My Favorite English Poetry

My Favorite English Poetry November 20, 2014

I love poetry. Friends have asked me to recommend some good poetry to them, and I figured out I could make a list. The list might seem very obvious to people who already love poetry, but if you are someone who is just beginning to enjoy poetry, the list may be useful to you. I have decided to choose one poem from every poet and then link to some of my other favorite poems of theirs. I have used  a chronological approach except for the very last entry because that one is my absolute most favorite poem.

I also have focused on English (the language) poetry, because that’s my main passion, although there are Persian and Japanese poets whom I love as well. I also begin my list with 17th century not because I don’t have any poets I love from before that era, but because I think these poets might be more accessible to the readers of this blog.

If you think you’d prefer more modern poetry, scroll down to get to more contemporary poets.

Some great poets (like all great 18th century poets and Coleridge) are missing from this list. But this is meant to be a list of love as well as a list of literary greats, so I shared the poets I’m passionate about, and excluded some great ones.

I have limited this list to the poets who have passed away, because I want to do a separate one for the living poets in the future.

John Donne – “A Lecture Upon the Shadow”

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
         These three hours that we have spent,
         Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d.
But, now the sun is just above our head,
         We do those shadows tread,
         And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us, and our cares; but now ’tis not so.
That love has not attain’d the high’st degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.
Except our loves at this noon stay,
We shall new shadows make the other way.
         As the first were made to blind
         Others, these which come behind
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes.
If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,
         To me thou, falsely, thine,
         And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day;
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay.
Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his first minute, after noon, is night.

What makes Donne one of the most brilliant poets it’s his ability to play with images in extremely unexpected ways – the most striking feature of his “metaphysical poetry” which is referred to as conceit. Usually when poets try to twist familiar images they end up being merely formal and playful. But Donne manages to not only create revolutionary imagery but to express meaningful poems and to have internal consistency. His poems are therefore not complex for mere sake of complexity but complex because they are complex at heart, and there’s always joy in trying to decode back through his intricate web of conceits.

My absolute favorite poem of his is this one. It not only looks at love in a way that speaks to me as very true, but it also uses a very weird and refreshing comparison to a shadow which drives the point home.

Other Donne poems I love: The Relic – The Good-Morrow – The Sun Rising – A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

Ben Jonson – To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses,
I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses,
For if I thought my judgment were of years,
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.

People have been praising Shakespeare since his own time, and none I love more than Ben Jonson’s. Not only it is fitting and true, it is a monumental work of art in its own right. Make sure to read in its entirety. (I have quoted my favorite passage).

Other Jonson poems I love: Epitaph on Elizabeth, L. H.

John Milton – When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

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
Lodged 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-labor, 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.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is an obvious choice for any lover of literature, it is the great English epic, and to me Satan’s speech in Hell is the obvious quotable part. However, for this blog entry I have chosen this simple, heart-breaking, and moving sonnet that’s about poet’s blindness and his faith and also his death.

William Blake – The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of literature. Not only his views and philosophy are extremely fascinating, the way he uses his own mythology to create the great literary body of his work makes it extremely unique. His world is dark and mysterious and liberating. I think it takes some effort to fully appreciate Blake, you need to immerse yourself in the body of his works and his mythology, but it will be all worth it at the end. He is like Nietzsche among poets – radical, tragic, ahead of his time, and extremely complex and elusive. This poem of his is my favorite, with its dark spirituality that beckons us to not suppress our desires. Make sure to read his twin books of poetry – The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience in their entirety.

Other Blake poems I love: A Poison Tree – Infant Joy/Infant Sorrow – London – Silent, Silent Night – The Lamb/The Tyger

William Wordsworth – She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
         Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
         And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
         Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
         Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
         When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
         The difference to me!

Wordsworth is a very misunderstood poet in general, because the nuance of his words are lost and also because people forget the context he wrote in. Wordsworth is famous for his emotional poems (that were also recollected and reflected upon), his natural and rural settings (that were also educated), and his simple language (also literary and sublime), but ultimately he is much more complex and nuanced than his fame suggests. His masterpiece is the long poem The Prelude, but any of his Lucy poems, the elegies of an unknown girl who passed away too soon, are enough to show the masterful simplicity of his work, a simplicity that’s only achieved when through complex and intricate works of a master craftsman.

Other Wordsworth poems I love: A Slumber did my Spirit Seal – Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 – I Travelled among Unknown Men – I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud – London, 1802 – Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood – She Was a Phantom of Delight – Surprised by Joy – The Solitary Reaper – We Are Seven

Lord Byron –So We’ll Go No More a Roving

So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Byron is the poet of long poems. His most famous works are narrative poems like Don Juan. But he has a collection of short sweet and occasionally sad love poems and they should be appreciated by anyone interested in this most dramatic emotion of all.

