In Britain, nineteenth-century poetry began with Romanticism and ended in Decadence, with the high Victorian poetry of Tennyson, Browning, and Christina Rossetti coming in the middle. In the United States, meanwhile, Longfellow, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson helped to shape the course of nineteenth-century American poetry. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest and most representative poems of the nineteenth century written in English, whether in Britain or America.
Percy Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’. Shelley completed this, one of his most famous poems, in June 1820. The inspiration for the poem was an evening walk Shelley took with his wife, Mary, in Livorno, in north-west Italy. Mary later described the circumstances that gave rise to the poem: ‘It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.’ The opening line of the poem gave Noel Coward the title for his play Blithe Spirit.
John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. One of the greatest Romantic poems and perhaps Keats’s finest ode, this poem was supposedly written by Keats under a plum tree in the garden of Keats House, London in May 1819. Keats was inspired by hearing the sound of birdsong and penned this poem in praise of the nightingale, but in doing so he also created a fine Romantic meditation on mortality and the lure of death and escape, embodied by the beautiful bird.
Robert Browning, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. After Romanticism came the Victorian poets, at least in nineteenth-century Britain. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is an example of the dramatic monologue form which Browning and Tennyson, in particular, pioneered in the 1830s. This one is spoken by a murderer, a man who strangles his lover with her own hair. It was one of Browning’s first great poems, published in 1836 (as ‘Porphyria’) when the poet was still in his mid-twenties, just on the eve of the Victorian era. Despite the poem’s reputation as one of Browning’s finest dramatic monologues, it – like much of Browning’s early work – was largely ignored during his lifetime. Now it’s regarded as an important development in nineteenth-century English poetry.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H. One of the great poems of the Victorian era, this long elegy in 130 ‘cantos’ is a sort of verse diary charting Tennyson’s grief over the sudden death of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in 1833. Tennyson’s powerful portrayal of grief, leading gradually to acceptance, is well-known for some of its memorable lines – ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ and ‘better to have loved and lost’ – but there’s a wealth of fine lyrics contained within this larger poem. The poem also sees Tennyson engaging with key scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century, such as geological developments revealing a very different picture of the natural world from the one previously assumed.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha.
There he sung of Hiawatha,
Sang the Song of Hiawatha,
Sang his wondrous birth and being,
How he prayed and how he fasted…
Europe has a rich tradition of epic poetry, stretching from Homer to Virgil to Spenser and Milton among others, but the relatively young country and culture of the United States has also risen to the challenge of producing its own native epic verse. And ‘native’ is quite the word, as Longfellow, in this hugely popular 1855 poem, tells us of the (fictional) life and adventures of Hiawatha, a warrior, and his love for a Dakota woman named Minnehaha. Although he drew on longstanding oral traditions surrounding the figure of Manabozho, an Ojibwe man, Longfellow embellished the myths and history and produced one of the great epic poems for American literature. Its distinctive metre has also become famous (it’s a notable example of trochaic tetrameter, an unusual metre for a long epic poem).
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’. As Longfellow’s poem above reveals, America had its own rich poetic tradition in the nineteenth century, and the development of poetry in the United States had a different trajectory. The poetry of Walt Whitman is summed up by his long, sprawling poem ‘Song of Myself’, which seems to embody his call for literary independence and self-expression. When Whitman’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition containing just a dozen untitled poems – ‘Song of Myself’ headed the collection. This statement of selfhood contains the famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’. Dickinson is one of the most celebrated American poets of the nineteenth century, although her reputation as a poet was entirely posthumous: she published only a small number of poems during her lifetime, and while she was alive she was better known as a gardener than a poet. Now, her distinctive style – using many dashes – is instantly recognisable, and the theme she returns to again and again is death. In this poem, she describes how Death came for her…
Christina Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’. Probably the most famous poem Rossetti wrote, Goblin Market is a long Victorian narrative poem about two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, and how Laura succumbs to temptation and tastes the fruit sold by the goblins of the poem’s title. What is Goblin Market about? The fruit in the poem which the goblins sell has been interpreted in various ways: critics have long seen the eroticised description of the exotic fruit as symbolic of (sexual) temptation, with Laura as the fallen women who succumbs to masculine wiles and is ruined as a result (though she is, of course, happily married at the end of the poem).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. Victorian poems could be long and ambitious, and this is the crowning achievement of the Victorian long poem – although really it’s as much a verse novel as it is an epic poem. Barrett Browning’s love affair with epic poetry began at a young age: when she was just twelve years old, she wrote The Battle of Marathon, an epic poem about the battle between the Greeks and Persians in 490 BC. But her crowning achievement in the genre would be her long blank-verse novel Aurora Leigh (1857), about an aspiring female poet, which takes in issues of marriage, female authorship and independence, and what happened to women who ‘strayed’ outside of the accepted norms of Victorian society: the so-called ‘fallen woman’, embodied here by Aurora’s friend Marian Erle.
Ernest Dowson, ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’. This poem sums up the decadence and ennui that characterised the work of many late Victorian poets writing in the 1890s. It also gave us the phrase ‘the days of wine and roses’. Its full Latin title is ‘Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam’ – ‘the brevity of life prevents us from entertaining far-off hopes’.