Arts & Culture

British Poetry

Ahh, January. The season of New Year’s Resolutions and looking back on a well-spent year. What better way to commemorate this special time of year than a few reflective British poems? British poets have produced some of the most enduring and classic poems of our culture, so it seems only right that as we look ahead to new opportunities, we also take a look at these poems of the past.

By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Kipling uses a regular rhyme scheme to imbue his poem with rhythm as he moves seamlessly through various ideas. Every line in the stanza has iambic pentameter: ten syllables, or five iambs. He also utilizes parallelism, most strikingly at the beginning of the second stanza. “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” As he is framing his poem as a list of life tips, parallelism allows him to tie the ideas together into a cohesive whole. Kipling also unites the lines with enjambment, where he lets each sentence spill over into the next line. It is not until the very end of the poem that Kipling finally finishes his very long sentence and shows us what his advice culminates with. Ultimately, following these rules will make you a “Man,” so really, these guidelines are about manhood. This poem has enjoyed continuing appeal because of the message it emphasizes: endurance. Hopefully, perseverance is something we can all exercise in this coming year, which will certainly present new challenges and continue to widen our horizons.

When I Was One-and-Twenty
A. E. Housman
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Of course, any discussion of British poems would be amiss in failing to mention a love ballad. Unlike most love ballads, this poem does not extol the virtues of a beautiful woman. Rather, it warns against giving your heart to anyone lightly. Written in a childish lilt, the poem has a strangely chirpy and cheerful tone. “When I was one-and-twenty” sounds similar to the nursery rhyme “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” sugarcoating the pessimistic message. The speaker pokes gentle fun at himself, stating that there was “no use to talk to me” since he was at the apparently immature age of twenty-one. Housman slyly compares a heart, symbolizing love, to material goods – crowns and pounds and guineas (denominations of money), and pearls and rubies. In the second stanza he furthers this mercantile view of love by describing how one “sells” a heart for “endless rue” and “pays” with “sighs a plenty.” Finally, the speaker ends with a still-flippant tone, but hints at a bit of darkness by validating the wise man’s statements. Most likely he has experienced some sort of heartbreak that tarnished his view of love.

Now, let’s enjoy a poem written by TPS alumnus Preston Tang! Tang wrote this poem in the voice of a British army officer lamenting the sinking of his battleship.

Lieutenant-Commander Edward Caldwell over the loss of the H.M.S. Invincible.
Preston Tang

Invincible, Invincible, why didst thou have to go?
Now, that graceful bow and slender stern
Like two gravestones peek,
Above the shell-shot, raging sea.

Now close to thee,
The foe that gave thy death-blow
Lies upon her sides
From the shots thou hast given to her.

Invincible, my second home,
I shed these tears for thee.
Now full in majesty,
Then blown into glory.

My faithful ship,
My fast, swift ship,
I served on thee from thy first.
I say farewell to thee.

Thy wooden decks,
Thy iron-bound bowels,
Have gone below
In one frightful blast

Farewell my ship,
Farewell to thee,
I wish return and see thee rest
In thy broken sleep.

I shall return.

Tang uses anaphora, or repetition, throughout the poem. For instance, in the first line, he repeats the name of the ship twice, emphasizing the irony that a ship termed “invincible” ended up sinking. At the beginning of the last four stanzas, he repeats the line structure twice. This creates a dramatic, hymn-like tone. While repetition in prose is generally frowned upon, in poetry, it often serves to highlight a point or create a rhythm. Tang also uses imagery, to help his readers visualize the sinking of the ship and understand his speaker’s sorrow. In the first stanza, he grabs the reader’s attention with a comparison of the “graceful bow and slender stern” to “two gravestones.” In addition, he uses archaic forms of pronouns, such as “thy” rather than “your,” conferring additional respect and significance to the ship. While most of Tang’s readers probably have no personal experience with such a ship and would therefore be unlikely to immediately sympathize with the speaker, they can gain a greater appreciation for the lieutenant-commander’s emotions toward the Invincible through this poem. These verses truly illustrate the power of poetry to draw the reader into the inner thoughts of a stranger, to put ourselves into the shoes of another.

The last part of Tang’s poem suggests a continuation of the story. The speaker makes a promise to his ship – “I shall return.” 2018 is over, and now we face the promise of 2019. What do you plan on accomplishing this year?


  1. yoo Preston that’s amazing

  2. Nice job analyzing those, Rachel! I really like how you tie in the old poets with the contemporary ones. =)