10 Greatest Poems Ever Written The Society January 7, 2016 Beauty, Essays, For Educators, From the Society, Poetry 16 Comments By Evan Mantyk From least greatest (10) to greatest greatest (1), the poems in this list are limited to ones originally written in the English language and which are under 50 lines, excluding poems like Homer’s Iliad and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Raven.” Each poem is followed by some brief analysis. Many good poems and poets had to be left out of this list. In the comments section below, feel free to make additions or construct your own lists. You can also submit analyses of classic poetry to firstname.lastname@example.org. They will be considered for publication on this website. Related Content 10 Greatest Love Poems Ever Written 10 Greatest Poems about Death 10 Greatest English Sonnets Concerning Other Poets 10 Greatest Novels Ever Written 10. “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. Meaning of the Poem This poem deals with that big noble question of “How to make a difference in the world?” On first reading, it tells us that the choice one makes really does matter, ending: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” A closer reading reveals that the lonely choice that was made earlier by our traveling narrator maybe wasn’t all that significant since both roads were pretty much the same anyway (“Had warn them really about the same”) and it is only in the remembering and retelling that it made a difference. We are left to ponder if the narrator had instead traveled down “The Road Not Taken” might it have also made a difference as well. In a sense, “The Road Not Taken” tears apart the traditional view of individualism, which hinges on the importance of choice, as in the case of democracy in general (choosing a candidate), as well as various constitutional freedoms: choice of religion, choice of words (freedom of speech), choice of group (freedom of assembly), and choice of source of information (freedom of press). For example, we might imagine a young man choosing between being a carpenter or a banker later seeing great significance in his choice to be a banker, but in fact there was not much in his original decision at all other than a passing fancy. In this, we see the universality of human beings: the roads leading to carpenter and banker being basically the same and the carpenter and bankers at the end them—seeming like individuals who made significant choices—really being just part of the collective of the human race. Then is this poem not about the question “How to make a difference in the world?” after all? No. It is still about this question. The ending is the most clear and striking part. If nothing else, readers are left with the impression that our narrator, who commands beautiful verse, profound imagery, and time itself (“ages and ages hence”) puts value on striving to make a difference. The striving is reconstituted and complicated here in reflection, but our hero wants to make a difference and so should we. That is why this is a great poem, from a basic or close reading perspective. 9. “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Meaning of the Poem Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, this sonnet may have the greatest placement of any English poem. It also has one of the greatest placements in history. Lazarus compares the Statue of Liberty to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Like the Statue of Liberty, the Colossus of Rhodes was an enormous god-like statue positioned in a harbor. Although the Colossus of Rhodes no longer stands, it symbolizes the ancient Greek world and the greatness of the ancient Greek and Roman civilization, which was lost for a thousand years to the West, and only fully recovered again during the Renaissance. “The New Colossus” succinctly crystallizes the connection between the ancient world and America, a modern nation. It’s a connection that can be seen in the White House and other state and judicial buildings across America that architecturally mirror ancient Greek and Roman buildings; and in the American political system that mirrors Athenian Democracy and Roman Republicanism. In the midst of this vast comparison of the ancient and the American, Lazarus still manages to clearly render America’s distinct character. It is the can-do spirit of taking those persecuted and poor from around the world and giving them a new opportunity and hope for the future, what she calls “the golden door.” It is a uniquely scrappy and compassionate quality that sets Americans apart from the ancients. The relevance of this poem stretches all the way back to the pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in Europe to the controversies surrounding modern immigrants from Mexico and the Middle East. While circumstances today have changed drastically, there is no denying that this open door was part of what made America great once upon a time. It’s the perfect depiction of this quintessential Americanness that makes “The New Colossus” also outstanding. 