Category Archives: odd poems

Odd poem: ‘When I Was Fair and Young’, by Queen Elizabeth I

When I was fair and young, and favour gracèd me,
Of many I was sought, their mistress for to be;
But I did scorn them all, and answered them therefore,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

How many weeping eyes I made to pine with woe,
How many sighing hearts, I have no skill to show;
Yet I the prouder grew, and answered them therefore,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

Then spake fair Venus’ son, that proud victorious boy,
And said, ‘Fine Dame, since that you be so coy,
I will so pluck your plumes that you shall say no more,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

When he had spake these words, such change grew in my breast
That neither night nor day since that, I could take any rest.
Then lo, I did repent that I had said before,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

Elizabeth (Ms. Tudor, if you prefer) was born in 1533 and became Queen of England at age 25, in 1558. This poem dates from some three or four years later, and the painting above is from the same time. Given how youthful she looks in her late 20s, the poem may be more playful than self-pitying–but she was also well past the age that sex and marriage would have been expected. As it was she had had to lead an extremely careful life: England was weak and unstable when she came to the throne: her father Henry VIII had broken with the Pope and formed the Church of England; her older sister Mary, on becoming Queen, had turned the country back to Catholicism and Elizabeth had narrowly escaped death as a traitor; Elizabeth inherited a country where people were burnt at the stake for not being of the correct faith… but the correct faith kept changing.

By her late 20s the Court was trying hard to have her married to a powerful European monarch to strengthen the country by alliance. The Catholic Philip II of Spain was one possiblity, the Lutheran Erik XIV of Sweden was another. Again, everything involved a religious balancing act. Meanwhile flattering portraits showing vitality and power were created and exchanged as part of the negotiations–and Elizabeth sent her court painter to Sweden to paint Erik. But for whatever reason she never married. In 1588 Philip attempted a full scale invasion with his Armada, but that failed as well. Elizabeth died in 1603 aged almost 70, still nicknamed (though probably unfairly) ‘the Virgin Queen’.

Regarding the poem: technically, the first three lines of each stanza are in iambic hexameter and are followed by an uneven refrain. The first two lines rhyme, and the third rhymes with the end of the refrain. It looks very singable. There is some unevenness in the scansion, and Elizabeth has marked the midpoint of most of the hexameters with a comma; this divides the line into two natural clauses or parts, and also signals a little pause for the sake of smooth reading–particularly useful in the shortened second line of the third stanza and the lengthened second line of the fourth.

Photo: Painting of Elizabeth I in 1562, probably painted by her court artist Steven van der Meulen, or his workshop.

Odd Poems: Oxbridge rivalry

The King, observing with judicious eyes
The state of both his universities,
To Oxford sent a troop of horse, and why?
That learned body wanted loyalty;
To Cambridge books, as very well discerning
How much that loyal body wanted learning.

This poem was written by Joseph Trapp in response to events in England in 1714. King George I, to celebrate his coronation, purchased the entire library of the recently deceased bibliophile Bishop of Ely and donated it to Cambridge University, more than tripling the number of books in the university library. Meanwhile Oxford had been having one of its frequent periods of disorder, and the King had had to send in troops to restore calm.

Oxford has a long history of riots, beginning in 1209 with “the hanging of the clerks”. In his 1220s history of England, Roger of Wendover wrote:

“About this time, a certain clerk engaged in the liberal arts at Oxford killed a certain woman by accident and when he found that she was dead he decided to flee.

“But when the mayor of the city and many others who had gathered found the dead woman they began to search for the killer in his house which he had rented together with three of his fellow clerks.

“Not finding the man accused of the deed they seized his three fellow clerks who said they were wholly ignorant of the murder and threw them into prison; then a few days later they were, by order of King John, in contempt of the rights of the church, taken outside the city and hanged.

“When the deed had been done, both masters and pupils, to the number of three thousand clerks, left Oxford so that not one remained out of the whole university; they left Oxford empty, some engaging in liberal studies at Cambridge and some at Reading.”

In effect, Cambridge University was founded by refugee scholars from Oxford–though there is some dispute about the actual timing and the numbers. Then the Pope got involved as part of his disputes with King John, and sent a Papal Legate who, among other things, imposed a payment by the town of Oxford to its University of 52 shillings per year in perpetuity.

