Most Famous Poets of All Time and Their Notable Masterpieces
Poetry is generally regarded as that magic wand that shines its light on our emotions to reveal meanings deeper than what is readily known. Great poets have emerged from various parts of the world, expressing their emotions and creative energies through ample words in various languages.
No matter their origin however, all great works of literature share certain features that make them classics. For example, they have a common ability to convey their themes through compelling characters, unite people with their culture and use imagery to make their work easily understandable.
Below, World History Edu presents a list of the most famous poets of all time and their most influential masterpieces. The list was based on our personal impressions, public appeal and present-day relevance. We also came up with some of the masterpieces of these literary powerhouses, dating back from the ancient Greek era, Elizabethan era, and down to the contemporary.
Note that this list is not ranked. Feel free to compile your own list. They may be considered for publication on this website.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
Of course, any list of poets (or playwrights) of world-renown would be greatly flawed without the inclusion of William Shakespeare. Were it put through a poll, chances are most people, old and young, would vote the Stratford-upon-Avon native as the greatest dramatist and one of the most accomplished poets in the history of English literature.
Widely known as England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon,” Shakespeare was a Jacobean writer and not an Elizabethan playwright as many thought. Most of his plays were written after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.
Apart from his plays, Shakespeare’s masterpieces include sonnets that often inspire awe and are at the same time elusive in their meanings. However, it seems to critics that the more vague the sonnets, the harder their pull on the reader. Shakespearean sonnets are mostly woven around love but they also talk about time, aging and the chaotic gap between what is the ideal and what actually happens when it comes to the person you love.
While sieving through some of these sonnets, we came across a couple that proved simply hard to not like. The astounding beauty of the brilliantly-crafted words and overpowering messages are difficult to resist. Two of these masterpieces are “Sonnet 29” and “Sonnet 71”, both published in 1609. What makes “Sonnet 29” especially spellbinding is the way Shakespeare portrays his own insecurities and jealousy of the people around him. Those two sonnets are part of the 154 sonnets written by the English poet and playwright as part of the “Fair Youth” sequence.
Many readers believe these sonnets are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “homosexuality.” Others believe these sonnets only express a close friendship between two men which was perfectly normal in Shakespeare’s days. Apart from the Roman poet Ovid, Shakespeare’s works received inspiration from the English playwright, Christopher Marlowe who was a pioneer in the use of blank verse.
Shakespeare’s influence spilled over from printed material to the world of film. Numerous present-day movies, including “The Merchant of Venice” (2004), “Macbeth” (2015) and “The King” (2019) are reenactments of the genius’ literary legacy.
Did You Know?
- Shakespeare seemed to be obsessed with death by suicide. As a matter of fact, suicide occurred about 13 times in his plays.
- Unbeknownst to many people, Shakespeare never published even one of his own plays. The task of publishing fell to his actor friends Henry Condell and John Heminges, who did so posthumously and did the theater world a lot of good.
- It has been over four centuries since his death yet Shakespeare still holds sway over many universities worldwide and remains the best-selling dramatist globally.
Homer (12th or 8th century BC – ?)
For centuries, Homer’s identity has eluded scholars. Many have wondered whether he was a mam, a woman or perhaps a group of writers. Lovers of his works eventually came to believe that this master of poetry is one man, considering the consistency in style that is shown in writings attributed to him. True or not, Homer’s style identifies him as a balladeer or a minstrel poet.
Homer is thought to have been born along the coast of Asia Minor, though that has been disputed for years. As a result of similar disputes surrounding Homer, there are scarcely enough biographical information about him.
In spite of his mystifying existence, Homer’s influence in the arena of English literature cannot be denied. He wielded an empowering effect on many poets, including such icons as John Keats and William Shakespeare. The Homeric writings also influenced the way of life of many ancient Greeks, even in modern times.
Homer’s stories, though often fantasies, also contain a blend of mythology and historical facts. Many works have been credited to the poet but two poems, “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” remain giants in the world of literature. What give these poems their superior quality is their excellent depictions of war and peace, love and hate, honor and shame.
