Sunday, June 7, 2015

What Are the Greatest Poems of All Time?

Here is my list of candidates for the greatest poem of all time. In my view, for a poem to qualify as a candidate for the greatest poem of all time, it has to in some way bring us face to face with ultimate things, with the mystery and grandeur of the human condition itself. It can't have a limited theme. There is no Yeats, even though I think he was (easily) the greatest English language poet of all time, because there is no single poem he wrote that seems to fit this bill. No Philip Larkin, no Louis MacNeice, no A.E. Housman, not to mention a dozen other great poets.

At least a couple of these poems would seem to have a limited theme-- 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer' and 'To Helen'. But, somehow, I feel their power goes way beyond their subject matter, and they seem to sum up the human condition in its entirety. "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when some new planet swims into his ken"-- the human sense of wonder and discovery has never been expressed so magically. And the human sense of wonder and discovery seems central to the whole human experience. And 'To Helen' might stand for all the ideals and dreams and aspirations that guide us 'to our own native shore'-- whether we think of that as Heaven or some other destination.

These are not very original choices. As the poetry anthologist Arthur Quiller Couch wrote: "The best is the best, though a hundred judges have declared it so; nor had it been any feat to search out and insert the second-rate merely because it happened to be recondite." In the long run, the best poetry achieves its deserved popuarity-- and the much-despised 'man in the street' is the best judge. Still, I think it's valid to put forward personal choices.

Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Locksley Hall by Lord Alfred Tennyson

The Passing of Arthur by Lord Alfred Tennyson. (Audio here.)

Psalm 23 of the King James Bible

Ode to a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

To Helen by Edgar Allen Poe.


  1. All excellent choices - esp, imho, being a lover of the Romantics, those from Keats.
    A few other from the Romatics that I esp love are:
    Shelly's Ozymandias
    Byron's She Walks in Beauty
    and So We'll Go No More a Roving
    ST Coolridge Kubla Khan
    and the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

    Two final ones I really love, not romantics but from Irish authors are Goldsmith's An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog
    and Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol

  2. Thanks, Father. All amazing stuff. I thought of including Kubla Khan, which seems to be open a window onto another world entirely. There is something eerie about that poem. She Walks in Beauty is the most beautiful love poem (or, perhaps, 'admiration poem') ever written.

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner-- well, I never liked narrative poetry. I guess Wilde's Ballad is narrative, but not really-. It's wonderful stuff, too.

  3. 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard' by Thomas Gray is one of my favourites.


  4. I posted this on Facebook as well, and somebody mentioned "Elegy in a Country Churchyard". I do see its brilliance, and I think it deserves its popularity. But, for some reason, it's never appealed to me as much as it appeals to so many people. I love the most famous stanzas, but lots of the other stanzas seem very ordinary.

  5. Is the audio of 'The Passing of Arthur' on the same page as the poem? I couldn't find it at that link.

    There is a remarkable recording of Tennyson reciting - or rather, declaiming - the Charge of the Light Brigade. I must admit I found it rather startling. Apparently the recording (which was on a wax cylinder) had a narrow escape when Tennyson's son left it next to a radiator!

    What do you think of either of R.S. Thomas's poems 'The Bright Field' or 'Pilgrimages' for the list?

  6. Robert Frost's, an American poet, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a personal favorite of mine. Another one is Edmund Waller's "Go, Lovely Rose."