Poetry is an art that continues to evolve and change through time. But if you’re new, there’s no better place to start than by reading the classics. Read the classics – the poems that have stood the test of time, written by the poets that we still talk about centuries later. So if you want to start incorporating more poetry into your life, here is a list of the best old poetry books for beginners to start with.
Emily Dickinson is probably one of the most important figures in American poetry. She was a prolific writer, but during her lifetime, only eleven out of 1,775 poems that she wrote were published. Not only that, the poems that were published when Dickinson was still alive were heavily edited to fit the conventional poetic rules at the time. Hence, Emily Dickinson was only famous after her death.
This book is a complete collection, bringing together the original texts of all the poems that Emily Dickinson wrote. The poems are arranged in chronological order, so it’s not just a collection of poems but also serves as a poetic biography of the poet.
Charles Baudelaire was a master at handling rhyme and rhythm. His poems inherited the Romantics’ exoticism, but were also based on real-life observations. His style of poetry influenced a whole generation of French poets, including Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.
The Flowers of Evil (or Les Fleurs du mal), his master piece, expresses the nature of beauty during the mid-19th century industrialization of Paris, a time of rapid change. When first published in 1857, the book was considered extremely controversial, and six of the poems were censored due to their immorality. The poems in the book focus on themes like suffering, sins, death, and aspiration toward an ideal world. The book contains nearly all of Baudelaire’s poetry and is considered a major work of French poetry nowadays.
Rumi was one of the great Persian poets. For centuries, his poetry and teachings have inspired and enlightened many people, and that doesn’t seem to stop nowadays. Rumi’s poetry is sensual and pensive, with the profound love of God coming across as central.
In The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks presents the best of his translations, successfully bringing Rumi’s exquisite literature to a wide range of readers. It’s a rare and precious book that makes the spiritual poetry of the thirteenth century stir the hearts of Rumi devotees and make his works more popular than ever. It’s probably why The Essential Rumi continues to be the best-selling of all Rumi books year after year.
During his lifetime, Omar Khayyam was known as a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, anything but a poet. The poetry attributed to Omar Khayyam is not certain in its authenticity. After his death, a body of quatrains became associated with Khayyam, though not all were his works.
In 1859, an English poet named Edward FitzGerald published a free adaptation of these Persian poems. Although FitzGerald’s work was commercially unsuccessful at first, it became extremely popular after being discovered by D. G. Rossetti and others.
Through FitzGerald, Omar Khayyam spoke with a spiritual freedom that stirred a universal response. The Rubaiyat became one of the best known classics and has been published in hundreds of editions, inspiring similar translation efforts in many languages around the world.
The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem, traditionally attributed to Homer. Along with the Odyssey, another epic poem by Homer, the Iliad is among the oldest extant works of Western literature.
The epic poem portrays the final weeks of the Trojan War and the Greek siege of the city of Troy. Through the stirring scenes of bloody battle, Homer explores themes like glory, gods, and fate. There’s a sense of horror and futility in Homer’s Iliad, but at the same time, the fighting is romanticized by heroism and glamour. It almost seems like Homer both abhorred and glorified war. War reminds us not only of the human values that are destroyed by fighting, but also of the things that are worth fighting for.
William Blake is one of the greatest poets of the English language. However, just like Emily Dickinson, he was largely unrecognized during his life. Nowadays, he’s considered a seminal figure in the history of poetry in the Romantic Age. Over his lifetime, Blake produced a rich and diverse collection of works, embracing the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself.”
The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ever since its first publication in 1965, has been widely hailed as the best available text of Blake’s poetry and prose. Needless to say, this book is very worth reading. Furthermore, to fully understand Blake’s ideas, you should try to learn about his life and the societal norms of the day.
The next poetry book is by another great Persian poet, Hafez. Many Iranians even go so far as to regard his works as the pinnacle of Persian literature. Hafez accessed the mystical and healing dimensions of poetry, and his poems were often ecstatic love songs from God to his beloved world. For this reason, many referred to Hafez as the “Tongue of the Invisible.”
The Gift is a collection of Hafez’s most intimate poems, capturing perfectly the essence of one of Islam’s greatest poetic and religious voices. It’s a compilation of wisdom, encouragement, and love from the great spiritual teacher.
