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Celebrating English Poets & Poetry

While we celebrate the tradition of American poetry—the Walt Whitmans and Emily Dickinsons and Langston Hugheses who helped create a uniquely American voice—we cannot forget how poets from across the pond have a shared history with the beginnings of American poetry, from the poets like Anne Bradstreet, who was credited as one of the first English poets in the colonies, to poets like Shakespeare, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose work has made an indelible mark on our understanding of poetry in America. Find out more about English poets and poetry with this collection of poems, essays, and more from and about poets from England.

poem

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen
1920
poem

The Only Work

In memory of Agha Shahid Ali

When a poet leaves to see to all that matters,
nothing has changed. In treasured places still
       he clears his head and writes.

None of his joie-de-vivre or books or friends
or ecstasies go with him to the piece
       he waits for and begins,

nor is he here in this. The only work
that bonds us separates us for all time.
       We feel it in a handshake,

a hug that isn't ours to end. When a verse
has done its work, it tells us there'll be one day
       nothing but the verse,

and it tells us this the way a mother might
inform her son so gently of a matter
       he goes his way delighted.
Glyn Maxwell
2002
poem

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,   
  Black as the Pit from pole to pole,   
I thank whatever gods may be   
  For my unconquerable soul.   
   
In the fell clutch of circumstance 
  I have not winced nor cried aloud.   
Under the bludgeonings of chance   
  My head is bloody, but unbowed.   
   
Beyond this place of wrath and tears   
  Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years   
  Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.   
   
It matters not how strait the gate,   
  How charged with punishments the scroll,   
I am the master of my fate:
  I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley
1888
poem

How Beastly the Bourgeois Is

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species--

Presentable, eminently presentable--
shall I make you a present of him?

Isn't he handsome?  Isn't he healthy?  Isn't he a fine specimen?
Doesn't he look the fresh clean Englishman, outside?
Isn't it God's own image? tramping his thirty miles a day
after partridges, or a little rubber ball?
wouldn't you like to be like that, well off, and quite the
   thing

Oh, but wait!
Let him meet a new emotion, let him be faced with another
   man's need,
let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty, let life
  face him with a new demand on his understanding
and then watch him go soggy, like a wet meringue.
Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully.
Just watch the display of him, confronted with a new
   demand on his intelligence,
a new life-demand.

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species--

Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable--
and like a fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life
   than his own.

And even so, he's stale, he's been there too long.
Touch him, and you'll find he's all gone inside
just like an old mushroom, all wormy inside, and hollow
under a smooth skin and an upright appearance.

Full of seething, wormy, hollow feelings
rather nasty--
How beastly the bourgeois is!

Standing in their thousands, these appearances, in damp
   England
what a pity they can't all be kicked over
like sickening toadstools, and left to melt back, swiftly
into the soil of England.
D. H. Lawrence
1964
poem

Ode to the West Wind

I
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!
 
II
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!
 
III
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
 
IV
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
 
V
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Percy Bysshe Shelley
1820
poem

Third Charm from Masque of Queens

The owl is abroad, the bat, and the toad,
     And so is the cat-a-mountain,
The ant and the mole sit both in a hole,
     And the frog peeps out o' the fountain;
The dogs they do bay, and the timbrels play,
     The spindle is now a turning;
The moon it is red, and the stars are fled,
     But all the sky is a-burning:

The ditch is made, and our nails the spade,
With pictures full, of wax and of wool;
Their livers I stick, with needles quick;
There lacks but the blood, to make up the flood.
     Quickly, Dame, then bring your part in,
     Spur, spur upon little Martin,
     Merrily, merrily, make him fail,
     A worm in his mouth, and a thorn in his tail,
     Fire above, and fire below,
     With a whip in your hand, to make him go.
Ben Jonson
1609