A survey of the key moments in English poetry, told through 8 short famous poems
English poetry is a broad field, so any attempt to tell its history in a short blog post is going to have to paint pretty broad brush strokes. But one way of avoiding too many sweeping generalisations about ‘big’ movements in poetic history can be minimised, perhaps, by looking only at a handful of specific short poems by famous poets. What follows, then, is a brief history of English poetry told through eight decisive moments in literary history, showing how poetry developed over nearly eight centuries. Of course, focusing on short poems carries its disadvantages too – we cannot take into account The Canterbury Tales or Paradise Lost, two of the most important works of English poetry – but what follows should provide a sense of how poetry has changed over time.
Anonymous, ‘Fowls in the Frith’. This is a short lyric dating from the thirteenth century, when the history of recognisably English poetry arguably begins; ‘frith’ is an old word for ‘wood’. The poem, written in Middle English, features a speaker who, he tells us, ‘mon waxë wod’ (i.e. must go mad) because of the sorrow he walks with. Because the last line is ambiguous (‘the best of bone and blood’ could refer to a woman or to Christ), the poem can be read either as a love lyric or as a religious lyric:
Foulës in the frith,
The fishës in the flod,
And I mon waxë wod;
Much sorwe I walkë with
For beste of bon and blod.
For more medieval poems in the original Middle English, check out our pick of 10 great short medieval poems.
William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 18’. No history of English poetry would be complete without the Bard. In the three or four centuries between ‘Fowls in the Frith’ and Shakespeare, much happened in English poetry, of course. Middle English developed in the hands of Chaucer and Langland, in turn giving way to modern English, but the next major development would be in the sixteenth century when the Italian sonnet reached England’s shores. As we revealed in our interesting facts about the sonnet, it would be used by a number of Tudor poets, including Thomas Wyatt, as well as Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. But it would be Shakespeare who would put the English stamp well and truly on this Italian form – by inventing the English or ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet. Here’s perhaps the most famous opening line in all of English poetry, along with the rest of the sonnet:
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Poem on Charles II. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after the English Civil War, the reign of the ‘Merry Monarch’, Charles II, began, and a more epigrammatic style of poetry was in. The sonnet form associated with courtly love poetry was out, and instead a wittier, more classically-influenced poetry was the order of the day. This poem by the Earl of Rochester (1647-80), one of the favourites at Charles’s court, exemplifies this:
Here lies our sovereign lord the king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never says a foolish thing,
Nor ever does a wise one.
The poem was apparently written on the door of Charles’s bedchamber.
Alexander Pope, ‘I am his Highness’ dog at Kew’. After the reign of the ‘Merry Monarch’, the epigrammatic style of Rochester’s verse would be pared down to an even more stringent poetic form, the rhyming couplet. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was the chief exponent of this form; he was known as ‘the Wasp of Twickenham’ for his stinging and acerbic verses criticising and lampooning his enemies. The following couplet by Pope constitutes the entire poem – so it’s just two lines long:
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew,
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?
The poem was reportedly inscribed on the collar that was round the neck of a dog that Pope gave to the Prince of Wales in 1738. The poem showcases the stringency of the Augustan rhyming couplet but also the satirical vein of much ‘Augustan’ poetry. ‘Augustan’ was the name given to much of the poetry that dominated the English literary scene in the first half of the eighteenth century, since many of the poets – Pope, but also Jonathan Swift and, writing slightly earlier, John Dryden – looked back to classical Rome, and the time of Augustus, for their inspiration. Such neoclassicism chimes with the movements in architecture at the time as well as a general emphasis on orderliness: this was also the great age of landscape gardening, when man showed his control over nature through neatly trimmed lawns and hedges. It was also the golden age of English satire. The history of English poetry in the eighteenth century is bound up with the history of satire. This was the age that brought in theatre censorship in the form of the Licensing Act of 1737, thanks to the stage satires of Henry Fielding and others – an act that would only be abolished in 1968.
William Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up’. This short poem exemplifies Romanticism in numerous ways, and certainly typifies the poetry of Wordsworth (1770-1850), the most famous figure of first-generation Romanticism, and best-known for his famous poem about daffodils:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
The simple nine-line poem describes how the poet is filled with joy when he sees a rainbow, and that he has always felt this way, since ‘my life began’; he hopes he will always keep that sense of enchantment with the natural world. The poem contains Wordsworth’s famous declaration, ‘The Child is father of the Man’, highlighting how important childhood experience was to the Romantics in helping to shape the human beings they became in adult life. The poem also demonstrates how the feelings and personal experiences of the poetic individual were paramount to many of the Romantics, with their relationship with nature often being almost spiritual (‘natural piety’, as Wordsworth concludes the poem). So, whereas Pope and his fellow ‘Augustans’ had been all about the tight control of the rhyming couplet, as a reflection of the wider desire for control over nature, Romantics like Wordsworth instead let themselves be influenced and transformed by the natural world.
Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’. The most famous Victorian poet was probably Tennyson, who was Poet Laureate for much of Victoria’s reign. Tennyson was heavily influenced by the Romantics – especially John Keats – as was much Victorian poetry. Christina Rossetti (1830-94), sister to the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, exemplifies much of the spirit of Victorian poetry also embodied by Tennyson: much Victorian poetry (though not all: exceptions include Swinburne and Browning) is about love and loss, expressed in stirring emotional language that sometimes spills over into sentimentality. It is unsurprising, then, that some of the best-loved Victorian poetry is about mourning loved ones: one of the most popular poems of the age was Tennyson’s long elegy for a friend, In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850). Given that much Victorian poetry is about love and loss, it also comes as little surprise that the most famous lines from In Memoriam are ”Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.’ The following sonnet by Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’, captures in miniature the spirit of her poetry, and that of many of her contemporaries.
Ernest Dowson, ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’. The awareness of mortality that we see in Rossetti’s poem was something that later Victorian poets, including decadent writers like Ernest Dowson (about whom we’ve compiled some interesting facts here), developed into an art form. The full title is taken from Roman poet Horace: ‘Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam‘ (‘the brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long’).
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
The flowers of High Romanticism wilted during the nineteenth century: Wordsworth’s daffodils became Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, or ‘flowers of evil’, and decadent poets writing in English, like Dowson, picked up on this sour, almost diseased note. The days of wine and roses are not long, but while one’s here to enjoy them, one may as well get drunk and smell the flowers before they go off.
T. E. Hulme, ‘The Embankment’. Our final poem may have been written over a century ago, but it embodies, for our money, the last significant development to occur in the history mainstream poetry (of course, there have been many smaller but significant developments in Anglophone poetry around the world). T. E. Hulme’s poetry, the majority of which was written around 1908-9, represents the arrival of literary modernism in poetry, the next big artistic movement. It also represents the arrival (or, perhaps more accurately, the return) of what Hulme himself called the ‘classical’ mode in English poetry: the decadent strain of Dowson’s poem is picked up and developed in this poem, where the ‘fallen gentleman’, sleeping rough in London, states in plain terms (and in a less regular stanza form and rhyme scheme) that ‘warmth’s the very stuff of poesy’. But Hulme’s poetry is more stoic and tight-lipped than Dowson’s and the Decadents’ had been. Some of the language (e.g. ‘poesy’) may be quaintly outdated, but there is a modern feel to Hulme’s rhythms and his decision not to rhyme his poem rigidly (‘pavement’, for instance, has no rhyme). Anyway, here is ‘The Embankment’, subtitled ‘The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night’:
Some of Hulme’s other short poems exemplify this arrival of modernism in poetry: see our pick of his best short poems, or our piece about why he’s perhaps the first modern poet in English.
So there we have it! That’s our short history of English poetry over nearly 800 years, from the Middle Ages to the modern age. Of course, we’ve been hugely selective here and you may disagree with our summary, so feel free to leave your suggestions for alternative short poems which sum up a particular literary age or movement, by commenting below.
Image (top): Portrait of William Shakespeare, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866), public domain.