Editors’ note: These poems are excerpted from The Lamb Cycle: What the Great English Poets Would Have Written About Mary and Her Lamb (Had They Thought of It First), by David Ewbank, illustrated by Kate Feiffer, published this month by Brandeis University Press.
Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
—Sarah Josepha Hale
William Shakespeare: Sonnet 155
That cruel hind well may the world beshrew
Who plighted pairs of sheep would separate;
Such rude divorce can but, depriving ewe,
Bank the still flickering fervor for her mate
And in his mutinous breast only beget,
By paradox, increase of fiery heat,
Stoked by inflaming hinderance and let,
Which else had burned innoxious and discrete.
How much more scorn deserves thy master’s spite,
Rudely to rive from thy dark-dazzling blaze
Thy pettish fond adorer, shaggy white,
And slam the door on his enamored gaze.
Only in this, my curse, may meddling rival
Find near renown and infamous survival.
A. E. Housman: A Shropshire lamb
I went to school, and I believe
That I could count past two
If the teacher had not made me leave
And filled my heart with rue.
Mary kissed me ere I left
And said I should not cry,
But now, heartbroken and bereft,
I’ve learned that lovers lie.
Now Mary’s doing calculus
While I, alone and envious,
Have yet to get to three.
George Herbert: The school steps
He fell from bliss
And fortune fair.
Meek lamb and lettered miss,
Ill-sorted, hapless pair,
The sill of Learning’s Edifice
Transgressed and made the master swear
That should he brook such sin he’d be remiss.
He pet from pupil tore like wheat from tare.
To repossess the maid and thwart his nemesis
Is now the lambkin’s fervid, postlapsarian prayer.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 8, on page 41
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