The earliest surviving English poetry was composed as early as the 7th century. It was written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the direct predecessor of modern English. Most Old English poems are recorded without authors, and very few names are known with any certainty. Geoffrey Chaucer is the most highly regarded English poet of the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century). The 16th century marked the beginning of the English Renaissance whose towering figure was undoubtedly William Shakespeare. The early 17th century saw the emergence of a group of writers known as the Metaphysical poets, who were led by John Donne. The last quarter of the 18th century saw the emergence of the influential movement Romanticism. Some of the best known English poets, including Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Shelley, belong to the Romantic period. Romanticism was followed by the Victorian era, which was dominated by Alfred Tennyson. W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are generally ranked as the three greatest 20th century British and Irish poets. Here are the 10 most famous poets from the United Kingdom and their best known works. The article doesn’t include poets from other countries who have written in English.
#10 Geoffrey Chaucer
Lifespan: c. 1343 – 25 October 1400
Geoffrey Chaucer is widely regarded as the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages. He was not a professional writer, but a courtier and civil servant who successfully served three kings in a long career. Still, he was able to achieve considerable fame as an author during his lifetime. The primary characteristics of his works are their variety in subject matter, genre, tone and style. Chaucer went on to have a huge influence on English literature. He considerably expanded the word-stock of English bringing in numerous words from a variety of languages; and he made several innovations in the way poetry and verse were written. Most importantly, Geoffrey Chaucer was crucial in 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 his tremendous contributions, Geoffrey Chaucer is considered as the Father of English literature. His poetry has been loved for generations for its humanity and humour; and continues to be popular.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (1476)
Troilus and Criseyde (1886)
The Book of the Duchess (1368)
#9 Alfred Lord Tennyson
Lifespan: August 6, 1809 – October 6, 1892
Active in the 19th century, Alfred Lord Tennyson was the leading English poet of the Victorian era. He remains one of the most renowned poets in the English language and among the most frequently quoted writers. Tennyson was appointed the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1850 and he held the position for a record 42 years till his death in 1892. Queen Victoria was an ardent admirer of his work and she was “soothed & pleased” by his poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.” after the death of her husband Prince Albert. Tennyson was influenced by the writers of the Romantic Age before him as is evident from the richness of his imagery and descriptive writing. He used a wide range of subject matter ranging from medieval legends to classical myths and from domestic situations to observations of nature. A number of phrases from his works have become commonplace in the English language like “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all” and “Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers”.
In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854)
#8 W. B. Yeats
Lifespan: June 13, 1865 – January 28, 1939
William Butler Yeats was a leading figure of 20th century literature who remains Ireland’s most famous poet. In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, an English-born Irish revolutionary, suffragette and actress. Yeats fell deeply in love with her but she turned down at least four marriage proposals from him; and instead married Major John MacBride. Many of Yeats’s poems are inspired by Maud Gonne or mention her. Modernism was an influential movement, primarily in Europe and North America. In literature, the modernists rejected traditional ways of writing; and experimented with literary form and expression. Yeats, although not a modernist, learned from the movement and adapted his writings. He wrote several poems which are regarded as important works of modernist poetry. In 1923, W. B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. William Butler Yeats was the first Irish Nobel Laureate.
The Second Coming (1920)
Lake Isle of Innisfree (1890)
Sailing to Byzantium (1928)
#7 John Donne
Lifespan: January 22, 1572 – March 31, 1631
Metaphysical poetry is a term used to classify poems by a group of 17th-century English poets. It is characterized by use of literary elements of similes, metaphors, imagery, paradoxes, conceit and far-fetched views of reality. John Donne is the best known representative of the metaphysical poets. His poems often contain abrupt explosive openings; and various paradoxes, ironies and dislocations. Apart from these features, he is known for frequent dramatic or everyday speech rhythms, tense syntax and tough eloquence. All these elements in his poetry are considered a reaction against the smoothness of conventional Elizabethan poetry. Though he wrote a variety of poems including religious verse, Donne is most renowned for his love and erotic poems. In fact, many regard John Donne as the greatest love poet in the English language
Death Be Not Proud (1633)
The Good-Morrow (1633)
The Flea (1633)
#6 T. S. Eliot
Lifespan: September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965
Thomas Stearns Eliot is known for infusing poetry with high intellectualism and is regarded by many as the most erudite poet of his time. Born in the United States, he converted to Anglicanism in 1927 and took British citizenship the same year. His conversion marked a change of poetic style with his works becoming less ironic and focusing more on spiritual matters. Eliot was a highly influential poet whose works played a key role in the literary transition from 19th-century Romantic poetry to 20th-century Modernist poetry. His poetic cunning, fine craftsmanship and original accent have led to many regarding him as synonymous with Modernism; and his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is seen as a masterpiece of the movement. In 1948, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”. T. S. Eliot is regarded as one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century.
