Competition

Spectator competition winners: Keatsian sonnets

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

In Competition No. 3161 you were invited to supply a sonnet with certain rhyme words to be used in a given order.

Bout-rimés contests were a favourite parlour game of Dante Rossetti and his brother William, but the given end rhymes for this assignment come from a sonnet written in the winter of 1816 by John Keats. It was also the result of a competition — Keats and his friend Leigh Hunt challenged one another to write a sonnet on the subject of ‘On the Grasshopper and Cricket’ and Keats apparently rustled one up in the space of 15 minutes (as did his opponent).


In an enormous and stellar entry, which thrummed with echoes of Keats, themes ranged from zombies to Bruce Forsyth, cricket to Thanos. It was especially difficult to whittle your fine sonnets down to a final six, and a record number of honourable mentions go to Lee Nash, Nick MacKinnon, Nick Syrett, Basil Ransome-Davies, Louise Devismes, Sasha A. Palmer, Chris Ray, Frank Upton, Ann Drysdale, Martin Elster, Bill Greenwell, Chris O’Carroll, Caroline Browne, Cameron Clark and David Harris, whose entry brought to mind Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori.

Those that made the final cut are printed below and their authors are rewarded with £25 each.

The poetry of Keats is all but dead.
Few read today of his maturing sun,
Care about vines that round the thatch-eaves run
Or meet his mystic belle dame in the mead.
His travels in the realms of gold don’t lead
To readers who are charmed. His day is done.
The modern Muse’s fans want verse that’s fun,
With rappers growing eulogies from weed.
A thing of beauty, he believed, would never
Pass into nothingness and winter frost
Would never touch the bowers where nature shrills.
He thought his nightingale would sing for ever.
But he was wrong. Its requiem is lost,
Its melodies unheard in fancy’s hills.
Frank McDonald

Battle-worn, the warrior king was dead;
he lay in state at Sutton Hoo — the sun
had set, as Raedwald’s mortal life had run
its course — now mourned with brimming horns of mead.
Interred within his ship, his wealth would lead
him to the Afterlife when all was done.
His men, well in their cups, were bent on fun
while healer women crushed each sacred weed
and herb for the embalming; now he’d never,
beneath those lofty mounds, feel heat or frost,
nor wake as raven croaks and night-hawk shrills.
Thus, undisturbed, he might have lain for ever
had not his ransom to the gods been lost
when someone cried, ‘There’s treasure in those hills!’
Sylvia Fairley

September and the daffodils long dead;
Their golden trumpets hailed the warming sun,
They reigned in glory, now their race is run
And in their place waft jasmine scents of mead.
Spring’s snowdrops first which took the early lead
In heralding the year were greyed and done
When dandelions told the time for fun,
Too vividly heroic for a weed.
The leaves die back in silence so we never
Praise roots that nourish life against the frost
And chilling wind that through the bare trees shrills.
While some hear Nature’s voice go on for ever
Earth’s wordless poetry to me is lost
When autumn heather fades upon the hills.
Alanna Blake

Just as for Housman, so for me — long dead
Those ‘happy highways’ shining in the sun,
But though my joints no longer let me run
I still delight in struggling through the mead
Content to follow now where others lead.
Why rue times dead and gone? My day’s not done,
Old dogs can learn new tricks and still have fun.
Though some may choose to wither like a weed
And wallow in nostalgia, I’ll never
Let what’s past my present pleasures frost,
My ears are deaf to memory’s echoing shrills
That seek to drown this moment’s music, ever
Casting shadows over joys long lost.
Best let them go, those ‘blue remembered hills’!
Alan Millard

The clichés of this world are never dead
As there is nothing new beneath the sun.
Thus, we must learn to walk before we run,
The purest honey makes the finest mead,
Fools follow well worn paths that nowhere lead,
A mother’s work, alas, is never done,
And dull, hardworking Jack has little fun.
An unloved flower we never call a weed,
And never, if we’re wise, do we say never.
For every fog in March, May brings a frost,
To earn his seed the caged canary shrills,
While early birds will get the worms as ever.
Remember, he who hesitates is lost
And there is always gold in them there hills.
Hugh King

The quarter-year of summertime lies dead;
autumnal breath saps vigour from the sun
whose daily course is ever-quickly run
o’er harvest field and river-nourished mead,
while skies swap steely blue for gloomy lead.
The carefree months of furloughed school are done,
a fast-depleted interval of fun —
a perfumed flower withered to a weed;
this basest plant well knows that he will never
sport petals; just a collar rimed with frost
to brace ’gainst coming winter’s banshee shrills,
as if the season’s reign will last for ever
and fill the air with moans from souls long lost,
entombed on icy peaks and snow-capped hills.
Paul A. Freeman

No. 3164: Cento

You are invited to supply a poem in which each line comes from a different well-known poem. Please email entries of up to 16 lines to lucy@spectator.co.uk by midday on 26 August. NB. We are unable to accept postal entries for the time being.

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