Short Poems to Introduce You to Classic Poetry

Here are short poems to inspire and provide comfort in tough times.
Short Poems to Introduce You to Classic Poetry
“A Cow in a Landscape," (cropped) by Constant Troyon. Gerard Manley Hopkins sees the beauty of God's creations in their variety and detail. (Public Domain)
Walker Larson
11/27/2023
Updated:
1/4/2024
0:00

Have you ever been thrilled by the power and majesty of nature? Have you ever had your mind opened to new vistas by encountering a great work of art? Have you ever lost a friend or a loved one? If you’ve had any of these occurrences in your life, then the poems in this article, which deal with such experiences, will speak to you, inspire you, and maybe even comfort you.

I selected these poems for their brevity, perennial popularity, and accessibility, in order to form a kind of introduction to classic English poetry for those who may not have had much exposure to it in the past. I recommend reading the poems slowly, maybe even out loud (poetry is meant to be heard), savoring each syllable, letting the beauty seep into you like sunshine. Then read the short commentary for a deeper understanding and appreciation.

‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things – For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century English priest, possessed the gift of true sight. That is, he was able to truly see things as they are, in all their glory, strangeness, rarity, and beauty. He found ecstasies of delight in the smallest details of the countryside and the city, human life and the natural world, and in things that many of us dismiss or do not notice. And for Hopkins, a deeply religious man, the vast variety, surprise, and richness of creation points back to a creator. This is perhaps one of poetry’s best uses: to open our eyes to the wonder of so-called ordinary things and experiences, and make us grateful again.

Hopkins’ use of rhythm and rhyme is distinctive. He even developed his own type of poetic meter called “sprung rhythm,” which partly accounts for his ability to jam-pack each line with sounds that pop and flare, just like the sudden and wide-ranging beauty he sees in the world. In addition to his lively rhythm, Hopkins uses alliteration (the repetition of sounds at the beginning of successive words) to add to the sprightliness and explosiveness that gives to this poem its exuberant, overflowing feel.

English professor William Harmon points out in “The Classic Hundred Poems: All-Time Favorites” that a number of Hopkins’s poems “take advantage of the rhyme between ‘thing’ and ‘wing,’ as though to repeat that, even in common objects, there dwells the capacity for flight.”

‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats

Much have I travell‘d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star‘d at the Pacific—and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This poem requires a brief explanation to fully appreciate. The poet, John Keats, first compares the experience of reading ancient poetry to being a traveler in the ancient Mediterranean, a traveler who has heard that the Greek poet Homer rules a vast area of that sea. This is true in the sense that Homer is often considered the greatest and most influential of the ancient poets. But, Keats says in line 7-8, he never understood Homer’s greatness until he read George Chapman’s translation of Homer from Greek to English. Then, says Keats, he felt like someone discovering a new planet or a new ocean—a witness to some fresh and vast reality of truly epic proportions (worthy of Homer himself).

I first read this poem in a college class that I was fortunate enough to take with my father as the instructor. It was an introductory class on English poetry, through which I was introduced to a whole new world of art and its power to speak to the mind and the heart. I think this poem by Keats, which explains what it is to discover a new world of intellectual and artistic possibility by using the metaphor of an explorer coming suddenly upon an unexpected sea, is a great depiction of what that early poetry class was for me: an invitation into the world of literature.

Of course, this poem can speak to experiences outside the realm of reading, too. Anyone who has touched something profoundly beautiful with the capacity to ignite longing and change your vision of life—whether that be a person, a painting, a landscape, an experience—knows what Keats is describing here.

‘When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought’ by William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste: Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow, For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night, And weep afresh love’s long since cancell‘d woe, And moan th’ expense of many a vanish‘d sight; Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan, Which I new pay as if not paid before. But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor'd, and sorrows end.

In this sonnet, the speaker is in a moment of solitude and silence, an opportunity for quiet and melancholy reflection. It’s a rare but meaningful moment that we’ve all experienced: the busyness of the day has subsided for a little, and we’re free to think about the bigger questions, the overall arc of our lives.

In this case, these thoughts bring a sadness as the speaker reflects on his life and all its disappointments. As Harmon notes, this kind of poem is known as a “complaint,” and it’s not hard to see why; the speaker gives a list of hardships beginning in line 3 that roughly goes like this: I’ve been disappointed in my goals, I’ve wasted a lot of my time, I’ve had many sorrows in my life, many of my friends have died, many faces have been lost to me, love itself has caused me pain. The speaker feels all those old sorrows welling up in his heart and the grief is as acute as if they’d just occurred. The lines “heavily from woe to woe tell o’er / The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan” include a great deal of assonance (repeated vowel sounds) that sound just like someone moaning: “Oh, oh, oh …”

“Reflexion,” 1897, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Public Domain)
“Reflexion,” 1897, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Public Domain)

The speaker has reached an almost fever-pitch of sadness here—but then there’s an unexpected shift. With the final two lines, a note of hope, happiness, and resolution enters the melody of the poem. This is called the “volta” or “turn” in a sonnet. In spite of everything the poet has lost, there is at least one thing he still retains: some face, some voice, some person who means the world to him. And just the thought of that dearest person—in this case, one of Shakespeare’s male friends—is enough to wipe away all those tears from his face. For us, that person might be a friend, a spouse, or even God. This poem reminds us that with such people in our lives, all is not lost.

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Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, “TheHazelnut.” He is also the author of two novels, "Hologram" and "Song of Spheres."