Do you know any English poems? Probably more than you think. There are some poems that everyone knows at least a couple of lines of in every language. And English is no exception. Choosing the best poems is a very subjective thing; we all have our individual likes and dislikes. But, some poems stand the test of time and those are the ones that we’re going to look at today.
Top English Poems
1. The Tyger, William Blake
No, you haven’t been spelling tiger wrong in English – we’re heading back to the 18th century with this poem, when spelling rules were a little more relaxed. William Blake is one of a group of so-called Romantic poets from England. This doesn’t mean his poems were all romantic – far from it! – but they focused on emotion, nature and individualism. The Tyger is one of his best known poems and it’s taught in schools because children like the rhythm as well as the words. The best known part of the poem is the beginning:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night…
2. If, Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling is famous around the world for writing The Jungle Book, but his most famous poem is If. Kipling is a controversial figure in literature now because of his links to and writing about 19th century imperialism. But If remains a motivational mantra of how to live a grown-up life. Two lines of the poem are written at the players’ entrance to centre court at Wimbledon, encouraging them to keep wins and losses in perspective:
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same…
3. Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ozymandias is another poem from the Romantic era and there are two lines that are particularly famous around the world:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Ozymandias was the Greek name for Ramesses II and the poem is about the unavoidable decline of great rulers. One of the greatest episodes of the tv series Breaking Bad had the title of Ozymandias and *spoiler alert!* it showed the decline of a powerful man, watching his empire crumble.
4. Sonnet 18, Shakespeare
We couldn’t have a list of the greatest poetry in English without including Shakespeare. His best-known sonnet begins with these lines:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate…
This poem is often used in wedding vows and in overblown romantic films when characters declare their love for each other. It describes a lover’s beauty and all of the ways they are more beautiful than a summer’s day.
5. The road not taken, Robert Frost
Robert Frost was an American poet and The road not taken is his most famous poem. These lines are often read at high school and university graduation ceremonies, encouraging young people to go out into the world and take their own path.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
6. Daffodils, William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud… is one of the lines of poetry that every English child and adult knows. Wordsworth, the writer, was one of the English romantic poets best known as a lover of nature and this poem shows that off. It is a simple and sweet poem about nature and the countryside; it was criticised a lot when Wordsworth released it in the early 19th century, but is now one of the UK’s favourite poems.
7. The new colossus, Emma Lazarus
The title of this poem might not be familiar to a lot of people outside the USA, but most of us know the imagery that came from it. The poem, written in 1883, is about the Statue of Liberty and it is on a plaque inside the statue’s pedestal. It turned the Statue of Liberty into a symbol of immigration and the welcome all immigrants would receive in the US. Two of its most famous lines that show this are:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…
8. The Owl and the Pussy-cat, Edward Lear
The final poem is one for children and is beloved across the English-speaking world. It’s a classic bedtime story and is described as a nonsense poem. It’s funny and playful and begins with the lovely lines:
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat…
If you want to read any of these poems, I recommend starting with The Owl and the Pussy-cat, because it’s written for children but it also doesn’t make sense to anyone – including English-speakers – so you can’t go wrong!