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Poetry by the Masters

Poverty, poetry, and new titles of honour, make men ridiculous
    - Benjamin Franklin

woodcut of a monk transcribing a book.

A Former Life


Long since, I lived beneath vast porticoes
By many ocean-sunsets tinged and fired,
Where mighty pillars, in majestic rows,
Seemed like basaltic caves when day expired.

The rolling surge that mirrored all the skies
Mingled its music, turbulent and rich,
Solemn and mystic, with the colors which
The setting sun reflected in my eyes.

And there I lived amid voluptuous calms,
In splendors of blue sky and wandering wave,
Tended by many a naked, perfumed slave,
Who fanned my languid brow with waving palms.

They were my slaves -- the only care they had
To know what secret grief had made me sad.

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Sonnet 57

William Shakespeare

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save where you are how happy you make those.
   So true a fool is love that in your will,
   Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.

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Sonnet 58

William Shakespeare

That god forbid that made me first your slave
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand th'account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal bound to stay your leisure.
O, let me suffer, being at your beck,
Th'imprisoned absence of your liberty;
And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each check
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list; your charter is so strong
That you yourself may priviledge your time
To what you will; to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
   I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
   Not blame your pleasure, be it ill or well.

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Selection from The Taming of The Shrew


Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintence; commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land;
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at they hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience-
Too little payment for so great a debt,
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is forward, peevish, sullen sour
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war, where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule,, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions, and our hearts,
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you forward and unable worms,
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word, and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws;
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most, which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is boot,
And place your hand below your husband's foot
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.

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Holy Sonnet XIV

John Donne

Batter my heart, three-personed God; For You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like a usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit You, but Oh, to no end!
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You entrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

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(Arabian Poem)

Since there is excitement
In suffering for a woman,
Let him burn on.
The dust in a wolf's eyes
Is balm of flowers to the wolf
When a flock of sheep has raised it.

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by Oscar Wilde

Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan,
I have kissed thy mouth.
There was a bitter taste on thy lips.
Was it the taste of blood... Nay;
but perchance it was the taste of love...
They say that love hath a bitter taste...
But what matter? what matter?
I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan,
I have kissed thy mouth.

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Song of Solomon, ch. 6

The holy Bible

Revised Standard version

Whither has your beloved gone,
  O fairest among women?
Whither has your beloved turned,
  that we may seek him with you?

My beloved has gone down to his garden,
  to the beds of spices,
to pasture his flock in the gardens,
  and to gather lilies.

I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine;
  he pastures his flock among the lilies.

You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love,
  comely as Jerusalem,
  terrible as an army with banners.

Turn away your eyes from me,
  for they disturb me --
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
  moving down the slopes of Gilead.

Your teeth are like a flock of ewes,
  that have come up from the washing,
  all of them bear twins,
  not one among them is bereaved.

Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
  behind your veil.

There are sixty queens and eighty concubines,
  and maidens without number.

My dove, my perfect one, is only one,
  the darling of her mother,
  flawless to her that bore her.
The maidens saw her and called her happy;
  the queens and concubines also, and they praised her.

"Who is this that looks forth like the dawn,
  fair as the moon, bright as the sun,
  terrible as an army with banners?"

I went down to the nut orchard,
  to look at the blossoms of the valley,
  to see whether the vines had budded,
  whether the pomegranates were in bloom.

Before I was aware, my fancy set me
  in a chariot beside my prince.

Return, return, O Shu'lammite,
  return, return, that we may look upon you.
Why should you look upon the Shu'lammite,
  as upon a dance before two armies?

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci

John Keats

O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
  Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither'd from the lake,
  And no birds sing.

O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
  So haggard and so woe-begong?
The squirrel's granary is full,
  And the harvest's done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
  With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
  Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
  Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light
  And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
  And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
  And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
  And nothing else saw all day long,
For sideways would she bend, and sing
  A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
  And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
  'I love thee true.'

She took me to her elfin grot,
  And there she wept, and sigh'd full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
  With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
  And there I dream'd - Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
  On the cold hillside.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
  Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
  With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
  On the cold hillside.

And this is why I sojurn here,
  Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge has wither'd from the lake,
  And no birds sing.

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Go! obedient to my call,
Turn to profit thy young days,
   Wiser make betimes thy breast!
In Fate's balance as it sways
   Seldom is the cock at rest.
Thou must either mount, or fall,
   Thou must either rule and win,
   Or submissively give in,
Triumph, or else yield to clamor:
Be the anvil or the hammer.

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A Match


If love were what the rose is,
   And I were like the leaf,
Our lives would grow together
In sad or singing weather,
Blown fields or flowerful closes,
   Green pleasure or gray grief;
If love were what the rose is,
   And I were like the leaf.

If I were what the words are,
   And love were like the tune,
With double sound and single
Delight our lips would mingle,
With kisses glad as birds are
   That get sweet rain at noon
If I were what the words are,
   And love were like the tune.

If you were Life, my darling,
   And I your love were Death,
We'd shine and snow together
Ere March made sweet the weather
With daffodil and starling
   And hours of fruitful breath;
If you were Life, my darling,
   And I your love were Death.

If you were thrall to sorrow,
   And I were page to joy,
We'd play for lives and seasons
With loving looks and treasons
And tears of night and morrow
   And Laughs of maid and boy;
If you were thrall to sorrow,
   And I were page to joy.

