Poems by Some of History's Most Powerful

We'll start with a little quiz this week. See if you can guess who wrote this lyric:

The pinkish bud has opened, Rushing to the pale-blue violet And, stirred by a light breeze, The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

The lark has sung in the dark blue, Flying higher than the clouds, And the sweet-sounding nightingale Has sung a song to children from the bushes.

If you guessed Joseph Stalin, you're right (and how on earth did you know that?). In his youth, Stalin was an avid reader of Goethe, Shakespeare and even Walt Whitman -- he fancied himself something of a poet. Then that whole bloodthirsty tyrant thing happened, and, to play off of Shelley's famous phrase, the world learned that maybe it's best if poets aren't allowed to actually legislate the world.

England's King Henry VIII seems an absolute lamb in comparison, but he was at least as brutal in the poetry department. His verse serves as lasting proof that no one edits a king. Try getting through "Whoso that will for Gracë Sue" -- the lines are absolutely mangled:

Whoso that will for gracë sue His intent must needs be true, And lovë her in heart and deed, Else it were pity that he should speed. Many one saith that love is ill, But those be they which can no skill.

Or else because they may not obtain, They would that other should it disdain. But love is a thing given by God, In that therefore can be none odd; But perfect indeed and between two, Wherefore then should we it eschew?

"Chop of your head? I'll do that, too," apparently didn't make it to publication.

Moving on to less objectionable poetry (and people), Lorenzo de Medici, who was essentially the ruler of the Florentine Republic at the height of the Renaissance, is principally remembered as a patron of the Arts, with a court that included Michelangelo, da Vinci and Botticelli. But he was also a fine poet himself. Here is one of his sonnets (translated by Lorna de' Lucchi):

I saw my Lady by a purling brook 
 With laughing maidens, where green branches twined; 
 O never since that primal, passionate look 
 Have I beheld her face so soft and kind. 
 Hence for a space my yearning was content 
 And my sad soul some consolation knew; 
 Alas, my heart remained although I went, 
 And constantly my pain and sorrow grew. 
 Early the sun sank down in western skies 
 And left the earth to woeful hours obscure, 
 Afar my sun hath also veiled her ray; Upon the mind first bliss most heavily lies, 
 How short a while all mortal joys endure, 
 But not so soon doth memory pass away.

And perhaps no world leader has left a literary mark like England's King James I (Scotland's James VI), who commissioned the book that contains the most widely-read poetry ever written in English: the King James Bible. James I loved Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and wrote his own passable verse. He shows off his fine ear in this Elizabethan sonnet:

The azur'd vaulte, the crystall circles bright, The gleaming fyrie torches powdred there, The changing round, the shynie beamie light, The sad and bearded fyres, the monsters faire; The prodiges appearing in the aire, The rearding thunders, and the blustering windes, The fowles in hew, in shape, in nature raire, The prettie notes that wing'd musiciens finds; In earth the sau'rie flowres, the mettal'd minds, The wholesome hearbes, the hautie pleasant trees, The syluer streames, the beasts of sundrie kinds; The bounded waves, and fishes of the seas: All these for teaching man the Lord did frame, To do his will whose glorie shines in thame.

One could argue that the phrase "shynie beamie light" is a little brutal. But let's be honest, when you're in Stalin's company, the bar for brutality is high.