Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost

“And miles to go before I sleep.”

The last line (well, two lines, as it’s repeated) are among the best-known of Frost’s poetry and have found a place as common reference in North American culture, used particularly as eulogy. Parts of the poem were used in reports on the death of John F. Kennedy, and in the funeral of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It’s a simple little poem, like so much of Robert Frost’s work, and one that best represents the poet’s ability to capture quiet moments of daily life, the emotional states they inspire, and the calm individual reflections that touch on universal experience.

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My Love’s Like a Red Red Rose

My Love’s Like a Red Red Rose
Robert Burns

One of the most famous poems of the great Robbie Burns was not, in fact, really written by him. “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” is actually a song, collected by Burns in the last decade of his life as he sought to gather, print and preserve old Scots folk songs. Burns himself collected some 300 tunes (the most famous being the New Year’s standard “Auld Lang Syne”) on behalf of the Scots Musical Museum and, too, a book project under the editorship of George Thomspon, who would publish five volumes of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. So why do we associate “Red Red Rose” with Burns rather than Thompson, or even folksong generally? Cause Thompson didn’t care for Burns’ find. Robbie Burns noted that this “simple old Scots song which I had picked up in the country” seemed to him beautiful and important, simple and wild, while to Thompson’s mind it represented nothing but “the ludicrous and the absurd”. And so Burns passed the words on to his friend Pietro Urbani to set to music and publish in his smaller collection, Scots Songs – directly attributing the find to the “celebrated Scots poet”, who had heard, transribed, and re-worked the traditional piece into the version we now know.

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Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost
John Milton

Over 10,000 lines of verse on the fall of man, temptation, knowledge, sin, and exile from the Garden of Eden. Paradise Lost is a tremendous work, and to attempt to summarize it is kinda pointless – you’ve got to read it to get it, and read it we all should, several times in fact. Think you know the story of Adam and Eve? Not this one. It’s not that Milton’s epic version is entirely at odds with the short, canonical version; but it is detailed, nuanced, and tells one hell of a back story. The serpent, the Tree of Knowledge, the shame of nakedness – those are here. But also Satan’s story, his version of the angelic rebellion that led to his expulsion from Heaven, his own experience on the path that Adam and Eve – real people, with personalities, love, and relationship in this account – are about to walk.

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Arms and the Boy

Arms and the Boy
Wilfred Owen

“Protest – the unnaturalness of weapons” Wilfred Owen wrote as he sought to categorize this short poem. It would become his most famous, and make this young man – who spent virtually all of his short adult life either in the trenches or in a military hospital – synonomous with First World War poetry, though in his own lifetime only five of his pieces ever saw publication. It was the war that made Owen the poet he was, leading him to abandon his previously-Romantic sensibilities for a realism inspired by blood and dirt, training in murder, and Freudian psychoanalysis – and his fellow soldier and poet Sigfried Sassoon. Continue reading “Arms and the Boy”

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Frail opium addict Coleridge certainly left his impact on literature and literary criticism. He helped to bring ideas associated with German idealism into English thought, he had a profound influence on the rise of transcendentalism,¬† and the phrase “suspension of disbelief” was coined by him. And, of course, he and friend William Wordsworth are credited with founding one of the most significant¬† schools of English poetry, the Romantics. Emotionally unstable, politically radical, the “giant among dwarves”, as he was known, was more the craftsman than his peers, meticulously editing and wordsmithing his work, influencing those like Shelley and Wordsworth whose fame out-shone his own.

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This Is Just to Say

This Is Just to Say
William Carlos Williams

“No ideas but in things” wrote WCW in his “A Sort of Song” – it was a line that summarized his approach to poetry, an approach that made him a forerunner of the colloquial modernist movement that arose in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Hugely influential on American poetry in subsequent decades – notably the Beats and New York school – Williams created a poetry that was uniquely American in language and style, and which quite explicitly sought to make art from the everyday. Continue reading “This Is Just to Say”

My Last Duchess

My Last Duchess
Robert Browning

Famous as an example of the dramatic monologue in poetry, Browning’s poem hasn’t left us with any particularly notable lines or phrases, like some others on this list, but is one of the most re-printed poems in English, a standard of high school literature classes, and one widely-recognized by its title if not by its verse. It’s a nobleman showing off his art to the representative of a potential second wife, discussing the first wife whose portrait hangs behind a curtain. The speaker is, we expect, Alfonoso Il Este, 16th century duke of Ferrara, and the ex in question Lucrezia de Medici – his young first wife who died (and suspiciously so) at 17 after he had abandoned her when her overly flirtatious nature compromised his possession of her as private trophy.

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Alllen Ginsberg

“America” is just a single poem. It is joined on this list by another piece from the same collection – the title poem from the 1956 work Howl, which inspired art, rebellion and political repression that defined a generation. By rights, the whole book oughta be here. But it’s not, given the parameters I set myself with this list. Only those texts that are most culturally-significant – those that we remember or those which, though forgotten, echo in important ways that would be understood by most folks in the English-speaking “west”. And so, while some poetry appears on this list in book-form – Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads for example, which is known as a whole work more than as individual poems –¬† Allen Ginsberg’s Howl-the-collection must give way to “Howl” the poem and this, his “America”. Continue reading “America”

The Faerie Queene

The Faerie Queene
Edmund Spenser
1590 – 1596

Friend to Walter Raleigh and participant in English military campaigns to crush revolt in Ireland, Edmund Spenser is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential of English poets, and this in no small part due to one formidable poem – The Faerie Queene. Never completed, it includes 3 books published together in 1590 and another 3 published six years later, all presented in honour of Queen Elizabeth the 1st. Continue reading “The Faerie Queene”

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