8. “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.” Meaning of the Poem In this winding story within a story within a poem, Shelley paints for us the image of the ruins of a statue of ancient Egyptian king Ozymandias, who is today commonly known as Ramesses II. This king is still regarded as the greatest and most powerful Egyptian pharaoh. Yet, all that’s left of the statue are his legs, which tell us it was huge and impressive; the shattered head and snarling face, which tell us how tyrannical he was; and his inscribed quote hailing the magnificent structures that he built and that have been reduced to dust, which tells us they might not have been quite as magnificent as Ozymandias imagined. The image of a dictator-like king whose kingdom is no more creates a palpable irony. But, beyond that there is a perennial lesson about the inescapable and destructive forces of time, history, and nature. Success, fame, power, money, health, and prosperity can only last so long before fading into “lone and level sands.” There are yet more layers of meaning here that elevate this into one of the greatest poems. In terms of lost civilizations that show the ephemeralness of human pursuits, there is no better example than the Egyptians—who we associate with such dazzling monuments as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid at Giza (that stands far taller than the Statue of Liberty)—yet who completely lost their spectacular language, culture, and civilization. If the forces of time, history, and nature can take down the Egyptian civilization, it begs the question, “Who’s next?” Additionally, Ozymandias is believed to have been the villainous pharaoh who enslaved the ancient Hebrews and who Moses led the exodus from. If all ordinary pursuits, such as power and fame, are but dust, what remains, the poem suggests, are spirituality and morality—embodied by the ancient Hebrew faith. If you don’t have those then in the long run you are a “colossal wreck.” Thus, the perfectly composed scene itself, the Egyptian imagery, and the Biblical backstory convey a perennial message that make this a great poem. 7. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats (1795-1821) 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? Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! Keats’s own drawing of the Grecian Urn. Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; And, happy melodist, unwearied, For ever piping songs for ever new; More happy love! more happy, happy love! For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, For ever panting, and for ever young; All breathing human passion far above, That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? What little town by river or sea shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return. O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought, With forest branches and the trodden weed; Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Meaning of the Poem As if in response to Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” offers a sort of antidote to the inescapable and destructive force of time. Indeed, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was published in 1819 just a year or so after “Ozymandias.” The antidote is simple: art. The art on the Grecian urn—which is basically a decorative pot from ancient Greece—has survived for thousands of years. While empires rose and fell, the Grecian urn survived. Musicians, trees, lovers, heifers, and priests all continue dying decade after decade and century after century, but their artistic depictions on the Grecian urn live on for what seems eternity. This realization about the timeless nature of art is not new now nor was it in the 1800s, but Keats has chosen a perfect example since ancient Greek civilization so famously disappeared into the ages, being subsumed by the Romans, and mostly lost until the Renaissance a thousand years later. Now, the ancient Greeks are all certainly dead (like the king Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem) but the Greek art and culture lives on through Renaissance painters, the Olympic Games, endemic Neoclassical architecture, and, of course, the Grecian urn. Further, what is depicted on the Grecian urn is a variety of life that makes the otherwise cold urn feel alive and vibrant. This aliveness is accentuated by Keats’s barrage of questions and blaring exclamations: “More happy love! more happy, happy love!” Art, he seems to suggest, is more alive and real than we might imagine. Indeed, the last two lines can be read as the urn itself talking: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In these profound lines, Keats places us within ignorance, suggesting that what we know on earth is limited, but that artistic beauty, which he has now established is alive, is connected with truth. Truth is, in many cases, connected with the divine. Thus, we can escape ignorance, humanness, and certain death and approach another form of life, approach the truth, and approach the divine through the beauty of art. This effectively completes the thought that began in Ozymandias and makes this a great poem one notch up from its predecessor. 6. “The Tiger by William Blake (1757-1827) Tiger Tiger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire? And what shoulder, and what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? and what dread feet? What the hammer? what the chain, In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp, Dare its deadly terrors clasp! When the stars threw down their spears And water’d heaven with their tears: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee? Tiger Tiger burning bright, In the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? Meaning of the Poem This poem contemplates a question arising from the idea of creation by an intelligent creator. The question is this: If there is a loving, compassionate God or gods who created human beings and whose great powers exceed the comprehension of human beings, as many major religions