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Twenty Iconic Poems – Part II

Posted by: Philip Carr - 01 March 2021 - MPW London - Read time: 5 Minutes

The second in Philip Carr’s series on Iconic Poems, see the first in the series, as he explores poems from Henry Vaughan, John Milton, John Dryden, Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth. Philip is a Director of Studies at MPW London and is currently teaching GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literaturefind out more about Philip.

Poem 6 “The Night” by Henry Vaughan, 1650

Henry Vaughan is part of the Metaphysical School of poetry, associated mainly with John Donne. This poem tells of Nicodemus who visited Christ at night.

O who will tell me where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
So rare a flower,
Within whose sacred leaves did lie
The fulness of the Deity?

Vaughan concludes that he prefers the night to the ‘busy’ day:

Dear night! this world’s defeat;
e stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
Which none disturb!
Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
The hours to which high heaven doth chime;

God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
His still, soft call;
His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
When spirits their fair kindred catch.

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

See the full poem.

Poem 7 “When I consider how my light is spent” by John Milton, c. 1655

John Milton was on the side of the Commonwealth, unlike Henry Vaughan who was a Royalist, during the time of the English Civil War. Milton was Oliver Cromwell’s Latin secretary. In this sonnet he makes sense of his affliction, his blindness, with the simple antithesis of those who “speed o’er land and ocean” and those who like him can “only stand and wait”.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Poem 8 “Absalom and Achitophel” by John Dryden, 1681

This poem from ‘The Age Of Reason’ has the same satirical tone as the poem which follows it in this collection. (Note the reference to ‘priest-craft’.) Dryden bases the poem on the attempt of the Earl of Shaftesbury to stop James, the duke of York, a Roman Catholic and brother to King Charles II, from succeeding to the throne. Shaftsbury wished to promote the king’s illegitimate Protestant son, the duke of Monmouth. In the opening of the poem the philandering habits of Charles the second are given mimetic expression.

In pious times, ere priest-craft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin;
When man, on many, multipli’d his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confin’d:
When Nature prompted, and no Law deni’d
Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;
Then, Israel’s monarch, after Heaven’s own heart,
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves: and, wide as his command,
Scatter’d his Maker’s image through the land

Poem 9 “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope, 1712

Pope’s satirical poem reflects the Enlightenment’s concern with rationality and the contrast between ideals and actualities. (In the quotation he refers mockingly to “all the nurse and all the priest have taught”.) It is based on a squabble over a lock of hair, cut from the head of one, Arabella Fermor. Pope invented an order of spirits, the sylphs, for the purposes of his poem. In the quotation a sylph addresses Belinda (Arabella Fermor) and urges her to accept how important she is:

Fairest of mortals, thou distinguish’d care
Of thousand bright inhabitants of air!
If e’er one vision touch’d thy infant thought,
Of all the nurse and all the priest have taught,
Of airy elves by moonlight shadows seen,
The silver token, and the circled green,
Or virgins visited by angel pow’rs,
With golden crowns and wreaths of heav’nly flow’rs,
Hear and believe! thy own importance know,
Nor bound thy narrow views to things below.
Some secret truths from learned pride conceal’d,
To maids alone and children are reveal’d:
What tho’ no credit doubting wits may give?
The fair and innocent shall still believe.

Poem 10 ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth, 1807

This poem well represents the change from the Enlightenment satires to the concerns of the Romantic poets with beauty, nature and the spirit. Wordsworth sees childhood as a period of unsullied spiritual insight which is later lost. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” he asks. The following quotation is linked to this idea:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.