31 Interesting Facts about Poetry and Poets

Fun facts about poets and poetry from Shakespeare to Marianne Moore

E. E. Cummings dedicated his self-published volume of poetry, No Thanks, to the fourteen publishers who had turned it down.

In the source poem for Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is 15. Nobody knows why Shakespeare chose to make her 13 in his play.

The word ‘syphilis’ is derived from the name of an afflicted character in a 1530 poem by Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro.

An 1852 edition of John Milton’s Poetical Works was bound in the skin of a murderer, George Cudmore.

John F. Kennedy’s favourite poem was ‘I Have a Rendezvous with Death’ by Alan Seeger.

John MiltonThe word ‘unfriend’ as a noun dates from around 1275, meaning ‘one who is not a friend’. It is found in Layamon’s medieval epic poem Brut.

German poet Gottlob Burmann so despised the letter R that he avoided using it in his poetry – and in everyday conversation.

Poet Marianne Moore was asked by the Ford Motor Company to come up with names for new cars. One of her suggestions was ‘Mongoose Civique’.

The phrase ‘namby pamby’ originated as a nickname for Ambrose Philips, eighteenth-century poet lampooned for his babyish verses.

The last line of the Robert Burns poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’ should strictly be ‘For auld lang syne’, not ‘For the sake of auld lang syne’. What’s more, Burns didn’t technically write the poem.

Seventeenth-century poet Sir John Suckling invented the card game cribbage.

Lizzie Doten’s 1863 book, Poems from the Inner Life, included poems which Doten claimed to have received from the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe.

Poet Amy Lowell once bought a stash of 10,000 cigars, claiming she needed them to help her write.

The word ‘pamphlet’ is derived from a fourteenth-century comic love poem ‘Pamphilius; or, Concerning Love’. Pamphilius means ‘lover of all’.

According to legend, Chinese poet Li Po died when he drunkenly attempted to grasp the reflection of the moon in the still waters of a lake.

‘Flyting’ is the term for a poetic slanging-match, where two poets assail each other in turn with streams of abusive verse.

Emily DickinsonThere was an Elizabethan poet and reverend called Thomas Bastard.

‘Metrophobia’ is the name for a fear of poetry.

‘Metromania’ denotes the compulsion to write poetry.

Sir Walter Scott composed much of his bestselling epic poem ‘Marmion’ while on horseback.

The ancient epic Indian poem the Mahabharata runs to over 100,000 lines.

Herman Melville’s 1876 work Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land is the longest published poem in American literature.

George MacDonald (1824-1905) wrote a two-word poem called ‘The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs’. It simply reads: ‘Come Home.’

The epitaph on Emily Dickinson’s gravestone in Amherst, Massachusetts, composed by the poet herself, features just two words: ‘called back’.

The rule prohibiting the ending of a sentence with a preposition was invented by 17th-century poet John Dryden. Most grammarians ignore him.

‘Rhapsodomancy’ is divining the future by picking a passage of poetry at random.

The three biggest-selling poets in the world are Shakespeare, Lao-Tzu, and Khalil Gibran.

G. K. Chesterton wrote a poem called ‘Plakkopytrixophylisperambulantiobatrix’.

The word ‘bitch’ was first used in reference to a man in a poem from around 1500.

The Greek epic poet Homer is thought to have written a (sadly all but lost) poem called Margites, about an exceedingly stupid man.

The last words of poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu were ‘It’s all been very interesting.’

If you enjoyed these poetry facts, we have lots of further surprising pieces of trivia about literature in our book, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. Continue your poetry odyssey with our history of English poetry told through 8 short poems and our list of 27 great facts about words and the English language. You might also enjoy our pick of the best sonnets in the English language.

Image (top): Picture of John Milton, Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Image (bottom): Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.

23 thoughts on “31 Interesting Facts about Poetry and Poets”

  1. Lovely post, as always. The Mahabharat though was originally composed c. 950 BCE and added to over the next millennium and a half and is thought to have (almost) reached its modern known form c 400 ACE.
    And seriously, the skin of a murderer??

    • Perhaps one to add for readers who are not into biogs of poets: Keats trained as a surgeon’s assistant and died age 25. His teachers remember he was more interested in fighting the other boys than in his studies!

  2. I would suggest adding that Emily Bronte was both a great poet and novelist, something that is very unusual. She actually was first (and I might say foremost) a poet.

  3. I put Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s last words on my mother’s grave three years ago. It was a sentiment she often quoted. On my own grave (in Highgate Cemetery – yes, my husband’s family has a plot with room for two!) I’m having a quote from Pontius Pilate (John 18:22): ‘What I have written, I have written’.

  4. In the spirit of fun, I hereby dispute two assertions.

    I do believe the Mahabharata is 100,000 couplets, meaning it is 200,000 lines long.

    Also, at 120,000 lines of blank verse, the Hermead is now the longest published poem in American literature.


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