Top Ten Poetry Lines
By Jeff Pajak
Catholic Communications volunteer intern
Last Father’s Day, I was sitting in a quaint but renowned little restaurant with my parents as we awaited our pancakes, omelets, and muffins to arrive. It was Sunday morning, and we were fresh out of Mass and enjoying the leisurely comforts of eating out, something we do not do too often. While we waited for our food, we got talking about literature. We talked about the pros and cons of “skimming” books as opposed to newspapers, and how society seems to possess an attention span too short for devoting much time to the written word. It was my father, I believe, who brought up poetry, and we all agreed that good poetry is an entirely unique genre because it forces the reader to slow down if he or she wishes to understand it. It was a great discussion, and it got me thinking about the poetry that I personally enjoy. When my go-to editor and supervisor, Peggy Weber, suggested I write about a “top ten” of favorite lines of poetry, my face lit up like the fourth of July.
Now, I certainly do not pretend to know what lines of poetry are “the best,” and I do not mean to insult anyone by leaving out lines from his or her own favorite poet. The following excerpts are simply lines of poetry that made an impact on me at some stage in my life and continue to strike that chord which only the music of words can strum. I should add that these ten fragments are in no way listed in order from my favorite to my least favorite, or in any other order. It was hard enough cutting down the list of candidates to ten. So, here it goes…
1. …and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover”
I remember when I first heard of Hopkins. My favorite English professor at Providence College suggested him to some friends and myself, and we were all unfamiliar with the poet-priest. “You guys have yet to discover Hopkins?” he asked. “You’re in for a treat.” That just might be an understatement. From what I have read, Hopkins created a style all his own that has yet to be matched. Just read aloud any of his intensely alliterated poems, and you’ll be surprised at the beautiful sounds you hear your mouth making.
2. ‘Reign thou in Hell thy kingdom, let mee serve
In Heav’n God ever blest, and His Divine
Behests to obey, worthiest to be obey’d,
Yet Chains in Hell, not Realms expect: meanwhile
From mee return’d, as erst thou said’st, from flight,
This greeting on thy impious Crest receive.’
~ John Milton, “Paradise Lost,” Book VI. ll. 183-188.
These are the lines concluding the noble speech of the angel, Abdiel, to Satan. Abdiel was the only one who spoke against Satan when the rebellious angel sought to persuade a third of the angels of heaven to reject the Son of God as their Lord. When he first resisted Satan, Abdiel was all alone in defending God’s Son, and he fled to inform the other angels still true to the Most High. The scene above is when Abdiel returned with Michael the Archangel to meet Satan and his horde in battle, the battle in heaven which resulted in Satan’s imminent defeat and fall. Moments before the battle begins, Abdiel and Satan exchange words, and finish abruptly when Abdiel cuts to the chase and wallops the Prince of Darkness upside the head. Perhaps the most epic moment in the most epic poem of all time.
3. The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
~ Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
I’m a huge fan of Frost, and so I challenged myself to include only one of his poems for the top ten list. It may have been the fifth hardest decision of my life. There is some critical controversy over whether or not the speaker of “Stopping by Woods” is contemplating suicide. I like to think that the speaker, like all of us at one point or another, is simply tired of the world and wishes to leave it behind; but his responsibilities or some daunting task call to him, and he knows that he cannot rest until it is finished.
4. But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
~ W.B. Yeats, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”
To be honest, I first heard these lines in an action movie,”Equilibrium”; but the scene was crucial, and the actor, Sean Bean, delivered the lines so well that the lines stayed with me until I stumbled across them years later during a course on British literature. The entire poem is only eight lines and is simply worded, so it’s a cinch to read this one in a matter of seconds. But it may stay with you for years.
5. Add faith unto your force and be not faint.
~ Edmund Spenser, “The Faerie Queene,” I.1.19
I don’t know the exact number of lines which constitute this massive work of classic poetry, but my copy of “The Faerie Queene” is one thousand fifty-five pages long. That’s a whole lot of poetry! Of all those words, though, the ones above made a special impression on me in the way they concisely join physical and spiritual strength with courage. Sometimes, I find myself repeating this line like a mantra in my head when I’m faced with a trial, and it helps.
