10 Most Renowned English Poets and their Best-Known Works
In a fast-paced modern culture of Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, Facebook and other social media platforms, good old poetry seems to have lost its original appeal. Over the years, the quality of beauty and intensity with which people regarded poetry have dwindled, giving way to more “fun” and visually stunning ways of entertainment.
The true essence of poetry however, is not easily replaced. Like the English poet William Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
Poetry originates from the era of the 2nd millennium B.C. when cavemen and the earliest witchdoctors narrated incidents and stories in songs, tales and symbols.
By the turn of the 21st century, the genre had evolved and many poets leaned more towards free verse and artistic expressions with such characteristics as irregular stanza structure and disarranged syntax. For centuries, English poets have produced some of the most evergreen poems in the history of Western civilization and given voice to genuine emotions connected to human conditions.
Now let’s take a look at our list of the 10 most renowned English men and women who came to world renown by crafting some of the most compelling poems in English literature. The list is in no particular order.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Of course, Shakespeare is renowned even more as one of the greatest English playwrights to have graced planet earth. A central figure in English literature, he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He loved to write poetry for himself when he was not preoccupied with exploring his obsession: plays.
Shakespeare’s name is synonymous with the numerous famed monologues he cleverly wove in his plays and prose. Many of these became popular poems in both history and present day. His contributions helped advance the English language by introducing about 300 words and many phrases.
To a large extent, the biggest influence on much of Shakespeare’s poems was the Roman poet, Ovid. The Ovidian influence was explicitly seen in the narrative poem, “The Rape of Lucrece.”
The themes of Shakespeare’s poems have covered love, beauty, mortality and conflict. As a result of the private nature of his poems, relatively few were published.
Among his most significant poems are “Sonnet 29” and “Sonnet 71” both published in 1609. The former begins with the speaker lamenting over his status as a social outcast. At the end of the piece however, the speaker’s mood switches to feelings of bliss as he thinks of his beloved.
“Sonnet 71” details how the speaker’s death could affect his beloved. There is a sudden shift when Shakespeare adopts a humorous tone to lighten up the poem’s mood. Apart from their spellbinding lyrics, these Shakespearean sonnets are particularly appealing because they were seen as a true story of the poet’s love life. Also loved by us and many lovers of Shakespeare include the poems:
- “A Fairy Song”
- “Dear Friend”
- “Venus and Adonis”
- “Sonnet 73”
- “Sonnet 18”
Guinness World Records named Shakespeare as “the world’s best-selling playwright” with over 400 billion of his works sold in the over 40 decades since his death.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Needless to say, Wordsworth was regarded as the 19th century’s most influential poet largely because of his rare sensitivity to the beauty and power of nature. He habitually stressed the benefits of nature to a person’s intellectual and spiritual development in his poems.
The Cockermouth native lost his mother at an early age and the ordeal shaped much of his work. In addition, his experiences during the French Revolution and his stay in France piqued his interest in the challenges and speech of the common folk. As a matter of fact, these issues served as a backdrop to many of his poems. Another turning point in Wordsworth’s life was in the mid-1790s when he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a leader of the British Romantic movement. The duo’s collaborative efforts produced the poetry collection “Lyrical Ballads” published in 1798.
One of Wordsworth’s most notable poems, “I wandered Lonely as a Cloud” materialized from his fascination with a bed of daffodils when he and his sister were visiting Ullswater. “The Prelude,” another one of his most famous poems, was an autobiographical piece published posthumously in 1850. The most interesting thing about “The Prelude” is the setting of the events in the poem which is the poet’s mind and not the outside world. The poem depicted the various stages of his life; childhood and later years.
Wordsworth’s contributions to the literary world were crowned when he became Poet Laureate in 1843. In early 2020, a number of postage stamps were launched by the Royal Mail to mark the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth.
Other famous poems that added to Wordsworth’s enviable legacy are:
- “To the Skylark”
- “My Heart Leaps Up”
- “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”
- “Ode: Intimidations of Mortality”
- “Tintern Abbey”
John Keats (1795-1821)
Undoubtedly one of the most quoted English lyric poets of all time, Keats eventually became known as part of the British Romantic literary tradition. Considering his early death at only 25 years, his poetic achievements were nothing short of incredible. His collections earned high praise from essayists such as Charles Lamb and Percy Shelley.
Much of Keats’ inspiration for poetry stemmed from his contemporaries including John Milton, Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron. The London-born poet had the most productive period of his life between 1818 and 1819 when he met and fell in love with his “Bright Star,” Fanny Brawne. During this time he published several famous odes.
Keats’ poetic style has often been compared with the sonnets of William Shakespeare and has for many years been regarded with similar acclaim. The earliest of Keats’ early 19th century odes, “Ode to Psyche” published in 1820 is seen as one of his best works. The poem celebrates the imaginative and creative prowess of the speaker’s own mind.