The disputes between Town and Gown have continued for centuries, the most severe being the St Scholastica Day riot of 1355. This began with two students complaining about the quality of wine in a pub and ended three days later with 63 University people dead, as well as 30 people from the town and surrounding countryside. And you can read a 1990s anarchist analysis of the continuing conflict in our own time here.

But let’s go back to 1714. George I had been brought in from Hanover to be King with the support of the Whig party; their opposition, the Tories, were on uncertain ground as many of them supported the rival Stuart claim to the throne. George therefore looked favourably on Cambridge with its Whig establishment, while Oxford was a Tory stronghold. Hence the response to Joseph Trapp’s poem by William Browne:

The King to Oxford sent a troop of horse,
For Tories own no argument but force:
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent,
For Whigs admit no force but argument.

And the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge continues to this day.

Odd poem: ‘The Influenza’ by Winston Churchill, age 15

Oh how shall I its deeds recount
        Or measure the untold amount
        Of ills that it has done?
        From China’s bright celestial land
        E’en to Arabia’s thirsty sand
        It journeyed with the sun.

I omit the next nine stanzas, as the influenza makes its way to Britain. The poem ends:

        For though it ravaged far and wide
        Both village, town and countryside,
        Its power to kill was o’er;
        And with the favouring winds of Spring
        (Blest is the time of which I sing)
        It left our native shore.

        God shield our Empire from the might
        Of war or famine, plague or blight
        And all the power of Hell,
        And keep it ever in the hands
        Of those who fought ‘gainst other lands,
        Who fought and conquered well.

Written in 1890 when he was a lazy 15-year-old Harrow schoolboy who did badly at everything except English, Winston Churchill partially redeemed himself with this prizewinning poem on the global influenza epidemic (which may have been a Coronavirus) of his day. This “Asiatic Flu” or “Russian Flu” killed about a million people worldwide.

The photograph shows Churchill in his school clothes at age 14.

So there you have him: a teenage Churchill, with excellent control of English and an early exposition of his oratory, bombast, nationalism, imperialism, and enjoyment of warfare. And fifty years later he did brilliantly for Britain in the Second World War (but thank goodness for Clement Attlee picking up the pieces afterwards).

Odd poem: 19th century Science Fiction by Tennyson

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

This excerpt from Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ has a steampunk feel to it–“the nations’ airy navies grappling”–what exactly did he imagine? The hot air balloons that had been developed in the previous century, now using grappling hooks and rifles in their battles? And it ends not with a talking-shop United Nations, but with a World Federal Government… It is quite a vision from the young Tennyson; and this slice of the poem has taken on a life of its own, quite distinct from the general ranting about his failed love affair which is the theme of ‘Locksley Hall’.

The full poem contains well-known lines such as

In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love;

and the poet foresees his former lover, now married to a man he dislikes, in a poor relationship:

He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,
Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse
.

A situation which he thinks she deserves, and which brings out his (pre-)Victorian misogynism:

Woman is the lesser man, and all thy passions, match’d with mine,
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine—

So we can leave all that alone, and just look at his science fiction passage: the skies filling with commerce and warfare, before the world achieves global peace and quiet. A nice vision of a young man in his mid-20s, writing two years before Victoria became queen. 1835 is quite early. For comparison Jules Verne, often called “the Father of Science Fiction”, was only seven years old when Tennyson wrote ‘Locksley Hall’. But that hardly makes Tennyson unique as a prophet: Mary Shelley had published ‘Frankenstein’ in 1818, and her apocalyptic dystopian ‘The Last Man’ in 1826. And fantastical speculation goes back a lot further, to at least the 2nd century with the bizarre work of Lucian of Samosata, an Assyrian who wrote A True Story. But at least compared with Lucian, Tennyson was on the right track, with a little more science to back his fiction.

Photo: “steampunk attack” by tom.keil is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd poem: Jimmy Carter, on dead people voting in Georgia

‘Progress Does Not Always Come Easy’

As a legislator in my state
I drew up my first vote to say
that citizens could never vote again
after they had passed away.

