Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Over the last five years or so, we’ve been compiling lists of ‘best poems’ by various poets, and on numerous topics. In this post, we gather together 33 of the very best short poems in the English language. All of the following poems qualify as ‘short poems’ because they’re (for the most part) not longer than a page in length – and in many cases, significantly shorter – and are classic poems in their field. What are your favourite very short poems?
William Blake, ‘The Tyger’. This classic poem is one of the longest on this list of short poems, first appeared in the 1794 collection Songs of Experience, which contains many of Blake’s most celebrated poems. Blake’s speaker wonders 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.
Percy Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’. Published in The Examiner on 11 January 1818, ‘Ozymandias’ is perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most celebrated and best-known poem. A sonnet about the remnants of a statue standing alone in a desert – a desert which was once the vast civilisation of Ozymandias, ‘King of Kings’ – the poem is a haunting meditation on the fall of civilisations and the futility of all human endeavour. Shelley wrote the poem as part of a competition with his friend, Horace Smith.
Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’. One of the most popular children’s poems written in English, and perhaps the most famous piece of nonsense poetry in all of English literature, ‘Jabberwocky’ is about a fictional monster, the Jabberwock (not ‘the Jabberwocky’), and an intrepid hero’s quest to vanquish it. But the poem is justly admired for Carroll’s innovative use of language, with at least two words that were created for the poem entering everyday use. Click the link above to read the poem and learn about its language.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died’. We could have picked any number of short lyrics by Emily Dickinson (1830-86) here, but we’ve opted for this enigmatic 16-line poem spoken by a dead person, recalling how a fly appeared in the room at the moment of their death. Death is a common theme in Dickinson’s poetry, but here she treats it in gloriously idiosyncratic fashion.
William Wordsworth, ‘My Heart Leaps Up’. This poem, lines from which Wordsworth would also use as the epigraph to his longer ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, neatly encapsulates the spirit of English Romanticism in Wordsworth’s declaration that ‘the Child is Father of the Man’: our childhoods are formative times. But the poem is also an exultant celebration of the beauty of the natural world, here exemplified by the rainbow.
Audre Lorde, ‘Coal’. This is the title poem from Lorde’s 1976 collection of the same name, which was her first collection published by a major publisher. Lorde (1934-92) was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ The ‘warrior’ is as important as the other words. Her poem ‘Coal’ is one of her most frequently anthologised, and sees Lorde harnessing the rage she feels when, for instance, she sees white people’s attitudes to black Americans. ‘Coal’ is black, of course, but if you put it under enough pressure, it can produce diamonds.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Eagle’. In just six lines, the greatest Victorian poet – who was Poet Laureate for 42 years between 1850 and 1892 – captures the might of the eagle as it surveys the land below it and then falls ‘like a thunderbolt’.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’. Often misattributed to Shakespeare, this sonnet is from Barrett Browning’s collection Sonnets from the Portuguese, written in the late 1840s about her love for her husband, the poet Robert Browning. Curiously, the title was an in-joke: the sonnets are not translated from the Portuguese language; ‘Portuguese’ was Browning’s nickname for his wife…
Robert Burns, ‘A Red, Red Rose’. Declared by Bob Dylan to be the biggest single influence on his writing, this song by Scotland’s greatest lyrical son is among his most widely known, with its opening stanza especially quotable.
Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘We Real Cool’. Inspired by the sight of some African-American boys playing pool when they should have been in school, Brooks (pictured right) decided to give them a voice, in this very short, very catchy poem that brings together both the good and the bad aspects of the boys’ lives.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’. Whitman (1819-92) was one of the greatest pioneers of a new kind of verse in nineteenth-century American literature, leaving behind traditional verse forms in favour of his more expansive and exuberant free verse. Many of Whitman’s poems are significantly longer, but this one offers a nice snapshot of both his style and his spirit – a panegyric to ordinary Americans going about an honest day’s work.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18. With one of the most famous opening lines in all of English poetry, this sonnet is rightly celebrated as a classic, by England’s foremost poet. But how many people are aware that the sonnet is immortalising the beauty of a young man? Click on the link above to read the poem and learn more about its curious history.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. A classic war poem, and shorter than Owen’s other most famous poem about the First World War (‘Dulce et Decorum Est’), this sonnet concentrates Owen’s sense of anger and pity into 14 powerful lines.
Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’. Another Victorian sonnet by a popular poet of the era, ‘Remember’ was written when Rossetti was still a teenager. Oh that we could all be so precocious! It’s a tender poem which admonishes the loved ones we leave behind not to grieve too heavily for us when we die…
W. B. Yeats, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’. One of Yeats’s short masterpieces, this poem is one of his most famous and widely anthologised lyrics: ‘Be careful because you tread on my dreams.’
T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’. Written in 1908 when Hulme (1883-1917) was part of the London-based Poets’ Club, this short lyric about the autumn moon has a claim to being the first modernist poem written in English.
