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The 10 Most Famous Poems In English Literature

Edited By: Natalia Jones
 The beginnings of English literature reach back to the distant 7th century and span far beyond the territory of Great Britain. In this article, we have collected a top 10 of poems written in English, which encompass the long-standing literary tradition of the language. Admire the beauty of nature, read about legends and Biblical stories, as well as enjoy more contemporary verses - all in one handy list.

1. 'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost (1916)

Headlining our list is one of the most famous American poems of all time, which, apart from being rightfully renowned, is also often misunderstood, or rather, not fully understood. Most people interpret this poem to be an ode to those who take their own, often unconventional, path in life. And while this topic is definitely prominent in the poem, a deeper understanding of Robert Frost’s life reveals an ironic element to the poem.

Just a year before publishing the poem, Frost spent 3 years in England, where he befriended Edward Thomas, a British poet with whom he went on frequent walks in the forest. Frost pointed out that Thomas was a very indecisive person, one who always regretted whatever (both literal and metaphorical) path he took or decision he made.

When Frost wrote the poem, he even sent a copy to Thomas in 1915, which the recipient took quite personally. Judge for yourself if you see any irony in the poem or not, we have added a very talented reading and animation of the poem below.

2. 'If-' by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

Officially Britain’s favorite poem according to a 1995 BBC poll, 'If-' doubles as Kipling’s most famous poem, and for good reason. The narrator teaches the reader how a moral and truly admirable person should behave in specific circumstances, and the overall message is clear: moderation is key.

At the same time, the poem is an evocation of the idea of Victorian idealism and stoicism, urging the reader to withstand and be above any turmoils and challenges life may hold for you. Listen to famous British actor Michael Caine recite this poem in the video below.

3. 'Still I Rise' by Maya Angelou (1978)

This is probably the most famous English poem written by an African American and Maya Angelou’s personal favorite. As you will be able to tell after listening to Maya Angelou’s extremely charismatic recitation of the poem, the literary work tackles the theme of oppression and racism.

The author is optimistic and faithful regarding the future of African Americans, who, despite centuries of abuse and oppression retained their spirit and identity. Interesting fact: Nelson Mandela read this poem at his presidential inauguration in 1994.

4. 'Jabberwocky' by Lewis Carroll (1871)

'Jabberwocky' is a nonsense poem, with many words resembling English words, but not actually meaning anything. This poem was first published in the 1971 sequel to 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland' called 'Through the Looking Glass', and it’s considered a linguistic masterpiece.

Although the majority of the poem is indecipherable, it is possible to trace a very general plot of a hero encountering and fighting the imaginary monster called the jabberwocky. Interestingly, many of the words invented by Carroll for this poem have since become part of the English vocabulary.

Such words include chortle, which is a mix of chuckle and snort and galumph, which means to move in a clumsy way.  

5. 'Paradise Lost' by John Milton (1667)

Often considered the most famous epic poem in English, 'Paradise Lost' is Milton’s masterpiece. The epic describes the Christian account of the origins of the world and life, focusing on the Biblical story about Adam and Eve and their disobedience to God, as well as the story about the fall of Satan and other morally-oriented tales.

The story had a profound influence on other writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians, being considered an important milestone in Western culture altogether. 

6. 'The Tyger' by William Blake (1794)

'The Tyger' was first published in the 'Songs of Experience' collection. It is difficult to understand this poem in isolation, as it is considered to be the opposite to another poem, 'The Lamb', from the collection of poems called 'The Songs of Innocence'. While the poem about the tiger is alluding to all the fearful and scary aspects of life, the one about the lamb implies all the innocent and gentle creations.

The narrator wonders whether both of these completely opposite things were birthed by the same creator. Interestingly, William Blake was not only an extremely talented poet, but he also illustrated all of his books, and the video below features some of these illustrations. 'The Tyger' is the author’s most famous work and definitely one of the best representations of 18th-century English literature. 

7. 'Daffodils' by William Wordsworth (1807)

One of the most outstanding poems of the Romantic period in literature and English literature altogether, 'Daffodils' describes a surprising encounter of a beautiful field of daffodils. The poet was inspired to write a poem after a spring walk with his sister Dorothy in 1802.

The poem reaffirms all of the ideals of Romantic literature, focusing on the narrator’s individual emotions, especially while traveling in nature. The poem is actually called 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud', but it is commonly known as 'Daffodils'.  

8. 'Beowulf' by an unknown author (est. 7th-10th century) 

The oldest literary piece on our list, Beowulf is also the oldest major literary work ever found in English, or rather Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon), the “great grandfather” of the English language we speak today. In fact, most English speakers today find it very difficult if not impossible to read the original language of the manuscript.

In terms of plot, Beowulf tells the life story of a cognominal hero, who fights with all sorts of legendary monsters and mythical creatures, thereby earning the throne to one of the kingdoms situated in modern Sweden called Geatland. Although the author and the publishing date of this legendary epic are unknown, it is a landmark in English literary tradition and an important relic of the English language.

9. 'The Raven' by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)

Exploring the dark aspects of the human mind is the distinguished and truly exceptional poem by Edgar Allan Poe called 'The Raven'. This poem was printed in the New York Evening Mirror gazette in January 1845 and took America by storm, popularizing Poe’s name in a blink of the eye.

'The Raven' tells the story of a young man, who upon learning about his beloved Lenore’s death goes insane. He is tormented by hallucinations of a talking raven, his only companion in the time of despair. This iconic poem reflects all the values of dark romantic fiction popular in 19th century America.

10. 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?' by William Shakespeare (1609)

How could we possibly fail to mention Shakespeare’s name in a list about English literature? The Bard of Avon wrote 154 sonnets, all of which are equally outstanding in their own right, but Sonnet 18, also known as 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?' is likely on the top of the list.

The sonnet is one of the many in the cycle of sonnets dedicated to an unnamed young man, whom Shakespeare compares to a summer’s day, noting that he outshines even that. The bard immortalized the name of his beloved in verse, which is the best way, the narrator believes, to express his beauty and virtues.

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