“Summer Silence” by E. E. Cummings

Eruptive lightnings flutter to and fro
Above the heights of immemorial hills;
Thirst-stricken air, dumb-throated, in its woe
Limply down-sagging, its limp body spills
Upon the earth. A panting silence fills
The empty vault of Night with shimmering bars
Of sullen silver, where the lake distils
Its misered bounty.—Hark! No whisper mars
The utter silence of the untranslated stars.

Poem selected and commented on by Josette Corazza

Cummings has a way with words that I have admired in no other poet. He reminds me of Shakespeare, twisting terms and phrases to produce a melodic rush of syllables that make readers think deeply about the dictionary. Yet “Summer Silence” is a departure from Cummings’ treatment of language later in his writing career. In later times, Cummings creates words to produce new meanings and bends the laws of grammar to meet his needs. In “Summer Silence” Cummings sticks closely to the rule book yet still manages to spin a vivid and compelling description of a summer storm.

Who can claim that they don’t enjoy the exciting instance of a summertime thunderstorm rolling in? Cummings explicates the experience through Spenserian Stanza, composed of nine lines, eight of which are in iambic pentameter and the last of which is in iambic hexameter. Cummings uses strong metaphors such as the “dumb-throated” parched air to describe its course “down-sagging” to the ground, ready to “spill” upon the dry Earth. Before thunder begins, the silence of a humid day reverberates in empty ears, and emphasis on senses are switched from sound to sight as “shimmering bars of sullen silver” flash across the sky.

In the poem as a whole, Cummings plants the clear sensory images relating to a well-known summer storm in the minds of readers with such evocative language that prompts the reassessment of memories.

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) started writing poetry as early as 1904, when he was not even ten years old. Besides his poetry, Cummings was also well known for his careers as a prominent playwright, essayist and artist. “Summer Silence” can be found in “E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962.”

“Lament” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead must be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.

Poem selected and commented on by Caroline Drennen

Opening with a surprising statement, “Listen, children: Your father is dead,” Millay immediately informs readers of the context of her poem: a widow (the presumed speaker but perhaps not the author) trying to help her children mourn a great loss at a difficult time. She dives into the widow’s mindset. Using enjambment in lines three through fourteen, Millay increases the pace and portrays the widow as feeling overwhelmed.

In the final lines, the speaker repeatedly advises her children that, “Life must go on.” The repetition, however, undermines the motherly advice because it indicates that the speaker may still be trying to convince herself of such. This is further highlighted by the final line: “I forget just why.” After three attempts to persuade herself, the speaker admits that she forgets why life moves on.

Throughout the poem, Millay focuses on the quotidian: turning old coats and pants into little jackets and trousers, finding “keys and pennies covered with tobacco,” saving coins, and jingling keys. This is a refreshing departure from the various tropes of mourning. She maintains the focus on the mundane throughout the whole poem, which on the surface seems to contradict her advice that life goes. This, however, is not a contradiction but rather a second piece of advice. In repurposing her husband’s old clothes, the mother is acting out a metaphor of life continuing on while simultaneously reminding her children to always keep their late father close.

An American playwright and poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923. She was born in Maine but after graduating from Vassar College in 1913, she moved to New York City. Millay is best known for her sonnets and feminist activism. “Lament” can be found in her Collected Poems, which was edited by her sister Norma Millay in 1956 and published by Harper Perennial in 2011.

“To a Child” by Sophie Jewett

The leaves talked in the twilight, dear;
 Harken the tale they told:
How in some far-off place and year,
 Before the world grew old,

I was a dreaming forest tree,
 You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
 Because the north wind stirred;

How, when the chiding gale was still,
 When peace fell soft on fear,
You stayed one golden hour to fill
 My dream with singing, dear.

To-night the self-same songs are sung
 The first green forest heard;
My heart and the gray world grow young—
 To shelter you, my bird.

Poem selected and commented on by Mathilde Sharman

As someone who has been intimidated by poetry in the past, I appreciate the structure of Sophie Jewett’s “To a Child.” Each stanza touches on a theme and connects to the next in a style similar to prose, gradually guiding my understanding.

In the second and third stanza, Jewett describes what the child meant to her and the child’s departure from her life. Finally, the poem’s ending calls back to youth, describing how the poet’s “heart and the gray world grow young— / To shelter you, my bird” (15). The prose style of the transitions between each stanza allows readers to appreciate the stanzas individually and together. The poem’s imagery and personification also contribute to its impact, most notably in the third stanza: “When peace fell soft on fear, / You stayed one golden hour to fill / My dream with singing, dear” (10-13).

I initially interpreted “To a Child” as the poet’s experience with a miscarriage but decided the poem told a more general story. Whatever a reader ultimately derives from the poem, Jewett gives each stanza a clear message, which allows readers to gradually and authentically develop their understanding of the poem.

Jewett, Sophie. “To a Child.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57830/the-three-kings.

“Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
  —– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
  Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
  Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—–
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
  And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
  Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
  The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Poem selected and commented on by Jenny Bagger

The Great War Poets, especially Wilfred Owen, always fascinate me. I won’t purport to have a precise explanation as to why, other than the continual curiosity of exploring the emotional toll of war, determined rhythm, and vivid diction of their poetry. I especially appreciate the intense imagery of Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” one of his revealing judgments of war written but not published during his lifetime, his life cut short in battle before he could be recognized as one of the influential war poets. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” adopts the form of a slightly altered sonnet, directly opposing the love and romance typically associated with the sonnet form with the harsh depravity of war that Owen describes in satisfying detail. Rather, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is an elegy that chillingly laments the brutal ends of young soldiers’ lives in the trenches. It was written one year before Owen’s own death in battle, which was one week before the Armistice, making his description of funeral rites on the battlefield and slaughter of young men like cattle even more chilling.

Owen wrote “Anthem for Doomed Youth” while he was treated for shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital, along with fellow soldier, sufferer and war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Influenced by Sassoon, Owen’s poetry began to transform. He highlights the finality of death at war versus the promises of peace and heroism from people back home, specifically the members of the Christian clergy, in “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” His use of religious imagery and “holy glimmers of goodbyes” matched with the contrasting “monstrous anger of the guns” and “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” contributes to his striking expression of the horrors of war that contradict the lies told back home. Ultimately, Owen upholds respect for the duty of the soldier yet calls to question, through graphic images and strong associations, the motives of those who impose this duty on the young men who die violently on the front.

While I will always believe in the significance of the Great War Poets, Owen’s poetry remains relevant to society today because it demands attention be given to the emotional impact of war and the sacrifice and suffering of soldiers for their countries. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is written in iambic pentameter, rhythmically imitating the marching footsteps of young men embarking on a battle from which they are not guaranteed a retreat. This rhythm is disrupted a few times as Owen’s premonitions about sending young men to the front disrupt society’s heroic celebration of war. Owen’s call to question of the continual deployment of young people, rather the “doomed youth,” to war strikes true today as we remain in the longest war in U.S. history.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is recognized as one of the best war poets from WWI, known for his stark realism and influence on later generations of poets. While only five of his poems were published during his lifetime, most of his poems were published posthumously in Poems (1920), which was edited by Siegfried Sassoon with the assistance of Edith Sitwell.