Our round-up of the ten most famous poems of all time
By Hannah Nepilova
No top-ten round up of famous poems could be anything other than subjective, and inevitably we have had to miss out dozens, maybe even hundreds, of major contenders. Nonetheless, we’ve done our best to put together a list that at least provides a springboard for some healthy debate.
Take a look and see if we have missed out any of your favourites!
Most famous poems of all time
‘The Tyger’ by William Blake
With its vivid imagery and universal themes, William Blake’s 1794 poem, which explores the struggle between good and evil through the metaphor of a tiger, never gets old. It has been set by a number of composers, among them Rebecca Clarke, who in her 1933 song ‘Tiger, Tiger’ , freely embraces dissonance to capture the searing intensity of Blake’s poem. The result is a terrifyingly dark sonic canvas – one of Clarke’s most intrepid tonal experiments.
‘Ode to Joy’ by Friedrich Schiller
It’s not hard to see why Schiller’s 1785 poem, ‘Ode to Joy’ which celebrates the unity of all mankind, has resonated with people all over the world. And why it would have appealed to Beethoven, deeply committed, as he was, to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the belief in the power of human progress.
He famously filched it for the fourth movement of his ninth symphony, where, in combination with his ecstatic melody, it has provided a symbol of hope and inspiration for generations of listeners.
‘Der Erlkönig’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This gripping poem, written in 1782, tells the story of a father and son being pursued by the mythological creature, the Erlking, who is said to lure children to their death.
It also lured the Austrian composer Franz Schubert to write a piece of music: his famous art song Der Erlkönig, whose haunting melody and dramatic musical accompaniment capitalises on the poem’s sense of suspense and horror.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ by William Wordsworth
Inspired by a walk that Wordsworth took around Glencoyne Bay in the Lake District with his sister Dorothy, Wordsworth’s 1804 poem, otherwise known as ‘Daffodils’, is famous for its simple yet evocative imagery and its celebration of nature.
Though seen as a classic of English Romantic poetry – and a staple on the English Literature GSCE syllabus – it has received surprisingly few musical settings, a rare example being a song by the 20th century English composer, conductor and organist Eric Thiman.
In 2007, Cumbria Tourism also released a rap version of it, featuring MC Nuts, a red squirrel, in an attempt to lure the ‘YouTube generation’ of tourists to the Lake District.
‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling
A rousing representation of Victorian-era stoicism, Kipling’s ‘If’, written in 1910, was voted the nation’s favourite poem by BBC television viewers in both 2005 and 2009.
With its propulsive rhythm and moving message of perseverance, determination and resilience in the face of adversity, it puts you in mind of the nationalist school of English music (you can imagine Elgar having a field day with it). For all that though, its most famous musical setting is by the folk singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who changed the last verse and updated the language.
‘Don Juan’ by Lord Byron
This epic poem is well known for its satirical tone, its romantic themes and its larger-than-life protagonist: the womanising Don Juan, whose travels and Romantic escapades are notorious.
They certainly provided plenty of fodder for the composer, Richard Strauss, who, in his 1888 tone poem Don Juan, pulled out all the stops to depict the various stages of Don Juan’s journey. At times his music is frenzied and chaotic; at times erotic and sensual; at times it is melancholic, most poignantly at the end where the hero comes to the realisation that his life has been empty and meaningless.
Don Juan is also the inspiration behind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s Don Giovanni – though Mozart’s creation is far more sinister and villainous.
‘Stop all the Clocks’ by W.H. Auden
The 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral enhanced this poem’s popularity, thanks to that famous scene in which John Hannah recited it so poignantly. But W.H Auden’s ‘Stop all the Clocks’ , otherwise known as ‘Funeral Blues’ has always struck a chord with the public – ever since it first appeared in the 1936 play The Ascent of F6.
This is a poem that everyone can relate to, whose themes of love, loss and mourning are universal, whose surface simplicity belies its internal depth – not least in the way it goes above and beyond the usual tropes associated with mourning (who, for example, would usually demand that a traffic policeman wear black cotton gloves?).
No surprises, then, that it appealed to the foremost British composer of Auden’s day, Benjamin Britten – a close creative partner of Auden’s – who set it as a song for voice and piano, elevating it with his characteristic less-is-more approach.
Iconic though they are, Shakespeare‘s love poems have had surprisingly little in the way of musical settings – at least by classical composers.
One composer who has thrown his hat into the ring is Robert Hollingworth, director of the vocal ensemble I Fagiolini. Thieir 2012 album ‘Shakespeare: the sonnets’, paid tribute to the Bard’s time by using authentic instruments from the early 17th century, including the lirone, theorbo, viol, cornett, sackbut and shawm, amongst others.
‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe
This 1845 poem, which tells of a distraught lover who is paid a mysterious visit by a talking raven, is a masterful example of the Gothic literary tradition, encapsulating the despair of mourning. It is also renowned for its musicality, which helps to explain why a variety of composers, including Joseph Holbrooke, Leonard Slatkin, Toshio Hosokawa and Betsy Jolas, have all had a go at setting it.
‘The Lady of Shallot’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Such is the immediate appeal of this 19th-century ballad, which tells the story of Elaine of Astolat, a young noblewoman stranded in a tower up the river from Camelot, that even confirmed poetry-phobes might make an exception for it. With its flowing rhythm and vivid descriptions of the Lady’s surroundings, it creates an atmosphere full of magic and mystery that lends itself to musical adaptation.
That, at least, must have been the view of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who used the poem as the basis for his first ever composition when he was eight years old: a piece for solo piano called La dame de Shalott.
‘The obvious lack of experience in this work will be forgiven when one learns that I was born in December 1908 and wrote it at the beginning of 1917,’ wrote Messiaen of the work. ‘In this “Lady of Shalott” a child’s imagination runs unleashed.
Nothing is missing: the castles, the inflection of the spoken word, the song of Lady Shalott (weaving!), Sir Lancelot on horseback, the broken mirror, the tapestry which flies out the window, the falling willow leaves, and the death of the lady who lies in a boat drifting down the river (barcarole!).Despite its extraordinary naivety, this work is nonetheless my op.1.’
Source: 10 most famous poems of all time