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Great Poems

"On the Cards and Dice" [by Walter Raleigh, with commentary by David Lehman]

Before the sixth day of the next new year,
Strange wonders in this kingdom shall appear:
Four kings shall be assembled in this isle,
Where they shall keep great tumult for awhile.
Many men then shall have an end of crosses,
And many likewise shall sustain great losses;
Many that now full joyful are and glad,
Shall at that time be sorrowful and sad;
Full many a Christian's heart shall quake for fear,
The dreadful sound of trump when he shall hear.
Dead bones shall then be tumbled up and down,
In every city and in every town.
By day or night this tumult shall not cease,
Until an herald shall proclaim a peace;
An herald strong, the like was never born,
Whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn

Cards and dice– Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) 

"On the Cards and Dice" is my favorite poem by the redoubtable Sir Walter Raleigh. What I admire most is the sustained metaphorical ingenuity and the slippage in the analogy between games of chance (cards and dice) and the events of the Christian calendar culminating in the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The poem achieves a stirring and ominous effect, rising to a prophetic level, though at its base it is merely a vivid description of men playing poker (or bridge) and throwing dice. The implicit relation between gambling and religion is the poem's secret power. And "the dreadful sound of Trump" is a bonus. -- DL  

Click here for Lehman's essay on Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and here for his reading of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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