hold, then why would such a powerful being allow evil into the world. Evil here is represented by a tiger that might, should you be strolling in the Indian or African wild in the 1700s, have leapt out and killed you. What would have created such a dangerous and evil creature? How could it possibly be the same divine blacksmith who created a cute harmless fluffy lamb or who created Jesus, also known as the “Lamb of God” (which the devoutly Christian Blake was probably also referring to here). To put it another way, why would such a divine blacksmith create beautiful innocent children and then also allow such children to be slaughtered. The battery of questions brings this mystery to life with lavish intensity. Does Blake offer an answer to this question of evil from a good God? It would seem not on the surface. But, this wouldn’t be a great poem if it were really that open ended. The answer comes in the way that Blake explains the question. Blake’s language peals away the mundane world and offers a look at the super-reality that poets are privy to. We fly about in “forests of the night” through “distant deeps or skies” looking for where the fire in the tiger’s eye was taken from by the Creator. This is the reality of expanded time, space, and perception that Blake so clearly elucidates elsewhere with the lines “To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour” (“Auguries of Innocence”). This indirectly tells us that the reality that we ordinarily know and perceive is really insufficient, shallow, and deceptive. Where we perceive the injustice of the wild tiger something else entirely may be transpiring. What we ordinarily take for truth may really be far from it: a thought that is scary, yet also sublime or beautiful—like the beautiful and fearsome tiger. Thus, this poem is great because it concisely and compellingly presents a question that still plagues humanity today, as well as a key clue to the answer. 5. “On His Blindness” by John Milton (1608-1674) When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days in this dark world and wide, And that one talent which is death to hide Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide, “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed And post o’er land and ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.” Meaning of the Poem This poem deals with one’s limitations and shortcomings in life. Everyone has them and Milton’s blindness is a perfect example of this. His eyesight gradually worsened and he became totally blind at the age of 42. This happened after he served in an eminent position under Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary Puritan government in England. To put it simply, Milton rose to the highest position an English writer might at the time and then sank all the way down to a state of being unable read or write on his own. How pathetic! The genius of this poem comes in the way that Milton transcends the misery he feels. First, he frames himself, not as an individual suffering or lonely, but as a failed servant to the Creator: God. While Milton is disabled, God here is enabled through imagery of a king commanding thousands. This celestial monarch, his ministers and troops, and his kingdom itself are invisible to human eyes anyway, so already Milton has subtly undone much of his failing by subverting the necessity for human vision. More straightforwardly, through the voice of Patience, Milton explains that serving the celestial monarch only requires bearing those hardships, which really aren’t that bad (he calls them “mild”) that life has burdened you with (like a “yoke” put on an ox). This grand mission from heaven may be as simple as standing and waiting, having patience, and understanding the order of the universe. Thus, this is a great poem because Milton has not only dispelled sadness over a major shortcoming in life but also shown how the shortcoming is itself imbued with an extraordinary and uplifting purpose. 4. “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) What the heart of the young man said to the Psalmist 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. Meaning of the Poem In this nine-stanza poem, the first six stanzas are rather vague since each stanza seems to begin a new thought. Instead, the emphasis here is on a feeling rather than a rational train of thought. What feeling? It seems to be a reaction against science, which is focused on calculations (“mournful numbers”) and empirical evidence, of which there is no, or very little, to prove the existence of the soul. Longfellow lived when the Industrial Revolution was in high gear and the ideals of science, rationality, and reason flourished. From this perspective, the fact that the first six stanzas do not follow a rational train of thought makes perfect sense. According to the poem, the force of science seems to restrain one’s spirit or soul (“for the soul is dead that slumbers”), lead to inaction and complacency from which we must break free (“Act,—act in the living Present! / Heart within, and God o’erhead!”) for lofty purposes such as Art, Heart, and God before time runs out (“Art is long, and Time is fleeting”). The last three stanzas—which, having broken free from science by this point in the poem, read more smoothly—suggest that this acting for lofty purposes can lead to greatness and can help our fellow man. We might think of the entire poem as a clarion call to do great things, however insignificant they may seem in the present and on the empirically observable surface. That may mean writing a poem and entering it into a poetry contest, when you know the chances of your poem winning are very small; risking your life for something you believe in when you know it is not popular or it is misunderstood; or volunteering for a cause that, although it may seem hopeless, you feel is truly important. Thus, the greatness of this poem lies in its ability to so clearly prescribe a method for greatness in our modern world. 