The Iliad, made up of over 15,600 lines of verse, paints the legendary Trojan War as an epic battle of warriors, kings and gods. The poem’s title is taken from the city of Troy (also known as Ilium), which is believed to be in modern-day Turkey. It comprises 24 books which follow the story of many ancient Greek heroes – most famous among them Achilles and Hector – and their pursuit of fame and honor.
Homer’s “Odyssey”, just like the Iliad, is divided into 24 books. The collection details the life of Greek warrior Odysseus as he journeys home from the Trojan War. Some parts of the story are believed to be factual while other parts are said to be fictional.
Over the centuries, Homer’s two famed poems have been translated into many languages. Note that most of Homer’s works were handed down to later generations through oral tradition, and they continue to reverberate through Western culture and literature.
According to the myths, the deity Calliope, the muse who presides over epic poetry, influenced much of Homer’s work.
- Homer was rumored to be blind and therefore was sometimes called the “Blind Bard”.
- It is believed that Homer died on the Island of Chios but like other information about him, this is widely debated.
- Ancient Greek philosopher Plato referred to Homer as an influential leader in his Socratic dialogue, “Republic.”
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849)
Right from childhood, Edgar Poe’s life was riddled with trouble. Having lost both parents at age three and being raised by foster parents he would rather avoid, the darkness surrounding his life seeped through the language and tone of his poems. At some point, Poe dropped out of the University of Virginia and enlisted in the United States Army.
Though over 200 years apart, the Boston-born Poe and Shakespeare were similar in the way they portrayed a deep understanding of the human psyche in their works.
We would describe Poe as a child’s nightmare and a “mad man’s” fantasy as he distinguished himself in American literature with his fondness for the themes of death, Gothicism, the subconscious self and love. Many of Poe’s works have undergone the most psychological and psychoanalytical study by the likes of French princess and author, Marie Bonaparte.
Poe’s most renowned works include “To Helen” (1831) and “The Raven” (1845). The former was written in memory of the mother of one of Poe’s childhood friends upon whom he harbored intense feelings. In the poem he romanticizes Helena’s beauty through the use of passionate allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. His masterful use of imagery succeeds in transporting his audience from their own place and time to the poet’s world. The poem is alluded to in Ursula K. Le Guin’s oeuvre, “The New Atlantis.”
Poe’s darker poem, “The Raven,” takes a journey into the narrator’s troubled psyche after the death of his lover, Lenore. The poem’s popularity is perhaps due to its relatability to the average reader’s own struggle with grief. Many of Poe’s works were most likely influenced by his traumatic childhood.
- When his wife Virginia Clemm died of tuberculosis in 1847, Poe was driven into alcoholism and drug use which might have caused his premature death.
- In 1910, Poe was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a monument for American citizens who distinguished themselves in various feats.
- Though many historians attribute Poe’s death to alcoholism, others believe he may have died of rabies or carbon monoxide poisoning. Till date, the real cause of his death remains a mystery.
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321)
Born Durante Alighieri in Florence, Italy, Dante Alighieri studied Tuscan poetry and painting at an early age. Later, he worked as an apprentice under the accomplished Italian poet and vernacular Italian writer, Brunette Latini. When his lover Beatrice died in 1290, Dante found solace in the philosophical works of Boethius, Cicero and Aristotle and later found his own voice when he delved into poetry writing.
However, it was Dante’s upbringing in late 13th-century Florence that really set the tone for his perspective and poetic philosophy. In 1294, he published one of his best known poems, “La Vita Nuova” (The New Life) in 1294. The poem expressed his deep love and devotion to Beatrice with whom he fell in love when they were both 9. In Dante’s eyes, Beatrice was the perfect woman. The poem was famed for its Tuscan vernacular which became the basis for the national Italian language.
