3 Best Poems Ever Written in English
by John Howard Reid
“What do you think is the best poem ever written?” That’s a question I’m often asked at Poetry Conventions. I answer: "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray. However, I always add a corollary which inevitably puzzles listeners: "I mean the complete Churchyard, of course, not the abbreviated version usually printed in anthologies."
Most people are unaware that Gray spent his whole life writing and re-writing his famous poem. Every time it was reprinted, he made changes. The poem was originally published in 1751.
Usually anthologized, however, is the version that appeared shortly before his death in 1771. Earlier versions contain twenty extra lines, as well as another four that were subsequently rewritten. All critics agree that the twenty dropped lines were indeed "worthy of the entire poem" (to quote John O’London).
In fact, I would go further. In my opinion, the finest lines in the poem occur in the stanza beginning: "The thoughtless world to Majesty may bow, / Exalt the brave, and idolize Success; / But more to Innocence their safety owe / Than Power or Genius e’er conspired to bless.”
Why did Gray eventually decide to delete the above lines (and the other eighteen) from the poem? Perhaps he decided they were too cutting. He was an extremely shy man, living in a small rural village. The last thing he wanted was to attract attention from the authorities. Needless to say, the "thoughtless" world still bows to Majesty and idolizes Success.
The complete "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is printed in the anthology, "Traveling". [Not the currently promoted anthology, "Across the Long Bridge", but a previous anthology of winning poetry, entitled "Traveling", which fortunately is still available].
My second choice is the famous humorous narrative by the Reverend Richard Harris Barham: "The Jackdaw of Rheims". I know some thin-skinned people don’t like this poem which very cleverly ridicules church dignity. However, although Harris’s lines have plenty of sting, they are intended to raise laughs rather than anger.
This poem also is printed in the anthology, "Traveling".
My third candidate for Best Poem in English is "The Miner" by James Russell Lowell. This poem breaks one of the cardinal rules in writing poetry. It starts off on the wrong foot. Lowell does this deliberately to seduce us into thinking that "The Miner" is simply going to be one of those awful, rigorously-toeing-the-line-of-religious-orthodoxy "God" poems that infest amateur poetry competitions.
But what a wonderful surprise when Lowell turns around and attacks the very institutions he has seemingly set out to praise. "More life for me where He hath lain / Hidden while ye believed Him dead, / Than in Cathedrals cold and vain, / Built on loose sands of IT IS SAID. / My search is for the living gold; / Him I desire who dwells recluse, / And not His image worn and old, / Day-servant of our sordid use."
I have adopted Lowell’s wonderful line as my personal motto: "My search is for the living gold." I pray that it will also be your goal.
This poem too is printed complete in the anthology, "Traveling".