My fellow members faced the troubling issue
bravely, locked in hard debate
on whether, after someone’s death had come,
three years should be adequate

to let the family, recollecting him,
determine how a loved one may
have cast a vote if he had only lived
to see the later voting day.

My own neighbors warned me had gone
too far in changing what we’d always done.
I lost the net campaign, and failed to carry
a single precinct with a cemetery.


Jimmy Carter’s collection of poems ‘Always a Reckoning’ is unexpectedly good for a politician, and it was a best seller when published in 1995. And this particular poem is not only amusing, but it resonates strangely with 2020 presidential election, and claims of fraud in the Georgia results. It would appear from the poem that Georgia politics is more honest than it was in the 1960s, anyway.

Jimmy Carter followed a bizarre and contradictory path in politics, always having been firmly committed to racial integration and equality, but having to constantly support people like Alabama segregationalist George Wallace in order to get elected. Then, once elected, trying to move the state’s politics in a direction that many of his backers did not like. Whether things played out the way they are presented in the poem is not something I can determine from a superficial review of his career. But it’s a fun poem, anyway.

Photo: “39 Jimmy Carter” by US Department of State is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Odd poem: ‘I Am The Greatest’ by Cassius Clay

This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal, and brags indeedy
Of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speedy.
This brash young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.

This kid fights great. He’s got speed and endurance.
But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
This kid’s got a left, this kid’s got a right,
If he hit you once, you’re asleep for the night.
And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts 10,
You pray that you won’t have to fight me again.

The fistic world was dull and weary,
But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.
Then someone with color and someone with dash,
Brought fight fans a-runnin’ with plenty of cash.
For I am the man this poem is about,
The next champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
I am the greatest!

As an 18-year-old, Cassius Clay won boxing gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Three years later, when he was on the verge of fighting the heavily favoured Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight title, he produced this poem, and issued it with modifications as the flipside of a single (covering ‘Stand By Me’ on the A side). I had a copy of that 45 when I was a teenager in England, but who knows what happened to it.

He had a street-smart way with words, a natural ability to rap: rhyme, rhythm, wit and a big ego. It wasn’t for nothing that he was known as the Louisville Lip. They were all good defences in his battles outside the boxing ring, where he confronted white racism. His heavyweight titled was stripped from him when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, saying “Viet Cong never called me ‘nigger’.” He changed his name to Cassius X when he joined the unorthodox Nation of Islam, then changed it again to Muhammad Ali as a more standard Sunni Muslim. Prevented from fighting throughout his late 20s, he returned and regained his title–but he had lost what would probably have been his most successful years.

He was a popular favourite around the world.

Photo: Cassius Clay with his trainer Joe E. Martin, the Louisville cop who redirected the 12-year-old’s anger into learning to box.

Odd poem: ‘Life’ by Ronald Reagan, age 17

I wonder what it’s all about, and why
We suffer so, when little things go wrong?
We make our life a struggle,
When life should be a song.

Our troubles break and drench us,
Like spray on the cleaving prow
Of some trim Gloucester schooner
As it dips in a graceful bow.

Our troubles break and drench us
But like that cleaving prow,
The wind will fan and dry us
And we’ll watch some other bow.

But why does sorrow drench us
When our fellow passes on?
He’s just exchanged life’s dreary dirge
For an eternal life of song

What is the inborn human trait
That frowns on a life of song?
That makes us weep at the journey’s end,
When the journey was oft-times wrong?

Weep when we reach the door
That opens to let us in,
And brings to us eternal peace
As it closes again on sin.

Millions have gone before us,
And millions will come behind
So why do we curse and fight
At a fate wise and kind

We hang onto a jaded life
A life of sorrow and pain
A life that warps and breaks us,
And we try to run through it again.

Let’s face it, it’s doggerel–the meter comes and goes, sometimes three and sometimes four stresses in a line; the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyme, but there is a lot of repetition. However, kudos to a 17-year-old to put together a strong, optimistic view of life, part faith-filled, part commonsense, a view that he retained throughout his life. Ronald Reagan (as illustrated in The Hypertexts) was a charming, witty, self-deprecating person.