Dante’s most applauded work till date is the 1308 narrative poem “La Divina Commedia” (Divine Comedy), which is generally regarded as one of world literature’s greatest poems. The poem looks at Dante’s extraordinary journey to hell purgatory and paradise to visit lost souls. Written in vernacular Italian, the work had a life changing influence on many readers because of its particularly human qualities, modern view of the afterlife and the poet’s exceptional poetic imagination.
Dante’s theme often evolved around love, the reward for good and the punishment for evil. English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was a great admirer of Dante’s works, which also influenced some of his own works.
- Dante is widely celebrated as the Father of Italian language as he revolutionized 14th century Italy by choosing to write his work in his native language (Florentine vernacular) rather than in Latin.
- Dante started off as a politician and was known to often criticize the actions of fellow politicians, pointing them in what he believed was the right direction.
- The Italian poet is credited with inventing the terrain rima (Terza rima), a poem of Italian origin made up of tercets woven into a complex rhyme scheme.
T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)
Away from his native home in Missouri, Thomas Stearns Eliot, commonly known as T.S. Eliot, settled in England from age 25 and eventually became a British citizen. Much of Eliot’s early poetry featured themes of mental illness and broken perceptions. The Harvard graduate worked as a literary editor at Faber & Faber publishing house. Much of his success as a literary figure stemmed from his influence on Anglo-American culture.
Eliot received a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 for his “profound effect on the direction of modern poetry.” That same year, he was also honored with the Order of Merit for his promotion of literature.
As a writer, his contributions helped define the literary canon through his lectures and essays, and his work as an editor at the Criterion (journal.) Eliot is also known for his use of imagism, repetition and other modernist styles to express the chaotic thoughts of the modern man.
“The Waste land”(1922), considered one of his best works, is a long poem divided into 5 sections. The piece typifies literary modernism and showcases Eliot’s ingenuity as a poet. It consists of a rich array of voices rather than a single monologue written after the poet’s mental breakdown. American expatriate poet, Ezra Pound, edited the poem to it a final form. Pound was one of the greatest influences on Eliot’s works.
Another compelling piece, “The Four Quartets,” has been acclaimed as the collection that led to receipt of his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The piece, published over an 8-year period, is made up of 4 long poems namely: “Burnt Norton” (1936), “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages (1941) and “Little Gidding” (1942). Each of these titles are names of places that played a pivotal part in the poet’s life. The poem clearly explores Eliot’s Christian beliefs and his advocacy for traditionalism in religion.
- T. S. Eliot was a distant relative of three former presidents of the United States; namely, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes.
- In 1964, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his unbridled contributions to literature. The honor, which is the highest civilian honor of the United States, was given to him by then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to celebrate the accomplishments of Missouri-born poet and essayist.
- It is believed Eliot was the first known person to use the word “bullshit” as part of the title of his poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” written between 1910 and 1916.
- In critiquing Shakespeare’s famous tragedy “Hamlet” Eliot described the play as an “artistic failure” explaining that it shows a “primary problem” and contains weaknesses generally.
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
Often described as a recluse who would rather enjoy her own company in her bedroom at her Amherst home in Massachusetts, her oeuvre was extensive and mostly done in secret. She remains relatively unknown to modern readers since only about 10 of her poems have been published. After Emily’s death, her sister, Lavinia, was shocked to find that Emily wrote almost 1,800 poems.
Emily’s poems were different from the usual poems of her days. Her pieces often consisted of short lines and were without titles. Her themes were mostly about death and immortality.
In 2017, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York in conjunction with Amherst College put together an ambitious exhibition of Emily’s manuscripts and letters titled “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The exhibition was aimed at exploring her social life, which until then was often unacknowledged. The event also featured 24 drafted poems with corresponding audio stops.
Emily broke the glass ceiling of poetry and wrote with a voice that would not be silenced. Her most famous poems include “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” which is indicative of her preference of being anonymous to being a recognized public figure. The fact that she used “Nobody” as a proper noun testifies that being “Nobody” is her identity.
The poet again demonstrates her artistic skills in the poem, “Because I could not stopped for Death,” which paints a morbid picture of the speaker’s journey into the afterlife while the character Death leads the way. The work is widely regarded as her best masterpiece.
