6 Feb 2011

Filling the hole in my soul - Top 10 Poems (plus a few more..!)

When you're sick or you've hurt yourself, you normally take yourself off to the Doctor (or worst case, the hospital) and they given you antibiotics, or a plaster, or whatever and it makes you feel better. But sadly, sometimes, they can't do anything much for what I slightly melodramatically call, malaise of the soul. Some of you might know this better as the black dog, or even more commonly, depression. I know there is medication out there, and counselling, but sometimes, the best medicine can simply be words - in this case poetry. It may sound clich├ęd but when you're feeling worn down by the daily grind and it's just all gotten too much chances are, there's a poem out there that will make you feel better - and that will remind you that "this too, shall pass."

Here are my most very favourite poems, that I've read many times and they make my soul ache (and my eyes leak). I hope you like them  - and please feel free to share your favourites in the comments section.

To His Coy Mistress - Andrew Marvell
A wonderful, romantic poem in which Mr Marvell tries to persuade his lover to allow him to sleep with her. It's funny, endearing, grandiloquent and never fails to make me smile. It also contains a couple of my most favourite lines "Thus, though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run".

The Lake Isle of Innisfree - WB Yeats
The first of four Yeats poems to feature in this list, I first read this poem when I was doing my A-levels at a school in the City of London. I had serious teenage blues - and being surrounded by dull, dark, dingy grey buildings didn't help. When I read this poem, I held its lines close in my heart and whenever the city got too much for me I thought of  "I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore/While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey/I hear it in the deep heart's core."

Death Is Nothing At All - Henry Scott Holland
Technically not a poem at all, in fact it's from a sermon by Holland, Canon of St Paul's Cathedral in 1884. I had this read at my grandmother's funeral in 2006. It was a fairly religious Jewish funeral but I wanted this said over her grave as a personal message from me to her. I cried when I started reading it so my Dad had to do it instead :( I love this poem though because it's such a lovely sentiment about death and provided me with a lot of comfort when I was very sad. It's got a slightly "don't be silly, no tears for me" tone - and that's exactly what my grandmother would have been like if she'd seen me cry.

Siren Song - Margaret Atwood
As a Classics student, this poem really made me laugh the first time I read it. It's not actually that funny - but the words "feathery maniacs" as a description of Homer's Sirens is priceless. Clearly the poem also says something about the enduring idea of women luring men to their deaths - or simply just luring them to some unidentifiable end. I've not really articulated why I like this poem so much, you'll just have to read it and make your own personal interpretation of it - but it's definitely worth a read!

He Wishes For The Clothes of Heaven - WB Yeats
This was one of three readings at my wedding. I love this poem so incredibly much. In some ways perhaps it's not the most original choice for a reading but it completely sums up, for me, my marriage vows and making a commitment together. I choke up whenever I read it, and really had to hold it together on the day when my friend read it aloud. (In case you're interested, we also had this and this)

i carry your heart with me - E. E Cummings
Following on with the love poems theme, this is such a beautiful, quirkily worded poem. Simple and wonderful - like all E.E.Cummings poems, this was a reading at a friend of mine's wedding.  The line "i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)" just really gets me every time I hear it - I'm such a softy!

Warming Her Pearls - Carol Ann Duffy
This poem is almost a whole book in itself - the story hidden between the lines is differently interpreted by every reader, but the images conjured up for me - the intimacy between a lady and her maid, and the subtle erotic spice that runs through this whole poem really makes my skin flame a little.

Love's Philosophy - Percy Bysshe Shelley
This wouldn't be a poetry collection without a dash of Shelley now! I always think of this as the poem equivalent of a big, fat, heavily scented, overblown english country rose. Shelley waxing lyrical about how "Nothing in the world is single" and so "why am I not with thine?". All the dramatic natural images almost kill the poem but for it's beautiful and plaintive last lines "What are all these kissings worth/If thou kiss not me?"

