Naturally, the older a poem is, the more famous it tends to be. Someone like Byron has had centuries for his work to sink into the public consciousness; a poet like Dylan Thomas only a few decades. This is why, when I was researching the most famous poems in order to write this article, they were almost exclusively Victorian or earlier.
As a consequence of the fact that the most famous poems tend to be the older ones, they also often have distinct rhyme schemes threaded throughout the verses. While I personally do think rhyming poems are generally ‘better’, and that partially also accounts for their fame, I recognise how subjective this adjective is. Moreover, non-rhyming poems have played a significant role in literature during the last century in particular. In fact, the influence of poems such as Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (#5 below) on his adherents would probably be difficult to overestimate. Instead of confining myself to the older, rhyming poems which usually make up lists like this, I’ve therefore picked and chosen to ensure a fuller range of poets. This reflects a more diverse canon.
I have restricted myself to those poems which were originally written in English. There’s a fairly eclectic collection below, and they’re in no particular order, but I hope you enjoy!
#1. From ‘The Highwayman‘ by Alfred Noyes (1906)
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding
Up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin,
They fit him with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh;
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle,
Under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed into the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred,
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot
Into her long black hair.
[This poem is SPECTACULAR. I’ve only reproduced part one above, but it goes on for many more stanzas, relating the heart-stirring tale of Bess and her robber lover. I first read it when I was 8 or 9 years old and promptly memorised it; I can still recite it now. Its combination of doomed love, thrilling action, and rollicking rhyme scheme has assured its place among the poetical greats.]
#2. ‘A Red, Red Rose’ by Robert Burns (1794)
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
[Unsurprisingly, this one is a favourite at weddings. Though Burns himself was no great lover, being part of a long poetic tradition of men who swear eternal devotion in their verses whilst roving far and wide in real life, the simple eloquence of this poem has captured many an imagination.]
#3. ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1889)
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
[Tennyson is known for his moving elegies; In Memoriam A.H.H. gave us, for example, the immortal line ”tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. This particular poem is famous for its evocative portrayal of death, both emotional and uplifting — a funeral favourite.]
#4. From ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
[While many of Poe’s poems are strong contenders for history’s most famous poems, with Annabel Lee in particular a close second, I ultimately selected The Raven for its wonderfully elaborate rhyme scheme and gorgeous imagery.]
#5. From ‘Howl‘ by Allan Ginsberg (1956)
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
[Ginsberg’s masterpiece – a profane, frenzied, stream-of-consciousness paean to protest – is recognised as being one of the foundational texts of the 1960s Beat Generation. From thence was born the Beatles and Bob Dylan, alongside a number of other songwriters who credit Ginsberg and his contemporary Jack Kerouac as influences.]
#6. Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare (1609)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
[One of Shakespeare’s most famous love sonnets, this is another regular at weddings].
#7. From ‘Caged Bird‘ by Maya Angelou (1983)
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
[Though Angelou more famously used the image of the caged bird in the title of her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she also turned it into a poem. Her inspiration comes from the next poem on this list.]
#8. From ‘Sympathy‘ by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1899)
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
[Popularised by Angelou, Dunbar wrote these lines — a moving metaphor for the oppression of African Americans — whilst working at the Library of Congress, an experience he likened to being ‘in a cage’].
#9. ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost (1916)
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;
#10. From ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling (1910)
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:
[Like Frost’s poem above, this one falls into the general category of 20th century “advice poems.“ Kipling’s enumeration of positive qualities takes the form of advice passed on from a father to his son, making it a fan favourite.]
#11. ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ by Phyllis Wheatley (1768)
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
[Wheatley is a truly incredible figure. Having been sold into slavery as a child, she was taken to America, where her owners — progressive, especially for their time – encouraged her literary talents. The above is her most famous poem, combining spiritual awe with a rebuke against racism.]
#12. From ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas (1947)
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
[Thomas’s impassioned exhortations to his father to “rage against the dying of the light,” and resist the encroachment of death, is deeply moving. Its famous refrain is echoed in many other works. The poem can be found in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.]
#13. ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson (1890)
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
[Of all Dickinsons’ verses — delicate, distinctively punctuated, and imaginative — this is probably the most famous. It deftly paints a picture of someone folding gracefully into death, in stark contrast to the Dylan Thomas preceding it.]
#14. Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1850)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
[This sonnet is redolent with a deep passion and emotion, securing its place in literary history. It’s a wedding and Valentine’s Day favourite.]
#15. ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley (1888)
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.
[This last stanza in particular is oft-quoted. The poem here embodies the classical independence and self-reliance of later Victorian poetry, its writer proclaiming himself unmoved by whatever vicissitudes may befall him.]
#16. ‘Coal’ by Audre Lorde (1968)
Is the total black, being spoken
From the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open.
How a diamond comes into a knot of flame
How a sound comes into a word, coloured
By who pays what for speaking.
[In Lorde’s most well-known poem, she touches upon not merely race but its intersection with class dynamics as well, producing a vivid discourse on types of power.]
#17. From ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry‘ by Francis Scott Key (1814)
O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there —O! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
[Being someone whose knowledge of pre-1860 America is almost non-existent, I was astonished to find that the lyrics of the U.S. national anthem are traceable to a distinct poem. Key’s poem is filled with a rousing patriotism that made it perfect for adaptation.]
#18. ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes (1951)
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
[Short but snappy in its message, this again is among Hughes’s best-known poems. Inspired by earlier decades of African American musical tendencies, such as jazz, its title of ‘Harlem’ — emblematic of black creativity — reinforces its consideration of a black American Dream.]
#19. ‘She Walks in Beauty’ by George Gordon, Lord Byron
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
[Apparently written after seeing his cousin’s wife, this poem of Byron — another of Burns’s ilk in the romance department — has attained enduring fame for its near-spiritual contemplation of beauty.]
#20. From ‘The Hill We Climb‘ by Amanda Gorman (2021)
When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
[I’m rounding off this list with a more recent poem, and one which needs no introduction — this is, of course, the poem recited at Biden’s inauguration, by youth poet laureate Gorman.]
For more poems I’ve loved, try this round-up of haunting Victorian poetry!