Anonymous, ‘Fowles in the Frith’. This poem dates from the thirteenth century, a whole century before Geoffrey Chaucer. A ‘frith’ is a wood or forest; 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.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’. Female poets have often been drawn to the sonnet, and have broadened it out from its origins as a courtly form practised by men like Petrarch and Shakespeare. Here, the early twentieth-century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) uses this short verse form to tell her male lover that she is not in danger of falling in love with him, even if they have shared some time together…
William Carlos Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. Williams wrote several short free-verse lyrics which are among the most quoted American poems of the twentieth century. This one talks up the significance of the ordinary: here, a red wheelbarrow beside some white chickens…
Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’. Angelou remains hugely popular both in her homeland of the United States and abroad; her poetry first caught the attention of the world during the Civil Rights movement in America in the 1960s. This poem is among her most inspiring and motivational – about overcoming hardship and being strong in the face of adversity.
Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. One of the finest examples of the villanelle form in English, this poem from the early 1950s, not long before Thomas himself died (supposedly having drunk eighteen straight whiskies), is about the poet’s dying father. A rallying cry in the face of death, the poem also shows how the refrains of the villanelle can be used to powerful effect.
e. e. cummings, ‘l(a)’. cummings (note the lower-case letters) was an American modernist and one of the most individual poets of the last hundred years, as the very styling of his name suggests. This poem is the shortest on this list, at just four words long – but the art is how cummings arranges those four words on the page.
Phillis Wheatley, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. Wheatley (c. 1753-84; pictured below right) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry, 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 short eight-line 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.
Philip Larkin, ‘This Be the Verse’. In three perfectly rhymed quatrains, Larkin (1922-85) offers a rather glum take on parents and children: our parents are both genetically and culturally responsible for all of our failings, which we then pass on to our children. But the shock of the (rude) opening line gives way to a more thoughtful lyric voice later in the poem, which nevertheless shows why Larkin saw himself as ‘the less deceived’.
Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’. This nine-line poem from 1920, just two years after the end of the First World War, and a time when revolution, apocalypse, and social and political chaos were on many people’s minds. The poem captures this post-war mood, and is even shorter than Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. Short, affecting, and memorable.
H. D., ‘The Pool’. Published in 1915, this poem is a classic example of imagism, that short-lived modernist movement in poetry that was active around the time of the First World War. In five taut, free-verse lines, Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), also known as ‘H. D.’, ponders a mysterious thing she finds in a pool, in a poem that raises more questions than it settles.
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Another quintessential poem, this one from 1913 outdoes the brevity of ‘The Pool’, even: it’s just two lines long. Influenced by the Japanese haiku and inspired by seeing the crowds of people at the Paris Metro, the American-born Pound (1885-1972) composed this poem, which was originally around 30 lines long.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Text’. This poem treats that most twenty-first-century of activities: text-messaging. Aptly, the poem is short and telegrammatic, like a text message, presented in short, clipped couplets. It’s also a touching poem, marked by that quiet desperation of something lost or unattainable, a quality which characterises much of Duffy’s greatest work. First published in Rapture (2005).
Michael Donaghy, ‘Haunts’. A poem about fathers haunting sons – but is Donaghy’s father haunting him or his Donaghy haunting his future son? – this poem appeared in the 2000 collection Conjure, the third collection by the American poet Michael Donaghy (1954-2004). Tragically, Donaghy died just four years after it was published, aged just 50, lending this short poem about the generations all the more poignant.
Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’. The finest poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes (1902-67) often writes about the lives of African Americans living in America, especially in New York, in the early twentieth century. In this poem from 1926, Hughes – describing himself as the ‘darker brother’ – highlights the plight of black Americans at the time, having to eat separately from everyone else in the kitchen when guests arrive, but determined to strive and succeed in the ‘Land of the Free’.
W. H. Auden, ‘Funeral Blues’. This poem has become one of the most famous funeral elegies in the world (thanks largely to the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral). It was first published in 1936, and is probably the most widely known and best-loved poem by Auden (1907-73), the greatest poet of the 1930s.
Robert Hayden, ‘Those Winter Sundays’. Hayden (1913-1980) served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now better-known as the US Poet Laureate); he was the first African-American poet to hold the office. This 1966 poem is a recollection of childhood memories involving Hayden’s parents, and one of Hayden’s best-known poems.
Ted Hughes, ‘Snowdrop’. This poem from 1960 offers a great way into the world of Ted Hughes’s poetry. It’s short and almost imagistic in its concision and focus on its central image – that of the white flower, described memorably with its ‘pale head heavy as metal’ in this eight-line masterpiece. Rather than giving us an idyllic or sentimental poem about the fragile or delicate beauty of the snowdrop, Hughes describes the flower in terms that recall the predatory weasel and crow, and thus offers us a glimpse into late twentieth-century nature poetry.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.