Other Byron poems I love: Darkness – Prometheus – She Walks in Beauty – When We Two Parted

Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ozymandias

This poem became very famous when it was aptly used for the trailer of the final episodes of Breaking Bad, and like that great series the poem is also a multi-layered and nuanced take-down of the concept of glory and personal power. Shelley was one of the first unquestionable poets of freedom. Here he shows us the futility of what humanity considered “great men”.

Other Shelly poems I love: A Song: “Men of England”Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John KeatsAlastor; or, The Spirit of SolitudeHymn to Intellectual BeautyOde to the West WindPrometheus UnboundTo a Skylark

John Keats – La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Keats is my favorite romantic poet, and my second favorite poet of all time. Keats is fascinating because of few other poets before or after him have composed so eloquently about poetry itself, and about the nature of the literature. Also, there is his fascinating almost erotic fascination with death, which you can see clearly in the masterpiences I’ve quoted above. Even in his love poems like “Bright Star” he seems to be obsessed with mortality, and of course the only immortal thing is, at the end, the Grecian urn, or art. But what makes Keats unique is not his mere fascination with mortality, but the unique and poetic way he handles it.

 Bright Star HyperionOde on a Grecian UrnOde on IndolenceOde on MelancholyOde to a NightingaleOde to PsycheOn a DreamOn First Looking into Chapman’s HomerOn Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once AgainThe Eve of St. AgnesTo AutumnWhen I have Fears That I May Cease to Be

Walt Whitman – O Captain! My Captain!

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.
Walt Whitman is known as the poet of democracy, and deservedly so, and he’s also a trailblazer when it comes to poetic form. I love none of his poems more than this solemn elegy to President Abraham Lincoln.

Christina Rossetti – When I am dead, my dearest

When I am dead, my dearest,
         Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
         Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
         With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
         And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
         I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
         Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
         That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
         And haply may forget.
I have always felt that Christina Rossetti is an underrated poet, although she is canonized. Yet I feel she’s a bit overshadowed by other poets I don’t quite like as much as her. I find her poems simply too beautiful to ignore.
Other Rossetti poems I love: Goblin Market,Remember, Who Has Seen the Wind?

T. S. Eliot – The Waste Land

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

If I have to choose one poet as the greatest poet, it’d be T. S. Eliot. Of course, he’s not my most favorite poet, but I don’t think any other poet is as great as he is. He is a very difficult poet from time to time. His notorious masterpiece, “The Waste Land”, is filled with difficult and obscure and personal allusions, as if the poet didn’t care if anyone could understand his poetry, and it seems utterly inaccessible to anyone who has is not equipped with a commentary and explanation. While it’s understandable while Eliot’s radical elitism might be off-putting, ultimately if you manage to survive you will see a great literary world that keeps on giving. If you break the ice and use a little commentary, every time you visit “The Waste Land” you will be rewarded with a new angle. While many experimental and avant-garde modernist literature is needlessly so, “The Waste Land” is indeed a literary miracle, and every line contains wonders.

Other Eliot poems I love:Four QuartetsJourney of the MagiPortrait of a LadyPreludesRhapsody on a Windy NightSweeney among the NightingalesThe Boston Evening TranscriptThe Love Song of J. Alfred PrufrockWhispers of Immortality

Sylvia Plath – Child

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate —
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

Sylvia Plath is one of the greatest literary giants of all time who is sadly more gossiped about than read. Her suicide and her marriage to Ted Hughes has overshadowed her poetry. But her poetry is great, and she needs to be recognized mainly for her work. I guess my favorite Plath poem is one of her rather obscure works – and you should definitely check her other poems too if you haven’t. But nothing moves me as much as the deep simplicity of this powerful poem of hers.

Other Plath poems I love: A Lesson in VengeanceArielDaddyEpitaph for Fire and FlowerFever 103°Lady LazarusMetamorphosisSowTulipsTwo Sisters of PersephoneWidowWreath for a BridalWinter TreesYou’re

Dylan Thomas – Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

I’m sharing a video because I absolutely adore how Hopkins reads this poem. Dylan Thomas – like Plath – is another poet whose life has overshadowed his works and that is equally criminal. It’s a moving elegy to his father, and yet it is much more than that, and in no other poem I have been moved by repetition so much.

Other Thomas poems I love: The Hunchback in the Park – And Death Shall Have No Dominion

Robert Frost – Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This is another poem about death but this one seems more life-affirming. This poem has motivated me throughout my life a lot! Ultimately this view of life is very appealing to me. Frost is of course one of the greatest poets of all time, and each of his poems have a deeper meaning one can discuss. A great poet to show to non-poetry-readers how great a poet can be.

Other Frost poems I love: ‘Out, Out—’Acquainted with the NightAfter Apple-PickingMending WallThe Road Not Taken

Maya Angelou – Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I wrote about Maya Angelou when she passed away this year. Ultimately she was a greater prose writer to me than a poet, although I love her poetry so much I could never leave her out of this list.
Other Angelou poems I love: Caged Bird – Still I Rise

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