My Top 10 Prose, Verse, and Quote

by Kenneth Francis (June 2020)

Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon



You know you’re reading or listening to great prose, verse or lyrics when they connect with your mind and emotions. Good writing should stir the emotions and make you reflect in a profound way, feel sad, or joyful. You should learn something new from it or it should confirm your thoughts on existential matters of the soul. Great writing should be void of cliché, hyperbole, multiple adjectives, redundant words and maudlin sentimentality. It may even give you goose bumps! Sadly, such writings, like all great works of art (paintings, cinema, theatre, music), are rare in the early decades of the 21st century. In the Bible, St John wrote the most profound sentence of all time: “In the beginning was the Word”. In its original Greek, the Word is Logos: Language, Reason, Beauty, Truth, Love, and ultimately, God (Christ is the Logos incarnate). Many of these words related to Logos are infused in the works of some of the greatest writers in history, from Shakespeare to Solzhenitsyn. I’ve written before how odd it is that the enormous volume of highly artistic works—from movies, drama, literature, poetry to music—are invariably bleak but give us immense joy. One wonders are we better off living in a fallen world after all, as a perfect one without strife would lack in artistic excellence. But does a world with immense suffering justify moments of optimism through the transient pleasures of the arts, despite their dark themes? After all, one can’t have Shakespeare’s work without the sufferings of his characters. Below I’ve selected extracts from 10 works from these distinguished writers. They are all equal in their own right, and not in historical chronological order, beginning with William Shakespeare (1564-1616):


Number One: Macbeth (first performed in 1606): A play about a king’s kinsman who murders the king to gain power but is riddled with guilt after the ghastly deed. In the following soliloquy, he reflects on what he’s done and a life without meaning:


To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”



Number Two: Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)


Demons (1871), is the perfect caveat to the above soliloquy. Like the Bard, Dostoyevsky was a master of the Psychology of Man. The evil, cruel motives of his characters can be seen today, not just in Communist countries, but in the halls and corridors of the public square and institutions. 2nd Corinthians 4:4 tell us: “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.” Dostoyevsky would later understand this message more than most of his fellow Russians.


As a young atheist, Dostoevsky was accused of reading aloud at public events and distributing rebellious anti-Tsar/serfdom literature by Vissarion Belinsky, a literary critic who opposed theocratic views. For these offenses, Dostoevsky was arrested, convicted and condemned to death in 1849, a sentence later commuted to 4 years’ incarceration in s Siberian gulag. In his book, Notes from the Underground, he wrote some of the most horrifying pages of all literature. It was in the gulag that he first learned how evil men could be: Sadistic, bloodthirsty guards who beat some prisoners to within an inch of their lives. He described the prison:


In minus 30 degrees, Dostoevsky had his hands and feet locked in chains before being finally released. He was only allowed to read his New Testament Bible. His health was cursed with seizures, haemorrhoids, fevers and trembling, as he shared a tiny bathroom with 200 prisoners and at night lay in a dark, prison cell crowded with chained inmates, while covered by a small sheepskin blanket with his frozen feet exposed. In the centre of the cell was a little stove that couldn’t even melt the thick ice on the window. Dostoevsky would eventually give himself to Christ, his Saviour. But he also wrote of the meaninglessness in a world without God.


In Demons, Dostoevsky wrote:




Number Three: God Sees the Truth, But Waits, published in 1872 by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).


This short story by Tolstoy has a pathos in its denouement that’s profoundly heart-wrenching. And what’s remarkable about this story is the author’s use of plain language to achieve such poignant effects. First published in 1872, it is the parable of a man sent to a Siberian prison for a murder he did not commit.


A heavy drinker but passive, Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov is a popular merchant who lives in the town of Vladmir in Russia. One day he goes on a business trip, despite his wife pleading with him not to go because she had a nightmare about him in which his hair quickly turned grey. However, Aksionov ignores his wife and goes on the trip. On the journey, he meets another man called Makar Semyonich, and both men travel together, checking into an inn for a few drinks and later staying overnight.


The next morning, Aksionov awakes to find Semyonich, who was in a separate room, left the Inn. As Aksionov leaves the inn and walks down the road, he is approached by some policemen. They explain that a merchant was just murdered and robbed and then they search Aksionov’s bag where they find a bloody knife. Aksionov pleads with them saying he is not the murderer but he is sentenced to jail in Siberia.