The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, and it is widely considered one of the greatest works of world literature. It is composed of three canticas that are 100 chapters long: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise).
The Divine Comedy is a long and complex poem, with an intertwining structure that is difficult to summarize concisely. The poem’s imaginative world is populated by real and mythological figures who reflect the history of Christianity. Its imaginative vision of the afterlife is a great example of the medieval worldview.
Beowulf is an English epic poem written by an unknown author some time between the 8th and the 10th Century CE. The poem tells the story of the hero Beowulf, who fought against the monster Grendel and an unnamed dragon.
Beowulf is one of the oldest epic poems written in English, and it has been the subject of many studies and speculations. Many believe that the poem was first performed orally by a poet and then written down at the request of a king.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet early in his career, but it’s undoubtedly one of his most popular plays. It’s about two young Italian lovers whose relationship is thwarted by their families. I believe we can all agree that Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories in English literature. And so, love is naturally the play’s most important theme, specifically the intense passion that springs up at first sight between the two main characters.
With that being said, we should all remember that Shakespeare never portrayed a dainty version of the emotion like many bad poets do. Rather, he portrayed the chaos of being in love. While Romeo and Juliet does not make any specific moral statements about the relationship between love and society, but it perfectly combines the images of love, violence, death, and family in such an impressionistic rush and tragic conclusion.
Sappho was an Archaic Greek poet, known for her lyric poetry, written to be sun while accompanied by music. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is a translation of the work of Sappho by Anne Carson, a Canadian poet.
Together with the original Greek, Carson presents all the fragments of Sappho’s poems, using white space to indicate missing text, all to allow readers to imagine the poems as they were written. Sappho’s fragments are intimate but piercing, telling readers stories from forbidden love to the passing of time. Even though most of her work has been lost, the remains still enrapture us to this day.
Basho, a Buddhist monk and a life-long traveler, was known to be one of the greatest Japanese poets. The master of haiku was born in Iga Ueno, near Kyoto in 1644, and spent his youth studying the writing of seventeen-syllable verse.
His poetry evokes the natural world, from a cherry blossom to a leaping frog. He showed us the vastness and drama of nature, so that we can see in comparison the smallness of our human lives. Basho’s writing was strongly influenced by the Zen sect of Buddhism, uncluttered by materialism and alive to the beauty of the world.
Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by one of the most admired American poets, Walt Whitman. This book represents Whitman’s philosophy of life, praising nature and the individual human’s role in it. Instead of focusing on spiritual matters like many books of this kind usually do, Leaves of Grass primarily focuses on the material world.
Interestingly enough, Whitman spent the majority of his writing career writing and rewriting this poetry collection. The first edition published in 1855 was a small book of twelve poems, but the last was a compilation of more than 400. It’s fair to say that Leaves of Grass is the work of Whitman’s life.
John Donne was an English poet who is considered the preeminent representative of the metaphysical poets. Donne’s poems have a special metaphorical and sensual style to them, with abrupt openings, paradoxes, and ironies. His poetical works include love poems, sonnets, religious poems, songs, sermons, etc. Many people consider him the greatest love poet of them all.
The Complete English Poems by John Donne guides readers through the fascinating world of Donne’s poetry. He covered the big topics that a great poet should: Love, Death, and God. More often than not, he covered all three at the same time within the span of a poem. If you’re interested in classical poetry, do yourself a favor and read at least some of John Donne’s poems.
Lyrical Ballads is a collection of poems first published in 1798 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, with most of the poems contributed by Wordsworth. It is often considered by many scholars as the beginning of English Romanticism. The two poets set out to go against the highly sculpted forms of 18th-century English poetry. They want to write poems in common, everyday language and make poetry much more accessible to the average person.
And they indeed did that with Lyrical Ballads. When the book was first published, it enraged the critics of the day, but changed the course of English literature and poetry forever. What we, the readers, need to understand is that the majority of the poems in this book were considered experiments. They were written with the goal of seeing how far the language of the middle and lower classes at the time could be adapted for poetic pleasure. It’s very interesting for readers nowadays to see how an experiment by two poets became a major factor in bringing forth the English Romantic Movement. And even if the authors themselves considered the poems as “experiments,” I guarantee they are an absolutely delightful read.