3. “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed—and gazed—but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought: For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils. Meaning of the Poem Through the narrator’s chance encounter with a field of daffodils by the sea, we are presented with the power and beauty of the natural world. It sounds simple enough, but there are several factors that contribute to this poem’s greatness. First, the poem comes at a time when the Western world is industrializing and man feels spiritually lonely in the face of an increasingly godless worldview. This feeling is perfectly harnessed by the depiction of wandering through the wilderness “lonely as a cloud” and by the ending scene of the narrator sadly lying on his couch “in vacant or in pensive mood” and finding happiness in solitude. The daffodils then become more than nature; they become a companion and a source of personal joy. Second, the very simplicity itself of enjoying nature—flowers, trees, the sea, the sky, the mountains etc.—is perfectly manifested by the simplicity of the poem: the four stanzas simply begin with daffodils, describe daffodils, compare daffodils to something else, and end on daffodils, respectively. Any common reader can easily get this poem, as easily as her or she might enjoy a walk around a lake. Third, Wordsworth has subtly put forward more than just an ode to nature here. Every stanza mentions dancing and the third stanza even calls the daffodils “a show.” At this time in England, one might have paid money to see an opera or other performance of high quality. Here, Wordsworth is putting forward the idea that nature can offer similar joys and even give you “wealth” instead of taking it from you, undoing the idea that beauty is attached to earthly money and social status. This, coupled with the language and topic of the poem, which are both relatively accessible to the common man, make for a great poem that demonstrates the all-encompassing and accessible nature of beauty and its associates, truth and bliss. 2. “Holy Sonnet 10: Death, Be Not Proud” by John Donne (1572-1631) Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. Meaning of the Poem Death is a perennial subject of fear and despair. But, this sonnet seems to say that it need not be this way. The highly focused attack on Death’s sense of pride uses a grocery list of rhetorical attacks: First, sleep, which is the closest human experience to death, is actually quite nice. Second, all great people die sooner or later and the process of death could be viewed as joining them. Third, Death is under the command of higher authorities such as fate, which controls accidents, and kings, who wage wars; from this perspective, Death seems no more than a pawn in a larger chess game within the universe. Fourth, Death must associate with some unsavory characters: “poison, wars, and sickness.” Yikes! They must make unpleasant coworkers! (You can almost see Donne laughing as he wrote this.) Fifth, “poppy and charms” (drugs) can do the sleep job as well as Death or better. The sixth, most compelling, and most serious reason is that if one truly believes in a soul then Death is really nothing to worry about. The soul lives eternally and this explains line 4, when Donne says that Death can’t kill him. If you recognize the subordinate position of the body in the universe and identify more fully with your soul, then you can’t be killed in an ordinary sense. Further, this poem is so great because of its universal application. Fear of death is so natural an instinct and Death itself so all-encompassing and inescapable for people, that the spirit of this poem and applicability of it extends to almost any fear or weakness of character that one might have. Confronting, head on, such a fear or weakness, as Donne has done here, allows human beings to transcend their condition and their perception of Death, more fully perhaps than one might through art by itself—as many poets from this top ten list seem to say—since the art may or may not survive may or may not be any good, but the intrinsic quality of one’s soul lives eternally. Thus, Donne leaves a powerful lesson to learn from: confront what you fear head on and remember that there is nothing to fear on earth if you believe in a soul. 1. “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d; But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st; So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. Meaning of the Poem Basically, the narrator tells someone he esteems highly that this person is better than a summer’s day because a summer’s day is often too hot and too windy, and especially because a summer’s day doesn’t last; it must fade away just as people, plants, and animals die. But, this esteemed person does not lose beauty or fade away like a summer’s day because he or she is eternally preserved in the narrator’s own poetry. “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” means “This poetry lives long, and this poetry gives life to you.” From a modern perspective this poem might come off as pompous (assuming the