The Waste Land (1922)
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)
The Hollow Men (1925)
#5 John Keats
Lifespan: October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821
Romanticism was an influential movement which 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. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats was one of the three most prominent figures of the second generation of English Romantic poets. Keats died due to tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of only 25. His work was in publication for only four years and it was not generally well received by critics during his lifetime. However, his reputation grew after his death and by the end of the 19th century, he became one of the most beloved of all English poets. The most famous and acclaimed poems of Keats are a series of six odes known as the Odes of 1819. The most highly regarded among these is To Autumn, which has been called one of the most perfect short poems in the English language. Through his 1819 odes, Keats created a new type of short lyrical poem, which influenced later generations.
To Autumn (1820)
Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820)
When I have Fears (1848)
#4 Lord Byron
Lifespan: January 22, 1788 – April 19, 1824
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, commonly known as just Lord Byron, was one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in early 19th century England. Byron first achieved fame with the publication of the first two cantos of his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812 and his reputation further enhanced with his four highly successful poems referred to as the “Oriental Tales”. Lord Byron is often described as the most flamboyant and notorious of the major Romantics due to his indulgent life and numerous love affairs. Many of his poems are autobiographic in nature and much of his work is pervaded by the Byronic hero, an idealised but flawed character capable of great passion and talent but rebellious, arrogant and self-destructive. Lord Byron is considered the leading second generation Romantic poet and he continues to be influential and widely read.
Don Juan (1824)
She Walks in Beauty (1813)
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818)
#3 William Wordsworth
Lifespan: April 7, 1770 – April 23, 1850
Wordsworth, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, launched the Romantic Age in English literature with the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798. From 1799 to 1808, he lived at the Dove Cottage in the village of Grasmere in the Lake District of England. Here he became friends with another prominent poet, Robert Southey. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey were the three main figures of the group known as Lake Poets, as they all lived in the Lake District. The years 1797 to 1808 are now recognized as the best years of Wordsworth and are known as his Great Decade. After struggling initially, Wordsworth became one of the most renowned poets in his later years and was appointed Poet Laureate of Britain in 1843. The Prelude, an autobiographical epic, is widely regarded by critics as his greatest work though his most popular poem is perhaps I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, commonly known as Daffodils. William Wordsworth is considered a pioneer of Romanticism and one of the greatest poets in English literature.
Tintern Abbey (1798)
The Prelude (1850)
#2 William Blake
Lifespan: November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827
William Blake remained largely unknown during his lifetime but rose to prominence after his death and he is now considered a highly influential figure in the history of poetry and one of the greatest British artists. Blake’s most renowned work in poetry is Songs of Innocence and of Experience, considered one of the leading poetic works of the Romantic era. The collection often contains poems with similar themes, and at times the same title, to contrast the innocent world of childhood in Songs of Innocence with the corruption and repression of the adult world in Songs of Experience. Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. He revered the Bible but was hostile to the Church of England and organized religion in general. His poetry and art often created mythical worlds full of gods and powers, and sharply criticized industrial society and the oppression of the individual. Blake is highly regarded for his expressiveness and creativity as well as for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents in his work. In 2002, William Blake was placed 38 in BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
The Tyger (1794)
And did those feet in ancient time (1808)
#1 William Shakespeare
Lifespan: April 23, 1564 – April 23, 1616
The Renaissance caught on in England in late 15th century, and unlike Italy, the main art forms of the English Renaissance were literature and music. William Shakespeare was the towering figure of the Renaissance in England. He is now widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. His best known works in poetry is his collection of 154 sonnets, which was first published in 1609. The sonnets of Shakespeare follow the structure of three quatrains, or four-line stanzas, followed by a final couplet. The beginning of the third quatrain, at times, introduces an unexpected sharp thematic “turn”, the volta. The couplet usually summarizes the theme of the poem. This form is known as Shakespearean Sonnet, not because he was the first to use it, but because he became its most famous practitioner. Apart from his sonnet sequence, Shakespeare also wrote two long narrative poems, which were published in the 1590s, and a few other verses. Though he is most renowned for his plays, William Shakespeare also remains the most popular poet in the English language.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (1609)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds (1609)
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (1609)