Literature

The Best Eighteenth-Century Poems Everyone Should Read

The eighteenth century was the great Age of Enlightenment, but also Romanticism. The Augustan or neoclassical poetry of Alexander Pope and others eventually gave way to the Romantic meditations of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest and most emblematic poems of the eighteenth century. We’ve confined ourselves to poems written in the English language here, to make the task even vaguely achievable.

Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock. The neoclassical return to the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome – coupled with a desire for rationalism and order – dominated the first half of the eighteenth century in English verse. And nobody better personified this neoclassical ideal than Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who made his name while still in his early twenties with this mock-heroic satire on the vanity of upper-class society in the early eighteenth century. When a lock of Belinda’s hair is cut off, a ‘war’ ensues, taking in the whole epic cast of supernatural entities (Sylphs and the like):

Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel
A well-bred lord t’ assault a gentle belle?
O say what stranger cause, yet unexplor’d,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?
In tasks so bold, can little men engage,
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘Hymn to the Moon’. Montagu (1689-1762) was a remarkable eighteenth-century woman: as well as her writing, she is also credited with introducing smallpox inoculation to Britain, half a century before Edward Jenner developed vaccination against the disease. ‘Hymn to the Moon’ is a wonderful lyric about the moon which shows that eighteenth-century poets weren’t always writing in a satirical vein. Indeed, in many ways Montagu’s poem prefigures the Romantic poems written at the end of the eighteenth century:

By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,
My friend, my goddess, and my guide.

Samuel Johnson, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) embodies much of the eighteenth century with its determination to define, categorise, and classify: he is best-remembered for his monumental 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. But he was also a poet: much of Johnson’s poetry is written in the heroic couplets (iambic pentameter rhyming couplets) used in Pope’s poem above. Much of it also contains a strong element of moral instruction, as here, in his poem about vanity:

The teeming mother, anxious for her race,
Begs for each birth the fortune of a face:
Yet Vane could tell what ills from beauty spring;
And Sedley curs’d the form that pleas’d a king.
Ye nymphs of rosy lips and radiant eyes,
Whom Pleasure keeps too busy to be wise,
Whom Joys with soft varieties invite,
By day the frolic, and the dance by night,
Who frown with vanity, who smile with art,
And ask the latest fashion of the heart,
What care, what rules your heedless charms shall save,
Each nymph your rival, and each youth your slave?

Thomas Gray, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. Of course, this classic eighteenth-century poem had to feature in our list of the best churchyard poems! The ‘country churchyard’ referred to in the poem’s title belonged to St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire. ‘Gray’s Elegy’ (as it’s often known) was partly inspired by the death of another poet, Richard West, in 1742, but became a grand meditation on death and the simple memorials left behind by rustic village folk rather than statesmen and celebrated figures. The poem also gave Thomas Hardy the phrase ‘far from the madding crowd’ for use as the title of his fourth published novel.

Phillis Wheatley, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. Wheatley (c. 1753-84; pictured right) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties. Wheatley had been taken from Africa to America as a young girl, but was freed shortly after the publication of her poems; the short poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ reminds her (white) readers that although she is black, everyone – regardless of skin colour – can be ‘refined’ and join the choirs of the godly. The poem betrays its eighteenth-century context and the attitudes towards race at the time, but Wheatley’s voice is an important one in eighteenth-century American – indeed, world – poetry.

Robert Burns, ‘A Red, Red Rose’. Possibly based on a traditional lyric, this poem – also called ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ – is one of the most widely anthologised love poems in English. Bob Dylan called it his single biggest inspiration. And did the final two lines inspire The Proclaimers to write ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’? One cannot choose but wonder.

Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet on being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland’. English Romanticism wasn’t entirely dominated by men, although it’s true that names like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and so on tend to dominate the lists. But as Dorothy Wordsworth’s role in inspiring ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ demonstrates, Romanticism wasn’t quite an all-male affair. This poem by Charlotte Turner Smith, a pioneer of Romanticism in England who was born before Wordsworth or Coleridge, is that rarest of things: a Gothic sonnet. This needn’t surprise when we bear in mind that the sonnet’s author, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was associated with English Romanticism and was also a key figure in the revival of the English sonnet.

William Blake, ‘The Tyger’. The opening line of this poem, ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright’, is among the most famous lines in all of William Blake’s poetry. Accompanied by a painting of an altogether cuddlier tiger than the ‘Tyger’ depicted by the poem itself, ‘The Tyger’ first appeared in Songs of Experience in 1794. Framed as a series of questions, ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’ (as the poem is also often known) sees Blake’s speaker wondering about the creator responsible for such a fearsome creature as the tiger. The fiery imagery used throughout the poem conjures the tiger’s aura of danger: fire equates to fear. Don’t get too close to the tiger, Blake’s poem seems to say, otherwise you’ll get burnt. This is one of the most famous poems of the late eighteenth century and an important example of English Romanticism, although Blake stands separate from the next two poets on this list…

William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’. This poem was not actually composed at Tintern Abbey, but, as the poem’s full title reveals, was written nearby, overlooking the ruins of the medieval priory in the Wye Valley in South Wales. Well, actually, according to Wordsworth, he didn’t ‘write’ a word of the poem until he got to Bristol, where he wrote down the whole poem, having composed it in his head shortly after leaving the Wye. The poem is one of the great hymns to tranquillity, quiet contemplation, and self-examination in all of English literature, and a quintessential piece of Romantic poetry written in meditative blank verse.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge’s classic 1798 poem first appeared in Lyrical Ballads, the volume Coleridge co-authored with William Wordsworth. Wordsworth disliked The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a long narrative poem inspired by a story Coleridge had heard from a Somerset sailor, and only reluctantly allowed it to be included in reprints of the collection. Coleridge’s poem, which is now recognised as a classic, contains perhaps the most famous poetic lines about water in the whole of English literature: ‘Water, water, anywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.’

One Comment

  1. Bound to be! I’ve seen The Proclaimers in concert twice, and they’re very keen on promoting Scottish culture – I’m sure they’ve read Burns!

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