There are snatches of poetry – not entire poems, but rather phrases out of poems – that seem to have the power to yank us from our daily selves, to recenter us, as we find ourselves contemplating their power. These snippets can turn up anywhere, such as in Arthur O’shaughnessy’s 1874 poem “Ode”, with its famous lines “We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams”.
Many people only know this as the line quoted by Gene Wilder in the 1972 “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Taken in isolation, these words have a visceral power that sadly vanishes when the poem is considered in its entirety. But hearing just these lines, rather than the entire poem, one is free to imagine that the rest is just as powerful as this little snippet. It’s kind of like hearing only random phrases of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”. As long as you don’t hear the actual words in their entirety, you can convince yourself that there is something profound going on.
I have similar feelings toward the opening lines of Rupert Brooke’s poem “The Soldier” – written when he was a young volunteer soldier at the front in WWI, shortly before he was killed in battle. The poem itself is no great shakes, but it does start off with the following immortal lines:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
I’m not even British, and yet reading these lines makes me want to rush over to London to defend country and Queen. This is seriously powerful stuff. It’s a shame that the rest of the poem (you could look it up) doesn’t rise to the same immortal standard.