First Year Poetry and My Favourite Poem

On initially starting my English Literature degree at the University of Reading, I was definitely nervous about having to embark on a whole module, called Poetry in English, entirely devoted to poetry in my first year. Although my love of literature included poems, throughout my school life it had always been a form that I somewhat struggled with, and would consequently tend to avoid wherever possible. However, with the module looking at a range of poems from the early 17th century to the present day, it didn’t take many lectures to spark an interest in poetry that I never thought I’d have.

The professors’ frequent encouragement for us to personally respond to the poems prompted rewarding, independent exploration of various forms of poetry, and the discussion-based atmosphere of seminars in particular gave an entirely new depth to my analysis. Where relevant, and with guidance from lecturers and seminar leaders, this analysis often included investigating the context surrounding certain poems. This was an aspect that appealed to my inner amateur historian, and allowed for a great deal of wider reading that only made the poems I was studying all the more interesting.

It was as a result of being encouraged to widely read around the poems that featured on the module that I discovered what is now one of my favourite poems: William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”. The poem was recommended to me as part of a study group for the module in which we discussed poems that had a strong historical impact, making links between the poems studied in seminars and those from our wider reading. “Invictus” immediately appealed to me as a brave and motivational poem advocating strength in times of turmoil. The poem includes such strong imagery of being utterly unconquerable that, in just four short stanzas, I was moved and inspired from my first read.

My interest in the poem grew through researching into its historical context and the impact it had on individuals. In particular, learning that Nelson Mandela recited this poem to himself and his fellow inmates during his lengthy confinement in prison as a sufferer of racial prejudice made the poem even more meaningful. The author of the poem and the context of its production also influenced my view. As a sufferer of tuberculosis since childhood, William Ernest Henley composed “Invictus” during his recovery from a leg amputation at a very young age. This gave way to a different kind of bravery within the poem, which subsequently led to me finding another level of appreciation for its words. Learning about the history surrounding the poem worked favourably to intensify its significance for me, making it more powerful and inspiring.

The vast period of poetry that the module covers, combined with consistent staff encouragement and guidance to independently read around the set texts, allowed me to more freely explore poetry as I never had before. This, in turn, opened up an array of styles, genres and poets, leaving me far less restricted in what I chose to focus on in my studies.  I’m glad that studying at the University of Reading helped me to confront my academic insecurities rather than shy away from them, and I’m happy to say that poetry has since become one of my favourite forms to study.

Hannah Groves

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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