Poems have been written about women from early times though they were mostly through men’s perspective. The favorite theme of the famous American poet Edgar Allan Poe was the death of a young, beautiful and dearly loved woman. His poem Annabel Lee features on our list. Le Lac by French poet Lamartine is another popular 19th century poem about a dearly loved woman. With better opportunities in the second half of the 20th century, women began to contribute and even dominate the literary genre of poetry. Poems of the great female writers of this period feature prominently our list. Though these we see more clearly the female perspective in poetry. Our list contains diverse poems about women pertaining to motherhood; childbirth; male oppression; father-daughter relationship; loss of love; and even how a lover thinks a woman would regret her decisions when she is old. Here are the 10 most famous poems about women by renowned poets.
#10 An Introduction
Poet: Kamala Das
This is an autobiographical poem which throws light on the life and work of the Indian poet Kamala Das. Das begins the poem by saying that she doesn’t understand politics but she knows the name of politicians probably referring to the fact that power is in the hands of a few elites and that it is usually males who run the country. She then gives a brief introduction of herself before she focuses on English being the medium she uses to expresses herself; how people criticize her for that; and why it is no one’s business other than herself. The poem then moves to her early and unsuccessful marriage and how the society she lives in is male dominated. The primary focus of the poem is the situation of women in a patriarchal society and the unjust burdens women have to go through in this male dominated world. Kamala Das or Kamala Surayya is one of the best known Indian female poets and this is her most famous work.
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.
#9 Woman Work
Poet: Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is perhaps the most famous female poet till date and Woman Work is among her best known poems. In it, the narrator is a stay-at-home mother who is engaged in a long day of tiring work. In the first stanza, she lists, without complaining, the various household chores she has to complete in a single day. The remaining paragraphs are more relaxed as the woman takes solace in nature and the poem ends with the woman expressing that elements of nature are “all that I can call my own”. In Woman Work, Angelou conveys masterfully a housewife’s want for rest from her tiring and mundane work, making it one of her most popular and relatable poems on women.
Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
#8 When You Are Old
Poet: William Butler Yeats
This poem is considered to be an expression of Yeats’s unrequited love for his muse Maud Gonne. The speaker of the poem talks directly to his former lover. He asks her to cast her mind to a time when she is old. At that time, she will remember her past beauty and the many men who admired it. But unlike others he “loved the pilgrim soul” in her. Then she will murmur sadly “how Love fled” and regret that she didn’t value his love then. When You Are Old is written from the perspective of a young person imagining the one who rejected his love, when she is old. A novel expression of unrequited love, it remains one of the most popular poems about women by W B Yeats.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
#7 In the Park
Poet: Gwen Harwood
Regarded as one of the finest poets of Australia, Gwen Harwood was a prolific writer who published 386 poems during her lifetime. The dominant theme in the poetry of Harwood is motherhood and the challenges associated with it. In this poem, the speaker, a mother, takes her children in the park; and there she encounters her ex-lover. The two discuss how their lives have progressed. They discuss her children but the conversation is superficial as the man actually thanks God that he did not end up with the woman and her children. The poem talks about the countless sacrifices a woman has to make for her children and how her life can get monotonous and torturous. Moreover, the poem shows symbolically the contrast in the life of the man and the woman. The poem is pessimistic in tone and its dominant theme is how stifling the life of a mother can get.
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt
Someone she loved once passed by – too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
#6 Woman to Man
Poet: Judith Wright
A short story writer, an environmentalist and a campaigner for the land rights of the Aboriginal people of Australia, Judith Wright is still most famous for her poetry. She is known for her concise, traditional verse which was in keeping with the latest poetic trends in the west and which often captured the landscapes and lifestyles of Australia. Women to Man, the most famous poem of Wright, is an extended metaphor for the developing embryo in the womb of the narrator. It is written from the perspective of a pregnant woman who marvels at the development of the embryo and notices the changes in her body as a result of becoming pregnant. The poem describes the wonder and awe of the speaker as a new life is being created within her. The prominent themes of the poem are unity, life and nature.
