I wish more readers appreciated poetry these days. In years past, verse was held as the highest expression of the written word, back in the days when John Milton wrote Paradise Lost and Shakespeare penned his great tragedies. When Homer composed his immortal Iliad, and an unnamed monk set quill to scroll to preserve the oral tradition of Beowulf, it was the unquestioned king.
Now, however, poetry is a shadow of its former self. This is primarily due to the ascendance of the novel, but also an anemic market for aspiring poets, which is why I give new fantasy fiction publication Heroic Fantasy Quarterly a hearty, resounding, “Hail and Kill” for having the fortitude to publish this out of fashion form of the written word.
All obstacles considered, I suspect poetry would have no problem carving out a sturdy foothold among today’s fantasy fiction readers were there more inspired, creative geniuses like Alfred Tennyson practicing the art. Last week (August 6, 1809) marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the former United Kingdom Poet Laureate, and while poetry does not hold anywhere near the public acclaim that it did in Tennyson’s day, heroic verse (and prose swords and sorcery fiction, I would argue) remains forever changed because of his marvelous works.
“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes,” from Homer’s Iliad (translation Richard Lattimore) will always reign supreme as the most recognizable passage in heroic verse, but not far behind is the epic, call-to-arms conclusion of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, —
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Tennyson’s most famous poem is probably “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Some of my favorites include “Ulysses,” sections of his lengthy “In Memoriam A.H.H,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” and his 12-part retelling of the Arthur myth “Idylls of the King.”
“Crossing the Bar” is also a personal favorite; when I die, I would be proud to have this read at my funeral service.
If you think poetry is for flighty wimps or English majors (one and the same, many would argue), I urge you to seek out Tennyson. In the best poetry, every word counts. Tennyson’s best poems are as a claymore entwined with roses, terrible strength and aching beauty in harmony.
Thanks to Rusty Burke’s wonderful resource REH Bookshelf , we know that Robert E. Howard listed Tennyson among a number of his favorite poets. Given Tennyson’s powerful and sweeping storytelling as conveyed through his poetry — a trademark of Howard’s lyrical, galloping prose at its best — it’s little wonder that the Texan was one of his admirers.
Having offered my passionate defense of poetry, my next admission will likely stun and dismay my fellow bloggers here at The Cimmerian, or perhaps result in my crucifixion at their vengeful hands (a-la “A Witch Shall be Born” — I do not yet own The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard. I’ll get a copy, guys, I promise.
BRIAN UPDATE: An astute reader noted that “Crossing the Bar” was read at the funeral of Lord Dunsany. It’s yet more evidence of the impact Tennyson had on the greats of fantasy fiction.