A Brief History of English Poetry
Major Eras of British/American Poetry
• Elizabethan
• Romantic
• Victorian
• Modernist
• Post-Modernist
Elizabethan Age
• The reign of Elizabeth I was also a
turbulent period, but she successfully
coped with all the difficulties. England
was threatened by the superpowers of
the age – France and Spain. Elizabeth was
excommunicated by the Pope in 1570.
She was in constant fear for her life.
Nevertheless, English ships beat the
Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth
managed to maintain a relative peace
between the protestants and the
Catholics. She tried to unite her people,
instilling a sense of national pride.
The Best Elizabethan Poetry
• At the time, the writing of poetry was part of the education of
a gentleman. Sonnets were very popular among the upper
classes, and collections of sonnets and lyrics were often
published. Aristocrats who did not write poetry themselves
were usually patrons to other poets, giving them financial
• W. Shakespeare was one of
these poets
• Collection of sonnets
(1609) is dedicated to his
• Scholars are not certain
when each of the 154
sonnets was composed,
but evidence suggests that
Shakespeare wrote
sonnets throughout his
career for a private
What Is Romanticism?
Use creative imagination
Focus on nature
Importance of myth and symbolism
Focus on feelings and intuition
Freedom and spontaneity
Simple language
Personal experience, democracy and liberty
Fascination with past
Revolt Against Neoclassicism
Stressed reason and
Valued society
Followed authority
Maintained the
Stressed imagination
and emotion
Interested in science
and technology
Valued individuals
Strove for freedom
Represented common
Interested in
Romantic Trends
Poets of the Romantic Era
William Blake
William Wordsworth
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
George Gordon, Lord
John Keats
Percy Bysshe Shelley
William Wordsworth
Born in Cockermouth, Cumberland,
Mother died 1778
Attended St. John’s College, Cambridge
Had affair with Annette Vallon
“Vaudracour and Julia” for lover and
Married Mary Hutchinson
Five children
Lived with sister Dorothy
Brother John died at sea
Lost friendship with Coleridge
Two children died
Granted honorary Doctor of Civil Law
The Victorian Age (1832-1901)
• Queen Victoria 1837-1901
• 1. Full of conflicts and tensions
• Anxiety in Arnold’s poetry→a
strong sense of loss.
• Existential concerns
• Tennyson→relies on
religion→the last Christian
Poet in English literary
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
• Alfred Tennyson was born August
6th, 1809, at Somersby,
– Parents: George and Elizabeth (Fytche)
• fourth of twelve children
• Grandfather made his younger
uncle heir and skipped over
Tennyson’s father
• Lifelong fear of mental illness
• 1827 Tennyson he followed his two
older brothers to Trinity College,
• 1829 - The Apostles
– an undergraduate club
– remainedTennyson's friends all his life
– met to discuss major philosophical and other
Lewis Carrol
(27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898)
• Real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
• Wrote under pseudonym Lewis Carroll
• Author, mathematician, logician, photographer,
and Anglican deacon.
• Most famous writings are Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, as
well as the poem "Jabberwocky",
• all examples of the genre of literary nonsense.
• Noted for his facility at word play, logic, and
Carroll’s Alice Through
the Looking Glass
• the author's mathematical forays into
the realm of symbolic logic make his
work a natural precursor to modernism.
• His interest in the possibilities of
language look forward to Joyce
• His fascination with sign systems in the
Alice books makes him a forerunner to
contemporary approaches to the field
of semiotics (the study of meaning)
• Tennyson is sceptical about
man's capacity to have and
keep faith:
– the destruction of an ideal when
men do not keep faith:
• "The Passing of Arthur,“
– makes it quite clear how the Round
Table failed
– offers some cause for hope:
» presents the trials, triumphs,
and conversion of the ordinary
» Sir Bedivere.
American Poetry during the Victorian
*Victorian era applies mostly to
British writing at the time
*Also known as Post-Colonial
*While authors such as
Whitman and Dickenson are
writing, they have little
acclaim outside of U.S.
Edgar Allen Poe
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809
Married cousin while editor in Richmond, VA
Invented horror writing and detective fiction
Precursor of “art for art’s sake” movement
One of first American fiction authors to gain
worldwide acclaim
Modern Poetry
• In modernism, we see poets
breaking the rules of gentlemanly
Elizabethan poetry, and forming
new definitions of what makes a
poem interesting. No longer did
poetry have to follow rules about
rhythm, rhyme, and meter.
Poetry from this era ranges from
small poems about an image (see
E.E. Cummings), to long,
sprawling epics written in several
languages (see T.S. Eliot). For
more examples of 20th and 21st
century poetry, see below:
T.S. Eliot: 1888-1965
• Was extremely studious- he studied in Harvard AND the Sorbonne
in Paris!
• Pioneer of “high modernism” (a.k.a. hard-to-understand poetry)
• His poetry usually has a depressing tone.
• Liked to use Italian, Greek, Russian, French, and German in his
poems- because he spoke nearly all of them!
Langston Hughes
• 1902-1967
• Is considered a “Harlem
Renaissance” Poet- he
was an African
American that was one
of the first of his race to
be a published and
respected poet.
• His poetry has been set
to jazz music
Naomi Shihab Nye
• Contemporary poet (still
alive today)
• Literature Professor at
University of Texas
• Writes simple poetry which
documents the day-to-day
life of modern America

A Brief History of English Poetry