On the other hand, he was largely responsible for the destruction of the American middle class, the increasing inequality of American society, and the beginning of the breakdown of public services by defunding – now impacting public education, environmental protection, etc. His foreign policy was riddled with lies and law-breaking. And on the personal level, he was not a good parent.

But he did try writing poetry as a teenager…

Odd poem: Hemingway’s last poem, untitled

If my valentine you won’t be,
I’ll hang myself on your Christmas tree.

This is the 88th and last poem of the ‘Complete Poems’ of Ernest Hemingway (edited with introduction and notes by Nicholas Gerogiannis). Given that Hemingway ended his life by suicide, this might seem a worrying final poem; but he wrote it five years before his death, and it was truly light-hearted.

He was living with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, at “Finca Vigía” (“Lookout Farm”), a 15-acre property he bought and lived in for 22 years. She writes that he became so fond of the Christmas tree that he wouldn’t allow it to be removed for months after Christmas. This was his 1956 Valentine for her.

Hemingway’s poems are unremarkable at best (despite Eliot having apparently told him that he had promise as a poet). They are not what he won the Nobel Prize for in 1954. But if you like reading biographies, reading his poems is an interesting way of finding out about his thoughts and activities.

Photo: “Ernest Miller Hemingway” by tonynetone is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Odd poem: by a young pirate, before his hanging

In youthful blooming years was I,
When I that practice took
Of perpetrating piracy
For filthy gain did look.
To wickedness we all were bent,
Our lusts for to fulfil;
To rob at sea was our intent,
And perpetrate all ill.

I pray the Lord preserve you all
And keep you from this end;
O let Fitz-Gerald’s great downfall
Unto your welfare tend.
I to the Lord my soul bequeath,
Accept whereof I pray;
My body to the earth beneath:
Dear friend, adieu for aye.

Written by the 21-year-old John Fitz-Gerald of Limerick, Ireland, apparently on the night before his execution. It is quoted in The Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630-1730 (Rio Grande Press, 1923), which in turn is proudly excerpted by the Online Review of Rhode Island History, as well as by David Cordingly’s extensive history and analysis of the Golden Age of piracy, Under the Black Flag.

On 11th June 1723, Captain Peter Solgard, commander of His Majesty’s Ship Greyhound, a man-o-war, engaged two pirate sloops off Long Island, New York, capturing one of them, Ranger, and taking 37 of its 48 crew alive. He brought them in to Newport, Rhode Island, and they went on trial the following month. Those who could show that they had been forced to join the pirates and had not taken part in violence were released, but the pirate captain and 25 others–including our young poet, of course–were “hanged by the neck until dead” on 19th July 1723, between twelve and one o’clock in the afternoon.

Odd Poems: Thomas M. Disch, ‘A Child’s Garden of Grammar’

Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008) was a New Wave Science Fiction author, poet, theater critic, computer game designer, and much else. Not surprising, then, that his Grammar is a strange book. Sadly, it’s not really informative for either the grammar-beginner (it’s too obscure) or the grammar-expert (there’s nothing new). It has odd poems, some nice and simple like ‘Either/Or’:

Either and Or came to a door.
Either would enter, but not before Or,
So still they stand outside that door,
But now their names are Neither and Nor.

Some playing little games, as in the explanation of ‘The Indirect Object’:

I have to hand it to you, dear:
You’re the indirect object here–
Along with Thelma, Hank and Hugh.
I tip my hat to all of you.
You’ve set a fine example to me–
But I don’t get it, and I’m gloomy.

OK, so “to you” is the indirect object… and “I” can’t be an indirect object, it can only be a subject… Cute, but rather spoiled for me by the rhyme of “to me” (which I unthinkingly stress on the last syllable, as with all the previous lines of the poem) but then, having to rhyme it with the next line’s “gloomy”, have to go back and reread to get the rhyme…

And every poem is illustrated with simple cartoons by Dave Morice. If you’re addicted to strange, by all means buy it. To me it’s just an oddity, and without either the visual or verbal charm of other cartoon-illustrated short poetry collections such as Piet Hein’s Grooks. But after all, Disch is best-known for his SF, not his verse.