A Few Favorite Poems (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


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What are some poems you enjoy from classic authors?

Although Stephen Crane (1871-1900), author of The Red Badge of Courage, may be best known as a novelist in the naturalist tradition, he also released two volumes of poetry: The Black Riders and Other Lines and War Is Kind and Other Lines.  His poems run the gamut from reflecting on life, the relationship of God and man, the nature of war, love, and more. They often strike questioning or contradictory notes with Crane seeming to teeter between belief and doubt, hope and despair, idealism and realism. They also have a tendency to focus on unexpected moments or to depict a keen sense of irony, such as in “Fast rode the knight,” where at first Crane seems to depict a romantic vision of war, only to end by illustrating war’s brutal effects on the innocent:

Fast rode the knight
With spurs, hot and reeking,
Ever waving an eager sword,
“To save my lady!”
Fast rode the knIght,
And leaped from saddle to war.
Men of steel flickered and gleamed
Like riot of silver lights,
And the gold of the knight’s good banner
Still waved on a castle wall.

. . . . .
A horse,
Blowing, staggering, bloody thing,
Forgotten at foot of castle wall.
A horse
Dead at foot of castle wall.

The cruelty of war is a theme Crane returns to again and again, as in his longer poem “Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.” This poem expertly juxtaposes all the words of empty comfort and propaganda that depicts war as a shining, splendid thing with the effects of the people left behind. This excerpt shows a certain kinship with the work of Wilfred Owen, the WWI poet whose works revealed the horror of war, in contrast to some of his more patriotic contemporaries:

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

      Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
      Little souls who thirst for fight,
      These men were born to drill and die.
      The unexplained glory flies above them,
      Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom—
      A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

      Swift, blazing flag of the regiment,
      Eagle with crest of red and gold,
      These men were born to drill and die.
      Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
      Make plain to them the excellence of killing
      And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Still other poems from Crane grapple with questions about justice, mercy, death, God, and romance. But one of my personal favorites is one on the nature of writing:

Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page,
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.

Here he depicts writing as a violent, horrifying act, one that probes his innermost heart and finds terrible things there. It is an interesting contrast to depictions of writing as peaceful, illuminating endeavors where one finds one’s inner self, passes on a vision, or creates something beautiful. Crane’s poem acknowledges the darkness inside people as well, and suggests that the act of creation can simultaneously have a destructive quality. Or perhaps that writing actually exorcises the demons? As with so many of his poems, what exactly he means to say, what stance he is taking, remains unclear, and completely opposing interpretations of his lines seem equally valid.

Crane’s poems are in the public domain so, if you want to read more, they’re just a search away.

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