For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils. First, the poem comes at a time when the Western world is industrializing and man feels spiritually lonely in the face of an increasingly godless worldview. The daffodils then become more than nature; they become a companion and a source of personal joy. Second, the very simplicity itself of enjoying nature—flowers, trees, the sea, the sky, the mountains etc.
Any common reader can easily get this poem, as easily as her or she might enjoy a walk around a lake. Third, Wordsworth has subtly put forward more than just an ode to nature here.
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This, coupled with the language and topic of the poem, which are both relatively accessible to the common man, make for a great poem that demonstrates the all-encompassing and accessible nature of beauty and its associates, truth and bliss. One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. Death is a perennial subject of fear and despair.
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But, this sonnet seems to say that it need not be this way. Second, all great people die sooner or later and the process of death could be viewed as joining them. Third, Death is under the command of higher authorities such as fate, which controls accidents, and kings, who wage wars; from this perspective, Death seems no more than a pawn in a larger chess game within the universe. They must make unpleasant coworkers!
You can almost see Donne laughing as he wrote this. The sixth, most compelling, and most serious reason is that if one truly believes in a soul then Death is really nothing to worry about. Further, this poem is so great because of its universal application. Fear of death is so natural an instinct and Death itself so all-encompassing and inescapable for people, that the spirit of this poem and applicability of it extends to almost any fear or weakness of character that one might have.
Thus, Donne leaves a powerful lesson to learn from: confront what you fear head on and remember that there is nothing to fear on earth if you believe in a soul. How then could this possibly be number one? After the bad taste of an old flavor to a modern tongue wears off, we realize that this is the very best of poetry. This is not pompous because Shakespeare actually achieves greatness and creates an eternal poem. It is okay to recognize poetry as great if it is great and it is okay to recognize an artistic hierarchy.
In fact, it is absolutely necessary in educating, guiding, and leading others. The unabashed praise for someone without a hint as to even the gender or accomplishments of the person is not irrational or sycophantic. It is a pure and simple way of approaching our relationships with other people, assuming the best. It is a happier way to live—immediately free from the depression, stress, and cynicism that creeps into our hearts.
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Thus, this poem is strikingly and refreshingly bold, profound, and uplifting. He wields such sublime power that he is unmoved and can instead offer remedy, his verse, at will to those he sees befitting. How marvelous! What an interesting enterprise, Evan?
Glossary of Poetic Terms
I have always loved lists. Thank you for taking the time to write out all of these insightful analyses. While my list may be different than yours I probably would add a Yeats and Millay or a Hardy , it would obviously be difficult to bench any of the all-stars you have in your present lineup. What would make it easier, or more amenable to more great poems being subsumed in more lists, would be to narrow the scope of the lists. For what constitutes a poem? We are obviously excluding Epics.
I have invariably been drawn to your brazenness though. You know how to get a crowd into it…. Thanks, Reid. I mention at the beginning that it is only short poems, not longer works or excerpts of longer works, so epics are out. If you want to make a top ten or five? I am contemplating one on war poems again, short poems, not epics or excerpts. Any ideas? This was the time of the Wild West and Manifest Destiny the pitfalls in expansion can be seen in Little House on the Prairie and that was 40 years later. Doing things by the numbers would not have meant a healthy, expanding U.
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This also fits in with the recurring war theme since enlisting is a similarly risky proposition. Arabic poetry is the best in history, it has far more words for description and it has deep meanings. It was my first time reading the poem and I thought it meant the mournfully high number of people who say such things.
I like it. We may be reading too much into it. Thank you! This was my first thought too. I remember my high school teacher interpreting it in a similar way. Simple and succinct. Well chosen. I love this series of the ten best. So brilliantly synchronous! In this data-rich period of the last years, we have seen myriads of lists composed, the top 10 vehicles of the last fifty years, the top 40 songs of the week, the top contributers to humanity of the last years, the richest people in the World this year, and so forth. It is a way for us in mass society to make sense of all the information that comes our way.
Another reason for compiling such lists is that it clarifies our own visions, artistic, scientific, philosophical, etc.
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However, all lists are at best provisional. They are works in progress. Things change. The most popular meme this week might not be the most popular meme next week. Our favourite cuisine this season may not be our favourite the next. In fact, we are creatures of change. We thrive on variety. So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that even our own lists will alter over time. Evan Mantyk has done us a great service in posting his list of the 10 Greatest Poems Ever Written, not because he was right after all, who could be right? De gustibus non est disputandum.
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As Mr. Mantyk knows, by emphasizing poems of 50 lines or less not his exact requirement, but his example , one must exclude epics, poetic plays, narrative poems, dramatic monologues, didactic verse essays, satires and epistles, etc. One of the paradoxes of making a list of the greatest short poems ever written is in attributing greatness to the smaller works, when the very meaning of greatness implies a largeness of expanse, of vision, etc.
Even he, I suspect, will change his list over time. Here is his list. Daffodils William Wordsworth 4. On His Blindness John Milton 6. The Tyger William Blake 7. Ode on a Grecian Urn John Keats 8. Ozymandias Percy Bysshe Shelley 9. The New Colossus Emma Lazarus The Road Not Taken Robert Frost What is remarkable about his list is its specificity and his analyses, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. As I read his list, however, I kept thinking, but what about this poem, or that poem?
Other Shakespearean sonnets are also in competition with Sonnet Sonnet for me has always had a special place, because in its delivery, Shakespeare even goes so far as to suggest that if true love does not exist, then he never wrote a thing. It is the Shakespearean sonnet that most moves me, so much so I recited it at the wedding of my college roommate many years ago.
This shows one of the pitfalls of poetic placement; various poems may suggest more to us than others because of our own particular circumstances. One more example will suffice. What appeals to me in that sonnet is its unusual vantage point, its precision, the use of particular words, like steep, and its terse landscaping.
Death thou shalt die. But for me, the John Donne poem that takes my breath away is A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, with its extraordinary conceit of love with a mathematical compass. It is a linguistic tour de force that sweeps me away with its idealism, its learning, and its paradoxically intricate simplicity. For me, nothing like it in English poetry reaches such a refined, intellectual brilliance; and for a long time, it has seemed a worthy paradigm to emulate in my poetry.
I agree with Reid McGrath that it would be difficult to bench any of the all-stars Mr. Edwards and the Spider, etc. And Ezra Pound and T. O Captain!