This is the maker and the made;
this is the queston and reply;
the blind head butting at the dark,
the blaze of light along the blade.
Oh hold me, for I am afraid.
#5 The Lady of Shalott
Poet: Alfred Tennyson
The most famous of Tennyson’s early poems, The Lady of Shalott is loosely based on the legend of Elaine of Astolat who dies of her unrequited love for British knight Sir Lancelot. In Tennyson’s poem, the Lady of Shalott suffers from a mysterious curse by which she must see the outside world only through a mirror. She sees Sir Lancelot as he rides by and is deeply affected. Being “half-sick of shadows” she looks out of her window, bringing about the curse. She leaves her tower and finds a boat to travel down the river to Camelot. She dies before reaching her destination and, among the people who see her dead body, is Lancelot, who thinks “she has a lovely face”. The poem was hugely popular among artists and several paintings depict scenes from it. It continues to be a part of popular culture.
Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
#4 Le Lac
English Title: The Lake
Poet: Alphonse de Lamartine
Lamartine is considered one of the greatest French poets of the 19th century and Le Lac is his best known poem. The poem is an elegy for Julie Charles, the poet’s muse and the wife of the famous physician Jacques Charles. Lamartine had met Julie in 1816 on the shores of Lake Bourget in Savoie, France. The two were supposed to meet again in August the following year but she became ill with tuberculosis and subsequently died. Lamartine went to the lake alone visiting the places they that explored together the previous year. He then recorded the experience in this poem of sixteen quatrains. Le Lac met with great acclaim on being published and inspired a generation of French Romantic poets. It is the most famous French elegy and one of the most widely read French poems.
O Lake! Scarce has a single year coursed past.
To waves that she was meant to see again,
I come alone to sit upon this stone
You saw her sit on then.
#3 Annabel Lee
Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is the most famous American romantic poet and one of the most influential figures in English literature. This was his last complete poem and it was published in New York Tribune on 9th October 1849, two days after his death. The poem follows one of Poe’s recurrent themes — the death of a young, beautiful and dearly loved woman. The narrator, who fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were young, believes that their love was so intense that angels became envious and caused her death. He retains his love for her even after her death and is sure they will be reunited. Annabel Lee is thought to be written by Poe in memory of his wife Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, who had died a couple of years earlier.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
#2 Phenomenal Woman
Poet: Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou has been referred to as “people’s poet” and “the black woman’s poet laureate”. She is one of the most renowned poets of all time and her poetry is widely read till date. In this poem, the narrator, a self-confident woman, talks about the traits that make her phenomenal despite her not adhering to the world’s view of how a woman should look. Despite not being “built to suit a fashion model’s size”, women wonder where her secret lies and men swarm around her like honey bees. Maya Angelou said that she wrote Phenomenal Woman for all women, regardless of their race or appearance. It is perhaps the most popular of her poems that she often recited for audiences during her public appearances. It was also one of Angelou’s poems featured in the 1993 American film Poetic Justice.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Poet: Sylvia Plath
Daddy was written by Sylvia Plath in October 1962, around four months before she committed suicide, and was published posthumously as part of the poetry collection Ariel. Containing sixteen five-line stanzas, the poem is narrated by a girl who has Electra complex, analogous to a boy’s Oedipus complex. It deals with the narrator’s effort to get over her complex emotions for her deceased father, who apart from suppressing her daughter, was also a Nazi. Plath uses dark and vivid imagery in the poem and controversially uses the Holocaust as a metaphor. Several critics consider the poem to be related to the writer’s complex relationship with her father, Otto Plath, who died shortly after her eighth birthday due to diabetes. It is also considered to be an articulation against male dominance. Daddy is the most famous poem by Sylvia Plath and one of the best-known of the twentieth century.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.