6. Not till the fire is dying in the grate,
Look we for any kinship with the stars.
~ George Meredith, “Modern Love”. IV
I have not come across George Meredith anywhere in any way since the day an English professor, who is fond of rare writers, introduced him to me. That was several years ago, and though I have only read “Modern Love” once all the way through, I have not forgotten the vivid language and images Meredith used to paint the picture of a troubled marriage. Apparently, Meredith’s poetry was not seen as anything special in comparison to his other writings; anyone who reads “Modern Love” will likely find that hard to believe.
7. …The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
~ Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar”
My roommate gave me an excellent edition of Tennyson’s poetry last year. I recall that when I first opened it, I flipped to the back of the book, as if it were a novel and I were sneaking a peek at the ending. “Crossing the Bar” was the last poem in the collection and the first poem of Tennyson’s that I ever read. It would also become the first poem I’d choose to memorize for my own pleasure. It recounts the thoughts of the aging poet as he ponders his approaching death, and though its theme may seem grim, the poem sings like a lullaby and has a calming, reassuring effect.
8. Awake, my sleeper, to the sun,
A worker in the morning town,
And leave the poppied pickthank where he lies;
The fences of the light are down,
All but the briskest riders thrown,
And worlds hang on the trees.
~ Dylan Thomas, “When Once the Twilight Locks No Longer”
I am a new-comer to the world of Dylan Thomas. Every morning, since the start of summer, I have tried to read at least one of Thomas’ poems while I eat my breakfast. So far, Thomas has made a brilliant summer companion alongside my bowl of cereal. The illustrative images in his poems are unlike anything I have encountered and carry with them such force – I am blown away every time. Unraveling these images for yourself is something you don’t want to miss. Besides, aren’t you curious to know what a “poppied pickthank” is?
9. And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
~ Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
This poem holds special significance for me. I recall there was a good stretch of my life when I was interested in language and liked to read in my own spare time, but nothing more serious than that. Then, I stumbled across the last few lines of “Dover Beach” in an English literature textbook, and suddenly I wanted to be a poet. The words had moved me before I had even understood them, and since then my interest in words has taken a more active approach. I no longer wait for the next reading assignment that will grab my attention in an unexpected way; now, I hunt down the beautiful words of poets, novelists, and playwrights wherever I can find them. I probably visit the library more often than the bathroom, and for that I can blame Mr. Matthew Arnold.
10. Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.
~ Countee Cullen, “Heritage”
Being human, and therefore flawed, it is so easy to take what we think is best and then convince ourselves that it is also what God thinks is best, too. Cullen explores this concept among others in his poem “Heritage” in such a simple and heartfelt manner. When I read lines in this poem like the ones quoted above, I feel the same as I think Cullen felt when he wrote them. I feel as though we have prayed the same impulsive prayer; for “Heritage” is in many ways a prayer. I often repeat these two lines in my head, and whenever I do, I am connected to an African American poet from the Harlem Renaissance who died over half a century ago.
Searching for my top ten favorite lines of poetry taught me a lot about myself. I imagine we all relate to literature in different ways. The things we choose to read, then, represent different relationships. You may choose to acquaint yourself with the newspaper every morning, but it is the author whose pages you choose to revisit again and again who holds a place in your heart. Perhaps you could say that our favorite books are like friends: whom we choose for a friend says a lot about who we are. When you look at a shelf of books that represents countless hours of time spent toward nurturing yourself and various literary relationships, you learn a good deal about yourself. You see who your “friends” are and what they have in common, with each other and with you. For example, I learned that my friends often find solace in metaphors of the natural world, but at times they can be depressing and dark. However, I also discovered that my friends have hope, perseverance, and believe in a higher, benevolent power. Yep, that sounds a lot like me. I’d like to think that this list will encourage people to read these poems in their entirety. But I also hope that these poems show what the world of poetry has to offer, that people are inspired to find poetry that speaks to them, and that they then take their time with it.