Remember - Christina Rossetti
I had to study Rossetti and Emily Dickinson for A-Level English Literature - two more different sisters of poetry would be impossible to find. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Dickinson, her poems were sometimes so impenetrable to me that Rosetti's came as quite a relief. Remember is quite a famous poem - obviously it's often read at funerals - but what I like about it is that I think it is one of her most honest poems. I really feel it shows Christina in a strong positive light, particularly the lines "Better by far you should forget and smile/Than that you should remember and be sad". After the melodrama of some of her other works, I loved Rossetti for this poem alone.

Desiderata - Max Ehrmann
Rather unfortunately, the use of this poem on tons of greetings cards and posters across the world has somewhat dimmed its lovely, enduring message "with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams/it is still a beautiful world". And to me, that's so important to remember - there's lots of good advice and common sense in this poem - it's rather like a 1927 version of Baz Lurhmann's Everyone Should Wear Sunscreen - so it is definitely worth a read, particularly if you're feeling in need of a little comfort.

When You Are Old - WB Yeats
The second Yeats on this list, this poem is so beautiful and touching that I don't think I can really do it justice in a glib little paragraph. I love the sentiment, I love the idea of a man still finding a woman beautiful and loving her after all those years - and wanting her to know that and finally, I love the slow, slightly melancholy lilt of it all. So beautiful and touching.

Twelve Songs - WH Auden
I know, you all know this one - thank you Four Weddings and A Funeral but, it is such a classic poem and my heart wrenches everytime I hear the lines "My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song/I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong." John Hannah's Scottish accent haunts every word of this poem for me, I don't think there has been a better poem written about losing a partner. I know there are plenty who would disagree but for me, this says everything.

Do Not Stand At My Grave & Weep - Mary Elizabeth Frye
A simple, well known poem. It provides me with lots of comfort for some reason, whenever I read it, even if I am not thinking of someone I have lost. It just has such a lovely delicate tone, encouraging the reader to take solace from the simple, still, calm moments of life. In all the rush and hurry of work and bills and friends and family, hurrying to and fro, it's easy to lose sight of what really matters. This poem always helps to me move with just a little more kindness and grace and to find some calm inside me.

The Song of Wandering Aengus - WB Yeats
The last Yeats poem - and the last on my list. I didn't realise how much I loved Yeats until I wrote this list! This poem - like his others above, is so soothing and romantic. I think we've probably all had "a fire" in our heads from time to time - and when we do, I expect we'd love to "go out to the hazel woods" - particularly Yeat's beautifully magic woods, with "moth like stars" and a "glimmering girl". Again, I'm not really entirely sure what this poem is about. For me it touches on love, fairytales and loneliness in just a few simple lines. The end is what always sticks in my head "the silver apples of the moon/the golden apples of the sun". It just conjures such beautiful pictures in my head of enchanted forests and woodland sprites - even though I'm sure that's not what he meant at all; still, I love it.

So that's my list - a touch over 10 this time! I know that most of these poems are very popular and probably familiar to all of you. I never claimed to be overly original in my choices and these poems are what I return to for comfort over and over again. I won't lie, it was bloody hard work to narrow it down to these few poems, there were so many other front runners - I could have put at least another ten poems up there, but perhaps I'll do that another time (Top 10 second-favourite poems?!)

Thanks for reading - and, I hope, commenting. Stay tuned this week for WoTW - Vocation, an interview with a wedding photographer and not 1 but TWO photo essays - one around a day in my life and another that will be Valentine themed. Finally, next Sunday's top 10 will be my favourite alternative love songs (well, it is almost valentine's day!).

Thank you and good night,

Stupidgirl has left the building

PS Thanks again to all the tweeties who told me about their favourite poems, I hope you enjoyed re-reading them - and my list!


  1. Have you ever read 'The Prophet' by Kahil Gibran? If not you must. Not so much a poem, though it reads as beautifully as one, but the way to live your life. A book for dipping in and out of.
    PS, thought your poems were a beautiful choice and brilliant writing about them Love Lesley xx

  2. Agree with Marvell. Hate Shelley with a passion :P because he was such a wet blanket, heh. I think my favourite is Porphyria's Lover by Browning, but a lot of Wilfred Owen's stuff is up there too.

