Sappho, an ancient Greek poet, is one of the earliest known poets in history. She was renowned in antiquity and was referred to as “The Poetess” just as Homer was referred to as “The Poet”. Phillis Wheatley, an African slave sold in the United States, became a renowned poet in the 18th century. The 19th century saw the emergence of several prominent female poets who laid the groundwork for the rise of women in the field of poetry in the next century. Among the leading 19th century female poets were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. The 20th century saw great contribution of women in the field of poetry. Important 20th century female poets include Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver. Rupi Kaur is perhaps the most famous contemporary female poet. Here are the 10 most famous female poets of all time and their best known works.
#10 Phillis Wheatley
Lifespan: 1753 – December 5, 1784
Phillis Wheatley was captured and sold to slavery when she was seven years old. On July 11, 1761, she was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on a slave ship called The Phillis. She was then sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant, who bought her as a servant for his wife Susanna. The Wheatleys named the 8 year old girl Phillis after the ship that brought her to America. Phillis adopted her master’s last name as was the custom for slaves. Phillis Wheatley started writing poetry by the age of 13 and, from the age of 14, her poems appeared in certain newspapers and periodicals in U.S. and Britain. Her first poetry collection was published in September, 1773 in London making her the first published African-American woman. Phillis Wheatley was a renowned poet and her work was praised by several prominent figures of the time including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Wheatley was ultimately freed from slavery. However, she struggled due to poverty and died at the young age of 31.
On Being Brought From Africa to America (1773)
To His Excellency General Washington (1775)
On Virtue (1773)
#9 Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Lifespan: March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861
Elizabeth Barrett began writing poetry from around the age of six. The collection of her poems which she wrote at a young age is one of the largest extant collections of literary work by any young English writer. Elizabeth married another renowned English writer Robert Browning. During their courtship, Elizabeth wrote the sonnet How do I love thee?, which remains one of the most popular poems in English literature. The couple moved to Italy in 1846, where Elizabeth lived for the rest of her life. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was widely popular in the United Kingdom and the United States during her lifetime. Her poetry had a major influence on prominent writers of the day, including the American poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson.
How do I love thee? (1850)
The Cry of the Children (1842)
Aurora Leigh (1856)
#8 Christina Rossetti
Lifespan: December 5, 1830 – December 29, 1894
The first poems of Christina Rossetti were imitations of her favorite poets. As she grew in age, she began experimenting with verse forms such as sonnets, hymns and ballads. She first published her work in 1848 when she was 18. The most famous poetry collection of Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862, when she was 31. It received widespread critical praise and established her as the leading female poet of her time. Among the people who praised her work were established writers Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Christina Rossetti wrote a wide variety of poems which included works which were romantic, devotional, religious, fantastical and for children. She remains one of the most important English women poets both in range and quality.
Goblin Market (1862)
A Birthday (1861)
#7 Rupi Kaur
Born: October 4, 1992
Born in Punjab, India, Rupi Kaur immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was four. She began writing poems for her friends on their birthdays. Throughout high school, she shared her writing anonymously. Kaur then began writing poetry on the social media and, with time, she became a sensation. Her first published poetry collection, Milk and Honey, sold two million copies and was on the New York Times Best Sellers list for over 73 weeks. Her second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, was published in 2017, and within a week, it ranked second on Amazon’s best-seller list. Part of a new generation of poets who primarily use the social media, Rupi Kaur is perhaps the most famous contemporary poet. Her work focuses on love, sex, rejection and relationships; as well as on darker topics like abuse, beauty standards and racism.
For anyone who feels rejected (2014)
For the passionate ones (2014)
Be water (2014)
#6 Mary Oliver
Born: September 10, 1935
Mary Oliver’s first collection of poems, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963, when she was 28. Her fifth collection, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She went on to win several other awards including the National Book Award for her 1992 collection New and Selected Poems. The poetry of Mary Oliver is inspired by nature and it describes the sense of wonder it instills in her. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home. She has thus been described as an “indefatigable guide to the natural world, particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Due to her affinity for solitude and inner monologues, she has also been compared to Emily Dickinson. Mary Oliver is one of the most renowned living poets and The New York Times describes her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.”
