‘To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence’ by James Elroy Flecker is a six stanza poem which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The stanzas conform to a strictly structured rhyming pattern of abab cdcd…etc. A reader might notice that in a couple of stanzas the end rhymes depend on the pronunciation of the reader.
Summary of To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence
‘To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence’ by James Elroy Flecker describes the poet’s attempt to reach out to future generations of writers.
The poem begins with the speaker, who is also the writer himself, addressing the fact that he has been dead for a thousand years whenever anyone will read his words. He wrote this message so that he could communicate with the future after he has died.
In the next stanza the poet tells his reader what he does not care to know about the future. He does not want to spend time learning about the buildings or what they are made of. He also does not care to know about the technological advances made by humankind.
In the third stanza he speaks on what he does care about. He is curious whether or not there is still passionate love, wine and art in the future. The poet also wants to know if there has been any progress in understanding the meaning of life or the place of God.
The poem begins to draw to its conclusion when the speaker asks if the world has aged as Homer believed it would. In the second to last stanza he describes how he knows his reader will be similar to him. They will both be students of English and poets who were once young.
The final stanza fun describes the speaker’s intention. He wants this poem to be a handshake across the years. It will bring with it the poet’s soul with which he will “greet” future writers.
Analysis of To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence
I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker, who is also likely the poet himself, begins by addressing himself as having been dead for “a thousand years.” As the title suggests, the narrator of the poem will be speaking to poets who come after him. He is looking into the future and sending out a “sweet archaic song.”
The words he is sharing with the future are his “messengers.” They are there, speaking to the writers of the future, when he cannot. He knows whenever they read his words he will have already passed on.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.
The next stanza outlines what the speaker will not be asking of the future poets. He does not care to know about physical aspects of their world. These aren’t things which many others might be interested in, but he couldn’t care less about.
He states that he does not “care” whether or not they have “bridge[d] the seas” or found a way to securely travel through the “cruel sky.”
Additionally, he doesn’t want to know if they have built “consummate palaces” and if they are made of “metal or of masonry.” The constructs of the world are of no interest to him.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
In the third quatrain the speaker combines his real questions into one long phrase. It breaks down into short parts which ask first: if there is still “wine and music” in the world. These are the first things that come to his mind when considering the future. He thinks immediately of the pleasures the world might be missing out on.
He then asks if there are “statues and a bright-eyed love[s]” in the world. Again, his thoughts go to art, pleasure, and personal happiness as one might expect a poet’s thoughts to focus.
Finally, he asks the future if there has been any greater understanding of the “foolish thoughts of good and ill” or about the gods who “sit above.”
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Mæonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
The fourth stanza speaks of how humankind has moved through the world and if it continues as “old Mæonides the blind / Said” it would “three thousand years ago.”
This is a direct reference to Homer. In some traditions he is referred to as “Mæonides” as he may have come from Mæonia. Homer is spoken of a prophet, and the speaker needs to know if humankind still reflects the ideas Homer put forth.
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
In the second to last stanza the speaker returns to address the listener, one thousand years in the future. He calls this person his friend, although they are yet “unseen, unborn, unknown.” He feels a kinship with his future fellow poets.
The speaker feels the reader will be a “Student of our sweet English tongue.” The poet will have to read the speaker’s words “at night, alone.” Those same words will being with the phrase, “I was a poet, I was young.” These are two statements the future reader will be able to relate to immediately. This person will be able to say the same thing about their own experience.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
In the final four lines the speaker reaches out a literary hand to greet the future reader. He knows he will never be able to “see your face” or “shake you by the hand.”
His greeting comes in the form of a poem which is inhabited by his “soul.” It traveled “through time and space” in order to “greet you.” While others might not understand the speaker’s motivations, the reader will, as he or she will also be “young” and a “poet.”