Did You Know?
- The Amherst-born poet did not always live a secluded life. Her earlier life was filled with meaningful friendships and enduring relationships with work colleagues.
- It’s been said that some of her works grew out of the influence of the 17th century metaphysical poets of England. Additionally, many people believe her preoccupation with themes of death stemmed from her grief caused by the death her cousin and friend, Sophia Holland.
- Emily Dickinson was the daughter of Edward Dickinson, a respected attorney and U.S. senator who served four terms on the Massachusetts House Representatives and the Massachusetts Senate.
- American actress and singer Hailee Steinfeld played the character of Emily in the TV series “Dickinson”, which premiered on Apple TV+ in 2019.
John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Originally from London, John Keats was trained as a physician and even earned a license to practice medicine. He, however, showed greater promise of becoming a successful poet than a medical doctor. At age 19, be wrote his first completed work, “An Imitation of Spencer.”
Keats’ inspiration for poetry was birthed through influences from the likes of John Milton and Lord Byron. His poetic style has a lot in common with the Shakespearean sonnets and has enjoyed similar praise for many years.
It is believed that “Bright Star”, Keats’ sonnet written in 1818 (or 1819), was in honor of his love for a woman called Fanny Brawne. The poem depicts the speaker’s desire to spend eternity in the warm embrace of Brawne. He employs an emotional tone and personification to describe the star as it is the main symbol in the poem.
Another one of Keats poems we so love is “To Autumn,” which was published shortly after his death. Keats was motivated to write this poem after a walk near Winchester on one evening in autumn. Many critics regard the poem as a meditation on death and probably Keats’ reaction to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre that occurred in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England.
Keats featured such themes as life/death, separation/connection and the ideal/the real in his poems. In addition to Milton, he derived some bit of inspiration from the works of English poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel T. Coleridge. For example, one of Keats’ works “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” drew inspiration from Coleridge’s ballad-poem “Love”.
- Although Keats never married, he fell in love with his next door neighbor, Fanny Brawne. The two had a star-crossed relationship until Keats untimely death from tuberculosis at age 25. The lovers’ 3-year relationship proved to be the most literarily fertile for Keats as it inspired some of his most famous poems, including “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode on Melancholy”.
- It was rumored that Brawne mourned continuously for 6 years after Keats’ death in 1821.
- According to his friend, Richard Woodhouse, Keats was terrible at reading his own work and failed to do justice to the beauty.
- When Keats’ work got published he saw his earlier works in such a bad light that he collected every one of them and burned them.
Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
The literary genius began her writing journey during childhood where she penned a couple of essays and poems. Greatly influenced by the likes of William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe, the majority of her work have been autobiographies and poetry. She dedicated 50 years of her lifetime to singing, dancing, advocating for civil rights, writing poems and articles for newspapers.
Before she got into poetry proper, Angelou was an activist and defender of black culture. She even helped raise funds and support for Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. It was after the death of King that she began writing and published her successful autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1969. Angelou left a trail of monumental literary achievements before her death in 2014 at age 86.
Her other masterpieces include “Still I Rise” published in 1978 and “Phenomenal Woman” published in 1995. Another best-known work of hers, titled “Still I Rise”, like many of her popular poems, is a tribute to women in all parts of the world. In the poem, the speaker celebrates self-love, praises her body and her ability to rise above difficulties as a (black) woman.
American literary critic Joanne M. Braxton described the immensely popular poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as “perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing” autobiography written by a Black American woman. It is the first of 7 autobiographies that details events, including rape and discrimination, from her tragic childhood.
Known for exploring themes of social and racial injustice, loss, and love, Angelou’s works have influenced the music of such artists as Tupac Shakur and Nicki Minaj.
Worthy of Note:
- The late South African president, Nelson Mandela, recited “Still I Rise” at his presidential inauguration in South Africa in 1994.
- In the 1960s, Angelou lived and worked as a performer and editor (at the University of Ghana) in the West African nation of Ghana for 3 years.
- Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. She was nicknamed “Maya” by her older brother, Bailey.
- In addition to winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the Missouri-born poet was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1994 and the National Medal of Arts in 2000. In her lifetime, she received more than forty-five honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning all over the world.
- In January 2022, she became the first Black woman to be depicted on the reverse of a U.S. quarter coin, which was released in January 2022. That honor was the first in a series of coins the U.S. Mint aimes to use to honor the accomplishments of distinguished American women, including famous Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong.
Virgil (70 – 19 BC)
Born into a peasant family among the shrubs in Mantua, young Virgil (also spelled Vergil) was raised in the countryside. He studied Greek and Roman poets during his early schooling in Cremona and Milan where he acquired his toga virilis (“toga of manhood”), a garment of ancient Rome worn by adult male citizens. Virgil was only recognized as a citizen of Rome after then-Roman dictator and leading general Julius Caesar expanded citizenship rights in 49 BCE.
Inspired by the Greek poet Theocritus, this ancient Roman poet composed his first important work, the “Eclogues”(also known as the “Bucolics”), using Homeric hexameter lines to study pastoral rather than epic themes. This collection of 10 pastoral poems, also became one of his most revered pieces in the literary canon.
Virgil also made use of a number of characteristics of epic poetry, particularly Homer’s epics, to draw similarities between the Roman and the Greek culture. Virgil’s deep affection for rural Italy seeps through much of his poetry.
Again, we were awestruck by Virgil’s epic poem, “The Aeneid” (written between 29 and 19 BC) which we realized almost immediately that it is a favorite of many Virgil readers. In fact, Virgil’s fame was chiefly built upon this work. Inspired in part by the style of the Homeric epics, “The Aeneid” is, however, much more refined. The story focuses on the journeys of a Trojan warrior named Aeneas, who fled the burning city of Troy (following its sacking by the Greeks) to establish the city of Rome. The themes explored in the poem include patriotism, divine intervention, honor and fate.
Virgil’s stellar craft is recognized in the works of numerous Latin and Greek writers and European literature in general. Apart from his discernible influence on Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and Edmund Spencer’s “The Faerie Queene,” Virgil’s masterpieces inspired the likes of Williams Wordsworth, William Shakespeare and the satirist Horace to push their own creative boundaries. Virgil’s works also formed an integral part of the curriculum of schools both in the Renaissance and in present day.
- After his death, Virgil’s ashes were said to have been interred on the site of his home near Naples where a burial vault has been erected as Virgil’s Tomb.
- Virgil was a friend and a political advisor to Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.
- It is believed that Virgil never engaged in military life because of his weak health. He also never married and lived life as a recluse.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s – 1400)
Geoffrey Chaucer was a Londoner born into a bourgeois family. He became a public servant to Countess Elizabeth of Ulster. He later married (around 1366) Philippa (de) Roet, the lady-in-waiting to the wife of Edward III of England. After enlisting in the Royal Service, he traveled extensively on diplomatic missions throughout the 1360s and was given a life pension by the king for his services.
While in Italy in the 1370s, he was drawn to the works of writers Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch. Those writers became great inspirations for Chaucer’s later literary pursuits.
Among his most renowned works is “The Canterbury Tales” written from 1387 until his death in 1400. The collection comprises 24 stories of more than 17,000 lines written in middle English. The stories features a group of pilgrims who got acquainted while making a journey from the Tabard Inn in Southwalk to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The success of the collection makes it a masterpiece in the literary canon. Since most of the writing in the “Canterbury Tales” is in verse, it is usually regarded as poetry.
Another important work by Chaucer is the “Parliament of Fowls” (“Parlement of Foules” in the middle English spelling) written between 1380 and 1390. This satirical poem tells the story of the narrator as he dreams of taking a walk by a beautiful landscape through the dark temple of Venus to the sunlight. Many critics believe the poem was written for the engagement of Richard II of England (also known as Richard of Bordeaux) and his first wife Anne of Bohemia, but this has been widely debated.
