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 off 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 submissions@classicalpoets.org. They will be considered for publication on this website.

Related Content
10 Greatest Love Poems Ever Written
10 Greatest Sonnets Concerning Other Poets
The Earliest English Poems Ever Written
10 Greatest Novels Ever Written (5 Are Poetry-Related)
10 Greatest Poems about Death: A Grim Reader

Jb_modern_frost_2_e10. “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 of 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.

 

220px-Emma_Lazarus9. “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.

 

Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint_crop8. “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 and make this a great poem.

 

John_Keats_by_William_Hilton7. “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_urn

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 live 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. Thus, we can escape ignorance, humanness, and certain death and approach another form of life and truth 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.

 

NPG 212; William Blake6. “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 peels away the mundane world and offers a look at the super-reality to which poets are privy. 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.

 

milton5. “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.

 

Henry_Wadsworth_Longfellow_by_Thomas_Buchanan_Read_IMG_44144. “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!A_Psalm_of_Life

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.

 

William_Wordsworth_at_28_by_William_Shuter2

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 water, 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 artistic 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.

 

CIS:DYCE.52. “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. Death, you’re fired!

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.

 

Cobbe_portrait_of_Shakespeare1. “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.

Finally, as to the question of overcoming death, fear, and the decay of time, an overarching question in these great poems, Shakespeare adroitly answers them all by skipping the question, suggesting it is of no consequence. He wields such sublime power that he is unmoved and can instead offer remedy, his verse, at will to those he sees befitting. How marvelous!

 

 

Related Post

Translation of ‘La Function du Poet’ by Victor H... The Function of the Poet Tanslation by David Bellemare Gosselin God summons him in times gone awry When each can’t will, but serves his duty. Fo...

60 Responses

  1. Reid McGrath

    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

      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

        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

      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

        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!

  2. BJM

    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
  3. Reid McGrath

    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
  4. james sale

    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
  5. Lew Icarus Bede

    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
  6. Eric King

    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
  7. Mike Vandeman

    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

      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
    • ASGHAR SOLANGI

      its really heart touching poem ,,,,,
      i know it was sung by american poet on the death of
      great leader ABRHAM LINCON,,,,,,,,

      Reply
  8. Dr. Monsy Thomas Mathai

    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
  9. Tomás Ó Cárthaigh

    Where do I start? Half this list was on my school curriculum in Ireland in the “Soundings” books…

    If I take Irish poets, I suggest Paudric Columb. While known more in America as a storyteller for children, he is best known in Ireland as a poet…

    “A Drover”

    To Meath of the pastures,
    From wet hills by the sea,
    Through Leitrim and Longford
    Go my cattle and me.
    I hear in the darkness
    Their slipping and breathing.
    I name them the bye-ways
    They’re to pass without heeding.
    Then the wet, winding roads,
    Brown bogs with black water;
    And my thoughts on white ships
    And the King o’ Spain’s daughter.
    O! farmer, strong farmer!
    You can spend at the fair
    But your face you must turn
    To your crops and your care.
    And soldiers—red soldiers!
    You’ve seen many lands;
    But you walk two by two,
    And by captain’s commands.
    O! the smell of the beasts,
    The wet wind in the morn;
    And the proud and hard earth
    Never broken for corn;
    And the crowds at the fair,
    The herds loosened and blind,
    Loud words and dark faces
    And the wild blood behind.
    (O! strong men with your best
    I would strive breast to breast
    I could quiet your herds
    With my words, with my words.)
    I will bring you, my kine,
    Where there’s grass to the knee;
    But you’ll think of scant croppings
    Harsh with salt of the sea.

    Reply
  10. Ariel

    The poems are beautiful, but the title is wrong. I mean, this are not THE 10 greatest poems ever, they are YOUR favorite 10 poems. But, anyway, I love your list. I’m a big romantic myself, specially a big fan of Shelley. Cheers!

    Reply
  11. chialo

    passionately loving poem and so moved by words . poem makes my life grow with esteemed spirit.