Wild Geese (1986)
The Journey (1963)
The Summer Day (1990)
Lifespan: c. 630 – c. 570 BC
Sappho was an ancient Greek poet. Little is known about her and it is not even certain who her parents were. However, she was a prolific poet. She probably wrote around 10,000 lines of poetry but only around 650 of those survive today. The poetry of Sappho was highly admired in antiquity and she was sometimes referred to as “The Poetess”, just as Homer was “The Poet”. Though most of her works were lost with time, her reputation as a brilliant poet has remained intact through the years. Sappho is best known for her lyric poetry, written to be accompanied by music. Her poetry is notable for adopting the viewpoint of a specific person, in contrast to the earlier epic poets who present themselves more as “conduits of divine inspiration”. Due to themes in her poetry, Sappho has also become a model for the sexually autonomous woman and the word lesbian comes from Lesbos, the place of her residence.
Ode to Aphrodite
#4 Sarojini Naidu
Lifespan: February 13, 1879 – March 2, 1949
A child prodigy, Sarojini Naidu topped the matriculation examination at Madras University at the age of just 12. Her father wanted her to become a mathematician or scientist but she was more interested in poetry. Once her father realized her great talent in poetry, he encouraged her to become a poet. The poetry of Sarojini Naidu includes poems about children, nature, love and death. She also wrote patriotic poems. Sarojini Naidu is renowned as the ‘Nightingale of India’ due to her lyrical poems, which are rich in imagery and have a timeless beauty. Apart from being a poet, she was also an activist who followed Mahatma Gandhi and fought for India’s independence. Sarojini Naidu was the first Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress and to be appointed an Indian state governor.
The Coromandel Fishers
In the Bazaars of Hyderabad
#3 Sylvia Plath
Lifespan: October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963
Sylvia Plath is regarded as a pioneer in the genre of Confessional poetry, a term used to define poems which focus on the individual; her experience, her psyche, her trauma and the like. Her first poetry collection The Colossus and Other Poems was published in 1960. Plath committed suicide, at the age of 30, on February 11, 1963, by placing her head in the oven with the gas turned on. Some of her best known poems were written in the months leading to her suicide. They were published after her death as part of her renowned poetry collection Ariel. The poetry of Plath is known for featuring intense coupling of violent or disturbed imagery with playful use of alliteration and rhyme. Sylvia Plath is considered among the leading writers of the 20th century and she remains one of the most popular female poets in the English language.
#2 Maya Angelou
Lifespan: April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou was one of the most renowned figures of the 20th century. She began her career as a singer and dancer; worked as a civil rights activist and journalist; wrote seven acclaimed autobiographies; taught at Wake Forest University; and received many honors including the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou was a prolific poet who explored numerous themes in her poems including that of women, love, loss, music, struggle, discrimination and racism. She has been referred to as “people’s poet” and as “the black woman’s poet laureate”. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She was the first female poet and the second ever after Robert Frost to be so honored. The poems of Maya Angelou continue to be extremely popular and have been called the anthems of African Americans.
Still I Rise (1978)
On the Pulse of Morning (1993)
Phenomenal Woman (1978)
#1 Emily Dickinson
Lifespan: December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886
Emily Dickinson lived an introverted life and most of her friendships were formed through correspondence. During her life she was known as an eccentric and few people knew of her immense talent. It was only after her death that her nearly 1800 poems came to light. Initially there was mixed response to her poetry with some praising its “rare individuality and originality” while others disapproving her unusual non-traditional style. Interest in Dickinson’s poetry became widespread by the early 20th century and critics realized that the irregularities in her poems were consciously artistic. Today she is most known for her unusual use of form and syntax; and for being “the poet of paradox”. Emily Dickinson has had a deep and profound influence on American poetry. Also known as the “Belle of Amherst“, she is ranked among the greatest poets in English literature and she is perhaps the most famous female poet.
Hope is the Thing with Feathers (1891)
Because I Could Not Stop For Death (1890)
I’m nobody! Who are you? (1891)