Poetry has changed continuously throughout the centuries. But these famous poets have stood the test of time with their distinct styles and contribution to poetry. Who are they? In this article, we’ll go over the most well-known poets and their popular poetry.
1. William Shakespeare
Born in 1564, William Shakespeare is one of the greatest poets in English literature. His plays have been staged and adapted countless times over the centuries and across the globe.
Although better known as a playwright, Shakespeare pioneered the sonnet form in English.
This accomplishment alone sets him among the best poets in the world. Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets include:
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)
- My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)
- Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet 116)
With over a hundred poems to his name, Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the world’s most celebrated writers as well.
2. Maya Angelou
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, this poet and activist worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She worked an impressive array of jobs, from streetcar operator to sex worker to journalist.
She wrote numerous poems, several autobiographies, and news reports. Angelou was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010) and a Pulitzer Prize nominee (1972). Her best-known poems are “Caged Bird” and “Still I Rise.”
Angelou remained active until she died in 2014, arguably making her one of the best female poets of the 21st century as well as the 20th.
3. Robert Frost
Born in 1874, this quintessential American poet filled his verse with scenes of New England life.
During Frost’s long life, poetry underwent many radical changes in form, but Frost’s style remained consistent and uniquely his.
In fact, Frost had a long, prolific career and won four Pulitzer Prizes, securing his place among the best poets of the 20th century. He was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1962 and delivered a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He died in 1963.
His “The Road Not Taken” is one of the best-known American poems of the 20th century.
4. Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson is not only one of the most famous female poets, but she is also among the best American authors.
After school, Dickinson remained in her parent’s household her entire life. She was not precisely the recluse she’s often depicted as, but she never married, traveled, or worked outside the home.
She wrote almost 1800 poems, stitched into packets, discovered, and published only after she died in 1886. Her spare, elliptical style is unmistakable in the classic “Because I could not stop for Death.“
5. William Butler Yeats
Born in 1865, W.B. Yeats was a poet, playwright, and later senator of the Irish Free State. Though he was born into a prosperous Anglo-Irish Protestant family, Yeats’ nationalism shows in his fusion of mysticism and Irish folklore.
He was also deeply involved in Irish politics around the period of the Irish uprising against British rule in 1916. Many of his compatriots were imprisoned or executed for their activity.
Yeats won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. His best-known poems include:
- The Second Coming
- Sailing to Byzantium
- Easter, 1916
6. John Keats
This English Romantic poet was only 25 when he died of tuberculosis, but he left an impressive body of work behind.
Keats was born in 1795 into a family of modest means and trained to be a physician. However, he gave up medicine to devote himself to poetry. He was not financially successful, but many consider him to be one of the best poets of the 19th century.
He died in 1821 in Italy, where he had hoped the drier air would alleviate his tuberculosis. His best-known poems are “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “To Autumn.”
7. Sylvia Plath
Born in Boston in 1932, this American poet of the Confessional school showed early promise as a student at Smith College.
After winning a Fulbright fellowship to study in England, Plath met and married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Her marriage was tumultuous, and she struggled with mental illness for many years.
Her novel “The Bell Jar” recounts these struggles in a semi-autobiographical fashion. In 1963, unfortunately, she took her own life.
Her best-known poem, which seems to foreshadow her death, is “Lady Lazarus.” In 1982, she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
8. William Wordsworth
This English poet, born in 1770, was one of the earliest leaders of the Romantic movement.
Wordsworth’s poetry expresses a deep appreciation of nature and people’s ordinary lives. He was also an ardent supporter of the French Revolution in his youth and traveled to France to witness it firsthand.
He returned to England and continued with his poetry and activism on behalf of the common people. However, he adopted more conservative views as he aged and settled in the Lake District in northern England.
He spent his later years there, immersing himself in the dramatic landscapes of his home. He was appointed poet laureate of England in 1843, a position he held until his death in 1850.
Two of Wordsmoth’s most famous poems are “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and “The World Is Too Much with Us.”
9. Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, born in 1819, is a towering figure in the American literary landscape. His poetry celebrates the self, the soul, and the fellowship of all people in expansive, unconventional verse.
A printer by trade, Whitman also worked as a journalist, publisher, and even a carpenter before becoming an established poet. His life was as unconventional as his verse. Many of his works came under criticism for indecency or immorality.
“Song of Myself” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” are his two most celebrated poems. The latter is a quiet, somber tribute to Abraham Lincoln, written shortly after his assassination.
10. Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is best remembered for tales of horror and suspense like “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He significantly shaped modern prose fiction, but he considered himself mainly a poet.