    Reply
  12. Nigel H

    Invictus – W.E. Henley

    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 bludgeonings 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.

    Reply
  13. Jac

    Nothing by Goethe, Rilke, or Schiller? Nothing by Rumi, Homer, Li Bai, Dante Alighieri etc…? Or are great poems written only by native English speakers?

    Reply
    • Juanita Hamilton

      from the first line…

      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.”

      Reply
      • Peter

        First Letter
        by M. Eminescu (1850-1889)
        When at night with a sleepy eye I blow the candle,
        The length of time’s flow: only the clock can handle.
        And as I pull the drapes in my room to the right,
        The moon engulfs everything with its warm light.
        It retrieves from my memory, endless thoughts.
        I feel the whole lot like in dreams that come in lots.
        You move on Earth’s dome, Moon you, mistress of the sea.
        You give life to one’s thoughts, and you lessen one’s misery.
        Virgin one you, thousand of wilds glow in your light.
        How many forests hide shimmer of water in their shade?
        As on top of the rough sheer size of the seas you drift,
        Over how many thousands of waves does your light shift?
        How many blossoming shores, what forts and castles too,
        Which flooded by your beauty, to yourself you put on view.
        Into how many thousands of homes, you gently touch?
        How many heads full of thought, you quietly watch?
        You spot a king, who webs the globe with plans for a century,
        While a poor guy dares not to think about the next day…
        While a new rank was drawn from the urn of fate for each guy,
        Your ray and the skill of death, rule them in the same way.
        To the same chain of passions, both guys are addicted,
        Be they weak or strong, stupid or smart.
        Some guy looks in the mirror and his hair he styles.
        Some other guy seeks the truth in this world, and in these times.
        From stained old files, thousand small pieces he folds.
        Their short-lived names he writes down on the script he holds.
        And some guy at his office desk carves up the world, and he tallies
        How much gold, the sea is hauling in its dark ships hulls.
        And there is the old professor, with his coat faded at the elbows.
        He searches, and in an endless count, he assesses.
        And he buttons up his old robe, of cold he freezes,
        He sinks his neck in his collar, plugs his ears, and he sneezes.
        Skinny as he is, frail and feeble as he appears,
        The vast Universe is in his reach, and it nears.
        Since at the back of his brow, the past and the future unite.
        On files, he makes sense of eternity’s deep night.
        Like Atlas of ancient times, who propped the sky on his shoulder,
        So, our professor props the space and the eternal time in a number.
        While over the old scripts, the moon lights with its glow,
        His thought takes him back billions of years, right now:
        To the beginning, when a living or nonliving thing there was not,
        When life and will, lacked for the whole lot,
        When hidden was nil, though the lot was out of sight,
        When weighed down with wisdom, the Hidden One relaxed His might.
        Was it a deep rift? Was it a sheer fall? Was it a vastness of water? Right…
        A conscious world, or a mind to figure it out, wasn’t in sight.
        Because there was darkness, like a sea without a ray of light,
        But there was nothing to look at, nor eye to see into the night.
        The shape of the un-formed did not start yet to work loose
        And the endless peace rules at ease…
        But all of a sudden, the first and the only one, a point stirs rather…
        Look how out of the chaos it forms a mother, and it grows to be the Father.
        That point of motion, even weaker than a bubble,
        It has total control over the entire Universe, without any trouble…
        Since then, the endless night sorts out in galaxies.
        Since then, come to light the Sun, the Earth, the Moon and the stars…
        Since then, up until now, colonies of lost worlds — with tales —
        Come from grey valleys of chaos on unknown trails.
        And they spring in swarms that glow from outer space.
        And by a boundless craving are lured to existence.
        And in this vast deep-space, we the tiny world’s brood
        We put together anthills on our globe, and we think it’s good.
        Tiny nations, kings, soldiers and the well read,
        We come in generations and we think we know everything from A to Z.
        Like flies that live a day, in a tiny world that is measured by the foot,
        In that deep space with no end, we spin following the same route.
        And we quite forget that this entire life is a poised instant,
        And at the beginning and at the end night is revealed, although is distant.
        As specks of dust move about in a ray-of-light’s field,
        Thousands of brisk specks waste away with the light.
        And so, in the on and on night that never ends,
        We have the instant; we have the ray that still stands…
        When it will switch off, everything will vanish, like a shadow into the night.
        Since the hazy deep space is a dream of nothingness. But wait…
