From Book 1 of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude

William Wordsworth’s great long autobiographical poem in blank verse, The Prelude, has many great passages, and this is one of the best, from the first book of the poem, describing the poet’s schooldays and his time among nature. The description of the hill looming up as a young Wordsworth rows his boat – finding freedom on the open water – comes close to that key Romantic concept of the Sublime. If this excerpt whets your appetite for the whole poem, you can read that here.

One evening (surely I was led by her)
I went alone into a Shepherd’s Boat,
A Skiff that to a Willow tree was tied
Within a rocky Cave, its usual home.
‘Twas by the shores of Patterdale, a Vale
Wherein I was a Stranger, thither come
A School-boy Traveller, at the Holidays.

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‘Caliban upon Setebos’: A Poem by Robert Browning

One of the first poems to respond to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, this 1863 poem is a dramatic monologue, spoken by the native, Caliban, from the magical island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Setebos is the invented name for the deity Caliban worships, believing Setebos to be the Creator of all things (the name is mentioned in Shakespeare’s play; one surprising legacy is that one of the moons of the planet Uranus was named after Setebos).

Caliban upon Setebos

‘Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself.’
(David, Psalms 50.21)

[‘Will sprawl, now that the heat of day is best,
Flat on his belly in the pit’s much mire,
With elbows wide, fists clenched to prop his chin.
And, while he kicks both feet in the cool slush,

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‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’: A Poem by William Dunbar

‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’, a poem by the medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar (c. 1465-c. 1530), boasts one of the finest opening lines in all medieval poetry. The rest of the poem is pretty good, too. It takes as its theme the Resurrection, and casts Christ as a crusading knight.

Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campioun Chryst confoundit hes his force,
The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
The signe trivmphall rasit is of the croce.
The diuillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go.

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‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’: A Poem by Walt Whitman

One of several poems Walt Whitman wrote about Abraham Lincoln, and probably the best, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ was written in the summer of 1865, in the aftermath of the assassination of Lincoln in April of that year. An example of the pastoral elegy, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ wasn’t considered one of Whitman’s best poems by Whitman himself. However, many of his readers have disagreed, and think this among his finest.

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

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‘The Old Year’: A Poem by John Clare

This poem, ‘The Old Year’, by the underrated John Clare (1793-1864) is about bidding farewell to the old year rather than ushering in the new. Indeed, the stanza form is strikingly similar to Thomas Hardy’s later poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’: did Hardy have Clare’s poem in mind when he wrote his 1900 New Year meditation? For a good edition of John Clare’s poetry, we recommend John Clare: Major Works from Oxford University Press.

The Old Year

The Old Year’s gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:

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