When his wife visits him after some time in prison, she notices his hair is turned grey. After some 26 years in jail, Aksionov is a broken man and resigned to his fate. One day some new prisoners, one of them being Makar Semyonich, are transferred to the prison.


After overhearing several conversations, Aksionov is convinced that Makar Semyonich is the man who committed the murder for which he was blamed. Aksionov notices that Semyonich is digging a hole and trying to escape from prison but he says nothing of the deed, as the guards would no doubt flog Makar Semyonich to a pulp and extend his sentence. As the story concludes, we see Aksionov in his cell during the night while Semyonich enters the cell.









In spite of what Aksionov had said, Makar Semyonich confessed his guilt. But when the order for his release came, Aksionov was already dead.



Number Four: The Tell-Tale Heart, published 1842, by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)


Poe was one of America’s greatest short-story writers. His works are associated with images of madness, death and the macabre. In the classic short story, Tell-Tale Heart, the killer lives with an old man. Poe never mentions the sex of the protagonist, but there is something quite masculine about this character. Assuming he’s male, he could be either a lodger or carer for the old man, but it’s doubtful that he’s his son, as he doesn’t refer to the old man as ‘father’ or ‘pop’ but ‘old man’. First published in January 1842 in the Boston ‘Pioneer, the dramatic monologue begins with a narrator talking about nerves, madness, Heaven and Hell:


Number Five: On the Suffering of the World, by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): essay written between 1788-1860.




As a reliable compass for orientating yourself in life nothing is more useful than to accustom yourself to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony. When you have done this you will order your expectations of life according to the nature of things and no longer regard the calamities, sufferings, torments and miseries of life as something irregular and not to be expected but will find them entirely in order, well knowing that each of us is here being punished for his existence and each in his own particular way. This outlook will enable us to view the so-called imperfections of the majority of men, i.e., their moral and intellectual shortcomings and the facial appearance resulting therefrom, without surprise and certainly without indignation . . .



Number Six: Ghosts, by Patrick Pearse, aka Padraic H. Pearse (1879-1916)


Pearse was one of the brave rebels of the Irish Easter 1916 Rising. He gave his life and died for Ireland, as he walked while whistling to his execution by the British Army forces. I chose him because he, and his prose, personified Ireland spiritually. Had he looked into a crystal ball and seen the Ireland of today, he would’ve seen a country in spiritual and economic ruins. And to think Pearse thought things were bad back in his day over 100 years ago?


Extract from Ghosts (Published December 1915)


Number Seven: Quote, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)


On the occasion of his acceptance, in London on May 10, 1983, of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.




Number Eight: The Dead, published 1914, by James Joyce (1882-1941)


I’m not a great admirer of Joyce’s writings, but one story by him that stirs my imagination is The Dead, especially the closing lines. The short story comes from the book, Dubliners, published in 1914. It is regarded as one of the greatest short stories in the English language. The protagonist, a teacher called Gabriel Conroy who, with his wife Gretta, arrives late to a party on a winter’s night in Dublin city, Ireland. During dinner, Gabriel begins a speech he has prepared, praising traditional Irish hospitality, observing that “we are living in a sceptical . . . thought-tormented age,” and referring to Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane as the three graces.


The speech ends with a toast and a singalong. While preparing to leave the party, Gabriel finds his wife, looking sad and confused, standing at the top of the stairs. From another room, a dinner guest called Bartell D’Arcy, is singing ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. Gabriel and Gretta leave the party and head to the hotel where they are staying.


He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.



Number Nine: Day of the Locust, published in 1939 by Nathanael West (1903-1940)


Set in 1930s Hollywood during the Great Depression, this is a story about a group of misfits who meet in search of the American Dream. But it’s more a parable of finding the abyss of a sewer pipe stuffed with outcasts and frauds, where the grotesque behaviour of the masses is satirically laid bare.




Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.



Number Ten: Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967):

Stoney Grey Soil



O stony grey soil of Monaghan

You took the gay child of my passion

And gave me your clod-conceived.


You clogged the feet of my boyhood

And I believed that my stumble

Had the poise and stride of Apollo

And his voice my thick tongued mumble . . .


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