Poems One Should Contemplate before Venturing Forth from College

Here, I attend only to English lyric. [AMI has offered a course in the greatest of epics, Dante’s Divine Comedy; a course in the first of epics, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, together with their most elegant Latin rival, Virgil’s Aeneid; a course in the pearl of English, Paradise Lost; and, finally, a course in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, his lament over what, in our age, has become of those former works and of the world of meaning they framed.  All this, I note, any subscriber can access through the Institute’s Archive.].   The following five poems (offered in no particular order), I suggest, every bachelor of arts—indeed, every liberal artist—should carry in memory.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire (1882)

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring: like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts is God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

                                                        Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844–1889)

There’s A Certain Slant of Light (#258 in the Collected Poems; c. 1861)

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons—

That oppresses like the Heft 

Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are—

None may teach it—Any—

‘Tis the Seal Despair—

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air—

When it comes, the Landscape listens—

Shadows—hold their breath—

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death—

                                            Emily Dickinson 1830–1886

The Second Coming  (1919)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

                                                          William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare. (1920)

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.

Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,

And lay them prone upon the earth and cease

To ponder on themselves, the while they stare

At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere

In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese

Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release

From dusty bondage into luminous air.

O blinding hour, O holy terrible day,

When first the shaft into his vision shone

Of light anatomized! Euclid alone

Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they

Who, though once only and then but far away,

Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

                                                       Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950)

The World Is Too Much With Us.  (c. 1802)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; —

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.  Great God!  I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

                                                    William Wordsworth. (1770–1850)

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  1. Also inspiring for us who were given other fare in our formative years. Very moving. So many pearls—sadly ignored by pottage addicts (and mongers). Thank you, Dr. Cortright. I hereby promise to eschew mental gruel, to nourish myself better in the time I have left.