek philosopher Aristotle divided literary poetry into three broad categories: the epic, the dramatic, and the lyrical. I will propose five poems from each of these categories that everyone should know. Furthermore, each list of five poems will be ordered chronologically.

The five epic poems that everyone should know are the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and the Divine Comedy.

Homer’s two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are foundational to Western civilization. The first tells of Achilles’ prideful anger and its destructiveness, but also of the will of god (Zeus), which is accomplished in his providence despite the best laid schemes of lesser gods, demigods, and men. The latter tells of Odysseus’ efforts to return home from the siege of Troy and the moral lessons he learns along the way—not least of which is the need to revere the gods with humility. The key to understanding the Odyssey is found in Zeus’ claim that most of the sufferings of men are caused by their own recklessness, but that some suffering is given by the gods as a gift.

Virgil’s great epic, the Aeneid, offers a creative spin on Homer’s epics. In Virgil’s version, he imagines that the Trojan warrior, Aeneas, escapes from the destruction of Troy and fulfills his divine destiny to found the city of Rome.

Unlike the epics of Homer and Virgil, which were written before the time of Christ, the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is avowedly Christian and was probably written in the seventh or eighth century by a Benedictine monk who was a contemporary or near contemporary of Saint Bede. It tells of the eponymous hero’s conquering of three separate monstrous foes: Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and the Dragon. Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel’s Mother illustrates the necessity of supernatural assistance (grace) for the hero’s triumph over evil, whereas his mortal combat with the Dragon is awash with numerical signifiers connecting and uniting Beowulf’s self-sacrificial death with the Passion of Christ.

The fifth and final epic poem that everyone should read is Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s difficult to summarize or encapsulate the depth and breadth of this marvelous work. Inspired by Virgil’s epic and informed by the Christian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, it tells of Dante’s imagined pilgrimage to Paradise, via Hell and Purgatory.

Before proceeding to the verse drama everyone should know, we will conclude our list of epic poems with an honourable mention for The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t quite make the list because it doesn’t quite qualify. It’s an epic, not a novel, having more in common with the five epics on our list than with any contemporary fiction, but it’s not really a poem, except in the broadest sense that it is “a thing that is made or created.” A poem is distinct from prose by its formal employment of meter and usually rhyme. In this sense, The Lord of the Rings is a prose epic, not epic poetry, and does not qualify.

Moving to verse drama, we will begin once again with the ancient Greeks. All three plays of the Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles should be included.

Antigone retains its power and pertinence, its perennial relevance, in its telling of the tension between the power of the secular state and the rights of individuals to have religious liberty. Sophocles comes down solidly on the side of religious liberty and is, therefore, on the side of the angels.

The other two verse dramas by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, must be read together if the philosophical depth that Sophocles conveys is to be grasped. Oedipus Rex, divorced from its coupling with its sequel, would seem to suggest that suffering is meaningless and that it has no purpose. If, however, it is read together with Oedipus at Colonus, it is clear that Sophocles is showing that the acceptance of suffering is the beginning of the wisdom that leads to virtue. This is not only seen in Oedipus’ embrace of his own suffering, but—and especially—in Antigone’s laying down her own life to care for her disabled father.

Having tarried with the ancient Greeks, we will now fast forward two millennia to Elizabethan and Jacobean England and to two plays by Shakespeare.

The Bard of Avon wrote so many wonderful plays that the selection of a mere brace seems scandalous, a snub to his brilliance. Nonetheless, we will restrict ourselves to two of his great tragedies.

Hamlet, written around 1601 at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s bloody reign, tells of the eponymous protagonist’s ascent from despondency and near suicidal despair to the embrace of wisdom and the serenity it brings. Such serenity, coupled with courage, enables Hamlet to purge the “something rotten” that had poisoned his country. Well may we believe, in the words of the prayer that Horatio says over Hamlet’s body, that flights of angels are singing Hamlet to his rest.

Quote from "Poems Everyone Should Know" about how all creatures are poems.

The other Shakespeare play to make the list is King Lear, which was written around 1606 in the early years of the reign of James I. There is so much that could be said about this melancholy masterpiece, but its essence can be distilled into the pure spirit of two interrelated themes: What is madness? What is wisdom?

When is Lear most mad? Is it when he gives away his worldly power to his self-serving and treacherous daughters? Or is it when he is delirious but deliriously happy when reunited with his one true daughter at the play’s climax? And what is wisdom? Is it the worldly wisdom of the Fool, who disappears without trace? Or is it the Christian foolishness and Franciscan folly of Poor Tom, who embraces poverty and confesses his sins?

We will conclude our summary of the poems everyone should know with lyric poetry. This gets its name because it was the sort of poetry sung in ancient Greece to the accompaniment of the lyre, and hence was “lyrical.” Since lyric poems are songs, even if they are songs to be spoken and not sung, it is important that they have a metrical or rhythmic form. It is also important, in most cases, that they employ some form of rhyme.

It’s excruciatingly difficult to select only five lyric poems from the dozens and dozens that warrant a place on any self-respecting list. It is, therefore, with a candid confession of numerous sins of omission that these five are offered.

First on the list is “Upon the Image of Death” by Robert Southwell, representing the memento mori, the reminder of death, which forms such a crucial part of Christian literature. Other poems on this theme could have been selected, such as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146, Donne’s “Death be not proud,” or Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” but I stick by my choice. Southwell’s poem urges the reader to think of death so that he might reform his life. Such lessons need to be learned.

Moving from the Metaphysical poetry of the late sixteenth century to the Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century, the next selection is “Hymn Before Sunrise” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This poem is breathtakingly edifying, shining forth the poet’s praise of the beauty of a sunrise in a mountainous landscape.

The third selection is “The Wreck of The Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a thirty-five stanza meditation on the mystery of suffering in the light or shadow of a natural disaster. Can God be found in the midst of a deadly blizzard that wrecks a ship? Can He be blamed? Is it possible to see God’s love and mercy in the midst of such pain?

The penultimate selection takes us into the twentieth century and to The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. In this enigmatic and beguiling tour de force, the poet leads us into the desert of modernity in order to show us its ugliness, but also to suggest something beautiful beyond the desert, a peace beyond anything the modern world can offer.

Finally, I’m going to lead us on a melancholy dance in the company of Hilaire Belloc. His poem, “Tarantella,” moves to the rhythm of the dance that gives the poem its title and ends with the poet’s musing on the mystique of memory and the mystery of mutability. Such mystique and such mystery constitute the very “stuff” of great poetry.

More could be said and more should be said on the poems selected and on the multitude of great poems that could and should have been selected but were not. Enough! It is enough to say that every poem selected is a poem everyone should know. That was the purpose of the mission, and the mission has been accomplished. The present author will therefore rest on his laurels by resting his case.

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