John Keats belonged to the second generation of English Romantic poets. Keats didn’t live a long life; he died of tuberculosis at 25, just a few years after his poems were published. Even though the reaction to his works was modest at first, their popularity grew rapidly after Keats’ death. Being a poet of the Romantic Movement, John Keats wrote many poems about love and longing. His rich words captured the tones and emotions beautifully, whether it’s a poetic tragedy or a happy poetic romance.
Reading The Complete Poems by John Keats, readers can see that he wrote from the depth of his heart. Keats’ honest expression made his poems easily touch readers and connect with them, something that only an exceptionally skilled poet can do. Today, John Keats is considered one of the greatest romantic poets, and his works remain among the most popular in English literature.
Goblin Market is a narrative poem by Christina Rossetti, another English writer of the Romantic era. It was one of Rossetti’s best known poems and was widely praised by critics. The poem tells the story of the two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who are tempted by the goblin’s fruit. Goblin Market sets in a fairytale world full of mystery, allowing Christina Rossetti to explore themes like temptation, sacrifice and salvation.
It is indeed an interesting poem and can be interpreted in many ways. Some of the most popular interpretations of Goblin Market see the poem as a protest against hazardous practices in 19th-century food adulteration, a warning about the dangers of a free-market economy, a Christian tale of sacrifice and salvation, or a parable of lesbian empowerment. Even though Christina Rossetti claimed that she did not mean anything profound with Goblin Market, the poem continues to attract different interpretations until this day.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was an English poet and Jesuit priest. Hopkins probably considered himself a priest first, as he burned all his poetry when deciding to become a priest at the age of 24. His reason was that writing poetry does not belong to his profession, and he would write no more unless his superiors want him to do so. That said, Poems and Prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins is a collection of poems, letters, and journal entries written over the next twenty years of his life.
Hopkins’ works established him as an innovator, notably his vivid use of imagery to praise God and his concept of sprung rhythm. The words in his poems do exactly that – spring rhythm, creating astounding feats of musicality, especially when read aloud. Because his style was so different, Hopkins’ contemporaries did not think highly of his works. Nowadays, however, Gerard Manly Hopkins is probably considered to be one of the leading poets of the Victorian era.
I’d like to end the list with something more lighthearted. A Child’s Garden of Verses is a collection of poems for children by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was not just a poet, he was also a novelist, an essayist, and especially a master storyteller. Among A Child’s Garden of Verses, some of his best known works are Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped.
The poems in this book were written from a child’s point of view, evoke a simpler time in the past that everyone of us fondly remembers. The book recalls the joys of childhood, as Stevenson dedicated it to his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham. A Child’s Garden of Verses is considered by many to be one of the most influential children’s books of the 19th century.
The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe is a comprehensive and unique anthology that offers readers an unparalleled view into the works of one of history’s greatest poets. With more than 100 pages of poetry, this book is a must-have for anyone interested in Poe or American literature in general.
Included within The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe are poems such as “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” and many more beloved classics. Whether you’re just starting out with Poe or are looking to explore his work further, this book is sure to provide valuable insights into one of history’s most fascinating authors.
The Essential Neruda is a collection of the essential works of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It was published in 2004 and has since been praised for its comprehensive coverage of Neruda’s prolific writing.
This book is probably one of the best introductions to Neruda’s various styles and themes. If you’re interested in the poems of one of the best poets of the 20th century, this is definitely the book for you!
Ariel is one of the most famous and beloved poetry collections by Sylvia Plath, an American poet, novelist, and short-story writer. She is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry.
Among her published works, there are two most popular collections. The first one is The Colossus and Other Poems, first published by Heinemann in 1960. The other one is Ariel, a book published in 1965, two years after Plath’s death by suicide.
The poems in Ariel are honest and haunting. Her writing is like a scalpel – it cuts so deep and quick you don’t even feel it. There is no ‘slight of hand’ here – only the raw and honest feelings of an artist dealing with life and the cumulative toll life takes on us all.
The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou is a beautiful book that gathers together all of her poems, from her earliest work right up to the present day. This collection offers readers a chance to explore not only the powerful and moving words that make up Maya Angelou’s body of work, but also her unique perspective on life and human experience.
Each poem in The Complete Poetry is a reflection of the writer’s remarkable life – from the hardship of the African American life in Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie to her celebration of womanhood in Still I Rise.
