The earliest surviving English poetry may have been composed in the 7th century. It is written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the direct predecessor of modern English. The highest poetic achievement in Old English literature is Beowulf, a 3182 line epic by an unknown author. Following the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon rapidly diminished as a written literary language and it was not until the 14th century that major works of English literature began to appear once again. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is credited with legitimizing the literary use of the Middle English vernacular at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin. Due to this, Chaucer is referred to as the Father of English literature. With the discovery of the New World and the rise of Great Britain as an international superpower, English spread to other parts of the world. Hence, many of the best known English poems are written by authors who don’t belong to England. Here are the 10 most famous English poems of all time.
#10 Still I Rise
Poet: Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was an African American writer who is most famous for her poems and seven autobiographies. She was a prolific poet who explored numerous themes in her poems including those of women, love, loss, music, struggle, discrimination and racism. Still I Rise directly addresses the white oppressors of black people and responds to centuries of oppression and mistreatment they have suffered. It talks about various means of oppression, like writing, which the narrator addresses in the first stanza of the poem. Still I Rise hails the indomitable spirit of Black people; and expresses faith that they will triumph despite adversity and racism. It is the most famous poem of Maya Angelou and it was also her favorite. In 1994, Nelson Mandela recited this poem at his presidential inauguration. Still I Rise is perhaps the most famous poem written by an African American and it has been called a “proud, even defiant statement on behalf of all Black people”.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
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!’
#8 The Raven
Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
In January 1845, The Raven appeared in the New York Evening Mirror and became an immediate popular sensation. It was soon reprinted, parodied and illustrated; and it made Edgar Allan Poe a household name. The poem tells the story of an unnamed lover who, while lamenting the death of his beloved Lenore, is visited by a talking raven. The raven enhances his distress with its constant repetition of the word “Nevermore”, slowly plunging him into madness. The poem makes use of a number of folk and mythological references; and is noted for its stylized language and supernatural atmosphere. It influenced numerous later works including the famous painting Nevermore by Paul Gauguin. The Raven is the most famous poem of Edgar Allan Poe, who is renowned for his dark romanticism, a sub-genre of Romanticism which reflects fascination with the irrational, the demonic and the grotesque.
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
#7 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.
#6 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”. The Tyger is not only the most famous work of William Blake but also one of the best known poems of all time.
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.
Published: c. 1000 AD
Beowulf is written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the earliest historical form of the English language. It is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English. In the poem, King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by a demon named Grendel. Beowulf, a young Geat warrior, comes to the aid of Hrothgar. He fights and defeats Grendel. The demon has a mother who tries to avenge her son but she is also defeated by Beowulf. Beowulf then returns to his land. He later becomes king of the Geats and rules for a period of fifty years. The Geats are then attacked by a dragon. Beowulf is able to defeat the dragon but he is mortally wounded in the battle. Beowulf is regarded as the highest achievement of Old English literature. It has been much analysed over the years and scholars debate almost every aspect about this epic poem.
Beowulf answered, Ecgtheow’s son:
“Grieve not, O wise one! for each it is better,
His friend to avenge than with vehemence wail him;
Each of us must the end-day abide of
His earthly existence; who is able accomplish
Glory ere death! To battle-thane noble
Lifeless lying, ’tis at last most fitting.
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:
#2 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
#1 The Road Not Taken
Poet: Robert Frost
Robert Frost is regarded as the greatest American poet of the 20th century. He was close friends with British poet Edward Thomas and the two took many walks together. In Frost’s words, Thomas was “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other“. The Road Not Taken was initially meant to be a gentle mocking of indecision and Frost sent an advanced copy of the poem to Thomas. In the poem, the speaker stands in the woods pondering which of the two roads ahead should he take. Though Frost probably wrote the poem to highlight the human tendency to look back and blame minor decisions in their life, it has since been interpreted by readers as a poem on the benefit of free thinking and not following the crowd. The last lines of the poem are hugely popular and often quoted. The Road Not Taken is not only the most famous poem of Robert Frost but perhaps the most renowned English poem.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.