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Twenty Iconic Poems – Part III

Posted by: Philip Carr - 08 March 2021 - MPW London - Read time: 6 Minutes

The third in Philip Carr’s series on Iconic Poems, see the first and second articles in the series, as he explores poems from Arthur Hugh Clough, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and Algernon Charles Swinburne. 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 11, “Natura Naturans” by Arthur Hugh Clough, 1847

We tend to think of the Victorians as rather stuffy. In this poem whose title means roughly “nature at work” Clough describes his being attracted to a lady he encounters in a railway carriage but finds himself as if immersed in the great evolutionary sweep of Nature. The poem is perhaps suggestive of Darwinian thought though ‘Origin of Species’ itself was published later, in 1859:

In me and her sensation strange!
The lily grew to pendent head,
To vernal airs the mossy bank
Its sheeny primrose spangles spread,
In roof o’er roof of shade sun-proof
Did cedar strong itself outclimb,
And altitude of aloe proud
Aspire in floral crown sublime;

Flashed flickering forth fantastic flies,
Big bees their burly bodies swung,
Rooks roused with civic din the elms,
And lark its wild reveilles rung;
In Libyan dell the light gazelle,
The leopard lithe in Indian glade,
And dolphin, brightening tropic seas,
In us were living, leapt and played:

Their shells did slow crustacea build,
Their gilded skins did snakes renew,
While mightier spines for loftier kind
Their types in amplest limbs outgrew;
Yea, close comprest in human breast,
What moss, and tree, and livelier thing,
What Earth, Sun, Star of force possest,
Lay budding, burgeoning forth for Spring.

Poem 12, “In Memoriam” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1850

This poem is an elegy on the death of Tennyson’s friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. In the poem, Tennyson explores the dilemma of the Victorian crisis of faith. In an age of increasing awareness of scientific explanation, the Christian faith seemed to many harder to believe. In the quotation “her” refers to Nature:

…………………….And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law —
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed –

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

Poem 13, “Goblin Market”, Christina Rossetti, 1859

This poem has been interpreted in a number of ways and might be termed
One principal interpretation is that the poem is a Christian allegory. The goblins tempt two sisters with delicious fruit. It may be read as a feminist text. This would include the idea of women discovering an independent discourse. The poem may be taken as a children’s tale. It may be taken as escapist and therefore linked to some painters of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The poem seems reminiscent of the paintings of Rich-ard Dadd. The poem has some Gothic elements. Rossetti’s uncle, John Polisari, wrote ‘The Vampyre’ in 1819. Theories about the Gothic genre include Julia Kesteva’s concept of the “abject”, meaning that Gothic is a way in which those parts of our nature we find hard to deal with can be demonised (here the
goblins) and thus separated from us. Cf. “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.
I have quoted part of the poem which emphasises the temptations of the fruit and the part which shows the sisters’ solidarity later:

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”

Days, weeks, months, years
Afterwards, when both were wives
With children of their own;
Their mother-hearts beset with fears,
Their lives bound up in tender lives;
Laura would call the little ones
And tell them of her early prime,
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruits like honey to the throat
But poison in the blood;
(Men sell not such in any town):
Would tell them how her sister stood
In deadly peril to do her good,
And win the fiery antidote:
Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”

Poem 14, “This World is not Conclusion”, Emily Dickinson, 1862

Emily Dickinson grew up in Amherst in America in a Calvinist family. In this poem she examines her religious faith in the light of her experiences. The opening lines sound firmly sure – as if quoted from a sermon – but the poem concludes with a statement of doubt which “nibbles at the soul”. The use of dashes gives the poem an extempore feeling as if the thoughts come to mind bit by bit and are jotted down. In this way I feel she did for poetry what Virginia Woolf did for prose.

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Poem 15 “Before the mirror” (Verses written under a picture) by Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1864

Swinburne scandalised respectable Victorians with his preference for Greece and Rome over modern Christian Europe. This poem was written about a painting by Whistler. The poem makes more sense with the picture (“The Little White Girl”: Symphony in White no. 2, now in the Tate Gallery) in front of you. Swinburne writes with brilliance of the transience of human life, its beauty and its sadness. I have quoted the final three verses:

Glad, but not flush’d with gladness,
Since joys go by;
Sad, but not bent with sadness,
Since sorrows die;
Deep in the gleaming glass
She sees all past things pass,
And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.

There glowing ghosts of flowers
Draw down, draw nigh;
And wings of swift spent hours
Take flight and fly;
She sees by formless gleams,
She hears across cold streams,
Dead mouths of many dreams that sing and sigh.

Face fallen and white throat lifted,
With sleepless eye
She sees old loves that drifted,
She knew not why,
Old loves and faded fears
Float down a stream that hears
The flowing of all men’s tears beneath the sky.