If you were April's lady
   And I were lord in May,
We'd throw with leaves for hours
And draw with leaves for hours,
Till day like night were shady
   And night were bright like day;
If you were April's lady,
   And I were lord in May,

If you were queen of pleasure,
   And I were king of pain,
We'd hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
   And find his mouth a rein;
If you were queen of pleasure,
   And I were king of pain.

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Penthesilea's Lament

from Penthesilea
by Heinrich von Kleist
(Translated by Humphry Trevelyan)

(Penthesilea has killed her love.)

So - it was a mistake. Kissing - biting -
Where's the difference? When we truly love
It's easy to do one when we mean the other.
Poor man, of all men poorest, you forgive me?
It was a slip - believe me! - The wrong word -
I must control my too impetutous lips.
But now I tell you clearly what I meant:
This, my beloved, this - and nothing more.
(She kisses him)
How many a girl, her soft arms fasted entwined
About her man's neck, says that she loves him so
Beyond words she could eat him up for love.
And then, poor fool, when she would prove her words
Sated she is of him - sated almost to loathing.
Now, my beloved, that was not my way.
Why, look: when my soft arms were round thy neck,
I did it word for word; it was no pretending.
I was not quite so mad as they would have it.

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Wimpy's Poem for the Sea Hag

by E. C. Segar

We slew our foes,
  My sweetheart and me
And streams of Corpuscles
  Flowed to the sea

All over the walls and on the floor
Were buckets and buckets and buckets of Gore

We stepped on their necks,
  On those slippery decks,
As my sweety and me went aft.
  And amid all this,
  She gave me a kiss,
And amid all this we laughed!

For she was the Hag of the Seven Seas,
  And I was her understudy,
And never a tremor ran through her knees,
  Though decks were befouled and ruddy.

In the depth of her eyes
  Was the Blue of the Skies
As well as the shadows of night.
  And I'll sing her love's song
E'en though she's all wrong
  For I, too, am not in the right.

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(Translated by Andrew Schelling)

I am your slave.
Bind me in tethers, Mira's your slave.
She wakes up at dawn,
sits in the garden,
haunts the pathways of Vrindavan forest
making up balads.
Fever, memory, craving --
birth after birth they trail after me --
I put on my saffron robe,
hoping to see you.
Yogins come to Vrindavan to know oneness,
hermits perform terrible spells,
holy men come to sing gospels --
but Mira is deeper, Lord,
and more secret.
She waits with a ruined heart every night
by the river
just for a glimpse

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Selection from Electra


... How strong you are!
How strong your virginal nights have made you grow.
Your loins, your loins are slender here and lithe!
You can slip through any crevice, raise yourself
To the window: Let me, let me feel your arms:
How cool they are and strong! I feel their strength
By the way you push me from you. You could crush
What you embrace in them. You could press
Me or any man to those cool, firm breasts
Till we suffucate in them! O every part
Of you is powerful! It streams like
Damned water from a rock. It floods with your hair
Down your strong shoulders!

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by Sara Teasdale

Oh, because you never tried
To bow my will or break my pride,
And nothing of the cave-man made
You want to keep me half afraid,
Nor ever with a conquering air
You thought to draw me unaware—
Take me, for I love you more
Than I ever loved before.

And since the body's maidenhood
Alone were neither rare nor good
Unless with it I gave to you
A spirit still untrammeled, too,
Take my dreams and take my mind
That were masterless as wind;
And "Master!" I shall say to you
Since you never asked me to.

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William E. Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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The Master

Emily Dickinson

He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,
Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow.
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,-
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

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The Devil's Blossoms

Hanns Heinz Ewers
translation by Stephen E. Flowers

When the Devil was a woman,
When Lilith wound
Her ebony hair in heavy braids,
And framed
Her pale features all'round
With Botticelli's tangled thoughts,
When she, smiling softly,
Ringed all her slim fingers
In golden bands with brilliant stones,
When she leafed through Villiers
And loved Huysmans,
When she fathomed Maeterlinck's silence
And bathed her Soul
In Gabriel d'Annunzio's colors,
She even laughed-
And as she laughed,
The little princess of serpents sprang
Out of her mouth.
Then the most beautiful of she-devils
Sought after the serpent,
She seized the Queen of Serpents
With her ringed fingers,
So that she wound and hissed,
Hissed, hissed
And spit venom.
In a heavy copper vase;
Damp earth,
Black damp earth
She scattered upon it.
Lightly her great hands caressed
This heavy copper vase
All around,
Her pale lips lightly sang
Her ancient curse-
Like a children's rhyme her curses chimed,
Soft and languid
Languid as the kisses,
That the damp earth drank
From her mouth,
But life arose in the vase,
And tempted by her languid kisses,
And tempted by those sweet tones,
From the black earth slowly there crept,
Orchids -
When the most beloved
Adorns her pale features before the mirror
All 'round with Botticelli's adders,
There creep sideways from the copper vase,
Devil's blossoms which the ancient earth,
Wed by Lilith's curse
To serpent's venom, has borne to the light
            The Devil's blossoms-

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Please send suggestions of Classic poems with the same theme to Ambrosio
Thank you, gem, for suggesting "Sonnet LVII," "A Former Life," "A Match," and "Another."
Thank you Mistress Constance for suggesting "Because," "Invictus," and "The Master"

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Related Reading

Literature, poetry, and film in a sadomasocistic context.