Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. If you want to listen to Douglas read this week’s work, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death,” click below.
Death is not the most uplifting subject, and I promise I will come back to happier subjects again soon.
But in the meantime, there is another elephant worth addressing: the paucity of female poets in my selection. I don’t especially feel the need for the contents of my head to have exact gender parity, or any other kind. Things lodge in your head because they lodge there—firstly, because you have encountered them, and secondly, because they appeal to you. You might do something to change the former, but you can do absolutely nothing—even, or especially, by government diktat—to affect the latter. We simply like what we like.
It is inevitable that the selection of poems that have lodged in my head will be different from those in other peoples’ heads. It is also true that my mental library is furnished by the people, places, and influences of my time and place. If I had grown up anywhere other than England in the late twentieth century, some of these poets would not loom so large, though I like to think I could still argue their corner. But if I had been born in America, Australia, Africa, or anywhere else, such a difference would have affected the selection.
Nevertheless, there are some people who break through any and all barriers and arrive in places simply by dint of their brilliance and sheer memorability.
In terms of memorability, it is hard to beat the American poet Emily Dickinson. Lines of hers just settle in the head immediately. Taken as a whole, her oeuvre is one of the most substantial yet strangest bodies of work of any poet I can think of. Her Collected Poems is huge—a proper doorstop—yet most of the poems are small, incredibly carefully crafted things. Almost none were published or even seen during her short lifetime.
Clive James once said Dickinson’s collected works are like “a bowl of beads.” I would say they’re more like a bowl of gemstones, almost any of which the reader can pick out and turn about in the light. The color and light they throw off change with the moment.