Poetry is arguably the oldest written art form that we have records of, dating back thousands of years. The earliest poem we still have largely intact is the Epic of Gilgamesh, composed in ancient Sumer. Here at Infoplease, we've collected a range of works from highly influential and important Western poets, all of whom are staples of art and education in the United States. If you like what you read here, there are many resources online that can connect you to other great poets, from the griots of Mali to the court poets of the Tang Dynasty to the Beatniks. Don't forget that April is National Poetry Month, when we appreciate the rich history of poetry and the awesome stuff poets are making today.
We offer more context below, but for people who want to get right to reading, here's the shortlist:
Alfred Tennyson is one of the most famous poets of the past two centuries, named poet laureate by Queen Victoria and widely regarded as the representative voice of the Victorian era. Tennyson's verse covers a wide range of subjects and styles, although he is perhaps best known for his war poetry and for his Idylls of the King, a poetic recounting of the story of King Arthur. He is also well known for his maritime poetry, which encapsulates the seafaring wonder of his time; "I cannot rest from travel: I will drink | Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd | Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those |That loved me, and alone"
Andrew Marvell is one of the best known of the metaphysical poets, an art movement from 17th century England. Marvell's poetry is often witty and satirical, both on the interpersonal level and on the political level. Marvell's best known work is his "To His Coy Mistress," in which he beseeches his beloved that they throw caution to the wind since life is short. Marvell also served in the House of Commons, informing his political writings.
Dante is widely considered one of the most important and powerful poets to have ever lived, and his three-part Divine Comedy is a monument of Western literature. In Italian he is often known as "the Supreme Poet," and his innovative writing helped shape modern Italian. T.S. Eliot once famously remarked "Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third." Here at Infoplease we've gathered together the famous translation of the Comedy by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which remains popular for the poetic strength Longfellow brings to the task (if not necessarily the accuracy).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a 19th Century poet famous for her style and her socially engaged poetry. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery and child labor, both in the public discourse and in her writing. Stylistically she inspired many other poets who followed short behind her, including Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, and has the proud distinction of being a great poet who was popular in her own lifetime. She famously married poet Robert Browning and their copious love letters are also something of a literary classic (although between the two Elizabeth is probably the greater writer).
Next to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson stands apart as one of the great peaks of American poetry, with her unique voice and her deeply introspective poetry. Although she lived most of her life in relative isolation in her Massachusetts home, her poetry found an immediate and strong audience after its publication that spread far and wide (although a great deal of her poems were untitled, and only published posthumously). A fun fact for new Dickinson readers: many of Dickinson's poems use what's known as hymnal meter, the same syllable scheme used in Amazing Grace and Gilligan's Island. These poems can be sung to either of those tunes (and by the transitive property, those songs can be sung to the tune of the other).
Ezra Pound is a controversial figure in the world of American poetry, as much as he is a lauded one. Pound was at the forefront of modern poetry, with bold and innovative verses that set the tenor for many of his contemporaries and founded the Imagist movement. Most famous are his Cantos, a powerful reimagining of the Odyssey in modern verse. Pound is controversial, however, due to his involvement with fascists. During World War II, he worked on behalf of the Italian Fascists as a propagandist. After the war he was arrested for treason, during which imprisonment he wrote some of his most famous poetry. Some of his work during this period was actually recognized by the Library of Congress, sparking immense outcry.
The influence of Homer on Western literature is inestimable; the Iliad and the Odyssey are two of the cornerstones which have informed every writer of the last 2500 years. In Ancient Rome writers would read and discuss these poems, the same as in medieval Europe and as in the modern American classroom. Whether or not Homer was an actual single individual is in doubt, and over time the number of works attributed to Homer has decreased. Regardless, he stands as an icon of Greek poetry and Archaic Greek culture.
John Donne (pronounced "dun") is chief among the metaphysical poets in England, and after Shakespeare's death he arguably took up the mantle as England's greatest living poet. John Donne turned a critical eye to Jacobean society, writing inventive poems that challenged the cultural and artistic status quo, and his work reveals a great deal of wit and invention. Readers today might be surprised by his saucy subjects, such as in his famous "To His Mistress Going to Bed," in which the speaker of the poem urges his lover to undress so they can engage in illicit activities. Donne is well known for his deeply reflective religious poetry, influenced by his ordainment as a priest.
Keats was the last of the Romantics to come onto the scene and the first to leave. His career as a published poet lasted only four years before he succumbed to tuberculosis. His work in that four years, however, is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the Romantic movement, and he has had a vast influence on later generations of poets. Keats virtuosic command of the senses and his intense inner investigation have earned him generations of accolades, and his genius is held up alongside the likes of Milton and Shakespeare when discussing the poets of England. He is also well known for his romantic relationship with Fanny Brawne, in which they exchanged hundreds of notes over a few years.
Milton is inarguably the most decorated English poet after Shakespeare, and perhaps the more lauded of the two. Milton is best known as the poet of the epic Paradise Lost, a monumental telling of the story of Adam and Eve. In his own lifetime, Milton achieved international acclaim; that acclaim would persist through the ages, affected more by opinions of his politics than of his artistry. Milton was a Puritan religiously, and a Republican politically, causing him trouble when the monarchy of England was restored. Famously, Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, and he orally dictated the entire epic.
Robert Burns is the indisputable national poet of Scotland, renowned for his poetic invention in Scots and in Scots-inflected English. Burns is known stylistically for his lyrical genius (which also informed his accomplished career as a songwriter), but he is perhaps better known for his artistic dedication to republicanism, Scottish identity, and to the authentic lives of the lower classes. Burns influenced artists around the world, including the Romantics who would follow in the generations after him. He also became a national icon in Russia, where his poetry inspired the common people, and he was further renowned in the Soviet Union as a poet of the common man.