British poetry encompasses poetry written by authors from the United Kingdom. Early British poems which remain popular even today include the sonnets of William Shakespeare. He was the towering figure of the English Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement in England dating from the late 15th century to the early 17th century. Paradise Lost by John Milton is another mid-17th century work which remains hugely popular even today. The most prominent movement in British poetry is perhaps Romanticism, which laid emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of the past and of nature. Some of the best known British poems are from the Romantic era including The Tyger by William Blake; Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley; and Daffodils by William Wordsworth. The best known poems written by British poets in the 20th century include the romantic ballad The Highwayman; and the war poem Dulce et Decorum est. Here are the 10 most famous poems by poets from the United Kingdom.
#10 The Highwayman
PART ONE The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door. He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin, A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin. They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh. And he rode with a jewelled twinkle, His pistol butts a-twinkle, His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky. Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard. He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred. He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, Bess, the landlord’s daughter, Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair. And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked. His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay, But he loved the landlord’s daughter, The landlord’s red-lipped daughter. Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say— “One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night, But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light; Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day, Then look for me by moonlight, Watch for me by moonlight, I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.” He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand, But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast; And he kissed its waves in the moonlight, (O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!) Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west. Read Full Poem Here
Born in Wolverhampton, England, Alfred Noyes was a traditionalist poet remembered chiefly for his lyrical verse. The Highwayman, his best known poem, has etched his name in the history of English literature. A romantic ballad, the poem was first published in the Blackwood’s Magazine in August 1906. It is set in 18th-century rural England and tells the story of an unnamed highwayman who is in love with a landlord’s daughter named Bess. He is betrayed to the authorities by a jealous stableman. However, Bess sacrifices her life to warn him of the ambush and he is able to escape. Learning of her death, the highwayman dies in a futile attempt at revenge, shot down on the highway. Noyes has used vivid imagery in the poem and The Highwayman is reputed to be “the best ballad poem in existence for oral delivery”. Noyes later said that the success of the poem was due to the fact that at that age he was “genuinely excited by that kind of romantic story”.
#9 Dulce et Decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs, And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas-shells dropping softly behind. Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.— Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen was a British soldier who suffered from shell shock during World War I and was sent to the hospital, where he began to compose poetry. “Dulce et Decorum est” is a Latin title taken from the Roman poet Horace. It means “it is sweet and honorable”. Owen’s poem combines two sonnets and thus it consists of 28 lines. It focuses on a scene from the front lines of the First World War in which British soldiers are attacked with chlorine gas. As the shells with the poisonous gas explode, one soldier is unable to put his mask on in time due to the rush. The narrator of the poem then describes the gruesome effects the gas has on the man. He then concludes by saying, if one were to see first-hand the reality of war, one might not repeat false but common statements like dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: “How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.” Dulce et Decorum est is the most famous poem of one of the greatest war poets of all time.
|Poet:||Percy Bysshe Shelley|
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the leading “second generation” Romantic poets and he created some of the best known works of the movement. Ozymandias was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, perhaps the most powerful king of Ancient Egypt. In Percy’s poem the speaker recalls meeting a traveller who tells him about two huge stone legs and a damaged head of a statue. The sculptor of the work had captured the pride of his subject. On the pedestal of the statue appear the words, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” However around the ruin is nothing but “lone and level sands”. The poem focuses on the momentary nature of power with its central theme being the inevitable decline of all leaders, no matter how great they consider themselves. Ozymandias is the most famous poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley and one of the best known sonnets in English literature.
|Poet:||William Ernest Henley|
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley was a hugely influential English writer in the 19th century. He suffered from tuberculosis from the age of 12 and at the age of 16, his left leg had to be amputated due to complications arising from tuberculosis. The disease again flared up in his twenties compromising his other good leg, which doctors also wished to amputate. Henley successfully fought to save his leg with the help of distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister. While he was hospitalized for three years, Henley wrote his masterpiece, Invictus, which permanently etched his name in literary history. The poem calls on its readers to resist and persevere through the most difficult circumstances in life and to not give in to one’s fate. It calls on stoicism, discipline and fortitude in adversity. Invictus is one of the best known poems on bravely facing the challenges life throws on you.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!” He took his vorpal sword in hand; Long time the manxome foe he sought— So rested he by the Tumtum tree And stood awhile in thought. And, as in uffish thought he stood, The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, And burbled as it came! One, two! One, two! And through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back. “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” He chortled in his joy. ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
This poem was first published in Through the Looking Glass, an 1871 novel written by Lewis Carroll which was a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Jabberwocky is a nonsense poem, i.e. a verse which is not supposed to make sense and which is usually whimsical and humorous in tone. Though it makes little sense, the plot of the poem may be defined as that of a hero overcoming a monster, in this case a creature named “the Jabberwock”. Thus the poem may be considered a nonsense reply to one of the most common plots in literature. Jabberwocky is a masterpiece of linguistic inventiveness with its every stanza containing neologisms or new words. Several of these words coined by Carroll have entered common usage like “chortle” (a blend of chuckle and snort) and “galumph” (meaning to move in a clumsy way). Jabberwocky remains a hugely popular poem and it is perhaps the most famous nonsense poem in English literature.
