20 Best Poems Of All Time: The Greatest Poetry Ever Written

Best Poems of All Time

Poetry has many meanings, stories, and life lessons embodied in it.

It is easy to talk about the brilliance and power of poetry, but more difficult to identify just what it is that makes a poem great and worthy of being passed down for decades, centuries, or even millennia.

The following poems, though, have claim to such a stature.

These great poems each have some claim on being one of the best poems of all time, either because of their unique and beautiful language or because of their original approach to poetry.

RELATED: 15 of The Best, Most Famous Poems Everyone Should’ve Read

Every poetry lover is sure to find a verse here that moves them in the way that only truly great poetry can do.

Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

By William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

While William Shakespeare is best known among the general public for his many brilliant plays, scholars have also been endlessly fascinated by his poetry, particularly his extensive collection of love sonnets. Sonnet 130 parodies the over-the-top metaphors and comparisons often used by writers of romantic poetry while still expressing a love as deep, if not deeper, for the poet’s muse.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

William Shakespeare

Ozymandias

By Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Percy Shelley’s most acclaimed and famous poem addresses, in all of fourteen lines, the enormity of time, the inevitability of death, and the necessity of all people being condemned to obscurity. If even the mighty “King of Kings” is now fallen, buried in the sand and forgotten, how can ordinary people hope to escape the same fate, without even a statue to remind subsequent generations of their names?

I met a traveller 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.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley

To Autumn

By John Keats (1795-1821)

John Keats’ ode to perhaps the least-romanticized of the seasons is mostly a catalogue of remarkable and beautiful detail and naturalistic imagery. The poem also encourages readers to find and celebrate the beauty and necessity in things, like the cold and brown of autumn, that might, at first, seem unpleasant or not worth noticing.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
      Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
      With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
      And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
      With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
            For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
      Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
      Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
      Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
      Steady thy laden head across a brook;
      Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
      And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
      Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
      Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
      The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
            And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats Autumn

Number 43: How Do I Love Thee?

By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous poem is a love sonnet, taken from a celebrated collection of love sonnets. What makes Number 43 stand out, though, is its uncomplicated devotion and earnest expression of affection; it manages to succinctly convey the depth of the speaker’s love in simple language that is not muddied by overly elaborate metaphors or imagery.

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.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Because I could not stop for Death (479)

By Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

In this poem, Emily Dickinson contemplates the prospect of death with the same clear eyes and direct language that characterizes all of her work; she expresses grief at the life that will continue on without her, but ultimately finds peace in considering that she is headed “toward Eternity” and her reward in the afterlife.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Emily Dickinson because I could not stop

O Captain! My Captain!

By Walt Whitman (1819-92)

It is easy to consider “O Captain! My Captain!” as more significant for the event it documents – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – than for its own poetic merits; however, the poem is a powerful expression of a particular form of grief – the grief of a devoted follower toward a great leader.

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

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus (1849-87)

With “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus produced perhaps the most succinct and powerful statement of the American ideal ever written. The poem articulates the mission of the United States as a refuge for any and all seeking a better life, an ideal visually represented by the Statue of Liberty on which it is engraved.

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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

best iconic poems of all time

Fog

By Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” is a poem more remarkable for its simple imagery than its elaborate metaphorical meaning or complex rhymes and rhythms. The poem captures a universal experience of watching the fog roll in and out with a unique image that will stick with readers for decades.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

best classic poems of all time

The Second Coming

By William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Like much post-war poetry, “The Second Coming” contemplates the collapse of society as we know it, driven by industrialization and the violence of the First World War. Yeats uses biblical imagery to express his fears about the direction of human society in the years after the war, creating an experience that is both haunting and deeply unsettling for the reader.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats

Medusa

By Louise Bogan (1897-1970)

Louise Bogan was the first female poet laureate of the United States, but her poem “Medusa” is not a feminist reframing of the character, but instead a reflection on the natural world, which remains “balanced” and continues to move around the speaker, even as they are frozen by the power of the Gorgon.

I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved,—a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.

When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.

This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.

The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.

And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.

Medusa Louise Bogan

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost (1874-1963)

One of Robert Frost’s greatest poems, “Stopping by Woods” is usually characterized by scholars as a contemplation on the speaker’s mortality, defined by a sense of exhaustion with life, battling with a love of the beauty of the world and a sense of obligation that keep the speaker from succumbing to death, though Frost himself denied this.

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.

Robert Frost Stopping by Woods

Shadows

By D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

D. H. Lawrence’s “Shadows” is another reflection on the speaker’s mortality, this time from a standpoint based in the cycles of the natural world and the idea of reincarnation. The speaker in “Shadows” does not fear death, because they believe they shall live again through a natural cycle similar to the phases of the moon.

