Arguably the greatest poet of all time, William Shakespeare, otherwise known as "the bard," wrote approximately 38 plays and over 150 sonnets and poems in his lifetime. His most famous plays include: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare wrote his plays primarily in iambic pentameter and his sonnets consist of three stanzas of four lines and an additional two lines that conclude the sonnet in his signature rhythm.
The Romantic period of the late 1700s and early 1800s introduced an influx of new poets that changed the face of the poetical tradition. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats are famed for their friendship that over the years that informed the others' poetry. Byron's most "Don Juan" and "She Walks in Beauty," Shelley's "Ozymandias" and Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn" remain at the forefront of the greatest poetry of all time. The three died tragically young yet all contributed to epitomize the peak of Romantic poetry. Also writing in that period was the well-known William Wordsworth whose poem "Daffodils" is taught in most high schools. In true Romantic form it highlights the significance of the memory of the elation in the presence of beauty, as one recalls it later in quiet solitude.
A few years after the deaths of Keats, Byron and Shelley, Tennyson published his first work; he continued to publish over a period of sixty-five years. He was also the poet laureate under Queen Victoria for over forty years. Tennyson famously coined the phrase: "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all" and often drew on Arthurian legends to create poems like "The Lady of Shallot" and "Guinevere."
A private person with no aspirations of fame, Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts and spent the majority of her adult life confined indoors, considered a recluse by many. Her poems are marked by their brevity and themes of isolation, religious doubt and fascination with death. Most of her poems were published after her death in 1886, when her sister, Lavinia, discovered her impressive body of work of over 1,700 poems.
Celebrating beauty and glorifying the seemingly unsanctified, Walt Whitman constructed a new era of American poetry modeled on the biblical style. His famed book, Leaves of Grass, and its most famous poem "Song of Myself," capitalize on the greatness of man's individuality yet encourage unity and connection rather than isolation. Whitman perceived himself as a bard, a prophet, wrought with the responsibility of singing the song of human redemption. A wound-dresser during the civil war, Whitman incorporated his experiences into his works. Whitman was a master of dichotomies, using undertones of isolation and unity, eroticism and religion, continuity and innovation, simultaneously. With the release of his poems, Whitman became a controversial figure due to the overt sexual imagery in his works which did not mesh well with the lingering Puritanical society in which he was embedded.
Modernism, with its redefinition of art, introduced a revolutionary poet: Gertrude Stein. Stein redefined the parameters of language; her poetry forces her readers to reevaluate what a word, a sentence, or a poem really is. Her works are liberated from the confines of punctuation or plot and are characterized by repetition and sound evocation. The unique childlike quality of her poetry strips words of meaning and context while emphasizing its tone and melody. Stein was a lover of puns, humor and radical innovation.
Robert Frost was a teacher, farmer and poet and the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes between 1924 and 1943. His poem: "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" has often been interpreted as symbolizing death and heaven, though Frost adamantly maintained that the meaning of the poem was literal. In this poem, as well as in many others, much of the utilized imagery was culled from Frost's rural surroundings.
The history of art indicates that struggle breeds creativity. Such was the case for Langston Hughes, whose poetry is emblematic of the Harlem renaissance in the 1920's and 1930's. Aside from his poems, Hughes also wrote acclaimed novels, articles, children's books and plays. He is accredited with being the voice of the African-American community, translating cultural woes into a grand literary tradition.