The Best Prose and Poetry!

April 23, 2017

I have been asked on numerous occasions to give examples of the finest prose and poetry in the Western canon. I usually suggest with humour that it depends on what day I’m asked. The two below though for me are a superb few lines of both genres.


 From “The Dead” by James Joyce, in The Dubliners


A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It
had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver
and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had
come for him to set out on his journey westward.
Yes, the
newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was
falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills,
falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly
falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.
It was falling, too,
upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael
Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and
headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly
through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their
last end, upon all the living and the dead.


'The Dead' (1914) is a short story by Irish writer James Joyce, who lived from 1882-1941 and is best known for his pioneering of Modernist literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness. While we do see 'The Dead' has some evidence of this Modernist experimentation, this story is most remarkable for its ruminations on Irish culture and history and its insights about the trials of growing old.

'The Dead,' along with the other stories in Joyce's Dubliners, takes place in Dublin, Ireland in the early 20th century. It is winter, and the characters are attending a holiday party at the home of the main characters' aunts'. At the end of the story, the setting shifts to a cab ride through the early morning snow and then to a hotel room where the protagonist and his wife will be spending the night.


O Western Wind - Anonymous


            O Western wind, when wilt thou blow

              That the small rain down can rain?

            Christ, that my love were in my arms,

              And I in my bed again!


O Western Wind (1500) - An early (some scholars claims the first poem in English in the Western canon) song of unknown authorship dating from the late fifteenth century; significant in its demonstration of passion and intense emotion, qualities not present in lyrics of earlier periods. Some scholars further assert that this is merely a fragment of a much longer poem that has been lost.


©Jeff Guess 2017




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