[Dick Sullivan wrote in a recent e-mail: "Paul Johnson's Spectator column last week was about his ten favourite poems. It gave me the idea for the attached — six short Victorian poems on the theme of sadness or salvation." Here they are.]

John Clare, a farm labourer, was briefly lionised (or patronised) as the Northamptonshire Peasant Poem in the 1820s and '30s. (He was born in 1793). He was a gifted man who'd been dealt a bad hand by fate — even the landscape on the edge of the Fens which meant so much to him was changed in his early lifetime by the Enclosure Acts. For his last twenty-three years he lived in the Northampton General Asylum for the insane, although he was free to roam the town and encouraged to write poetry. "I Am," his most anguished verse, was written during this time. The House Steward copied his work into large books. If the fifth line of the first stanza seems a bit garbled, perhaps it's a scribal error? He died in 1864.

I am - yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes —
They rise and vanish in oblivions host,
Like shadows in love frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live — like vapours tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my lifes esteems;
Even the dearest that I love best
Are strange — nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below, above, the vaulted sky.

John Clare was sixteen when Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire, north of the Fens. Crossing the Bar was written at the very end of Tennyson's life, too. "This crowns your life's work," a friend said. "Yes, it came to me in a moment." That moment, it seems, came in 1889 on a passage across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. He'd been very ill, in fact had only three years to live. "The Pilot has been on board all the while," he said, "but in the dark I have not seen him." Tennyson asked his son, Hallam, to print the poem as the end-piece in his collected works. It still is.

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in Stratford in what was then Essex in 1844, only three year after John Clare had been put away in the Northampton Asylum. In his mature verses Hopkins celebrates the landscape ("plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough") created by the Enclosure Acts which so distressed Clare. But the first draft of Heaven-Haven was written when he was still only twenty (in 1864, the year of Clare's death) and before he'd developed his own very distinctive style. He was still at Oxford, still an Anglican, but already thinking of a converting to Catholicism and a religious life. The poems seems to be more about personal longing for peace than about a nun taking her last vows, as its subtitle (a nun takes the veil)suggests

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

Robert Louis Stevenson (born in 1850) is best known now for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island. The phrase "a Jekyll and Hyde" must be used daily throughout the English-speaking world to describe somebody with a split personality or who is just two-faced. (Now it's usually pronounced Jeckle, though Stevenson, I believe, said Jee-kle). Scenes from Treasure Islandalways stay in the mind as well: remember Ben Gunn, the castaway, longing for a Ôlittle bit of Christian cheese' (toasted, preferably)? Long John Silver, the Benbow Inn, and Blind Pugh bearing The Black Spot to the doomed old pirate captain? Stevenson's short poem, Requiem, used to be equally well known. It was published in Underwoods in 1887 when Stevenson was still only in his thirties. He'd been a sickly child and never had good health as a man. Perhaps a weariness shows in the poem, which was inscribed, I believe, on his gravestone in Samoa where he died in 1894.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

A great part of A E Housman's professional life was devoted to the precision of language and exact meanings. Some people think he wasted his life correcting scribal errors in the work of an obscure Latin poet, Manilius. At the same time, he brought precision, and concision, to his English verses which can reveal a depth of unabashed Victorian sadness. "We should all write like Housman," T S Eliot said, "if we could." The Land of Lost Content is untitled (it is just XL) in A Shropshire Lad where it was first published in 1896.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Wilfred Owen, finally, was born in 1893, exactly a century after John Clare. If Clare grew into a Victorian, Owen was growing into a twentiethth-century man when he met his end in the last Victorian conflict of them all, the Great War. "Anthem for Doomed Youth" was written when he was undergoing treatment in Scotland for shell-shock. He was helped by Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow patient who, it seems, suggested the phrase "patient minds." Owen himself was also doomed; he was killed by machine gun fire leading a platoon of the Manchester Regiment across a canal a few days before the War ended. How well this kind of verse travels I don't know, but it's difficult to exaggerate the effect that war had on the English, at least until the second half of the twentieth century.. Some argue the country has never really recovered from its losses. The old custom of drawing the curtains, or pulling down the blinds, to mark a death in the house has now ended too.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

References

Clare, John. Selected Poems and Prose. edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1982.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Gerard Manley Hopkins Edited by Catherine Phillips. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1990.

Housman, A. E. Collected Poems. (Introduction by John Sparrow). Penguin. 1956.

Owen, Wilfred. Collected Poems. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by C Day Lewis. Chatto and Windus. London. 1982.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Robert Louis Stevenson. Everyman's Poetry. J M Dent. London. 1997.

Tennyson, Alred Lord.Poems and Plays. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1991.


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Last modified 3 February 2008