It is no secret that poetry remains one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments. Gifted authors such as William Shakespeare, John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley accomplished much in the realm of poetry by putting their observations of everyday human experience into words.
Here are just four great and beautiful poems by these great writers and why they have deeply affected generations of readers.
Despite its great beauty as a poem, John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” was composed under tragic circumstances.
Trained as a surgeon in his youth, Keats cared for a brother who had come down with a virulent strain of tuberculosis. (In the early 19th Century, a diagnosis of tuberculosis was a death sentence).
Not only did Keats’s brother eventually died of the illness. John himself contracted the disease from his sibling while caring for him. Because of his medical training, John was under no illusion about his fate: Indeed, the poet died from the illness at age 25.
“Ode to a Nightingale” appears to be Keats’s attempt to come to terms with his illness and with his own mortality. He longs to escape from a place where “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.”
In the final stages of untreated tuberculosis, patients do indeed grow “spectre-thin” before death: The disease was known as “consumption” because of how it “consumed” the bodies of human beings.
“Ode to a Nightingale,” describes Keats’s own hopeless condition. However, Keats was such a gifted poet. He took this horrifying scenario and turned it into one of the most beautiful poems that human culture has ever produced.
“I weep for Adonais — he is dead!”
So begins one of the most powerful Romantic poems ever written. In fact, Percy Shelley (husband of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley) wrote “Adonais” soon after John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821. The two poets admired one another’s work; when his own life was cut short in a boating accident, Shelley was found with a book of Keats’s poems in his pocket. Keats was evidently in Shelley’s mind to the end.
In “Adonais,” Shelley casts Keats as the Greek god of beauty Adonis. Bewailing his friend’s tragic fate, Shelley describes the late poet as exemplifying the poetic ideal that Ancient Greek society championed. He urges the reader not to lament Keats’s death, however, since “his fate and fame shall be/An echo and a light unto eternity!”
Although Shelley is now better known for his poem “Ozymandias,” “Adonais” may in fact be his best poem. All of his dazzling poetic skill and philosophic profundity is on display here.
Spoken by the immortal character Hamlet in one of the greatest dramatic scenes ever written, Shakespeare’s “What a piece of work is a man…” speech is a remarkable commentary on the human experience. It’s hundreds of years ahead of its time and describes several of the symptoms of clinical depression.
Displaying a condition known as “anhedonia” or lack of pleasure in experience, for example, Hamlet says of the beautiful world around him: “This brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.”
While we know little of Shakespeare’s actual life, it is clear that he perfectly understood the condition of depression. Only someone who has experienced the lack of hope that accompanies that condition could write so eloquently about the apathy that trails the life of sufferers like a ghost.
As we’ve seen in the above examples, great poetry often converts the tragedy of life into something beautiful and profound.
In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the great poet Wordsworth finds hope in observing simple pleasures of everyday experience. While the poem’s narrator begins his contemplation of nature in despair, he soon finds moral rejuvenation in consideration of daffodils in full bloom. Indeed, simply coming across a crop of the little flowers rouses the poet from his depression.
When he considers the joyful sight of daffodils swaying in the spring breeze, he tells us: “And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the daffodils.”
These examples show the poetic form at its apex. Far from shrinking from the sad difficulties of life on our oft-troubled planet, poets often wade into the extensive darkness surrounding us to find a glimmer of hope in the poetic imagination.
Whether we’re poets ourselves or simply love literature for its uplifting effect, we should be thankful that so many great writers have shown us that life can be both sad and beautiful at the same time. For many of us, it’s a lesson that bears repeating.