Keats’ “To Autumn” (also published in 1820) is another one of his greatest masterpieces and arguably the most renowned poem about the season in the history of English literature. According to critic Christopher Ricks, “To Autumn” is “the finest of Keats” odes with its vivid depiction of physical sensations ranging from delightful to appalling. Keats’ themes in his major poems have explored life and death, mortality and immortality and separation and connection and joy and sorrow. Our selection of the poet’s best poems also includes:
- “Ode to Melancholy”
- “Bright Star”
- “The Eve of St. Agnes”
- “Ode to a Nightingale”
- “Ode to Indolence”
Emily Brontë (1818-1848)
Another towering figure in the world of English literature is Emily Bronte. The life of the famed writer of “Wuthering Heights” was shaped by different conflicting influences which later served as inspirations for her poetic achievements. Not surprisingly, her native Yorkshire moors became the setting for her only novel, “Wuthering Heights.”
The name Brontë may have rang a bell in literary circles. That is because Emily is sisters with poets Charlotte and Anne Brontë and perhaps the most skillful of the Brontë sisters. We, as well as many critics, believe that Emily’s collection from “Poems” takes centre stage when it comes to her best work in poetry.
Her persuasive lyrics in “A Day Dream,” (1846) for instance, caught the attention of author Lawrence J. Starzyk who penned some impressive remarks about the poem. We consider “No Coward Soul is Mine,” Emily’s last poem written in early 1846 a fitting climax of her poetic accomplishment. It is also one of our favorites by her. The poem showcases the speaker’s extreme passion for God and the strength she draws from her faith.
When Emily was age 12, she and Anne created a fictional North Pacific country called Gondal and penned over 40 poems relating to this imaginary world.
Other poems by Emily that vied for the top spot include:
- “Hope” (Ballad)
- “All Hushed and Still Within the House”
- “O Come with Me”
- “A Little While”
Before her untimely death at 30 years old, Emily had carved a niche for herself not only as an accomplished writer but also as a phenomenal poet.
Alice Oswald (1966-present)
Who said all the great poets have to belong to the womb of history? Well, we discovered who was born and lived in our time. Alice Oswald has authored over 10 poetry collections. Her work is accessible, witty and often delves into themes of that natural world, pastoral tradition, particularly, about the English countryside. This could have been influenced by her training as a classicist and her early work as a gardener. It is almost impossible to be a student of English poetry and not come across some of her poems. We listed her 1996 first poetry collection, “The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile” and her second book, an intriguing 48-page single poem, “Dart,” as 2 of her most prolific works.
“The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile” (1996) is made up of many poems that talk about gardening and the physical environment in general. The book represented the arrival of a unique new voice and was shortlisted for a Forward Poetry Prize in 1996 and the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2002. “Dart” (2002) was inspired by the River Dart located in Devon, England around which Oswald lived at the time.
She was honored as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation poets in 2004. Oswald’s followers are sure to find these other poems worth reading;
- “A Sleepwalk on the Severn”
- “Falling Awake”
- “Weeds and Wildflowers”
John Milton (1608-1674)
Long before his highly acclaimed epic poem, “Paradise Lost” (1667) won him overwhelming admiration, Milton was a well-known activist who vehemently advocated for the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Although he had lost his sight by 1651, he dictated himself to writing his most famous works including his “Paradise Lost” collection and “Paradise Regained.” The former contains poems which chronicle the story of Adam and Eve; their creation, falling into the devil’s temptation and their fall from God’s grace. The collection was Milton’s way of justifying the ways of God to men.
The work’s intense popularity was probably due to the poet’s ambitious way of treating some of the key philosophical advances that characterized his time. “Paradise Lost” is widely regarded as “the greatest poem ever to have been written in the English language.” When the poem was published, Milton was perceived often as an equal or superior to all other English poets, including Shakespeare.
“Paradise Regained” (1671) dramatized Satan’s temptation of Christ. This was a follow-up epic which calls attention to the idea of Christian heroism and shows how faith and belief could restore glory to humanity. Our favorite Milton’s poems also include:
- “On His Blindness”
- “Samson Agonistes”
- “On his Deceased Wife”
- “On Shakespeare”
- “Song on May Morning”
John Donne (1572- 1631)
Donne was credited with the founding of the Metaphysical Poets which also comprised such names as George Herbert and Andrew Marvell. Although Donne’s poetry was greatly valued during his time, his poems went out of fashion during the Stuart Restoration and remained so for hundreds of years. While Donne may no longer reach the cult status he attained in the early 1900s, modern readers have had some success in trying to rehabilitate his works in the first 20 years of the 20th century.
Donne was born into a Catholic family in London and served as a cleric for many years. His faith was the driving force behind his work which often focused on paradoxes of faith, human and divine love. In his later years however, his writing depicted his fear of death.
Donne’s finest poems include the incredibly famous “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” which was posthumously published in 1633 and appeared in the collection “Songs and Sonnets.” This poem had themes of spirituality and celebration of love and was written for Donne’s wife, Anne.