greatness of one’s own poetry), arbitrary (criticizing a summer’s day upon what seems a whim), and sycophantic (praising someone without substantial evidence). How then could this possibly be number one? After the bad taste of an old flavor to a modern tongue wears off, we realize that this is the very best of poetry. This is not pompous because Shakespeare actually achieves greatness and creates an eternal poem. It is okay to recognize poetry as great if it is great and it is okay to recognize an artistic hierarchy. In fact, it is absolutely necessary in educating, guiding, and leading others. The attack on a summer’s day is not arbitrary. Woven throughout the language is an implicit connection between human beings, the natural world (“a summer’s day”), and heaven (the sun is “the eye of heaven”). A comparison of a human being to a summer’s day immediately opens the mind to unconventional possibilities; to spiritual perspectives; to the ethereal realm of poetry and beauty. The unabashed praise for someone without a hint as to even the gender or accomplishments of the person is not irrational or sycophantic. It is a pure and simple way of approaching our relationships with other people, assuming the best. It is a happier way to live—immediately free from the depression, stress, and cynicism that creeps into our hearts. Thus, this poem is strikingly and refreshingly bold, profound, and uplifting. Evan Mantyk is president of the Society of Classical Poets and a high school English teacher in Upstate New York. Related Post ‘Shin-Rin-Yoku: Forest Bathing’ and Other Poetry... Shin-Rin-Yoku Forest Bathing You stand beneath this canopy of trees, surrender will, hold still. You close your eyes and listen as the rustlin... Tell the world:FacebookTwitterTumblrPinterestRedditLinkedInEmail 16 Responses Reid McGrath January 7, 2016 What an interesting enterprise, Evan? I have always loved lists. Thank you for taking the time to write out all of these insightful analyses. You really know how to capture a person’s attention with your headlines. “Ten Greatest Poems Ever Written” reminded me of what first drew me to your site in the first place, a few years back. I believe it was something as blunt and as brazen as this: “Poetry should be metered, because metered poetry is, quite simply, better than free verse.” While my list may be different than yours (I probably would add a Yeats and Millay or a Hardy), it would obviously be difficult to bench any of the all-stars you have in your present lineup. What would make it easier, or more amenable to more great poems being subsumed in more lists, would be to narrow the scope of the lists. For example, Ten Greatest Sonnets Ever, Ten Greatest Ballads Ever, Ten Greatest Romantic Poems Ever, Ten Greatest Twentieth-Century Sonnets Ever, Ten Greatest Eulogies and Elegies Ever, etc.. For what constitutes a poem? We are obviously excluding Epics. I have invariably been drawn to your brazenness though. You know how to get a crowd into it… Concerning your analyses, I thought that it was interesting that you associated “mournful numbers” with a “reaction against science.” I have always been under the impression that Longfellow was referring to “morbid poems” or psalms: as Petrarch often called his poems “numbers,” which in a sense metered poetry is, a compilation of syllables and stresses (i.e. music); but your postulation seems to work as well, and would function propitiously in an essay for one of your students comparing and contrasting Poe’s “Sonnet–To Science” and Whitman’s (hate him or love him–unlike Pound, I have still not made my pact) “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” I will have to start working on my own lists; although I believe it could be an eternal task, for “man is a giddy thing,” as Shakespeare wrote, and I thoroughly love so many diverse poems. Reply Evan January 7, 2016 Thanks, Reid. I mention at the beginning that it is only short poems, not longer works or excerpts of longer works, so epics are out. If you want to make a top ten (or five?) list for specific poetry fields for the Society that would be great! I am contemplating one on war poems (again, short poems, not epics or excerpts). Any ideas? For “numbers” in Psalm of Life, I’ve seen interpretations such as poetic meter, Bible or poetic verses, or the Book of Numbers in the Bible specifically. After studying Longfellow quite a bit and particularly this poem, memorizing it and teaching it to my students, my own interpretation is that Longfellow is basically saying “don’t be daunted by the odds” “take some risks” or “don’t approach things in such a calculating and scientific way” If you take a look at a map of the U.S. in the 1830s, you’ll see that most of the U.S. is territories, much of it unsettled. This was the time of the Wild West and Manifest Destiny (the pitfalls in expansion can be seen in Little House on the Prairie and that was 40 years later). Doing things by the numbers would not have meant a healthy, expanding U.S. in the long run. This also fits in with the recurring war theme since enlisting is a similarly risky proposition. IMO. Reply Manar January 15, 2017 Arabic poetry is the best in history, it has far more words for description and it has deep meanings. But I see that this list should’ve been called ” In European History” since there’s no variety. Marie December 13, 2016 It was my first time reading the poem and I thought it meant the mournfully high number of people who say such things. Reply Evan December 14, 2016 I like it. Maybe occam’s razor (the