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.

And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon
my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft strange gloom
pervades my movements and my thoughts and words
then shall I know that I am walking still
with God, we are close together now the moon’s in shadow.

And if, as autumn deepens and darkens
I feel the pain of falling leaves, and stems that break in storms
and trouble and dissolution and distress
and then the softness of deep shadows folding,
folding around my soul and spirit, around my lips
so sweet, like a swoon, or more like the drowse of a low, sad song
singing darker than the nightingale, on, on to the solstice
and the silence of short days, the silence of the year, the shadow,
then I shall know that my life is moving still
with the dark earth, and drenched
with the deep oblivion of earth’s lapse and renewal.

And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me,

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.

D H Lawrence

This Is Just to Say

By William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was renowned for his short, simple, image-heavy poetry, including this piece, modeled after a note left on a kitchen counter for a partner or spouse. The poem uses the image of the stolen plums as a symbol for the give and take of selfishness, forgiveness, and sacrifice that is necessary in any relationship.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams this is just to say

Do not go gentle into that good night

By Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

Dylan Thomas’ reflection on death urges readers toward the ‘correct’ way of dying, which, in Thomas’ telling, is defiant, not colored with acceptance or surrender. The poem is ultimately addressed to old men in general, but especially the speaker’s father, who the speaker urges to fight against death, presumably because they have not yet accepted his inevitable demise.

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.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Harlem

By Langston Hughes (1901-67)

Often called “A Dream Deferred,” this poem speaks succinctly to the African-American experience, defined by goals, dreams, and expectations that had to be set aside, buried, or severely curtailed due to racism, and then wonders what the final result of all this suppressed ambition will be, surmising it may ultimately lead to violence.

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?

Harlem Langston Hughes

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

By E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)

While E.E. Cummings’ poetry is famously experimental, or at least non-traditional, “I carry your heart with me” is actually the oldest and simplest kind of poem in the world, a love poem. It describes the way the speaker has internalized his love to the point where it colors everything he sees and does in the world.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                                        i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

i carry your heart with me

Mad Girl’s Love Song

By Sylvia Plath (1932-63)

“Mad Girl’s Love Song” gives voice to a woman who is insecure in her romance, and perhaps her mental health, not convinced either of her lover’s reality or his devotion to her. She still finds beauty, though, in reveling in her love and dreaming about the relationship that may be, even if it is not, or cannot be proven to be, real.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

Sylvia Plath love song

We Real Cool

By Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

While the seven pool players of “We Real Cool” are often considered representations of the Seven Deadly Sins, the poem is mostly a commentary on a youth culture that encouraged dangerous behavior as a way to seem “cool,” and the nihilism it bred in Black youth who had very little hope of improving their lives anyway. However, the poem also celebrates the unique culture these youths created, crafting a new way of being in the face of overwhelming pressure and hardship.

                                    THE POOL PLAYERS.
                                    SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

We real cool Gwendolyn brooks

Sestina

By Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79)

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” is, in some ways, an autobiographical account of her going to live with her grandmother when she was five, but it is also a portrait of a family working to love one another and find joy in the midst of a tragic dissolution of other parts of the family.

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Great best poems of all time

Black March

By Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith’s portrayal of death has a childlike rhythm and a sense of whimsy to it that makes death feel unthreatening, even pleasant, a change of pace from the tedium of being alive. While Smith preserves the mystery of death, she also uses natural imagery to suggest that death is closer to the things people know than they might suspect.

I have a friend
At the end
Of the world.
His name is a breath

Of fresh air.
He is dressed in
Grey chiffon. At least
I think it is chiffon.
It has a
Peculiar look, like smoke.

It wraps him round
It blows out of place
It conceals him
I have not seen his face.

But I have seen his eyes, they are
As pretty and bright
As raindrops on black twigs
In March, and heard him say:

I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.

Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.

(Such a pretty time when the sky
Behind black twigs can be seen
Stretched out in one
Uninterrupted
Cambridge blue as cold as snow.)

But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me
I am
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.

black march stevie smith

Summary

Here we have shared with you over 20 of the greatest poems of all time, which span the past five centuries.

Each poem represents a variety of viewpoints and discusses the most important topics in human existence, such as love, death, and the human condition.

We have included some of the greatest poems ever written by well-established household names, such as William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, as well as lesser-known but equally brilliant and respected classic poetry by poets like Stevie Smith and Elizabeth Bishop.

Some of these poems are unique to their time and place and offer a sharp insight into the society in which they were written, while others reflect on the deeply personal worldview of the poet. While some are filled with beautiful romance, others are grim poems about death.

All of them are unique and masterful works by some of the best poets of their day, and they continue to be studied, respected, and even revered to this day.

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