In another famous poem, “The Sun Rising,” Donne cleverly uses metaphors to chastise the sun for penetrating the curtains and rousing him and his lover as they lie in bed together.
Get to know Donne’s style better by immersing yourself in other beautiful poems such as:
- “The Flea”
- “The Good-Morrow”
- “The Ecstasy”
- “Holy Sonnet: Death, be not Proud”
- “To His Mistress Going to Bed”
Donne’s work as a poet and priest is commemorated (on March 31) in such calendars as the Calendar of Saints of the Church of England and the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Born into an aristocracy in London, Byron inherited Newstead Abbey in Nottingham and was named 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale when his great uncle died. A lover of the arts, Byron experimented with various writing styles ranging from satire, neoclassicism to romanticism. He soon secured for himself a unique place in the world of English literature.
Regarded as the “most fashionable poet” of the early 1800s, Byron was just as famous for his controversial private life as for his work. He had a scandalous affair with the Anglo-Irish married novelist, Lady Caroline as well as with several other women.
Byron’s writings were highly influenced by Greek culture which he came to know and appreciate during his earlier travels. His masterly poems include the 4-part narrative poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (1812) and the satirical epic poem, “Don Juan” (1819).
“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” describes the travels of Childe Harold who became disillusioned with his pursuits of pleasure and resolved to make meaning out of his life.
“Don Juan” plays on themes of romance, love and innocence. The protagonist of the poem, Don Juan, was inspired by the Spanish legend of the same name who was seen as a womanizer. The poem seeks to “correct” that perception and portray Don Juan instead, as a target for romantic schemes and ploys of women.
Also making the list of our top Byron poems are:
- “She Walks in Beauty”
- “When We Two Partied”
- “To Thyrza”
- “Love and Death”
- “Stanzas for Music”
William Blake (1757-1827)
“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” The originator of this quote, William Blake, was a native of Soho, London. His upbringing was shaped by the tenets of the Bible which remained a great influence throughout his life. A dominant figure in poetry and visual arts in the Romantic Age, Blake’s idiosyncrasies and advocacy for imagination and the power of the mind gave enough reasons for his critics to consider him mad. In Blake’s defense, the highly distinguished T.S. Eliot wrote: “Blake’s poetry has a peculiar honesty, which in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying.”
Later critics however esteemed the Londoner for his expressiveness and eccentricity. Until 1863 when biographer Alexander Gilchrist published “Life of William Blake,” the poet was known only to a small readership. Blake preferred to write in free verse and developed a style for 14 syllable measures which became his signature.
Perhaps his most famous poems are “Songs of Innocence” published in 1789 and the “Songs of Experience” in 1794. Blake contrasts the innocent world of childhood in the former with the corruption of the adult world in the latter. “Songs of Innocence” was written against the backdrop of the repressive nature of the church and state in England and the rights of children to be respected. “Songs of Experience” portrays a child’s innocence as corrupted by human experience.
Most of Blake’s works have explored political and social themes, religion, love and sexuality. Among other popular works by Blake worth reading are:
- “The Tyger”
- “A Poison Tree”
- “The Chimney Sweeper”
- “The Lamb”
- “The Little Black Boy”
Blake’s poetic and philosophical ideas inspired some works of former Irish senator, W.B. Yeats.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
It may surprise our readers that the “Pride and Prejudice” author made the list of our top 10, considering she was more celebrated for her fiction. Austen’s occasional poetry writing however helped highlight some of the prevalent themes of her better known works such as the novels, “Sense and Sensibility” of 1811 and “Mansfield Park” of 1814.
Austen grew up in a large Hampshire family which was part of the lower ranks of the English landed gentry. From an early age, she wrote stories and poems for her family’s entertainment. It was during her 30s that her famous works were produced.
Surprisingly, her reputation as a great writer was built only after many decades of her death. Her writing was often witty, ironic, light and pleasingly rhythmic. Morality and societal values were predominant themes in many of Austen’s works. We begin the list of the most renowned poems of Austen with “Ode to Pity” which was written while she was in her teens. Ironically, the satirical Austen did not address the subject of pity at all in this poem. We love this 2-stanza poem for the way the speaker used nature-related imagery to give a detailed account of a walk in the moonlight.
Our second favorite from Austen is “This Little Bag.” The “bag” in question was a needle bag Austen gave to her niece Caroline on Christmas of 1972. The speaker in the poem uses symbolism and personification to describe how useful the bag would be to Caroline.
If you are a fan of Austen, you may also want to explore:
- “My Dearest Frank, I Wish You Joy”
- “I’ve a Pain in my Head”
- “When Stretch’d on One’s Bed”
- “This Little Bag”
In 2013, Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” was featured on a series of UK postage stamps issued by the Royal Mail.
We believe you have enjoyed our list of the most renowned English poets. Go on! Connect and fall in love with more poetry. We’ll be thrilled to receive your own picks and perhaps feature them in future write-ups.