By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Picking the ‘most famous poems’ ever written is always going to be tricky. For one thing, it varies from country to country, culture to culture, language to language. So we’d best lay down some justifications for our decisions before we offer our pick of twenty of the most famous poems from the history of literature.
Let’s take the language issue first: we have confined ourselves to poems written in the English language, to make a daunting task a little less so. As for country, we have tried to focus on English and American literature, first and foremost, on the basis that these are the cultures whose poetry has made the most significant impact on western culture.
This is not, of course, to say that they are the ‘best’ poems or poets. And there are many other poems we could have included, but we want to offer a brief and accessible ‘way in’ to poetry rather than produce an anthology. So here are twenty poems to act as a starting-point rather than a self-contained, definitive list. If these whet your appetite for more, we recommend AMAZON, which contains some of the best and most famous poetry written in English.
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18.
This may not be Shakespeare’s best sonnet, but it’s undoubtedly his best-known, and it’s the first great sonnet to appear in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which was published in 1609. Its opening line is among the most famous in all of literature.
But what is often overlooked is that the poem is addressed to another man: the ‘Fair Youth’ to whom Shakespeare addresses (whether directly or indirectly) the majority of the sonnets in the sequence. The poet makes great claims for his own work, arguing that it has the power to make the young man immortal. True enough, here we are over four centuries later, still reading the poem.
2. William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
Here’s another poem whose opening line would feature high on a list of famous opening lines. In this 1794 poem, Blake addresses the fearsome tiger, wondering what kind of god could have forged this animal – which seems to have been created from the fires in some divine furnace – and how such a deity could also have made the meek and gentle lamb …
3. William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.
Here’s a poem which is not only well-known for its opening line, but is actually known by that line (Wordsworth never gave it a formal title). Published in 1807, the poem typifies Romanticism with the poet finding solace and joy in the world of nature – here, exemplified by the daffodils he sees, and then later recollects, dancing joyously in the breeze.
4. John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Perhaps the most famous of all of Keats’s odes which he composed in 1819, two years before his untimely death at the age of just 25. He reportedly took just two or three hours to write ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which is remarkable!
The poem is about the poet’s experience of listening to the beautiful song of the nightingale. The bird’s nocturnal song is so bewitching that he is left wondering whether his experiences have all been a dream: did he really leave behind the real world for an place of enchantment?
5. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Lady of Shalott’.
The Victorians were obsessed by Arthuriana, and one of Tennyson’s earliest masterpieces was this poem, which tells of how the isolated Lady of Shalott is undone when she catches a glimpse of Lancelot riding through the landscape and decides to leave her loom, where she has been weaving, in order to join the outer world.
6. Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.
Another thing the Victorians loved was nonsense: fantastical literature founded on illogical premises, outlandish creatures, and fictional lands where they could flip the real world on its head. In this classic 1871 poem, a childhood favourite for so many generations, the owl and pussycat set sail in their pea-green boat, get married by a turkey on a hill, and dance by the light of the moon.
7. Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.
The American pioneer of free verse Walt Whitman (1819-92) favoured the longer, rolling line of verse, and in this vast poem he puts it to good use, praising the self, celebrating his own idiosyncratic identity, and encouraging us to do the same. Several lines, such as ‘I contain multitudes’, have become well-known.
8. Christina Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’.
Another slice of fantasy from the Victorians, ‘Goblin Market’ was included in Rossetti’s 1862 debut collection (as the title poem) and has been popular ever since. The poem has been read in a number of different ways, but clearly engages with Victorian attitudes towards marriage, gender, and women who are on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of social convention.
9. Emily Dickinson, ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’.
Everyone should know something of the American poet Emily Dickinson’s distinctive poetry, much of which remained unpublished until after her death in 1886. This is a good place to start exploring Dickinson’s dash-filled quatrains, which marked out her poetry as unique.
10. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
Another classic piece of Victorian nonsense, from the other doyen of nonsense literature, Lewis Carroll. This poem is remarkable for its invention of numerous new words; when it was included in Through the Looking-Glass (1871), it fell to Humpty Dumpty to explain to Alice what a number of the nonsense words meant.
11. Rudyard Kipling, ‘If—’.
A classic poem about British stoicism, written in the 1890s although not published until 1910, ‘If—’ was voted the UK’s favourite poem in a 1995 poll. The poem is filled with famous lines, such as Kipling’s call to ‘fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’.
12. Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’.
Arguably one of the most misunderstood poems of the twentieth century, ‘The Road Not Taken’ is more about the ways in which we construct narratives around the decisions we make – even if they are, in many ways, arbitrary or insignificant – than it is about taking an unconventional path in life.
13. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
Anyone who wants to understand twentieth-century poetry must, at some point, grapple with this long modernist poem published in 1922. Eliot’s poem is about many things, not least the sense of disillusionment and despair many people felt after the end of the First World War. From its opening words, ‘April is the cruellest month’, onwards, there are many well-known moments, and lines, in this poem – including lines Eliot borrowed from elsewhere (Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell).
14. Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.
Of all of the poems to come out of the First World War, this poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is perhaps the most famous – and the most powerful.
After describing in harrowing the detail a poison gas attack, Owen then turns to those propagandists at home (specifically, the jingoistic jingle-writer Jessie Pope) to tell them that if they knew the real horror of war they would not be writing in support of it.
15. Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’.
The most important poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1901-67) often writes about the experiences of African Americans living in the US in the early twentieth century.
In this short lyric, Hughes picks up Whitman’s ‘I Hear America Singing’, adding his voice to the chorus – a voice which had been silenced for much of America’s past.
16. W. H. Auden, ‘Funeral Blues’.
One of the most famous lyrics of the twentieth century, largely because it was used memorably in the moving funeral scene from the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, ‘Funeral Blues’ is also known by its opening words, ‘Stop all the clocks …’
The poem actually began life as a parody of public obituaries, but Auden saw its potential as a straight, sincere poem of mourning, and a classic was born.
17. Stevie Smith, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.
This 1957 poem by the English poet Stevie Smith is often anthologised. It describes a man who drowns because people mistake his cries for help for friendly waves of greeting; of course, the poem can be interpreted as an analogy for the ways we struggle with life and others often don’t notice.
18. Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’.
A classic poem – perhaps the classic poem – of the ‘Beat Generation’, active in the 1950s. The poem came to summarise, and epitomise, the mood of post-war America and the feelings of countless members of the young generations growing up in that decade. The first line is well-known.
19. Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’.
There were many iconic poems of the US Civil Rights movement, but perhaps the poet who has become the best-known and most widely read is Maya Angelou (1928-2014), and this is perhaps her most celebrated poem.
20. Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’.
Let’s conclude our pick of famous poems with one from Sylvia Plath, who remains a popular and widely read poet in the current century. Plath (1932-63) wrote most of her best poems in the last year or two of her short life, and this one – exploring her complex feelings towards her father – is probably the most oft-anthologised.