#5 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date; Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd; But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Though he is most renowned for his plays, William Shakespeare also remains the most popular poet in the English language. His best known work in poetry is his collection of 154 sonnets. Sonnet 18 is a part of Fair Youth sequence of Shakespeare’s collection, which is addressed to an unnamed young man. It is a hugely influential and often quoted work; and there are several double meanings in the poem which give it greater depth. Shakespeare starts Sonnet 18 with a flattering question to his beloved: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” He goes on to list some negative aspects of summer to establish that his beloved is better. In the last part of the poem, he states that the beauty of his beloved will never fade as he will make it eternal though the words of this poem which will remind the world of him “so long as men can breathe or eyes can see”. Sonnet 18 is not only the most famous poem written by William Shakespeare but also the most renowned sonnet ever written.
#4 The Tyger
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire? And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat. What dread hand? & what dread feet? What the hammer? what the chain, In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp. Dare its deadly terrors clasp? When the stars threw down their spears And water'd heaven with their tears: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee? Tyger Tyger burning bright, In the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake is considered a highly influential figure in the history of poetry and one of the greatest British artists. His most renowned work in poetry is Songs of Innocence and of Experience, considered one of the leading poetic works of the Romantic era. The Tyger is a poem in Blake’s Songs of Experience. It serves as a counterpart to his poem in Songs of Innocence, The Lamb. In The Tyger, the speaker focuses on the subject of creation asking who could have made such a terrifying beast as the tiger. The speaker talks about the fearful features of the tiger and wonders “did he who made the Lamb make thee?” before he ends the poem with the question with which he began, “What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”. The Tyger, with its strikingly powerful words, serves as a counter to the innocence and tenderness of The Lamb. It is one of the most analysed poems and Cambridge calls it the “the most anthologized poem in English”.
I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed—and gazed—but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought: For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.
Along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth is credited with launching the Romantic Age in English literature. Romanticism laid emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of the past and of nature. It was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the scientific rationalization of nature. Wordsworth was Britain’s poet laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850 and he remains one of the best known poets in the English language. This poem is titled “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” but it is commonly known as “Daffodils”. Wordsworth was inspired to write it on encountering a long belt of Daffodils while taking a walk with his sister Dorothy in April 1802. The poem simply tells about the poet discovering a field of the beautiful flowers while wandering. As it is among the most popular poems in the English language, it has frequently been the subject of parody and satire. Daffodils is taught in many institutions across the world as a classic of English Romanticism and it is the most famous Romantic poem.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
By far the most famous poem of Rudyard Kipling, If—, presents a set of situations and the ideal behaviour a person should adopt when he encounters them. It acclaims Victorian-era stoicism and displaying fortitude in the face of adversity. The person Kipling had in mind while writing this verse was his friend Sir Leander Starr Jameson, who incidentally was betrayed and imprisoned by the British Government. The poem doesn’t have a physical setting but is often seen as a father giving the most valuable lesson of life to his son. The lines of the poem are hugely popular; and the third and fourth lines of its second stanza are written on the wall of the players’ entrance to the Centre Court of the Wimbledon Championship. If— is one of the most well-known poems in the English language and it was voted the favourite poem of Britain in a 1995 BBC poll.
#1 Paradise Lost
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flow'd Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song, That with no middle flight intends to soar Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime. And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure, Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark Illumin, what is low raise and support; That to the highth of this great Argument I may assert Eternal Providence, And justifie the wayes of God to men. Read Full Poem Here
Paradise Lost is regarded as the major work of John Milton which has established his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time. The poem takes place at what Christians believe to be the beginning of human history. It begins after Satan’s unsuccessful rebellion and the creation of the universe. Paradise Lost primarily focuses on the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, i.e. the story of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, being tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit, leading to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The primary theme of Milton’s epic is Man’s disobedience to God’s will, implying not only Adam’s disobedience, but of all mankind from first to last. Apart from sin, other prominent themes of the poem include fate, free will, pride, revenge and deceit. A widely read and analysed masterpiece, Paradise Lost is perhaps the most famous epic poem in the English language.