        Now, the thinker doesn’t stop his search, and in the twinkling of an eye
        His contemplation takes him billions of years to the future to see a ray.
        The Sun that now shines, he sees it dim and red, like veiled in dust,
        How, like a wound among dark clouds, it goes bust.
        Everything freezes up. And in space, like rebels the spheres fling,
        And flee beyond the light’s reign, and Sun’s gravity ring.
        And the altar screen of the world has dimmed altogether its ray
        Like the autumn leaves, all the stars have gone astray.
        The ended time spreads out what’s left, and it turns into infinity,
        Since the bleak stretch is full of serenity.
        And all is quiet. All plunges into the night of non-existence.
        And in a state of ease, the eternal peace gets going again in this instance.
        ……………………………………………………………………………
        From the lowest rung of the crowd, up stepping,
        And to the royal heads, climbing ranking,
        Of his or her life mystery, everyone puzzled we see,
        With no way to say, worse off who will it be.
        The same as one is in all, all is in one.
        Ahead of the others, gets the one who can.
        While others with meek heart stand-alone and sigh,
        And do not grasp that like the unseen foam they quietly die.
        Whatever they want or think, what should the blind fate agonize?
        It is like wind that blows in gales over the folks’ days.
        Shall the whole world accept him? Shall writers cause him to feel at ease?
        What will the old professor gain out of all of these?
        Eternal life, they shall say. It is true that all his time,
        Like ivy on a tree, he clings to an aim.
        “If I die”— he says to himself, like the sages —
        “My name will pass on through the ages.
        Forever, in all places they shall pass it on, all the same,
        By word of mouth, by means of my fame,
        My writings shall find shelter in a spot of some head.”
        Oh, poor guy! Do you call to mind what in life you’ve read?
        What crossed in front of you? Or what to yourself you’ve said?
        Not much. From here or from there: a sketch’s bit,
        You remember you’ve done on a scrap of paper, or a hint of a thought.
        And when your own life, you don’t know by heart how it goes,
        Shall others be so keen to know how it was?
        Maybe over a century, a fussy man with his green eye,
        He shall sit among books of no use — himself, a redundant horse, let’s say —
        Your gift of style, he shall assess.
        Your book’s dust, he shall blow from his glasses.
        And he shall stack your work on two lines, in a tiny footnote.
        On a silly page, he shall put you last, with a dot.
        You can build a whole way of life. You can wreck it.
        Whatever you say, a shovel of dust shall stack over the whole lot.
        The hand that wanted the sceptre of the Universe, and higher ranks…
        And with vision to grasp the Cosmos, fits perfect in four planks.
        And with cold stares, like they are mocking you too,
        In the best funeral-procession, they shall walk behind you.
        And a shortie shall speak above everybody, reading your eulogy,
        Not to praise you… to polish himself in the shade of your celebrity.
        Look what awaits you. Oh yes, you shall see…
        The time yet to come, is even with more impartiality.
        They shall clap at your life’s skin-deep tale.
        It will aim to show that you weren’t big deal.
        You were a man like they are… everyone is content.
        Much more than him or her you weren’t.
        And in literary meetings, each guy with an ironic expression
        Will widen his or her nose, when about you they talk in session.
        It has to be said sincerely,
        With words, they shall praise you dearly.
        And so, fallen in the hands of anyone, they shall assess your toil.
        Everything they won’t be aware of, they shall soil.
        And apart from that, about your life, they shall stick their nose in.
        They shall look for dirt, faults and for some sin.
        All these brings you closer to them… Not the enlightenment
        That you shed on the world, but the sins, flaws and excitement,
        And blunders, and weak moments, and guilt from the past,
        Which, are linked in a fatal way to a hand of dust.
        All the little mess of a wretched soul that you’ve got
        Shall captivate them much more than all you’ve thought.
        ………………………………………………………….…………………………………
        Among the walls, flanked by the trees that shed flowers
        In the same way the full moon glows with gentle light for hours,
        It gets back much painful feeling from the faintness of our memories
        Eased is the pain, we feel everything like in dreams.
        As, it opens the star gate to our own dimension in a twinkling,
        And once the candle is quenched, it releases much inkling.
        Many a wilderness, glares in your glow, virgin one you.
        How many a forest, hide in its shade shimmer of springs, from your view?
        Over how many thousands of waves, does your glow shift
        When, over the rough expanse of the seas, your light shall drift?
        And everything that under the power of fate in this world stays,
        It’s ruled in the same way by the skill of the death and your rays.