Many of Chaucer’s works have reflected his view of society which he described as corrupted and immoral. His themes have mostly explored courtly love, sin, social class, decadence, marriage and sex. The poet is also acclaimed for introducing iambic pentameter and the Rhyme Royal in English poetry.
- In 1374 on St. George’s Day, Edward III of England gave Chaucer a gallon of wine which was to be drunk every day for the rest of the poet’s life.
- Chaucer was once accused of rape which came as a shock to many considering his pedigree. However, in the 14th century, “rape” also meant abduction. Till date, no one has been able to truly identify the “rape” in question.
- In 1386, Chaucer served as a Member of Parliament for Kent during a political career that was short lived.
Wole Soyinka (1934 – present)
A native of Abeokuta, near Ibadan, western Nigeria, Wole Soyinka studied at the University College in Ibadan before earning an English degree from the University of Leeds in England. Upon graduation, he started an acting company in Nigeria and wrote a couple of plays, including “A Dance of the Forests.” Apart from being an accomplished playwright and poet, Soyinka is a political activist known for his criticisms against successive military governments in Nigeria.
A member of the Yoruba tribe, much of Soyinka’s work is a fusion of Western elements and themes emanating from the Yoruba folklore and religion. The major themes of his poems include modernity/tradition, love, marriage, male chauvinism, and cowardice.
We came across Soyinka’s 1963 poem, “Telephone Conversation” and fell in love at first read. The poem is a phone conversation between a landlady and a black speaker who wants to rent an apartment. The landlady speaks politely until she realizes that the speaker is African and goes on to mock the speaker’s skin color. This poem is a satire against racism and teaches that it is ignorant to judge a person based solely on skin color. This piece is particularly popular in black communities for obvious reasons.
Another Soyinka poem we love is “Night”, which has 6 octets and describes nightfall and its effects on the speaker. In the poem, the Nigerian poet makes allusions to a number of Yoruba deities and a spectrum of images and symbols.
Soyinka has cited the Irish writer J.M. Synge as one of his major literary influences. In 1986, the Nigerian poet and essayist won the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature. The poets works were praised by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, as being “full of life and urgency”.
- In 1965, Soyinka took over the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Service studio to demand the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections elections.
- During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), he was arrested by the government of General Yakubu Gowon and placed under solitary confinement from 1967 to 1969. He was charged with conspiring with the leaders of Biafra rebels.
- Soyinka served as Professor in Residence at the Layola Marymount University in California in 2007.
- He is related to Fela Kuti (born: Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti), the famous Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and Afrobeat legend. The Nobel Prize laureate (in literature) is Kuti’s cousin once removed.
Constantine P. Cavafy (1863 – 1933)
For about 3 decades, C. P. Cavafy (born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Irrigation. He also made extra money as a broker in the Alexandria Stock Exchange. Cavafy studied languages and became proficient in Italian, English and French. Right from an early age, he was fascinated by the classic Greek and Latin texts which consumed his brilliant sense of imagination.
By his early 60s, Cavafy was describing himself as a poet-historian and a poet-novelist yet he never sold any of his poems. Instead, he would often share privately printed pamphlets with friends and family. Though almost all of his work was in Greek, Cavafy was scarcely known and appreciated in Greece until after his first anthology was posthumously published in 1935.
He drew his themes from personal encounters and history, especially of the Hellenistic era (323 – 31 BC). Some of his subjects have been homosexuality, political inertia, cultural exhaustion amongst others. The first English translation of his collected poems was published in 1951. Since then, his work has enjoyed widespread translation, although they are said to be difficult to translate.
One of the most highly regarded poems by Cavafy is “Waiting for the Barbarians”, which was written in 1904. It was translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard in 1975 and 1992. The poem’s direct and simple language makes it appropriately useful in high schools. Through the brilliant use of metaphor and description, the speaker in the poem paints an accurate image of a national political ritual.
