The 30 Poems You Should Know

I am not in anyway a poetry-type person. I can enjoy a good poem or two – Footprints in the Sand is always a good shout – but I tend to be fairly mainstream in my tastes.

When I was a child, I was introduced to a book of T.S. Eliot poems about cats. And in secondary school I found out about Daffodils and wandering lonely as clouds. Then there’s my eternal love of Shakespeare and his genius take on language and his versatility in its use.

My coffee-buddy, S, is a big poetry fan, and is easing me into the complicated minefield that is purchasing a poetry book.

But, according to The Times, there are 30 poems everyone should know… some of which I don’t. The rise of the iF Poems app has inspired Erica Wagner, the Literary Editor, to list 30 classic poems, which are also available on this new app.

1. A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Now, I’ve heard of Robbie Burns – he wrote about the mousie on the stair and we eat haggis once a year and quote poetry in really bad Scottish accents thanks to him… right?

2. The Tyger by William Blake

I know the first two lines. I have no idea why, but I do. And every time I think of those lines, I envision The Tiger Who Came To Tea, which makes no sense whatsoever. I think education may have failed me here.

3. To Autumn by John Keats

Now I’ve heard of Keats. The poem in question? No.

4. Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Well, of course. “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day?”… well yes, you can. One of the most romantic sonnets of all time. If I ever find someone who can express the same sentiments that Shakespeare portrays in this, then I will marry them instantly.

5. Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Who said “War is hell?” I always think that whenever someone mentions war or battles. Now, I will shamefacedly admit that I had never heard this poem before; the title is part of the saying “Dulce Et Decorum Est. Pro patria mori” which means: “Sweet and fitting it is. To die for one’s country.” The poem is a tale of World War I… Mummaloo read it to me when I shocked her by saying I didn’t know it. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and I have stored it away in my brain with Footprints for safekeeping.

6. We’ll Go No More A-Roving by Lord Byron

Yes, yes, I know Lord Byron – he was the prototype “player”, right? “Romantic”, my backside. He used poetry to get into women’s knickers. Dirty man. Though this is quite good for a poem…

7. Death Be Not Proud by John Donne

Another poet I’ve heard of, but not the poem – if we were scoring points on poets, I’d be doing rather well. I do sort of recognise the first stanza, but that could just be because it was read to me once – maybe at church during a memorial service? It’s another lovely poem about the hell of war.

8. Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Poet: yes. Poem: no. First thoughts when I heard this title? “Oh crap I forgot to watch Garrow’s Law last weekend.” (That makes sense because “making the bar” is all lawyer-y type stuff)… Yeah, I’ve got nothing.

9. Answer to a Child’s Question by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I know Coleridge too. And the title of this sounds so sweet – it kind of reminds me of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Yell” post by Mostly Bright Ideas about answering children’s questions.

10. The Song of Mr Toad by Kenneth Grahame

Is this to do with The Wind in the Willows? It is? Oh, good-oh… I never liked Mr Toad.

11. I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman

For some reason, I associate Walt Whitman with films (and no, not because I mix him up with Walt Disney). But, in actual fact, I think I know him because he was a bigshot journalist.

12. If by Rudyard Kipling

Poppaloo was horrified I had never heard this poem. He proceeded to enlighten me by reading it out. Unfortunately, Kipling tends to confuse me, so I’ll have to go back to this one.

13. Remember by Christina Rossetti

Nope. Nothing.

14. Poor Old Lady by Anon

I can’t resist the joke of “Anon has written an awful lot”. Other than that, it’s quite an entertaining poem (which I DO know).

15. Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson

Oh, Emily Dickinson, you show off. You write great poems.

16. Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I’ve heard this title… it’s a word that’s hard to forget. And if this is THE Shelley, I have also heard of him. Having quickly read the poem in question… I have no idea why I know the title.

17. Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden

This. Makes. Me. Cry. I knew this poem before this list (and no, I have never seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, so it’s not because of that), and I want it read out at my funeral. It’s so amazingly beautiful.

18. Invictus by W.E. Henley

I can never decide if the film enriched or cheapened the whole story. But Morgan Freeman reading out this poem was beautiful. I want to get a recording of it and play it over and over again.

19. Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Well, duh. The guy might have been a complete creep as a person, but he wrote well!

20. Daffodils by William Wordsworth

Clouds, daffodils, floating on high. I know, I know.

21. Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge makes a second appearance in the list, and for good reason. I remember hearing Kubla Khan before – I think Poppaloo might have read it to me. It gives me shivers, because I oddly find it creepy – but not in a way that makes me hate it, but in a way that is cold and scary but amazing.

22. How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I think this was part of a school game we used to play. You remember, when you were just discovering boys weren’t only smelly and noisy, and you plucked daisies to pieces reciting “he loves me, he loves me not” and always making sure it ended right. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” It also reminds me of that ridiculously cute story, Guess How Much I Love You.

23. The Soldier by Rupert Brooke

Another sad and beautiful war poem. “If I should die…” One of the most profound openings I’ve ever read.

24. Love and Friendship by Emily Brontë

Nope. I thought she only wrote novels.

25. The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

My favourite bit of this poem was the “pea-green boat”. It spurred my love of description and colours.

26. How Soon Hath Time by John Milton

Milton: yes. Poem: no.

27. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats

We have Keats and Yeats. Our poetry list is clearly complete. Still haven’t read him though.

28. Jerusalem by William Blake

This is a song, right?

29. The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I love this guy’s name! I picture a fop with a cane and a moustache, hand tucked in waistcoat. I still haven’t heard of the poem though.

30. The Elephant by Hilaire Belloc

I had never heard of this poem. Poppaloo likened it to a Spike Milligan, and I love it so much, I have to write it out here:

“When people call this beast to mind,

They marvel more and more

At such a little tail behind,

So large a trunk before.”

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