Top 50 Greatest Poets of All Time

Poetry as an art form stretches back into antiquity, and the greatest poets have delivered beautiful, transcendent and titillating moments of verse throughout its enduring history.

Ever transforming with the times, poetry has evolved in response to traumatic events, systemic upheavals and shifting cultures and ideologies – it remains an intensely reactive art form. From the earliest known written work, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, to Chinese folk songs, Homeric adventures, Viking sagas and Shakespeare’s famous blank verse, poems recall stories from the magnificent to the intimate. In these expressions of intimacy are some of literature’s most enduring and illuminating works. But poetry has also long been used for levity and comedy. The genre can be acerbic, absurd, and rude – with top poets able to deliver punchlines with pinpoint precision. And in their darkest moments, poems can reveal the trauma of conflict, cry out in the face of taboos, and help to uncover inequality and oppression. But even as difficult truths are revealed, poetry remains a dependable mode to express beauty. Humility, at the feet of nature’s awesome forces and magnificent landscapes.

It can help us to understand and appreciate everything from sweeping vistas, to the mechanisms of our complex societies, and the minutiae of human emotions. Here are the 50 greatest poets of all time:

Poet
Robert Frost
March 26, 1874 - January 29, 1963

Robert Frost

Robert Lee Frost was an American poet. His work was initially published in England before it was published in the United States. Known for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech, Frost frequently wrote about settings from rural life in New England in the early 20th century, using them to examine complex social and philosophical themes.

Poet
Maya Angelou
4 April 1928 - 28 May 2014

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an American memoirist, popular poet, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences.

Poet
Pablo Neruda
12 July 1904 - 23 September 1973

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda  was a Chilean poet-diplomat and politician who won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature. Neruda became known as a poet when he was 13 years old, and wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems such as the ones in his collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924).

Poet
Walt Whitman
31 May 1819 - 26 March 1892

Walt Whitman

Pablo Neruda  was a Chilean poet-diplomat and politician who won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature. Neruda became known as a poet when he was 13 years old, and wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems such as the ones in his collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924).

Poet
Thomas Hardy
2 June 1840 - 11 January 1928

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy was an English novelist and poet. A Victorian realist in the tradition of George Eliot, he was influenced both in his novels and in his poetry by Romanticism, including the poetry of William Wordsworth. He was highly critical of much in Victorian society, especially on the declining status of rural people in Britain, such as those from his native South West England.

Poet
William Blake
28 November 1757 - 12 August 1827

William Blake

William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his life, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual art of the Romantic Age. What he called his “prophetic works” were said by 20th-century critic Northrop Frye to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led 21st-century critic Jonathan Jones to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”.

Poet
Langston Hughes
1 February 1902 - 22 May 1967

Langston Hughes

James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He famously wrote about the period that “the Negro was in vogue”, which was later paraphrased as “when Harlem was in vogue.”

Poet
John Keats
31 October 1795 - 23 February 1821

John Keats

John Keats was an English poet of the second generation of Romantic poets, with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. His poems had been in publication for less than four years when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. They were indifferently received in his lifetime, but his fame grew rapidly after his death. By the end of the century, he was placed in the canon of English literature, strongly influencing many writers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1888 called one ode “one of the final masterpieces”.

Poet
Alfred Lord Tennyson
6 August 1809 - 6 October 1892

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Tennyson was an English poet. He was the Poet Laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign. In 1829, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, “Timbuktu”. He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830. “Claribel” and “Mariana”, which remain some of Tennyson’s most celebrated poems, were included in this volume.

Poet
John Milton
9 December 1608 - 8 November 1674

John Milton

John Milton was an English poet and intellectual who served as a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Written in blank verse, Paradise Lost is widely considered one of the greatest works of literature ever written.

Poet
William Shakespeare
26 April 1564 - 23 April 1616

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was an English playwright, poet and actor. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s greatest dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon” (or simply “the Bard”). His extant works, including collaborations, consist of some 39 plays, 154 sonnets, three long narrative poems, and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

Poet
Emily Dickinson
10 December 1830 - 15 May 1886

Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet. Little-known during her life, she has since been regarded as one of the most important figures in American poetry. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, into a prominent family with strong ties to its community. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s home in Amherst.

Poet
Rudyard Kipling
30 December 1865 - 18 January 1936

Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was an English novelist, short-story writer, poet, and journalist. He was born in British India, which inspired much of his work.

Poet
Sylvia Plath
October 27, 1932 - February 11, 1963

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short-story writer. She is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for two of her published collections, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) and Ariel (1965), as well as The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel published shortly before her death in 1963. The Collected Poems were published in 1981, which included previously unpublished works. For this collection Plath was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1982, making her the fourth to receive this honour posthumously.

Poet
Edgar Allan Poe
19 January 1809 - 7 October 1849

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States, and of American literature. Poe was one of the country’s earliest practitioners of the short story, and considered to be the inventor of the detective fiction genre, as well as a significant contributor to the emerging genre of science fiction. Poe is the first well-known American writer to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career.

Poet
William Wordsworth
7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was an English Romantic poet who, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with their joint publication Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth’s magnum opus is generally considered to be The Prelude, a semi-autobiographical poem of his early years that he revised and expanded a number of times. It was posthumously titled and published by his wife in the year of his death, before which it was generally known as “the poem to Coleridge”.

Poet
Rabindranath Tagore
7 May 1861 - 7 August 1941

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali polymath who worked as a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter. He reshaped Bengali literature and music as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of the “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful” poetry of Gitanjali, he became in 1913 the first non-European and the first lyricist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Poet
Charles Bukowski
16 August 1920 - 9 March 1994

Charles Bukowski

Henry Charles Bukowski was a German-American poet, novelist, and short story writer. His writing was influenced by the social, cultural, and economic ambience of his adopted home city of Los Angeles. Bukowski’s work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women, and the drudgery of work. The FBI kept a file on him as a result of his column Notes of a Dirty Old Man in the LA underground newspaper Open City.

Poet
Rainer Maria Rilke
4 December 1875 - 29 December 1926

Rainer Maria Rilke

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke, better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was an Austrian poet and novelist. He is “widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets”. He wrote both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude and anxiety.

Poet
Robert Browning
7 May 1812 – 12 December 1889

Robert Browning

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke, better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was an Austrian poet and novelist. He is “widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets”. He wrote both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude and anxiety.

Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton
Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg
Federico García Lorca
Federico Lorca
Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet
Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg
John Donne
John Donne
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Stevenson
Ogden Nash
Allen Ginsberg
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Ella Wilcox
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Henry Lawson
Carl Sandburg