        (1881 February the 1st.)

  14. Davis

    Thoughts
    Words and a phrase and a song
    Repeating on and on
    In my head, in my brain
    Telling me just what to say
    But i dont cause i can’t
    Cause I’m not quite ready to
    let go yet

    Mist, there’s a mist coming in
    Gold and silver on the clouds
    Riding high, look around
    And you just might see it
    Wait there’s a weight on the world
    And its falling but I can’t
    Let go yet

    Fire, wildfire in my eyes
    Ragin loose and running wild
    In my head ‘til I’m dead
    And I’m going crazy
    What, what to say, but I know

    Am I really ready to
    Let go yet

    Thoughts, deepest thoughts
    On a page in a song
    Words, wary words
    In my mind they’re all wrong
    Write, write till i die
    Dead,
    Nothing else
    Nothing left

    Reply
    • Kelly Kasper

      I absolutely love this one! I wish I could say I have achieved the privilege of mastering the worlds greatest poets, but blessed that I can appreciate ones beauty of expression! Can I ask who the poet is who wrote this and where you found it? Thank you!!

      Reply
  15. JK

    Great list. Ozymandias my favorite short-form poem ever. But where is something from Dickinson, the Bard of Amherst? Brilliant poems too numerous to enumerate…

    Reply
  16. Geoff

    A good list apart from number one by Shakespeare. This sonnet fails because it claims to give life to the subject but says nothing specific through which the reader could know anything about the subject; it’s just an ordinary rhyme. Number two by Donne is not bad. Number four by Longfellow is also okay especially the line “Be not like dumb driven cattle, be a hero in the strife”.

    Reply
    • Kelly Kasper

      why would you say such things? How ironic are you to judge something and have zero information to explain or prove your words, yet your judgement words are identical to your expression of what you think of “mundane” is!!!

      Reply
    • Cody Ferguson

      “but says nothing specific through which the reader could know anything about the subject;” What more about the subject do you wish to know? Perhaps he should have listed off her favorite foods.

      Reply
  17. Laya

    Persian poetry is the best in the history of poems;
    Our poets like “Hafez” and “sa’di shirazy” were unparalleled.
    If you read their poems you will sea they were great.
    Many people on the world have ridden them for many years… .

    Reply
    • Cody Ferguson

      Did you intentionally use “sea” instead of “see”? Very clever. Persian poems are as great as the sea is expansive.

      Reply
  18. Aiden

    No mention of Invictus? That’s a shame. One of my personal favourites, Henley’s poem is. It evokes such raw willpower as to overcome any inner demon.

    Reply
    • Evan

      There seems to be a ground swell of support for Henley’s Invictus, so I may have to consider an Honorable Mention. That said, there is a sense, to me anyway, of godlessness to it. The depth of the darkness and terror is almost overwhelming, the gods “may be,” and you are “master” of your own fate. These strike me as relatively hollow reflections compared to those on the list. I’m still thinking this one over anyway.

      Reply
      • Ron

        I came across your list only yesterday. I think it’s terrific. At most, there may be a couple of substitutes I might make, but I’m not even sure of that. Great choices. By the way, I happen to agree with you regarding Invictus.

