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
Poet: Alfred William Wordsworth
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. In the final stanza, the ghosts of the lovers meet again on winter nights. 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”.
The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.
Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.
#9 Dulce et Decorum est
Poet: Wilfred Owen
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.
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.
Poet: P B Shelley
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.
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.
Poet: William Ernest Henley
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.
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.
Poet: Lewis Carroll
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.
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!’
#5 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Poet: William Shakespeare
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.
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.
#4 The Tyger
Poet: William Blake
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”.
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?
Poet: William Wordsworth
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.
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.
Poet: Rudyard Kipling
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 incidently 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.
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:
#1 Paradise Lost
Poet: John Milton
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.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence