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:
A. E. Housman
A.E. Housman is an English poet from the turn of the century, whose style and verse were highly influential on later poets (although he is equally regarded as a literary scholar). He is well regarded for his direct style and his wit. His most famous poems are about death and the passing of youth, including "When I Was One-and-twenty," and "To an Athlete Dying Young."
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"
Amy Lowell was an innovative American poet who led the Imagists, an art movement once spearheaded by Ezra Pound. She is highly regarded for her sensuous verse, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1925. She is also well known as a literary critic and biographer, with several books on French poetry and a famous biography of John Keats.
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.
Anne Bradstreet is the first famous poet among the American settlers, publishing her collections of poetry in the 1660s and 1670s. Her work is a staple of American poetry courses. Her poems cover many aspects of Puritan life in Massachusetts Bay, including reflections on family, nature, and God. Her best known work is her "Contemplations," although many young authors will be familiar with her poem "The Author to Her Book": "Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain/ Who after birth did'st by my side remain/ Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true/ Who thee abroad exposed to public view,"
Christina Rossetti is one of the Victorian era's most famous poets, especially for her romantic poems and her children's poems. She was less popular in her lifetime than Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but her fame has endured and she was an inspiration to later generations of writers including Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Jennings. Her brother Dante Rossetti was also a famous poet and artist. Christina was the subject of several of his paintings.
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
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.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day back in the 1860s, and his poems have always had a wide readership. In fact, his cadre were known as the Fireside Poets due to their popularity in common households and schools and due to their domestic themes. His most famous poem, if not his most acclaimed, is "Paul Revere's Ride." He is also known for his epic poems The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline and for his famous translation of Dante's Divine Comedy.
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.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told fantastical stories to amuse his friends' children, including among them Alice Liddell. One story in particular was put to paper, which became Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. As a mathematician and reverend, Carroll imbued his stories with complex ideas even as he committed to making art that was fundamentally silly. The result is a poetic legacy that remains popular with adults and children to this day.
The Book of Modern Verse
The Book of Modern Verse is a collection of poems by Faber and Faber gathering together the works of poets from the Modern era and shortly before. It's important to remember that "Modern" refers to the early 1900s, as opposed to the more common use of "modern."
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Many readers today might know Percy Bysshe Shelley as the husband of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, and the poet who died in a boating accident on Lake Geneva. But, in his time, Percy Shelley was the man who codified the philosophy of Romanticism in art and who set a bright example for other artists. His best known poems include "Ozymandias" and his "Ode to the West Wind," and his play in verse Prometheus Unbound. His many professed fans range from Gandhi to Marx to George Bernard Shaw.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of America's most famous essayists and philosophers. On top of that he was also a poet, whose poetical work was a complement to his philosophical ideas. Although less famous for his poetry, Emerson always maintains a strong voice and style. His best known poems include "Brahma" and his "Concord Hymn."
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.
Robert Frost is one of the most famous American poets of the past century, best known by far for his poem "The Road Not Taken" and for his depiction of life in Northern New England. Frost has undergone many waves of reappraisal since he started writing. Nowadays he's appreciated for the stark modernism beneath the townie surface of his poetry, and the complexity of his subject matter.
Robert Graves is a poet, a scholar, and a translator. But, most readers will know him as the author of popular historical novels like I, Claudius. He wrote an immense amount of poetry, though, and was honored early on for his poetry (and autobiography) about his experiences in World War I. Today his poetry remains popular, with many of his out-of-print works coming back into publication.
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a work translated by Edward FitzGerald, consisting of collected quatrains ("rubaiyat") attributed to the famous Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Although the work has been inflected with FitzGerald's own aesthetics, or perhaps because of that, the Rubaiyat was a massive success in the late 1800s. This "discovery" of Persian art and mysticism inspired many other poets in their own work.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, aside from his role as a pioneering critic, was one of the founders of the Romantic movement. His best known work is his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a ghostly poem about a cursed ship. He is also famous for his poem Kubla Khan with its dizzying and apocalyptic imagery—among writers it is also known as a cautionary tale about fleeting inspiration. Coleridge is said to have written most of the poem in a haze of opium, but before he could finish it he was interrupted by a guest at the door.
Sara Teasdale is one of America's most popular poets from the turn of the century. She was the first person to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and her work has been referenced many times in the 80 years since her death. Unfortunately, her best known work is "I Shall Not Care," a poem that many falsely describe as the poet's suicide note. "WHEN I am dead and over me bright April/ Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,/ Tho' you should lean above me broken-hearted,/ I shall not care."
Stephen Crane was a Naturalist poet, part of an august company of writers in the late 1800s. He's best known for his novel The Red Badge of Courage. As a poet, his style is terse and intellectual; his stylistic choices were reflected by later generations of writers including Ernest Hemingway.
T. S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot is one of the world's most famous and acclaimed poets, and arguably the most influential poet of the Modern era. His works "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men" are emblematic of a post-WWI generation scarred by the fighting; it's from Eliot we get the famous words "This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper." Not all of his work is so bleak though. One of his works was the inspiration for the musical Cats.
Walt Whitman is generally held as the national poet of the United States, whose sweeping work Leaves of Grass is the crown jewel of the Golden Age of American Literature (a term for the era from Hawthorne through Melville). His poetry touches on a broad range of topics. He was a famously sensual poet, whose sexually-charged verse in poems like "I Sing the Body Electric" stand out against all his contemporaries.
William Blake is one of the more curious poets of the Romantic Era. His poetry collections that he called his prophetic works were unpopular in his lifetime, but are now highly acclaimed. He was also an accomplished printmaker and artist, with very famous illustrations of Dante's Inferno and the Book of Revelations. In all of his work, Blake is known for an unrivalled mysticism (and for his fierce political opposition to the crown).
William Butler Yeats
Yeats is one of the national poets of Ireland, whose grounded style and subjects earned him a dedicated fanbase and a Nobel Prize. At least in part, his undying success and his reputation for Irishness relates to the era when he worked, as he produced his works near the height of Irish Nationalism in the 1920s. Yeats underwent major shifts in his artistry in the middle of his career, so most readers will find at least a few of his poems that they like.
William Shakespeare needs no introduction. He is the world's most performed playwright, and his work is translated everywhere around the globe. The Bard's sonnets are easily some of the world's best known poems. Who hasn't heard the line from Sonnet 18 "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" His works remain a popular staple of English language literature.
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