  3. I loved most of those and knew only one or two of them. Margaret Atwood made me laugh!

    Thank you for introducing me (i love The Listeners: http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/6306-Walter-de-la-Mare-The-Listeners)

    Rachael (Copperhobnob) xx

  4. I just love your first two. 'But at my back I always hear/Time's wing-ed chariot hurrying near/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity.' And the Lake Isle of Innisfree - my dad used to recite this to me.

    I think Porphyria's Lover is fab too. Love a bit of Browning.

    Do you know Ozymandias? Tis my favourite Shelley poem.

    Keats.... where to start. Ode to autumn is pretty marvellous.

    But I think I still love Larkin the best.

  5. I love poetry, but rarely read it. Que? Perhaps my mind is too prosaic to make the written word sing, but I much prefer to hear poetry read or set to music. Speaking of which, have you heard the Waterboys' setting of Yeats' The Stolen Child on the Fisherman's Blues album? If not, you must as it is gobsmacking. Not, perhaps, a poem to lift the spirits when you are down though. Here's the closing verse:

    "Away with us he's going,
    The solemn-eyed:
    He'll hear no more the lowing
    Of the calves on the warm hillside
    Or the kettle on the hob
    Sing peace into his breast,
    Or see the brown mice bob
    Round and round the oatmeal chest.
    For he comes, the human child,
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world's more full of weeping than he can understand."

    The world's more full of weeping than this solemn eyed boy can understand, that's for sure. See http://www.online-literature.com/yeats/816/ for the whole poem.

    Surprised not to see Larkin.There is of course An Arundel Tomb, which famously concludes with:

    "Our almost-instinct almost true:
    What will survive of us is love."

    I'd have also included William Blake, a unique yet very English voice, e.g. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience for more info)

    More ramblings about poetry coming to a blog near you soon.

  6. PS Shouldn't be apologetic about including the Auden reference, it's a brilliant evocation of grief even if it might seem a bit of a cliche to some after Four Weddings etc

    PPS isn't it fantastic that Carol Ann Duffy is poet laureate? Such a breath of fresh air after the stultifying Andrew Motion.

  7. grandma in waiting7 February 2011 at 14:34

    Have to agree with most on your list. I had no idea that we love so many of the same poems and how long have we known each other??????

    Def Rosetti's Remember; Desiderata; Love's Philosophy and those wonderful lines of Auden's: Sadly I DID think that love would last forever .....I guess some love does, like that of parent and child.

    For (older) soppy romantics you need Robert Browning's Rabbi Ben Ezra (Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be) and Elizabeth Barratt Browning's How do I love Thee (let me count the ways)which incidentally inspired two songs by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, shortly before John was killed.

    I actually discovered Yeat's When You Are Old on your wedding day in a poetry book in the hotel lbrary :-)

    It is No 2 on my own list as John Donne comes top with the following truly beautiful words which are perfect for Valentine's Day or any day for that matter, from his sonnet Stay, O Sweet:

    Stay, O sweet and do not rise!
    The light that shins comes from thine eyes;
    The daybreaks not: it is my heart,
    Bcause that you and I must part
    Stay! or else my joys will die,
    and perish in their infancy

  8. Wow thanks for all the comments! Lesley no, I haven't read it but I hear it recommended so much I think I will definitely read it :)

    Scruffian, that's lovely will def check it out

    For all those that bemoaned the lack of Owen, Dulce et Decorum was soooooooooo close to going on there.

    Glad you all enjoyed + thanks for the recommends AND taking the time to comment

  9. Some lovely choices. I love a bit of poetry. My list would have to include Donne (so sexy) and Shakespeare (the Sonnets are so great to revisit). Love CAD but somehow prefer Wendy Cope. Nearly had this at my wedding:

    As Sweet
    It's all because we're so alike
    Twin souls, we two.
    We smile at the expression, yes,
    And know it's true.

    I told the shrink. He gave our love
    A different name.
    But he can call it what he likes-
    It's still the same.

    I long to see you, hear your voice,
    My narcissistic object-choice.