simplest explanation is most likely the right one) may apply here. We may be reading too much into it. Thank you! BJM January 7, 2016 If By Rudyard Kipling If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! Reply Reid McGrath January 8, 2016 In the words of Auden: “[Time] Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives… Time that with this strange excuse / Pardoned Kipling and his views.” THE JUNGLE BOOK was one of my favorite stories as a kid and “IF” is an unforgettable poem. Reply james sale January 9, 2016 I love this series of the ten best. To comment on the first two – whilst not disagreeing with Evan’s analysis, I think there is even more technical genius in this poem: for example, the rhyming of ‘hence’ obliquely with ‘difference’, that off-rhyme conveys just that sense of uncertainty about choice that Evan outlines. And as for Emma Lazarus – isn’t her surname part of the poem: America, the land where the dead came back and were welcomed to life? So brilliantly synchronous! Reply Shari Jo LeKane-Yentumi January 11, 2016 This is a wonderful list, Evan, and thank you for sharing! Reply Lew Icarus Bede January 31, 2016 In this data-rich period of the last 100 years, we have seen myriads of lists composed, the top 10 vehicles of the last fifty years, the top 40 songs of the week, the top 100 contributers to humanity of the last 1000 years, the 500 richest people in the World this year, and so forth. It is a way for us in mass society to make sense of all the information that comes our way. Another reason for compiling such lists is that it clarifies our own visions, artistic, scientific, philosophical, etc. However, all lists are at best provisional. They are works in progress. Things change. The most popular meme this week might not be the most popular meme next week. Our favourite cuisine this season may not be our favourite the next. In fact, we are creatures of change. We thrive on variety. So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that even our own lists will alter over time. Mr. Evan Mantyk has done us a great service in posting his list of the 10 Greatest Poems Ever Written, not because he was right (after all, who could be right? De gustibus non est disputandum.), but because he gets us thinking. As Mr. Mantyk knows, by emphasizing poems of 50 lines or less (not his exact requirement, but his example), one must exclude epics, poetic plays, narrative poems, dramatic monologues, didactic verse essays, satires and epistles, etc. One of the paradoxes of making a list of the greatest short poems ever written is in attributing greatness to the smaller works, when the very meaning of greatness implies a largeness of expanse, of vision, etc. Perhaps his title could have been retitled The Ten Short Poems in English I Admire Most. However, his title is catchier, and may even draw more readers in to this growing site; but I can’t imagine anyone would have the exact same list in the exact same order. Even he, I suspect, will change his list over time. Here is his list. 1. Sonnet 18, Shall I Compare Thee William Shakespeare 2. Death, Be Not Proud John Donne 3. Daffodils William Wordsworth 4. A Psalm of Life Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 5. On His Blindness John Milton 6. The Tyger William Blake 7. Ode on a Grecian Urn John Keats 8. Ozymandias Percy Bysshe Shelley 9. The New Colossus Emma Lazarus 10. The Road Not Taken Robert Frost What is remarkable about his list is its specificity and his analyses, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. As I read his list, however, I kept thinking, but what about this poem, or that poem? First off, on his list, Shakespeare’s sonnet which begins with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is a wonderful choice. I have always enjoyed his comparison with a summer’s day, because for me a summer’s day has always seemed the best of days, and Shakespeare indicates its flaws in marvelous diction. Yet, the theme of love being preserved in verse Shakespeare has used elsewhere, as so has Edmund Spenser in Amoretti, Sonnet 75, “Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,/ Our love shall live, and later life renew.” In addition, Spenser’s sonnet, which takes place upon a beach next to a sea, sets up a dramatic contrast of two points of view on the topic, in a dialogue between a man and a woman. Other Shakespearean sonnets are also in competition with Sonnet 30. One could, in fact, make a top 10 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Sonnet 116 for me has always had a special place, because in its delivery, Shakespeare even goes so far as to suggest that if true love does not exist, then he never wrote a thing. It is the Shakespearean sonnet that most moves me, so much so I recited it at the wedding of my college roommate many years ago. This shows one of the pitfalls of poetic placement; various poems may suggest more to us than others because of our own particular circumstances. One more example will suffice. Although I do not think it superior (nor inferior) to Wordsworth’s Daffodils, his sonnet Composed On Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802, has stirred me to write my own sonnet on Westminster Bridge in London. What appeals to me in that sonnet is its unusual vantage point, its precision, the use of particular words, like steep, and its terse landscaping. Mr. Mantyk’s second choice, Death, Be Not Proud is a fine sonnet as well. As in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, what appeals to me is the audacity of the