        Ron

      • Kelly Kasper

        Please don’t change anything, unless it’s in your heart to do so. Your list is so beautiful, inspiring and for me personally extremely therapeutic! Whether or not your list gets changed, is most meaningful when it’s done by your own will. Again in my personal opinion ones own view is by far more interesting, pure and appreciated! Thank you for this list! As someone who’s been really struggling daily for almost a year now due to tragedy, heartache that proved to be very traumatic for me, reading your pick of poems for a moment soothed the pain I’ve been feeling as well as reminded me just how powerful expression and perception are. Most importantly it is not right nor wrong and should just simply (not literally) be appreciated! Thank you for lifting a tiny piece of fog that’s clouding my brain at this time!!!

      • Evan

        Thank you, Kelly! Yours are some of the most encouraging words I think anyone’s poetry analysis could hope to receive.

  19. David

    I don’t understand the last line of The Road Not Taken. Why does Frost say that his choice has made all the difference if the intent is that it hasn’t?

    Reply
    • Evan

      My understanding is that Frost is implying two different principles:

      (1) what we think makes a difference may not make any difference at all. For instance, suppose you feel someone has wronged you, say a politician or perhaps someone close to you, and the actions you take driven by irrational emotion you realize later were silly. That person’s original actions you realize didn’t make a difference and your own subsequent actions didn’t make a difference.

      (2) We should strive to make a positive difference in our world, even in whatever small and insignificant way it may seem. If something appears in need of attention and underserved or underutilized, as in the less warn path, then we should naturally feel inclined to help and participate where it is needed. We should naturally be open minded and compassionate to our fellow man, even if they suffer for a sound reason.

      The two principles are perhaps contradictory, but I think Frost has experienced them and recognizes that he has them internalized, so the poem is an expression of that contradictory experience and elucidates the sometimes seemingly contradictory nature of life itself.

      If there are layers of consciousness and layers of reality then the truth can perhaps be more closely approached. Principle 2 applies to ordinary human interactions at the most surface level and principle 1 demonstrates a larger scale principle that we can reflect upon in a more spiritual or philosophical state of mind but cannot entirely attain when confined to a human body.

      Reply
    • Cody Ferguson

      An individuals choices will make a difference in their own life but will have no effect whatsoever on society as a whole in most cases.

      Reply
  20. David

    Thanks Evan. I do agree with those principles (#1 borne out many times) but the last line still flummoxes me a bit. I’m new to poetry though and suspect I’m approaching it with too much concrete thinking.

    Reply
  21. Dom

    A great list. I would add one more though, High Flight by John Magee

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

    Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

    Reply
    • Ron

      Dom,

      Great thought. I love that poem also. The story that goes with it makes it all the more moving.

      Ron

      Reply
  22. Cherish

    Thank you for taking the time to compile this list. I was inspired to revisit poetry after teaching it to my 3rd grade students. They seem to really enjoy poetry and grasping meaning from it. After reading all the comments, it’s reassuring to know that adults take the time to slow down and contemplate such written work. Thank you again!

    Reply
  23. Shahzad

    I would love to understand these poems. Even reading them gives me a good feeling.

    Reply
  24. Mr Ala Gan

    I like poems full of internal music , rich in rhythm ,touching mature thought ,of well-engineered words … please should you come across one of these ,be kind to send … Christina Rossetti’s poems are readable for me . … Good list !

    Reply
  25. James A. Tweedie

    I suspect that if Wordsworth had compiled a list of his best 10 poems, Daffodils would not have been on it. It’s funny how time and criticism (both formal and popular) separates out who and what is “great” whether in poetry, music, painting or any of the the arts. Personally, I would have had Burns in there somewhere, either “To a Louse” or “To a Mouse.” Even so, each poem in the list is worthy of admiration and the analysis is, for the most part, spot on. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  26. ASGHAR SOLANGI

    I really Thanks to All Friends thos who shared these poems
    because these poems are related to our study course in ( ENGLISH LITERATURE )

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.