British playwright, novelist, and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham once said, “The crown of literature is poetry. It is the end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty.”
And that beauty isn’t new. Poets have been instilling beauty into their work for years. Poetry remains relevant because poets have always been ahead of their time, inspiring generations after them. Below is a compilation of some of my personal favourite classic poems that still remain relevant today:
“Ulysses” by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Written in 1833 and published in the year 1842, “Ulysses” by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson is about loss, the acceptance of it, and having the courage to embark on new adventures even after a loss. Tennyson wrote this beautiful piece after the sudden death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam who was barely 22 years old when he passed away. Many say that this was his attempt to cope with the loss of his friend.
“Ulysses” is inspired and based on the character of a Greek king and soldier who is also known as Odysseus. Written in a dramatic monologue structure, “Ulysses” is a masterpiece that has inspired generations through centuries to try something new, take on a new adventure and never give up on life. Some of my favourite lines from this poem are:
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
Written in 1914, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost is a classic poem in blank verse that involves two rural neighbours who one day meet while walking along the wall between their properties and repairing it where needed. The progressive speaker of the poem questions the need for the wall while the traditionalist neighbour seems to have little time for such nonsense. This poem has remained relevant over the years questioning individualism and selfishness. It could not be more relevant at this point of time given the international dialogue on “building a wall” that has been going on for the last few years.
In “Mending Wall,” Frost argues that building a wall is not necessarily a straightforward idea. It made sense when people built walls to protect livestock, but look at how the evolution of walls has separated people from people, families from families, communities from communities and so on. Here’s an excerpt of the poem:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. The work of hunters is another thing: I have come after them and made repair Where they have left not one stone on a stone, But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, No one has seen them made or heard them made, But at spring mending-time we find them there. I let my neighbour know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was only 17 when he wrote this poem while he was on a train ride to Mexico visiting his father. The poem encapsulates the struggles of people of colour in America. It is an ode to the proud history of black people and a homage to each leader who took a stand and spoke up against racism and hatred.
Written in a time of racial intolerance and injustice, this poem made Hughes an unofficial laureate of the great Harlem Renaissance, a movement that brought artists from the black community together as one to be vocal against discrimination on the basis of race, colour, and creed. As a proud woman of colour and a strong believer of equality and justice in society, I find this classic poem close to my heart.
I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
One common thread that is found in most classic poems is that they are all based on the simple yet significant philosophies of life. They can simplify worldly affairs and show paths of compassion, love, justice, humility, and positivity. I think this is the reason that classic poetry still remains relevant and loved across the world.