author, “And death shall be no more. Death thou shalt die.” One would be hard-pressed to find such confidence in the face of death in any writer since. But for me, the John Donne poem that takes my breath away is A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, with its extraordinary conceit of love with a mathematical compass. It is a linguistic tour de force that sweeps me away with its idealism, its learning, and its paradoxically intricate simplicity. For me, nothing like it in English poetry reaches such a refined, intellectual brilliance; and for a long time, it has seemed a worthy paradigm to emulate in my poetry. I agree with Reid McGrath that it would be difficult to bench any of the all-stars Mr. Mantyk has in his present lineup, and concur with his idea that there could be more lists with the narrowing of the scope, as one’s ten top sonnets, etc. I do admit to favouring Shelley’s Ozymandias over Ode to the West Wind, but is it a better poem? Blake’s The Tyger may be the most anthologized poem in English literature, but is it superior to Ode on a Grecian Urn? And at 50 lines long shouldn’t Keats’ Ode rather be compared to works, like Jonson’s To the Memory of My Beloved Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Browning’s My Last Duchess, Tennyson’s Ulysses, Poe’s The Raven, Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride, T. S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill, Robert Lowell’s Mr. Edwards and the Spider, etc. I do think Frost’s The Road Not Taken is his best performance, but I very much admire Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. And other poems come to mind: Auld Lang Syne author Burns’ lively To a Mouse, A. E. Housman’s terse To an Athlete Dying Young, (BJM’s offer of) Rudyard Kipling’s inspiring If, Matthew Arnold’s visionary, melancholic Dover Beach, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, Thomas’ villanelle Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night…the list going on to the crack of doom. Reply NealD February 7, 2016 & the minority report is chosen Reply Eric King March 31, 2016 a hundred years from now at least one or two of the poems on your list will be voted off by future scholars (if humans have not already destroyed themselves), and bob dylan’s desolation row will be half way up the list. And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fishermen hold flowers for my two cents worth the choices you made aren’t bad. a lot of people now believe that the most beautiful image to be found anywhere in poetry is: “to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea…” i never finished my ph.d. in english lit at uc berkeley. timothy leary whispered the siren words in my ear, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” but before i did, i read a lot of poetry, so my opinion is not without some professional value. i love the silly and absurd as in laverne baker’s “jim dandy in a submarine got a message from a mermaid queen. she was hangin’ from a fishin’ line. jim dandy didn’t waste no time. jim dandy to the rescue. jim dandy to the rescue.” hank williams cold, cold heart is one of the greatest poetic commentaries on love ever written. Reply Mike Vandeman September 12, 2016 O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman (1819-1892) O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up- for you the flag is flung- for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths- for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead. My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. Reply Dustin Pickering September 14, 2016 I think your analysis of “The Tyger” is mistaken. Critics such as Harold Bloom have suggested the Tyger is actually a gentle, playful creature. It is seen in his carvings as a smiling, toy-like beast. I sometimes quote “The Tyger” when discussing inspiration as a Promethean current, the fire in the eyes being like the fire given to Man. However, the poet (as in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound) is a Satanic figure, rebelling against orthodoxy. There was an error in Romantic literature that Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost but contemporary analysis suggests Adam is the hero, with Satan as an antihero. Satan became a mythical revolutionary telling God where to stick it for His oppressions. Blake in “The Tyger”, I think, is indicating that wisdom and inspiration are stolen from God Himself, a la Satan or Prometheus. I think this is validated by the lines “What immortal hand or eye/dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” The poet, as mythmaker, must have a solid set of experiences with the God he/she wishes to mythologize. Symmetry implies that order is addressed, a fearful order because it is misunderstood or new to the seer. The fact that Blake uses the word immortal in reference to eye and hand makes the poem extra enchanting– because he is calling poetry an immortal art that would not be what it is without a touch of the forbidden and the divine frenzy. Reply Freethinker December 16, 2016 Some of them are inspired by artists and musician. Reply Dr. Monsy Thomas Mathai January 12, 2017 The list was great, like all lists go by, interesting …… But once the shopping done, To the bin of time it goes. For another one is on its way, for needs are different every day. So when a list is made one should realise, to add an “all time” tag, Is indeed the greatest folly. So forget it. Learn to shop from your heart. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.