Poe was born in 1809 and orphaned when he was only two years old. He was taken in and educated by John Allen, possibly his godfather, though he never formally adopted Poe.
Poe received an excellent education but had tumultuous young adulthood. He was kicked out of the University of Virginia for accumulating gambling debts and was forced to make his own living.
He worked steadily at many magazines as an editor and a writer. In 1836, he married his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. Their marriage was by all accounts a happy one until Virginia died in 1847. Poe’s behavior became more erratic after that, and he died in 1849. His best-known poems are “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”
Like other poetry of the time, Homer’s epics were made to be performed aloud, possibly to music. Very little is known about Homer, and it’s possible that there was no single poet by that name.
Whatever the identity of the poet (or poets) responsible, “The Iliad” tells the story of the Trojan War.
Another famous poem is “The Odyssey,” which recounts the travels and adventures of the warrior Odysseus and his ten-year journey home from the Trojan War.
The poems as we know them today were likely written down in the 6th century BC, at least two centuries after Homer’s death. It’s impossible to overstate their importance to Western literature. Everyone from Virgil to James Joyce has drawn inspiration from Homer’s work.
12. Langston Hughes
Born in 1902, Hughes became one of the most famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance. His youth was very mobile, and he had lived in six different cities by the time he reached adulthood. His adulthood was also full of motion.
While he pursued writing, he traveled to Europe, West Africa, and Mexico. He also worked many jobs as a cook, sailor, farmer, and nightclub doorman.
Hughes’ poetry often mimics the rhythms of blues and jazz. It employs the simple, direct speech of Black daily life. This style of language was not always well-received, especially by some members of the Black intelligentsia.
They sought to distance themselves from the plain speech of regular people while Hughes embraced it fully. Today Langston Hughes’ legacy is undeniable. Among his best-known poems are:
- The Negro Speaks of Rivers
- Theme for English B
13. Oscar Wilde
Born in 1854, this Anglo-Irish poet and playwright was known for his flamboyant fashion sense and witty writing.
Wilde was a disciple of the movement known as aestheticism, which preached art for art’s sake. Wilde’s writings display a sharp wit and flair for wordplay.
He also had his share of critics, who found his writing superficial and disapproved of his personal life. Wilde made no great effort to hide his homosexuality.
In 1895, he was convicted of “sodomy and gross indecency” after quarreling with his lover’s father. Wilde’s two-year sentence to hard labor destroyed his health and career but was the inspiration for his only major poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
14. Dante Alighieri
Dante was a towering figure of the Italian Renaissance and the first major poet to write in Italian. In fact, he argued passionately for Italian to stand on equal footing with Latin as a literary language. Though a native of Florence, Dante spent much of his life in exile due to his political activity.
His masterpiece “The Divine Comedy” takes its narrator on a guided tour through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. It’s no coincidence that many of Dante’s political enemies are in Hell alongside mythical and legendary evildoers.
15. Pablo Neruda
Born Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto in 1904, this Chilean poet began his career as a diplomat. Neruda was not associated with any particular poetic movement but possessed his own style.
Neruda won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971 and is one of the most famous poets in any language. His best-known work translated into English is the collection “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.”
16. William Blake
Many scholars and students consider poet, painter, and engraver William Blake as one of the best poets of the 18th century.
His boldly mystical works, illustrated by Blake himself, anticipate many later developments by the Romantic poets of the 19th century. His best-known works are “Songs of Innocence,” “Songs of Experience,” and the lyrics to the famous hymn “Jerusalem.”
17. John Milton
John Milton is among the most famous poets of the English language. Unknown to many, he also had a busy career as Oliver Cromwell’s Latin secretary during the Commonwealth period after the English Civil War.
Milton’s best-known work is “Paradise Lost.” It is a long epic poem about the fall of the rebel angels from Heaven and the temptation of Adam.
18. Percy Bysshe Shelley
This giant of the English Romantic period was close to the most influential literary figures of his time. He was friends with the poet Byron, and his wife Mary Shelley was the author of Frankenstein. Shelley was born into an affluent family and attended Oxford, but he led a politically and socially unconventional life.
He and Mary lived mainly on the Continent with a revolving cast of friends and confidants until his death by drowning in 1822. He is best remembered for the poem “Ozymandias,” which contemplates an ancient ruin and the fleeting nature of power.
Who is Your Favorite Poet?
Do you agree with this list? Are there any poets missing from the list? Do you think some of the poets mentioned don’t deserve to be on our list?
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