‘There is no Frigate like a Book’, as Emily Dickinson once said, ‘To take us Lands away / Nor any Coursers like a Page / Of prancing Poetry’. And the link between poems and boats or ships is further strengthened by the wealth of great poems about voyaging on a ship, from the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’ through to the twentieth-century modernist poet Ezra Pound’s rewriting of that poem – and beyond. Here are five of the very best poems about ships, boats, and other ocean-going vessels…
John Donne, ‘A Burnt Ship’. This little-known poem by the master of metaphysical poetry focuses on naval warfare and what happens when a ship catches fire: the crew either burn to death or fall to their deaths in the sea, drowning. Not the cheeriest way to begin this pick of the best ship poems, but it is a fine poem written by perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary. Read the rest of this entry
‘Words’ was one of the last poems Sylvia Plath wrote before her tragic suicide in February 1963. (Plath would kill herself on 11 February 1963, in a London apartment she had decided to rent because W. B. Yeats had once lived there; ‘Words’ was written on 1 February.) You can read Plath’s poem ‘Words’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
As the poem’s title implies, ‘Words’ is a meditation on the very stuff of poetry, although it is neither wholly favourable nor wholly damning about the power of words. We begin, in summary, with a single word: ‘Axes’. Its plural picking up on the poem’s plural title, ‘Axes’ immediately invites us to draw a link between title and opening line: words are axes, in that they are cutting, powerful, but also potentially deadly. After one has struck the wood of the tree or log with an axe, the wood ‘rings’. Read the rest of this entry
The best Kipling poems
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a tireless experimenter with the short story form, a novelist, a writer who could entertain children and adults alike with such books as The Jungle Book, Plain Tales from the Hills, The Just So Stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill, and countless others. But as well as being a prolific author of fiction, Rudyard Kipling was also a hugely popular poet. But what are Kipling’s very best poems?
‘If—’. This poem was first published in Kipling’s volume of short stories and poems, Rewards and Fairies, in 1910, it has become one of Kipling’s best-known poems, and was even voted the UK’s favourite poem of all time in a poll of 1995. According to Kipling in his autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), the origins of ‘If—’ lie in the failed Jameson raid of 1895-6, when the British colonial statesman Leander Starr Jameson led a raid against the South African (Boer) Republic over the New Year weekend. Read the rest of this entry