Most Famous Poems


Seems like that should be two different categories. Do you want the 20 most famous poems or the 20 best poems?

Poems that are famous:

The one about the plums in the icebox, which everyone can recite from memory. (You can, right?)

The one about the red wheelbarrow, which ditto. (Right?)

The Road Not Taken. Also, maybe Fire and Ice. Or perhaps Nothing Gold Can Stay. I think Frost’s short poems are likely to be remembered by everyone, especially the ones that rhyme, whereas The Death of the Hired Man, say, is less likely to spring to mind.

I’m Nobody, Who Are You? Come to think of it, everyone can probably recite that one from memory too. What’s another truly famous poem by Dickinson? Because I Could Not Stop for Death, maybe. Quite a few others. A Certain Slant of Light.

The Walrus and the Carpenter. I could recite a lot of this at one time, but that was ages ago. I can just recall the most familiar lines now. Jabberwocky, although I recently discovered that a (well-read) coworker apparently had never heard of it.

Shall I Compare Thee To a Summer Day?

Let me see, what else? Oh, of course: The Raven. Lenore too, but I doubt that’s as famous as The Raven.

A good handful of other poems are probably leaping to mind for everyone.

This is hardly the same as the 20 best poems. Regardless of my various literature teachers’ opinions, I’m unimpressed by either the plums or the wheelbarrow. It’s an uphill battle making those poems look particularly impressive to the average student, I expect. Anyway, I never had an English teacher who made me believe that.

I’m not widely enough read to have opinions about which 20 poems in all the world are the best. But I would probably pick:

A Forsaken Garden by Swinburne

The Garden of Prosopine by Swinburne. What can I say? I really like Swinburne.

Ozymandias by Shelly

To Make a Prairie by Dickinson. I know this isn’t one of the famous ones. I really like it, though.

The Second Coming by Yeats

Crossing the Bar by Tennyson

Up Hill by Rossetti

Song by Adrienne Rich

What is that, eight? Yes, I know there’s a preponderance of death themes in the above choices. That has just always seemed like a great theme for a poem to me.

I’ll stop there, take a look at the Book Riot post, and see if they define best in any way other than “iconic” or “well-known” or whatever.

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’ll pause there. I also generally prefer rhymed poems (with strong rhythm, too), I think the important thing in this context is that poems with strong rhyme are easier (a LOT easier) to remember. They stick in the mind well. If everyone in the world believed that rhymed and unrhymed poems were equally good, people would still remember rhymed poems better and they’d have a better chance to become famous.

Despite this, as you can see, I picked one unrhymed poem for my list. I’ve loved “Song” by Rich ever since I saw it in a literature class. I can’t remember whether it was assigned or just in the book, but it’s stuck with me for decades.

All right, looking to see what the Book Riot post actually picks …

Oh, The Highwayman! Yes, I love that one, but I hate highwayman’s mad ride to death at the end. What good did that do anyone? The way the highwayman throws away Bess’ sacrifice makes me furious. I wouldn’t mind writing a retelling in prose form and giving it a different ending, perhaps not happy, but not one that wastes her courage.

Here’s Loreena McKinnett’s version of The Highwayman. I love this, even though I still dislike the plot of the story.

Here’s her version of The Lady of Shalott, which I also love — more than The Highwayman, because although this is a tragic ending, it’s not the same kind of pointless tragedy.

Okay, Crossing the Bar makes an appearance on this post. That’s nice to see, though not surprising; it’s so famous.

The Road Not Taken, of course.

Oh, here’s If by Kipling. I should have thought of that one.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death. It’s a great poem, no doubt. I like it, but I got somewhat tired of it while it was being assigned in one class after another.

This is a pretty good list, really. Many famous poems, plus a couple I’m not familiar with. I do like most of the selections. I must confess, I’ve never especially liked sonnets. These are familiar, and yep, I still wouldn’t pick them.

If you were going to put a poem on a “best ever” list, what would it be?

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13 thoughts on “Most Famous Poems”

  1. For famous, iconic poems, what about “my candle burns at both ends”?

    I’m partial to that Commercial Break – Roadrunner, Uneasy by Tim Seibles, and “Terrence, This is Stupid Stuff”, particularly for the part about “and malt does more than milton can to justify god’s ways to man”.

