Powerful Out-of-Context Poetry for National Poetry Month

For National Poetry Month, let’s take a look at some great lines from poetry out of context!

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To celebrate National Poetry Month, let’s take a look at some poetry lines out of context. While context is important to understand and appreciate the craft of poetry, looking at lines outside of context can help change the meaning of the individual lines and give additional meaning to them. Here is a list of seven poetry lines that can stand on their own.

“‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”

In Memoriam – Alfred Tennyson

Written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, this poem is a memento to his friend Arthur Henry Hallam who died suddenly. This poem, along with a series of others, took Tennyson seventeen years to write which reveals how deeply his friends’ death affected him. It reflects on concepts such as the cruelty of nature and death. This particular piece is renowned for its short lines and strict iambic rhythm, creating a new type of stanza called “In Memoriam.”

Quill and ink pot on a blank piece of parchment.

What this line means to say is that it’s better to feel love, even if it’s not going to last forever. That moment of love, no matter how brief, is worth the impending heartbreak. In Tennyson’s case, it was the sudden loss of a friend who meant so much to him that it made him realize how important it is to feel love. Looking at the line outside of the poem can help people feel better about the loss of someone important or about a breakup. The heartbreak hurts, but being able to feel that love makes it worth the pain.

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

Maud Muller – John Greenleaf Whittier

This poem, written by John Greenleaf Whittier, explores the regrets we feel after making a decision. As the character Maud Muller rakes the grass and dreams of an exciting life, a judge rides up and asks her for some water. As the judge leaves, they both think about how attracted they are to one another. However, their different social standings prevent them from doing anything about their attraction. Maud Muller eventually marries a pauper but still dreams about her life with the judge.

An open book with light shining on it in front of a darkened bookshelf.

One of the closing lines regards “It might have been!” as the saddest line because there is no definitive answer to what could have been. Maud Muller might have been happier with the judge, and the judge might have been happier had he ignored his social standing to be with her. It might have been an unbeatable love between two people from different worlds. But now, with their lives already settled and the impossibility of making changes in the past, they have to suffer through the choices they have made. It might have been an unbeatable love between two different people, but unfortunately, they will never know.

“For each ecstatic instant, We must an anguish pay”

For Each Ecstatic Instant – Emily Dickinson

This short lyrical poem is about the paradoxical relationship between pleasure and pain. Emily Dickinson suggests that moments of intense joy come at the cost of suffering. For every happy moment, there must be a painful moment. Pain in the form of regret, loss, or the passage of time. The poem’s simple structure and lack of specific imagery allow readers to interpret the meaning as they wish.

A desk featuring with a stack of books with a cup of tea on top. A slim candle in the background next to a framed picture of a flower.

Out of context, the line quoted above is powerful in its own right. It’s saying, that every instance of happiness must be paid for with a moment of unhappiness. Whatever moment of happiness you feel, whether it be joy, excitement, or love, will eventually be evened out with a moment of pain. Personally, it’s something I remind myself of when times get particularly difficult. Yes, I am sad today. But just as instances of ecstasy are followed by payments of anguish, it works the other way. My payment of anguish now will surely provide a moment of happiness and joy sometime in the future.

“I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.”

Tonight I Can Write – Pablo Neruda

This poem by Pablo Neruda describes why he can write the saddest lines he’s ever written. In his state of mind, he writes these moving lines with examples of why he can write this way. He writes that he is losing the woman he loves and how he slowly comes to terms with the space she has left. Neruda says she will be another’s, just as she was before him, and that his soul will never be satisfied for losing her.

Broken heart on a piece of lined paper.

The line chosen above comes early in the poem but sets the mood for the poem. Throughout, he refers back to this line and changes the words around to show how he knows she fell out of love and he could not keep her in his life with his love alone. Sometimes she loved him, and sometimes he loved her too, yet his heart still looks for her. The last line of the poem marks how Neruda will never write for her again as he hopes the pain she made him suffer will fade away with his desire to write for her.

“a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go”

Pity this busy monster, manunkind – E.E. Cummings

E.e. Cummings is known for his unorthodox formatting and structure that often sets him out from other poets, and this poem is no different. The way the poem is presented looks wrong, assuming poetry had a fixed structure, but luckily it doesn’t and poets like Cummings can format it however they please. The poem is about the progress of “manukind” and how humanity is suffering because of scientific advancements.

The out-of-context line above summarizes Cummings’ feelings about the advancement by suggesting humanity will abandon our homes on this planet once we find something more suitable. Either we reached a point of no return or simply it would be better to live somewhere else, this is exactly what Cummings fears: humanity abandoning Earth because of our advancements in technology. The advancement of civilization and medicine are wondrous scientific accomplishments, but it takes away from our nature to live alongside nature. Cummings instead feared that humanity would use Earth as a tool rather than live with it in a sort of harmony.

“That years of love have been forgot in the fever of a minute.”

To M — Edgar Allan Poe

A short poem by Edgar Allan Poe that tributes a lost love. While the origin of who the “M” is might never be truly answered, the feelings of the poem can be more easily figured out. Poe sounds frustrated with people who are only passers-by in his life. They stick their finger in his life when they will only be around for a brief moment. They seem to care for him deeply but he views them as someone who will be forgotten in only sixty seconds.

A desk featuring a stack of books, a cup of tea, and two candles with clear skulls as the base.

Out of context, this line tells a very different story. Many people can relate to that line alone. Whether it be because they fell out of love with someone or something because of one brief moment, or if someone felt they were dropped out of love in the same and quick moment. One minute is, in the grand scheme of time, not a long time at all. But there are so many things that can happen in a minute. Building years of love with a person, fully trusting them, opening yourself up to them, and letting that person into your life, can all disappear in seconds.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”

Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll

This poem by Lewis Carroll features many different words that Carroll created for the sake of the poem. The whimsical language used in this tale of good versus evil helps create a light-hearted feeling. I dare you to say the title of this poem without thinking about something silly. Go ahead, try it out. Carroll describes the Jabberwock with flaming eyes and burbling sounds which creates visual and auditory imagery that contrasts with the vibrant use of unique words in the poem.

Different colors painted on a canvas.

The quote is found in the introduction and conclusion lines of the poem. At face value, it is nothing but nonsense and gibberish, but it can still stir feelings of interest. What are the slithy toves that did gyre and gimble in the wabe? What is gimble in the wabe? What is a wabe? Well, it’s whatever you want it to be. Maybe the slithy toves are the slippery snakes that have gyre’d and gimble’d their way in your life. Maybe you gyre and gimble when you think about how much you love someone. Maybe you wabe every morning as you drink your coffee. I don’t know what it means, but you do. And that’s the beauty of poetry. There is no right or wrong answer in the meaning, it’s whatever you make it.

Poetry is a strange thing to understand because there really isn’t understand it. There are so many different poems from a vast range of poets all from varying backgrounds that it’s impossible to truly understand poetry. But that’s the fun of it, not understanding exactly what it means. Just as there are different poets, there are different interpretations of every poem. What you might infer from one line of poetry someone else might have inferred something different. And those two interpretations might not be even remotely close to what the poet originally meant. But that’s the joy of poetry. Everyone gets something a little different out of it.

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