Poets of the Week: Cambridge’s 5 most famous ancient poets

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1.William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Undoubtedly impossible not to quote one of the founders of English romanticism and the author of The Prelude, a semi-autobiographical poem from his early years. Raised in the Lake District, the second of five children, he was educated in classics, literature and mathematics.

He attended St. John’s College in 1787, where he was put off by the academic rigor and instead devoted his time to, say, walking tours through revolutionary France.

Wordsworth’s later partnership with Coleridge diverted the poetic style of the first of the longer poems to focus on social protest, tragedy, lyrics and drama. He was aware that such compositions broke convention and could most likely be dismissed by fashionable contemporary critics. He wrote in the “Preface to Lyric Ballads” that “a host of causes unknown to ancient times now act with combined force to dull the discriminating powers of the mind” and associated these forces with increased urbanization and a distancing from the simplicity of nature.

Image credit: Jess Marais

2. Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Also considered one of England’s greatest poets and a leading figure in the Romantic movement, whose best known works are ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Child Harold’s Pilgrimage’. He spent three years at Trinity College before embarking on a series of love affairs, notably with his half-sister, Augusta. Finally, in 1816, he left England for Geneva, where he befriended Percy Shelley and continued to write about his travels. A year before his death, he spent 4,000 pounds to refit the Greek naval fleet and commanded a unit of Greek fighters against the Ottoman Empire.

Byron was known for his flamboyance: he owned a pet bear when he was a student at Cambridge to poke fun at a rule against owning dogs, and suggested he be considered for a scholarship. He also appears to have been the first “celebrity”, with a sequel known as Byromania and fan mail from anonymous admirers.

3. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938)

Born in Sialkot, Punjab, to a Kashmiri Muslim family, Iqbal was known for his poetry in the Urdu language and is commonly referred to as “Allama” (Persian for “most learned”). While teaching Arabic at Oriental College, Lahore, he wrote poems including “Parinde ki faryad” (“A bird’s prayer”), a meditation on animal freedom and a poem for children:

āzādiyāñ kahāñ vo ab apne ghoñsle kī
apnī ḳhushī se aanā apnī ḳhushī se jaanā
lagtī hai choT dil by aatā hai yaad jis dam
shabnam ke āñ.suoñ by kaliyoñ kā muscurānā

Gone are the freedoms of our own nests
Where we could come and go as we please
My heart aches the moment I think
From the smile of the buds to the tears of the dew

Iqbal earned a second BA from Trinity College, Cambridge, before devoting his work to focusing on spiritual direction and societal development, including the role of Islam as a source of socio-political liberation and the need for eradicate political divisions between Muslim groups. He found time to write more philosophical poetry in the 1910s-20s, such as his “Asrar-i Khudi” (“Secrets of the Self”) and his “Rumuz-i Bekhudi” (“The Mysteries of Altruism “). In these collections he explored the relationship of the values ​​of Islam with the individual desire for freedom and development.

Image credit: Sophie Carlin

4. Kathleen Raine (1908-2003)

Born in Ilford, Essex, Raine came from a family of poets on her mother’s side, while from her father she inherited a love of Shakespeare and the etymological and literary aspects of poetry. After reading natural science at Girton College, she was inspired to examine the intersection of science and mysticism, as well as elements of neo-Platonism and Jungian psychology.

Raine returned to Girton as a scholar from 1955 to 1961, during which time she published her critical studies of William Blake. Her poetry, from her debut collection ‘Stone and Flower’ to ‘Living in Time’ and ‘The Pythoness’, is a search for the integration of faith and love, and often her speakers are involved in all the workings of the universe, from creation to ruin:

From my blind bosom spring all kingdoms,
And from my tomb seven sleepers prophesy.
No unborn baby but wake up to my dream,
No lover but finally buried in me will lie.

I am that dreaded, longer place to burn
Where man and phoenix are consumed,
And from my unpolluted bed arise
New sons, new suns, new skies.

Image credit: Vedika Mandapati

5. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Last but not least, the great American poet known for her writings of “confessional poetry”, as well as her novel “The Bell Jar”. Her “Collected Poems” were published in 1981, for which she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Even by the time she took her own life at the age of 30, she had amassed an admiring literary following, which only grew after her death, with many of her writings now on A-level curricula across the country.

Her poems are well known for exploring her own mental anguish and her troubled marriage to Ted Hughes, as well as conflicts with her parents and her own self-representation. She is often admired for the candor of her writing, dispensing with a need for appearances and, in doing so, also highlighting some of the tensions in American society at the time. Appropriately, I’ll let some of his poetry do the talking:

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceived ideas.
Everything I see I immediately swallow
As it is, not clouded by love or aversion.
I’m not cruel, only truthful‚
The eye of a small god, with four horns.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with flecks. I watched it for so long
I think it’s part of my heart. But it flashes.
Faces and darkness keep us apart again and again.

That’s all for this week’s poetry file! If you’re a Cambridge University student, we’d love to see more of your poems in our Poem of the Week column, so keep sending them to [email protected] We look forward to receiving them!

Feature image credits: Bilyana Tomova

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