  2. Yes, John Donne. Yes, the red wheelbarrow. I was a big fan of ‘My Galley Charged With Forgetfulness’ in college (Wyatt) but looking back it’s a little dramatic, not really top ten. I still like Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent’ though is he being sincere or ironic?

  3. On that plum poem, nope, nada, didn’t know it till sometime in the last 20 or so years, and think it’s forgettable. Certainly can’t quote it. Can’t identify the wheelbarrow one.

    When I was in a community chorus we sang some John Donne, which is where I really noticed his vocabulary, (you can’t skim over words when you’re singing) but I’m not sure it was good poetry. Some of it seemed awfully flat and strained, even set to music..

    Quite fond of the Highwayman, which I mostly memorized without trying – it just sticks. Same with The Raven. Yes on Ozymandius and some Browning, but I can’t dredge up the titles. Sea Fever by Masefield and Crossing the Bar by Tennyson, soem of the Idylls of the King by him, and also as a pair Tennyson’s The Charge of THe LIght Brigade and Kiplings’ sequel Last of the Light Brigade. Yeah, the Kipling is making a point. So?

  4. I can’t say it’s the best or anything close to it — too many poems in the world! — but I have always loved Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish. “A poem should be equal to, not true. For all the history of grief, an empty doorway and a maple leaf. For love, the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea — A poem should not mean, but be.”

  5. I once read a book about the 100 most anthologized poems. It was interesting. (As long as you skipped the intros to the poems. Very bad literary criticism.)

  6. I should also say that these are all poems in English. I had to learn a ton of classical (Tang dynasty) Chinese poetry when I was a kid, and I have always thought that those Chinese poems were much more evocative than most English poems. Not sure why. Maybe it’s because there’s so much packed into each Chinese character. Maybe it’s because there are so many different Chinese characters that mean something similar (say, “end,” or “death,”) but each character just has a slightly different feel, so when you use one character rather than another it gives you a different feeling. (Sort of like the difference between using great v. amazing v. stupendous v. fantastic v. tremendous v. awesome, except more subtle.)

    Anyway, I remember Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Under Heaven being mentioned on this site once or twice. It’s loosely based on a famous episode in Chinese history, and there is a famous poem written about the love story between the Emperor and the history figure on which Wen Jian (the Precious Consort) is based. The last lines in Chinese goes like this:


    Wikipedia has it translated as:
    In the heavens, we vow to be as two birds flying wingtip to wingtip,
    On earth, we vow to be as two intertwined branches of a tree.
    Even the heaven and earth have their ending times,
    The regret of our parting will last forever and never end.

    So you can sort of see how compact the Chinese poem is in contrast, and the English translation just doesn’t quite capture the feeling even if it’s pretty accurate as a translation of meaning.

    Anyway, it makes me wonder what great poetry in other languages (say Greek, or Arabic, or Russian, or Japanese) that I will never fully experience/feel, even if I were to read the translations…. (Caveat that my Chinese is 5th grade level at best, and I haven’t read/learned any Chinese poems for decades, so I am no authority on Chinese language/poetry and probably miss out on a ton of meaning in Chinese poetry too, even for the poems I did learn as a kid.)

  7. Elaine, The Red Wheelbarrow is here. While it beats the plums, I have to say, despite Alison’s defense, it doesn’t impress me. Of course we already know I prefer rolling lines such as in Swinburne, and clear themes of death. I love the sound of Tennyson’s poems, but once you know the whole thing was based on stupidity and serious mistakes, well, The Charge of the Light Brigade loses a lot, that’s all. I can’t bring myself to read the poem now, after listening to a lecture about Terrible Military Blunders that focused on that charge.

    Alison, thanks for mentioning the Silken Tent, which I don’t think I’ve ever come across before.

    TC, yes, I also love Ars Poetica. If I’d thought of it, I’d have put it on my list.

    Your comments about Chinese poems are excellent, and thank you for the example you posted. I can easily believe that Chinese characters give you more nuance, or a different kind of nuance.