Another one of his famous masterpieces is “Ithaca”. Written in 1911, the poem takes inspiration from Odysseus’ homeward journey in Homer’s “Odyssey.” It emphasizes the importance of one’s enjoyment of a journey over the destination. The poem has been widely applauded for its ability to remind the reader to focus on their daily goals instead of obsessing about an uncertain future.
- Constantine P. Cavafy was cosmopolitan and a known homosexual hence his fascination with sexually explicit poems.
- He had a particular fondness for the works of William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. He also wrote a few verses in English.
- As a poet, Cavafy was known to be slow. He wrote only 24 poems by age 48 and only 154 poems at the time of his death.
Du Fu (712 – 770)
The native of Henan Province in China was educated in the Confucian classics of philosophy, history and poetry. Du Fu is influential in Chinese literature as Shakespeare is in English literature. Du Fu’s influences was especially felt in East Asian countries and cultures such as Japan, Vietnam and Korea across centuries. His works often entail experiences from his travels and first-hand accounts of the challenges he encountered.
Described as a “poet-historian,” Du Fu penned some poems about acclaimed Chinese poet Li Po. He also shared many of his experiences during the An Lushan Rebellion of 755 (a revolt against the Tang dynasty of China) in many of his poems. His works are cherished partly because of their ability to convey a variety of moods and contents.
Most of Du Fu’s writings are replete with themes of political unrest, historical events, famine and his private tragic experiences. One poem by Du Fu we find most remarkable is the famous “Ballad of an Old Cypress.” Written during his old age and in the wake of a political unrest in 766, the poem both praises and grieves the eponymous cypress; imposing but unused in the end. The poem further explains the ironic situation which arises when great talents are unable to meet and be of service to rulers of relevance.
Another beloved poem, “The Ballad of the War Carts” is a long poem recounting the story of the ordinary peasant who is made to leave his family to join the Chinese army during which period he serves the emperor. The story was written during the 54-year reign of Emperor Wu, the 7th emperor of the Han Dynasty of China. Note that the rhythm of the translated poem is not the same as the original.
Did You Know?
- Du Fu wrote about a 1000 poems in the 8th century. Those poems formed the basis of his fame in both Chinese and Western literature.
- The poet lost his mother at a very early age and was raised by his aunt.
- The likes of the great haiku poet, Matsui Bashō, received significant impact from the poetry of Du Fu.
Imru’ al-Qais (501-565)
The genealogy of Imru’ al-Qais is highly debated. Some historians claim he was the son of Hujr, the last king of Kindah who ruled over the tribes of Asad and Ghatfan. The Basra school philologists consider him the “greatest of the poets of the Mu’allaqāt.”
What is however succinctly accepted among scholars is that Imru’ al-Qais created the qasidah: a form of poetry which emerged in pre-Islamic Arabia. According to several accounts, Imru’ al Qais might have been introduced to Arabic poets Zuhayr bin Janab al-Kalbi, Abu Du’ah al-lyadi and Amr bin Qami’ah. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Arab poet’s works drew a lot of inspiration from those poets.
Imru’ al-Qais’s most known qasidah (i.e. poem), which translates as “Let us Stop and Weep” is one of seven odes written down in gold letters and hung on the Kabah Walls in Mecca. Legend holds that the piece was written in the 6th and early 7th centuries CE. His Mu’allaqah, published in English in 1782, tells the story of how the poet’s father and brother were killed in an enemy territory.
Imru’ al-Qais is reputed for his composition of erotic poems which were said to be related to his private life as a playboy. Undoubtedly, this pre-Islamic poet had tremendous influence on many Arabic intellectuals, especially those of the Islamic Golden Age (8th to mid-13th century). Till date, he is particularly revered for transforming ancient Arabic poem by introducing new (and sometimes sensual) metaphors and rhetoric.
- Many historians claim Imru’ al Qais’s father disapproved of his poetry writing as it was not seen as an appropriate activity for a prince.
- Legend has it that the poet was involved in several marriages, divorces and sexual affairs though none of these have been proven.
- Imru’ al Qais was believed to be a Hanif; a follower of the pure monotheism of the prophet and messenger, Abraham.