Poetry is such a vibrant genre. One that’s capable of expressing multiple figures of speech, evoking diverse emotions, and constantly pushing the barriers of impact and awareness. Poetry can be meaningful, rhythmic and it has a certain beauty to it.
In the words of Victorian Poet, Matthew Arnold, ‘The Crown of Literature is indeed poetry’. The implication of this statement posits that poetry is a royal institution that must be protected, preserved, and generational. However, if history is any indication, it’s apparent that poetry hasn’t always been treated like the Crown of Literature.
In prehistoric times, poetry was infused into speech, books, and way of life. At this time, there was a clear-cut structure that laid the foundation of poetry and indeed it was prioritized. In medieval times, Kings and Queens were appraised through the colloquial of poetry. Basking and relishing in the intricately woven yarns of adoration weft into lines and stanzas of diverse poems. Lovers were seen expressing their deepest emotions via this verbal art. It was such a time to be alive.
In this era, it’s safe to say that the crown has been left unprotected for way too long. Although still inspirational and impactful, it’s apparent that the development of modern poetry had somewhat diffused the antiquated elegance of the genre.
While it is used to reflect multiple events, emotions, and constructs, the use of modern-day poetry leans towards impacting social justice and highlighting political flaws in diverse world countries. Thus, the genre has taken on a new narrative, one fueled by change and resilience. This is commendable and so many poets bear the accolades for this movement. Knowledge, they say, is power and in an attempt to uplift and preserve the Crown, this piece is highlighting a handful of the best poems of all time.
What Is Great Poetry?
‘Come, read to me some poem, Some simple and heartfelt lay, That shall soothe this restless feeling, And banish the thoughts of the day’ – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The meaning or representation of great poetry will be reflected in the following poems but first, there are certain qualities that these poems have in common. For poetry to be deemed as ‘great’ or ‘the best’ these qualities are non-negotiable for the poet;
Awareness: The poet must possess an acute awareness of experience. For this to be true, he/she must be mentally stimulated or conscious whilst paying grave attention to diverse experiences as well as their emotional impacts. In essence, the poet needs to be properly conscious, smart, and aware as no dullard ever wrote great poetry in the history of poetry.
Intangible Imagination: The poet must have an imagination so fanciful and creative that it incites multiple relationships between experiences. These relationships are brand new and unique but their reality had never been mentally conceived by anyone else. In other words, the poet must be able to create new metaphors and meanings as it is believed that a poem without fresh metaphors isn’t a good one and one without any metaphors at all shouldn’t be called poetry, regardless of its elements, meaning, form, devices, or emotional impact.
Application: The poet must be able to apply those metaphors into words, thereby amplifying the impact of the scenario which evokes the precise emotional impact that’s intended by the poet, in the reader. This is done by choosing and applying the words, exploring sounds, and the use of rhythms as intentionally as songwriters of great song lyrics do when they’re strategically analyzing the emotional implication of every word, sentence, sound, rhythm, pause, and the unified arrangement of it.
As much as the greatness of a poem isn’t dependent on the reader or audience as in the case of spoken word, a great poem can only be appreciated by people who understand it. This being said, it’s worthy to note that the poets who authored these poems might be reflected as the best poets of all time in the English language.
However, the selection of these poems is purely subjective. It’s a matter of preference and taste as there’s neither a metric of measurement nor criteria that determine which poem deserves to make this list. In essence, if you feel a particular poem was excluded from or should be stripped from this list, you are entitled to create your list depending on how you see fit.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-
In no particular order, here are the 10 best poems of all time in the English Language
1. A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,—act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;—
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
Longfellow was such a celebrated poet whose poems depicted his brilliance. His poem, ‘A Psalm of Life’ is nine stanzas long and each stanza seems to highlight a different train of thought.
However, in conclusion, the poem glorifies life, its purpose, all it is, and all it can be. The poem is a kind of invocation to mankind, inspiring them to remain on the path of righteousness as it is the right way to live life.
2. Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The greatest kings and rulers like Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and even Charlemagne all have a common character, their inability to outlive the empires they created.
Shelley’s Ozymandias is a classic morality tale, one taken from the perspective of a traveler who only saw the remains of the great Ozymandias, ruler of Ancient Egypt in its depleting statues. This ruler was fierce and feared in every sense of the words, but like all things, his reign was outlived by those who came after him.
This poem reminds the reader of the inescapable and destructive forces of time, history, and nature, which all living things are susceptible to. The poem also depicts that reign, success, power, tenure, money, health, and prosperity are not eternal as they can only last so long before being swept into the ‘lone and level sands.’
3. Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats (1795-1821)
Here’s a snippet of the poem
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
John Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’ is somewhat remedial to Shelly’s ‘Ozymandias’. The poem depicts the art on Grecian urn as timeless and indestructible as it had survived for thousands of years while witnessing the birth and demise of great empires, men of valor and power, trees, priests, and all that have life.
Year after year, decade by decade, century after century, while the world rose and tumbled, the art depicted on this Grecian urn seemed invulnerable, living on for what seemed like an eternity.
In essence, the poem is about the timelessness of art alongside its use as a medium of escape from ignorance, human nature, and certain death as it allows one to approach another life form and explore truths through its beauty.
4. Invictus by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Invictus which the Latin translation for Unconquerable is a poem that is quite the inspirational piece. The poet, William Ernest Henley wrote this poem while being hospitalized for a recurring health condition and the poem is a clarion call for perseverance through turmoil and hardship.
The poem is scripted to uplift the human spirit to fight through any circumstance. ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’, hence, take charge of your life and fight those fears head-on. Invictus might just be the poem you need when going through a hard time.
5. Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon my self and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate,
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
This list would be incomplete without one of the best playwrights, writers, and poets of all times, William Shakespeare. This poem depicts how love can positively affect one’s psyche as it offers reparations or compensation for losses and setbacks.
The poem posits that the company of a loved one outweighs material things like fame and wealth. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 deviates from the usual narrative of physical beauty and erotic desire which the writer usually enunciates in his works and focuses on how the abstract construct of love can offer succour for material losses.
6. Harlem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
Harlem by Langston Hughes is a poem that explains the possibilities of dreams that are put on hold. This poem reflected the post-world war II mood of African-Americans. As the Great Depression and the war was over, for African- Americas, the dreams and everything it took was still being deferred.
This poem was initially created to highlight the systemic disparity, institutional racism, and segregation against blacks that prevents them from achieving their dreams, however, it is still applicable to the dreams of others.
7. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost(1874-1963)
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.
The Road Not Taken is a poem by Robert Frost that highlights the ambiguity of life’s choices as it highlights the times when a decision is needed. The poem’s ambiguity stems from the measure of determinism versus free will as it’s all about the possibilities enjoyed or forfeited when a decision or a road is plowed at the expense of the other.
The question of how to make a difference in the world is also depicted in this poem and The Road Not Taken is known as the most misread poem in America.
8. Opportunity by John James Ingalls (1833-1900)
Master of human destinies am I;
Fame, love, and fortune on my footsteps wait.
Cities and fields I walk. I penetrate
Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by
Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late,
I knock unbidden once at every gate.
If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise, before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate,
And they who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death; but those who hesitate
Condemned to failure, penury, and woe,
Seek me in vain, and uselessly implore.
I answer not, and I return no more.
John James Ingalls, a U.S Senator in the 19th century, penned down this ode to the simple but profound principle that ‘opportunity knocks but once.’
The poem depicts the fleeting nature of opportunities and how one must prepare to receive those opportunities once they do come knocking, as there might not be a second chance.
9. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
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.
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 back yard.
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
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Still, I Rise is a poem by Maya Angelou about the strengths, valor, and resilience of a black woman or the oppressed. It is a poem about overcoming prejudicial systems and injustice. When it’s recited by victims it forms an anthem of hope for the oppressed.
This poem depicts the unrelenting strengths of the inflicted, rising every time amidst being cast down, beat up, and broken. It’s a highly celebrated poem in the African-American community.
10. No Man Is An Island by John Donne (1572-1631)
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
This poem spells out the connection humanity should have. It also highlights the dependency of mankind as no one is wholly self-sufficient. The poet, John Donne who was Christian depicted this link mankind has, but the intent of the poem is being preached in diverse religions which just proves that no single person has all the answers, hence, no man is an island.
Wrapping It Up
Poetry is a verbal expression of art, one which enlightens while evoking awareness, consciousness, and emotion. Dating back to prehistoric times, poetry has been utilized by kings, pharaohs, leaders, and even presidents. Hence it is the crown of literature.
Being of the royal order, certain poems constitute the pride of poetry and this piece has highlighted ten of those poems in no particular order. These poems had been written by great writers and poets and what influences their greatness is their timelessness. This is because they are still applicable in the 21st century and like the Grecian Urn, they’re likely to remain indestructible for generations to come.
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