Whether you are new to Maya Angelou’s poetry or a longtime fan, this definitive compendium is sure to offer something special for you. Pick it up today and start reading!
Robert Frost’s poems are among the most beloved and widely read works in American literature. Originally published in 2002, these iconic poems capture Frost’s appreciation of common folk, and his wonderful understanding of the human condition. This book contains over 100 poems by Robert Frost, including all of his best known verses.
Frost’s poetry is widely accessible. It has amazing imagery and the man can string a sentence together to make words actually beautiful, but he doesn’t let poetic form obscure meaning. You can easily follow the narrative of the poem and philosophical questions he poses are pretty well on the surface of every poem. This is definitely a wonderful collection of one of the best poets ever.
The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a poetic masterpiece that was written by one of the most famous and respected poets in American history. Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most critically acclaimed poets of the Modernist era and the third woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Millay was born in 1892, and she died in 1950 at the age of 58 after suffering from a heart attack. During her lifetime, she wrote some of the most acclaimed poetry ever created. The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a demonstration of Millay’s legacy and her influence on contemporary poetry.
If you’re looking for an interesting and engaging read, The Poems of Marianne Moore is the perfect choice. This book gathers together all of Moore’s poems, including more than a hundred that were previously uncollected and unpublished.
Moore was born in 1884 in Kirkwood, Missouri. She was known as a poet with precise diction, irony, and wit. Throughout her career, Moore maintained critical acclaim – winning prestigious awards such as the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.
But despite these struggles, The Poems of Marianne Moore remains beloved by readers worldwide for its linguistic precision, and acute observations of people, places, animals, and art. If you’re looking for a poetry collection of one of history’s greatest poets – don’t miss this book!
Langston Hughes was an American poet and author who wrote about the realities of African-American life in the 20th century. Selected Poems is a collection of his best poetry, spanning over forty years.
In this book, you’ll find poems about love, loss, racism, war, and more. It includes all of his best known poems such as ‘The Speaks of Rivers’, ‘The Weary Blues’, ‘Song for Billie Holiday’, ‘Black Maria’, ‘Magnolia Flowers’, ‘Lunch in a Jim Crow Car’ and ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’.
Hughes’ poetic style is unique and full of emotion; he’s able to communicate complicated ideas in a simple way that everyone can understand. He uses rich language to explore complex themes, making Selected Poems by Langston Hughes one of the most powerful books for understanding poetry today.
In Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova, the author presents a collection of her most intense and lyrical moments. This book is an excellent choice for anyone interested in Russian literature, or poetry in general.
The poems are written with power and conviction, and they explore many difficult topics such as love, loneliness, and regret. Many readers find these poems to be deeply moving and emotionally resonant.
Many of the themes explored in this book have been discussed by other authors before (for example, loneliness vs connection), but Akhmatova does a great job of presenting them in a fresh way that is still relevant today. Overall, Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova is an excellent selection for any reader looking for classic Russian poetry that will appeal to both literary experts and casual readers alike.
The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks is a compilation of writings by the renowned African-American poet and educator. Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in in Topeka, Kansas. Brooks’ parents were very supportive of their daughter’s passion for reading and writing. Brooks was only 13 when her first published poem, “Eventide.” The rest is history.
Gwendolyn Brooks then went on to become one of the most acclaimed poets of the 20th century. She was also the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks provides an exhaustive account of all the different phases of Brooks’ career, from her early work to later writings.
Picture Bride is the winning volume in the 1982 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. It’s a book that is full of beautiful poetry that captures the stories of people. The poems in this collection are like fingerprints on a glass – unique, delicate, and intricate.
Memories of childhood and family photos are the main themes of the poems in Picture Bride. Cathy Song’s writing style is beautiful and succinct, and the imagery is vivid. These poems were both sentimental and bittersweet, but they were all very much worth reading.
That’s the list of the best old poetry books for beginners to start with. Poetry is a beautiful world full of rhythm, imagery, and meaning. But sometimes that world can be so vast that it makes newcomers hesitate to jump in. I hope that after reading this article, you’ve had at least a few good suggestions to dive into.
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Thomas Dao is the guy who created Poem Home, a website where people can read about all things poetry related. When he’s not busy working on his next project, you can find him reading a good book or spending time with family and friends.