2 – 8 Famous Lines of Poetry
https://www.oxford-royale.co.uk BSSB.BE 09.02.2015
From Elizabethan plays to tragic war poets, English literature is blessed with some incredibly moving and cleverly constructed verse.
Out of countless millions of lines of beautiful poetry, a few lines have resonated with a much wider audience to become some of the most memorable and quoted words in the English language.
Some are endlessly paraphrased in newspaper headlines or popular culture; others find a new calling as inspirational quotes. But they’re all more complex than they seem to be when they’re taken out of context, and in this article, we look at where these famous quotations come from, who wrote them, and what they really mean.
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“If I should die, think only this of me”
Often quoted out of context, and paraphrased by Blackadder, this famous, haunting line is the first line of Rupert Brooke’sThe Soldier, which is the final sonnet in a collection entitled1914. It continues: “That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.”
The “England” theme continues throughout the poem; it’s mentioned six times in the poem’s fourteen lines and it’s portrayed as so idyllic that the poem ends with the idea of an “English heaven” – implying that God was on the British side, not that of the Germans.
The Soldier represents a highly idealised and sentimental view of going to war that many doubt would have been written later in the war; it was written in 1914, when the true scale of the carnage of the First World War had yet to unfold.
Certainly, its tone is very different indeed from the poems that would emerge from the trenches later in the war from the pens of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others. Ironically, Brooke himself died a year later not in the trenches, but in the Aegean, having contracted blood poisoning through a small wound.
- “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”
This line is a favourite with journalists in times of national flood crises. It comes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), a very, very long ballad told from the point of view of a sailor who has just returned from an epic voyage.
The most famous symbol in this poem is the Albatross, which leads the ship away from Antarctica (to which it had been blown off course by a storm), only for the mariner to shoot it. This turns out to have been a move that doomed them to ill-fortune, as it arouses the anger of spirits, who carry the ship into calm water, with no wind, so that it cannot move.
This is where this oft-quoted line comes from: the crew of the ship suffer extreme thirst, surrounded by ocean water (“Water, water, everywhere”) that is undrinkable (“Nor any drop to drink”).
The poem gets more surreal after this, with the appearance of a ghostly ship upon which Death is playing cards with “the Night-mare Life in Death” for the souls of the mariner and his fellow crew. One by one the rest of the crew dies, and the mariner lifts the curse of the albatross by seeing the true beauty of the sea creatures he once dismissed as “slimy”.
It’s thought that this extraordinary tale may have been inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook, whose astronomer, William Wales, was Coleridge’s tutor. The poet Wordsworth said that the poem came about after a walk in the Quantock Hills he had taken with his sister Dorothy and Coleridge, during which Wordsworth had talked about a book he was reading by Captain George Shelvocke, which contained an account of shooting dead an albatross.
- “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Conjuring up wonderful images of the delights of Autumn, this line opens To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821), inspired by a walk the poet took near Winchester on autumnal evening in 1819.
In three stanzas, this exceptionally popular poem describes different characteristics of the autumn, starting with its fruitfulness, moving on to the hard labour of harvesting these fruits and preparing for winter (the “cider-press”, “the granary” and “a half-reap’d furrow” are all mentioned), and finally the aspect of autumn that sees life decay, with words such as “wailful”, “mourn” and “soft dying” used to create a sense of mourning for the loss of spring and summer.
The tripartite structure of the poem creates a sense of movement through time, both from early to mid to late autumn, and from morning to afternoon to evening; the first (and most famous) line mentions “mists”, suggesting the early morning. Tragically, this was to be Keats’ last poem. Struggling with ill-health, he moved to Rome the following year, where he died a few months later.
- “I wandered lonely as a cloud”
William Wordsworth’s most famous poem is often known by the title Daffodils, which gives you all the clues you need about the subject of this poem. It was inspired by a walk the poet took with his sister Dorothy in the Lake District in 1804, during which they chanced upon a long strip of daffodils:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Personally, I find the simile “lonely as a cloud” surprising. If you live in the UK you’ll know that you never see just one cloud – the sky is full of them. And so I think that, rather than suggesting the idea of loneliness (as might be suggested by considering this line superficially and completely out of context), this popular line actually portrays the opposite – one is not lonely when in the company of nature.
This seems to ring true later in the poem with the mention of “the bliss of solitude”; loneliness is certainly not portrayed in a negative light in this poem. Similarly, the sea of daffodils are anything but lonely in each other’s company, dancing together in the breeze. It’s a simple poem that describes man’s closeness to nature, and it’s made the Lake District even more popular during the spring.
There are so many more wonderful lines of poetry we could have included, but we’ve run out of time for now. If you have a favourite line of verse, we’d love to hear it in the comments below!