For Emily Dickinson, fame is a bee; William Shakespeare, in the opening words of Love’s Labour’s Lost, described it as the thing that ‘all hunt after in their lives’. Poets have often written about celebrity and being famous, so here are 10 of the best poems about fame, glory, and celebrity.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The House of Fame. We begin this rundown of the best poems about fame with the first great poet in English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400). Although it’s nowhere near as long as The Canterbury Tales, The House of Fame is still a substantial work, in which the poet falls asleep and dreams he’s in a glass temple adorned with images of glorious and famous people from history (including the poets Ovid and Virgil). This prompts Chaucer to consider what fame actually is, and the relationship between poets and fame.
Samuel Daniel, Sonnet LVIII from Delia. Taken from Daniel’s sonnet sequence written to ‘Delia’ – one of a number of sonnet cycles written in English following the runaway success, or fame, of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil in Stella which was published in 1591 – this sonnet sees Daniel rejecting all honours except those won through immortalising his beloved: ‘None other fame mine unambitious Muse / Affected ever but t’eternize thee; / All other honours do my hopes refuse, / Which meaner priz’d and momentary be.’
Alexander Pope, ‘The Temple of Fame’. As the similarities in title suggest, this poem was directly inspired by Chaucer’s earlier fame-poem: Pope’s poem, from the early eighteenth century, is even subtitled ‘A Vision’, in a nod to Chaucer’s medieval dream-vision. Although it owes a great deal to Chaucer’s poem and Pope later categorised his poem as ‘juvenile’, it’s a fine neoclassical meditation on the worth of fame, in Pope’s impeccably composed heroic couplets.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘Celebrity’. The German poet Goethe knew a thing or two about celebrity: his name was renowned throughout Europe at one time. In this poem, he considers the way saints and other notable figures are commemorated in statues and memorials and how noted people are immortalised in portraits.
John Clare, ‘Idle Fame’. The underrated Romantic poet John Clare (1793-1864) laments fame for its own sake here: ‘I would not wish the burning blaze / Of fame around a restless world, / The thunder and the storm of praise / In crowded tumults heard and hurled.’
John Keats, ‘On Fame’. In his short lifetime – he died of tuberculosis aged just 25 – the Romantic poet John Keats (pictured right) dreamt of literary fame and immortality. When he died, he feared that his name would not last: his self-composed epitaph describes his name as ‘writ in water’. In ‘On Fame’, Keats ponders the fickle nature of celebrity: ‘Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy / To those who woo her with too slavish knees, / But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy, / And dotes the more upon a heart at ease’.
Walt Whitman, ‘When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame’. ‘When I peruse the conquer’d fame of / heroes, and the victories of / mighty generals, I do not envy the generals’: so begins this short poem by American literature’s pioneer of free verse.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Fame is a Bee’. The first of two Emily Dickinson poems about fame to appear on this list, this single-quatrain poem sums up the two key qualities of fame in one handy metaphor: that of the bee. Although fame can hurt us and damage us, it also allows us to soar higher than we otherwise would…
Emily Dickinson, ‘Fame is a Fickle Food’. In this, one of the other great poems about fame which Dickinson wrote, she addresses the fickleness of fame as motivation, since the goalposts are constantly moving: ‘Fame is a fickle food / Upon a shifting plate / Whose table once a Guest but not / The second time is set.’
Charlotte Mew, ‘Fame’. A more oblique and ambiguous take on fame than many of the other poems in this list, Mew’s ‘Fame’ is also more challenging and obscure than Mew’s most famous poem, ‘The Farmer’s Bride’. Personifying fame as a woman with bewitching eyes and ‘bright hair’, Mew suggests here that it would be better to leave fame and replace it with a ‘little dream’. Though what she means by this remains at best implicit…