  8. I think I only like Charge because of the Kipling sequel at this point, yes.

    I think for me a ‘best’ poem has to have sticking power, even if just a fraction of it. So think like the wheelbarrow and plums just don’t make the cut.

    The Teen has been writing poetry and grumbles a lot about ‘poems’ that as essentially prose broken up. Having imprinted on Tolkien and Poe is writing things with rhythm, rhyme and flow. We were recently poking at Noyes’ Highwayman and noticing how much he used color words to pull things together. (Yes, I agree on the story it tells, but it’s a great poem.)

  9. I don’t know that it’s great, but famous? Known by almost everyone? “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Moore.

    There are some songs that are absolutely poems. Many of Paul Simon’s songs – The Boxer is a personal favorite. And can we talk about Leonard Cohen? I love poetry. I don’t read it enough, but it amazes me how much can be condensed into so little. A poem is a seed made of words.

  10. Wow, you all know lots of poems! I feel quite under-educated now. Dutch literature classes spend very little time on poetry, and certainly no time on memorizing poems. Neither does high school English (in the Netherlands).
    I’ve read some but not a lot; some of Kipling’s because they were included in my big Collected Kipling book, some Robert Frost (Stopping by woods on a snowy evening was made into a lovely picture book), a little bit of John Donne and Shakespeare, and that’s it for me, I guess. I can recognise phrases from those but not attribute them nor quote them.

    The only ones I can quote are from some famous Dutch children’s writers (Annie M.G.Schmidt and Han G.Hoekstra), verses written for children, that my mother knew by heart and quoted to us. Things like The shark and the little pike, or The royal cat named Ferdinand (who had 7 kittens), or My uncle and aunt live in an oak tree – lighthearted fun, which rhymes and trips off the tongue easily, but nothing at all like the sort of poetry you mention here.

  11. A seed made of words! I love that, Mary. Also, I agree about “The Boxer.” I love that song.

    Hanneke, I don’t think anyone is required to memorize poems. I liked the sound of some of them enough to recite them to myself and memorize them. I think the majority of grade school and high school English and Literature classes do assign some poetry, but I also used to read everything in English books, because why not? The book was there. I think most American students are probably shown poems by English and American poets, especially Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. And Shakespeare, of course!

    I don’t know whether this is typical in college, but where I went, everyone was required to take Humanities classes their Freshman year. Those were largely literature classes, or that’s how it seemed to me. That’s where I encountered Adrienne Rich and Christina Rosetti, among others. Although I have few fond memories of high school reading assignments — ugh, tragedies — I always did enjoy the poetry.

  12. Ah, thank you for all the poem recommendations! Utterly foolish to try to catalog “best” poems, except that the effort allows us to share our favourites among us.

    Jabberwocky is one of my favourites: I love reciting it! And Leonard Cohen, yes! And Paul Simon. I love songs that are poems (I suppose they all are, sort of, but some are more poem-y than others.)

    I do love Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I think I like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s better. “Dirge without music” continues the death theme nicely. And I’ve always enjoyed “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,” and “I, being born a woman and distressed” as pretty acerbic responses to any love poem.

    “To His Coy Mistress” is probably the best “let’s have sex now” poem; either that or “The Flea”!

    Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” seems more and more true the older I get.

    My favourite Tennyson is “Break, break break,” because of the wonderful sounds of it. (More death for you!)

    My favourite Emily Dickenson … “Hope is the thing with feathers” … “Beauty crowds me till I die” … “Four Trees—upon a solitary Acre—” … now I will spend the rest of the evening browsing the art book of her poetry that my high-school English teacher gave me as a wedding gift. I love Emily Dickenson!

    e.e. cummings! “I thank you god for most this amazing day” (He does sonnets, too!)

    I remember snatches from poems I read in university that really moved me but I can’t remember enough of them to find the poems again. One had something to do with angels and laundry; another kept repeating “when you kiss me” (I think?) and had a lot of amazing tropical imagery. I just know the rhythm and the feeling they gave me, and you can’t google that!

    I get a “Poem-a-day” with a free subscription from I don’t read them all, or like all the ones I read, but it’s fun to have new poetry experience whenever I open my inbox.

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