Tradition of poetry is as old as the civilization itself and is amongst the very first modes of language and impression along with pictures. Though now a notable number of literary traditions have entered the list but still poetry holds its significance; we have talked about the famous poems before also but there is still a lot to add to it.
The following list does not include only the great poems of yesteryears but some of the remarkably momentous poems of progressive eras too.
1. The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
The Prologue is regarded as one of the most significant literary piece of history; Chaucer has discussed his characters with tongue in cheek as his ironic statements are covered under simple and straight comments. It is interesting to notice that Chaucer has included people from all the ranks and circles of society adding both colour and vigour to the poem.
Chaucer’s characters are not like in any drama or poem but they are the representatives of his times and activities of people. His time is marked with the Hundred Year War, the Peasant’s Revolt, Black Death and the corruption of Church and other social sectors, which is portrayed through the characters of the poem.
2. Songs of Innocence and Experience
Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are the poet’s shrewd and realistic portrayal of role of religious and social figures in shaping the society and its conditions. The book also demonstrates the transformation from the state of innocence to the state of experience; some of the poems added in both the sections are written in pairs and serves the purpose of showing the conversion.
It is also believed that the songs not only present the contrary states of human mind and nature but it also shows the maturation of Blake’s character. The time in which Blake lived and composed his songs was the time of depression and simultaneous changes. During Blake’s era his society was deeply plagued with both social and religious errors; Church was having complete hold on the social matters of the community and is shown in negative light throughout the poems.
3. The Wasteland
Written by one of the most acknowledged poet and writer of contemporary world, The Wasteland is the detailed documentation of modern era and its downfall. The poem is divided into five parts and each part is telling the story of modern man’s spiritual and emotional deterioration.
Eliot has presented his views and observation of the modern world and the modern man’s character in several different ways; the poem has been composed in the backdrop of world war, which Eliot had witnessed. The battlefield scene with wretched dead bodies of soldiers presents the miserable state of modern man’s spirituality; similarly the lady and the typist introduced in the poem serve the purpose of articulating the emotional corrosion of modern world. Eliot is considered as one of the very first and the most influential symbolists of all times.
Beowulf is amongst the very first verses to be counted in English literature. It is a heroic poem dealing with the universal and, then, famous subject of splendour and heroism. The poem has two parts, the first deals with the arrival of the hero, Beowulf, to the court of Denmark which is ruled by his uncle King Hygel. At the arrival of Beowulf, the motive of his coming is revealed and begins his heroic tale; he has come to Denmark to slay a dangerous man-eater, Grendel, which has wreaked havoc on the court.
The poem is written in heroic reflection, which represents the society of that time and its standards regarding heroism. The poem also contains detailed account of the Germanic historical poems that were the folk tradition of the society. Beowulf’s significance lies in the fact that the poem takes into itself the complete social and religious customs of the society.
5. On His Blindness
Milton, one of the most influential religious poets, is often remembered for his classic ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regain’, but apart from these two there are many others also that are noted for their eminence and worth. Where in ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regain’, Milton has pondered over the downfall and elevation because of Christ’s arrival, in ‘On His Blindness’ he communicates about the spiritual perplexity of man.
The poem is divided in two parts the first part deals with the poet’s complaining on his becoming blind while the other part serves as the answer to the first part. Milton was interested in ecclesiastical matters of man; the subject of man and his faith, discussed in the earlier mentioned poems, is further carried forward in this poem.
The poem communicates an incredibly important spiritual message; in the next part Milton reprimands himself as he says that to be fit for the service of God one should accept the suffering sent from Him.
6. Sohrab and Rustum
‘Sohrab and Rustum’ is the story written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi and is retold in poetic form by Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth century English poet and a prolific literary critic. Arnold, unlike the poets of his times, was more interested in conforming to the great ideals of classical poets. He was not a great fan of modern poetry as he sees it as a deteriorating influence as expressed in his ‘Dover Beach’.
The poem has been structured in the format of Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey and Virgil’s Aenied; occupied with the thought of a great poem, following the scheme of classics, he adopted to narrate the story in the context of events and surrounding. The description of the river, the narration of Sohrab and Rustum are equivalent to the descriptive presented in Iliad, Aenied and Odyssey, which continues to make Arnold an important modern literary figure and the poem his notably classic work.
7. Tintern Abbey
Wordsworth with his ‘Lyrical Ballads’ marked the official beginning of the Romantic Era; him, along with Coleridge, rebelled against the utterly mechanical poetic tradition of their predecessors. Wordsworth was a strong believer of poetry being the personal and natural expression of self and personal sentiments. Besides being all natural, Wordsworth believed that the poetry should be in a common and simple language of common man so that everyone may understand it.
Wordsworth has encumbered the poem with the past experiences with nature and the effects of their memory on his present of city life. The poem is rich in imagery, which is one of the prominent poetic qualities of Wordsworth and the events are told in nostalgic tone. The poet beholds nature as a divine being whose association and relation with man serve as food for soul; his nostalgic commentary on the natural landscape and his time spent in countryside as the sources of comfort in the busy city life sets a stark difference between the weary and mechanical life of a big city and the carefree and pleasant life of a countryside.
8. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is written by Coleridge who partnered Wordsworth in composing the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; Coleridge, along with Wordsworth, rebelled against the mechanical and overly elevated language used in poetry. Though both the poets were close bosom friends and used to share their addiction of opium too but they have different views regarding nature and its effects on human mind and character.
The poem is infused with a considerably large amount of supernatural objects that explain the wretched condition of the mariner and his crew. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ has been explained in different contexts to grab the actual essence of it; it is a remarkably extensive manuscript on the moral deprivation of man due to his bend towards money making.
The suffering of the crew and the mariner is representative of their shifting from the state of sin to redemption; this shifting can also explained as the shift of man from the mechanical means towards nature.
9. Rape of the Lock
Alexander Pope is the paramount representative figure of the Augustan Age; literature during this period was aimed largely to the limited educated public and is mostly contained with social morals and etiquettes. The subject matter for poetry was very limited and for a very small group of people with equal and similar educational background and interests. The society was inclined more towards the outer appearances; vanity was on its peak and had affected each of the social spheres.
The poem is a subtle ironic commentary on the vanity and idol activities and morals of the society; Pope’s genius of handling the subject with delicacy and within the social poetical standards of his times is what makes him the most dominant Augustan figure. The poem has commented on the vain doings of both men and women, the weak religious ties as the cross Belinda was wearing was more of an accessory than a religious object. The supercilious role of newspapers was also included in the poem, which makes it one of the significant poems of Augustan era as well as of literary circle.
10. Cursor Mundi
Cursor Mundi, The Runner of the World, is the significant poem composed during the era of Middle English prose and poetry; the Northumbrian poem is very long with some thirty thousand lines and deals with the historic and religious events of the era. The poem is regarded as more of an encyclopaedia than a poem, though the writer of the poem is still unknown to the present date but, as apparent from the text of the, it seems that the writer was a member of the clergy.
It is a religious poem and has enclosed in its self the elaborate descriptions of religious, social and other contemporary subjects of the era it has been composed in. Being a moral document, the poem consists of the events of making of the world, the birth of Christ, His death and the Christian teachings. The lyrical verse is more like a Biblical encyclopaedia, which has been the rationale of its significance and fame.
Which of these classic poems have your read? Comment below.