By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Thinking and thought loom large in poetry, whether it’s the intellectual exercises of the metaphysical poets, the deep, personal introspection of the Romantics, or the modernists’ interest in subjectivity and interiority. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest introspective poems about thoughts, thinking, and meditation.
William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky…
This poem was not actually composed at Tintern Abbey, but, as the poem’s full title reveals, was written nearby, overlooking the ruins of the medieval priory in the Wye Valley in South Wales. Well, actually, according to Wordsworth, he didn’t ‘write’ a word of the poem until he got to Bristol, where he wrote down the whole psoem, having composed it in his head shortly after leaving the Wye. The poem is one of the great hymns to tranquillity, quiet contemplation, and self-examination in all of English literature, and a quintessential piece of Romantic poetry written in meditative blank verse. We’ve analysed this classic Wordsworth poem in detail here.
Walt Whitman, ‘Thoughts’.
In this poem, the American pioneer of free verse Walt Whitman (1819-92) offers a series of thoughts about various subjects, all supposedly coming to his mind as he sits there listening to music playing. The poem begins:
Of the visages of things—And of piercing through
to the accepted hells beneath;
Of ugliness—To me there is just as much in it as
there is in beauty—And now the ugliness of
human beings is acceptable to me;
Of detected persons—To me, detected persons are
not, in any respect, worse than undetected per-
sons—and are not in any respect worse than I
Of criminals—To me, any judge, or any juror, is
equally criminal—and any reputable person is
also—and the President is also …
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Brain is Wider than the Sky’.
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do …
A fine poem about the power of the human mind from one of America’s most distinctive poetic voices. The mind and all that it can take in – and imagine – is far greater than even the vast sky above us. This is the starting point of one of Emily Dickinson’s great meditations on the power of human imagination and comprehension.
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Thought’.
This little four-line poem by the author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is short enough to be quoted in full here. Stevenson was an accomplished author of verse for young children, as this pithy poem demonstrates:
It is very nice to think
The world is full of meat and drink,
With little children saying grace
In every Christian kind of place.
A. E. Housman, ‘Think No More, Lad; Laugh, Be Jolly’.
Taken from Housman’s 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, this poem sees the speaker addressing the titular ‘lad’ from rural Shropshire, imparting the advice that thinking only leads to depression and to death. Best just to enjoy life and go with the flow:
Think no more, lad; laugh, be jolly:
Why should men make haste to die?
Empty heads and tongues a-talking
Make the rough road easy walking,
And the feather pate of folly
Bears the falling sky …
Walter D. Wintle, ‘Thinking’.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the person who wins
Is the one who thinks he can!
Wintle is something of a mystery: we don’t even know his precise birth or death dates, other than that he was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is only known for this one poem, about ‘the man who thinks he can’, which espouses a ‘positive mental attitude’ to life. It’s become an influential motivational poem beloved of self-help gurus and businesspeople.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Introspection’.
Composed in 1915 but not published until 1996, more than thirty years after Eliot’s death, ‘Introspection’ treads a fine line between free verse and prose poetry, offering an anti-romantic image to convey the idea of soul-searching and meditation: the mind is ‘six feet deep’ in a cistern, with a brown snake devouring its own tail like Ouroboros from Greek myth.
The words of the poem curl round in a barely punctuated circular shape on the page, mimicking the form of the coiled snake …
Kathleen Raine, ‘Introspection’.
Perhaps, as Eliot’s poem suggests, introspection is not always a positive, affirmative process. Sometimes, our thoughts may take us to some dark realisations – such as here, in this poem from the twentieth-century poet Kathleen Raine, where thinking and introspection lead her to think about death.
Raine (1908-2003) wrote some beautifully intense poems inspired by William Blake and her own personal mythology, and ‘Introspection’ offers a nice way into her work.
William Stafford, ‘Just Thinking’.
Stafford (1914-93) was an American poet. ‘Just Thinking’ is a short poem about the simple act of contemplation – of a landscape, or a momentary scene from nature – and uses the metaphor of incarceration and being ‘on probation’ all one’s life to convey the way we live.
Nikki Giovanni, ‘Introspection’.
The American poet Yolande Cornelia ‘Nikki’ Giovanni Jr. was born in 1943, and rose to prominence in the late 1960s as part of the Black Arts Movement. ‘Introspection’ is one of her finest poems, about a woman who prefers to solve her depression and anxiety (she lives constantly ‘on the edge of an emotional abyss’) by doing something ‘concrete’ and practical rather than dealing in ‘abstracts’.