More One-off Poets

  Jerome Shea       June 10, 2012      Weekend Wonk

So you say you never heard of “The Hound of Heaven”? Fair enough. In this go-round we get a bit more modern. Well, one of our poets is early 19th century, but the other two are early 20th century. The first poem and poet some of you might not recognize, but another I can guarantee you know, and the third—at least the poem—is also a good bet.


Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief! who loves to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say I’m growing old, but add—
Jenny kissed me!

That charming bauble is by (James Henry) Leigh Hunt, 1784-1859, critic, essayist, sometime poet, and all around busy man. He knew everyone on the literary scene and was close friends with Shelley and Byron. (He was there when Shelley’s body was burned on the beach near Pisa.)

There are a couple of stories connected to the Jenny poem. “Jenny” is supposed to have been Jane, the wife of Thomas Carlyle. The story goes that Hunt had been ill for some time and when he did show up at the Carlyles’ house—they were neighbors—Jane impulsively jumped up and kissed him. A couple of weeks later he sent over the poem in gratitude. It’s a charming little poem, no? A wonderful grace note tossed off as if it were written in a happy rush of inspiration. The fact is that Jane Carlyle was a rather dour woman and the impulsive kiss is quite out of character. But why spoil a good story?

Ok, here’s the easy one:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…

We don’t even need finish that, eh? And I’ll bet you even know the poet, Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918. He was a man of enormous energy, a champion of the Catholic faith, much admired as a poet and much in demand as a lecturer. The sentiment behind “Trees” is hard to fault, though as for the poem itself, Kilmer was no Shakespeare. (It is not enough in the poetry game just to be earnest.) Nonetheless, “Trees,” though often parodied, has become a fixture in our popular culture. Sgt. Kilmer was felled by a sniper’s bullet in the Second Battle of the Marne; Kilmer memorials (schools, parks, etc.) are as thick as, well, as leaves on the ground.

In my much younger days I would often stay up until the local TV station signed off for the day. The National Anthem would get played, and then, against a background of sky and clouds, a rich baritone would rumble, “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…” The poem would conclude with reverential awe: “And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod / The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

It’s called “High Flight,” and you get extra points if you know who wrote it.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., 1922-1941, was a golden boy, excelling at everything he attempted, garnering one accolade after another. Accepted into Yale, he instead joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (the U.S. had not yet entered the war) to do his part in making the world safe for democracy. He wrote “High Flight” in the late summer of 1941 and scrawled it on the back of a letter to his folks. That December, his Spitfire breaking out of a cloudbank during a training exercise, he was killed in a mid-air collision. He was 19. We will never know what he might have gone on to do or to write.

“High Flight” is a much better poem than “Trees.” Magee had a good ear, understood the rhythm of a line and how to exploit the stresses in a line, and the rhymes. Listen to that last couplet. You see—or hear—what he does with “space” and “face,” and how that sets up the wonderful ending with those iambs (“and TOUCH’D the FACE of GOD”)? You see how he sets up that pregnant pause before “of God”? When I hear dressage prancing like that, I think of my man Edwin Arlington Robinson, a proven poet.

In somewhat the same way, and in pop culture, we have “flashes in the pan,” like Johnny Ray, Grace Metalius, Rod McKuen, and others who have gone to join the shadows even if they are still with us. You can probably add some of your own favorites to the list. Good for them, though, because even if fame is fleeting, obscurity is forever.

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