10 Most Famous Poems In English Literature

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
Published:1978

Poem:-

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Synopsis:-

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”.


#9 Jabberwocky

Poet:Lewis Carroll
Published:1871

Poem:-

’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.

Synopsis:-

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.


#8 The Raven

Poet:Edgar Allan Poe
Published:1845

Excerpt:-

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
            Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
            This it is and nothing more.”

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
            Darkness there and nothing more.

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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.



#7 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Poet:William Shakespeare
Published:1609

Poem:-

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.

Synopsis:-

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.


#6 The Tyger

Poet:William Blake
Published:1794

Poem:-

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?

Synopsis:-

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 analyzed 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.



#5 Daffodils

Poet:William Wordsworth
Published:1807

Poem:-

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.

Synopsis:-

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.


#4 Beowulf

Poet:Unknown
Published:c. 1000 CE

Excerpt:-

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
To him an heir was afterward born,
a son in his halls, whom heaven sent
to favor the folk, feeling their woe
that erst they had lacked an earl for leader
so long a while; the Lord endowed him,
the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown.
Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him,
son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.
So becomes it a youth to quit him well
with his father’s friends, by fee and gift,
that to aid him, aged, in after days,
come warriors willing, should war draw nigh,
liegemen loyal: by lauded deeds
shall an earl have honor in every clan.

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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 analyzed over the years and scholars debate almost every aspect about this epic poem.



#3 If—

Poet:Rudyard Kipling
Published:1910

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!

Synopsis:-

By far the most famous poem of Rudyard Kipling, If—, presents a set of situations and the ideal behavior 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 favorite poem of Britain in a 1995 BBC poll.


#2 Paradise Lost

Poet:John Milton
Published:1667

Excerpt:-

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

Synopsis:-

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 analyzed masterpiece, Paradise Lost is perhaps the most famous epic poem in the English language.


#1 The Road Not Taken

Poet:Robert Frost
Published:1916

Poem:-

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

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.

Synopsis:-

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.



10 thoughts on “10 Most Famous Poems In English Literature”

  1. It’s incredible even to think of without Shelley or Thomas Grey or Thomas Moore.
    I think “Elegy written in a country churchyard” by Gray or, “The journey onwards” by Moore certainly defy space-time and crush the precinct for mankind.

    Reply

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