12 of History's Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century

Khalid Elhassan - September 20, 2017

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Ferdowsi tomb in Tus, Iran. IFP News

Ferdowsi

I’ve reached the end of this great history,
And all the land will fill with talk of me.
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone, my praises and my fame.
Ferdowsi – closing verses of the Shahnameh

Abu al Qasim Mansur Ferdowsi (940 – 1020), author of the world’s longest poem and Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh, is credited with saving the Persian language from extinction and reviving it after centuries of decline following the 7th-century Arab conquest of Persia. As such, he is the most influential figure in Persian culture, as well as a giant of world literature.

The Shahnameh, which took Ferdowsi decades to write its nearly 60,000 couplets, mixes myth and history to chronicle the lives of the warriors and rulers of the Persian Empire, which had been conquered first by the Arabs, then by barbarians from Central Asia. Marching through centuries of history and myth, and narrating the lives and adventures of generations of warriors and kings as they fight, rebel, betray and are betrayed, the poem is credited with reversing a centuries-long decline in Persian culture, and with preserving the Persian language, history, and folklore from erasure.

In addition to its significance as conservator and repository of Persian culture, the Shahnameh is rife with moving verse pervaded by a sense of loss and melancholy. The poem combines beauty and cruelty, breathtaking surroundings besmirched by the acts of violence surrounding them, and a juxtaposition between a glorification of war and warriors, and a relentless fate that nearly always finds the actors to hold them accountable for their actions.

After completing the epic in 1010, he presented it to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who accepted the poem, but stiffed Ferdowsi by paying him an insultingly small amount. Upon leaving the court, an angry Ferdowsi composed a satire of the chintzy Sultan, then fled. Legend has it that Ferdowsi spent the final decade of his life hiding from Mahmud’s wrath, unaware that the Sultan had reconsidered his shabby treatment of the poet and determined to make amends with a rich payment. Ferdowsi thus died in penury, unaware that he was now a wealthy man.

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Chaucer, as depicted in the 15th century Ellesmer Manuscript. Encyclopedia Britannica

Chaucer

Now welcome, somer, with they sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!
Chaucer – excerpt from The Parliament of Birds

Author of The Canterbury Tales and the greatest English poet before Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is considered the Father of the English Language because his writings legitimized the literary use of English vernacular at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin. His works varied, with topics running the gamut from fart jokes to spiritual union with God, but they consistently reflected a pervasive humor even as they explored serious philosophical questions.

Born into an affluent family, Chaucer attended school at Saint Paul’s cathedral, where he was influenced by the writings of Virgil and Ovid. As a teenager, his father secured him as a royal page – a stepping stone to knighthood and future advancement. He spent his adult as a courtier, civil servant, and diplomat. In his teens, he took part in the opening of the Hundred Years’ War, was captured, and ransomed by the king for a considerable sum.

His earliest major poem was The Book of the Duchess, an elegy to the deceased wife of John of Gaunt, son of king Edward III and father of future king Henry IV. Written in the early 1370s, it earned Chaucer a comfortable annuity from the powerful widower. He penned most of his major works between 1374 and 1386, when he was comptroller of London – a job that afforded him plenty of free time in which to write major works such as Parliament of Birds and The Legend of Good Women. It was during this period that he began his signature work, The Canterbury Tales.

He became the towering literary figure of his day, and after his death in 1400, he was the first to be buried at what became known as “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey, where literary luminaries such as Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy joined him over the succeeding centuries.

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Petrarch. Wikimedia

Petrarch

I’d sing of Love in such a novel fashion
that from her cruel side I would draw by force
a thousand sighs a day, kindling again
in her cold mind a thousand desires;

I’d see her lovely face transform quite often
her eyes grow wet and more compassionate,
like one who feels regret, when it is too late,
for causing someone’s suffering by mistake;
Petrarch – excerpt from Sonnet 131

Petrarch (1304 – 1374) composed sonnets that became models for lyrical poetry, imitated throughout Europe, and his verse and prose became a foundation of the modern Italian language. Disdaining the ignorance of preceding centuries, he coined the term “Dark Ages“, and founded Humanism, or the study of classical antiquity. His rediscovery and publication of Cicero’s letters is credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, making Petrarch one of history’s most influential scholars.

His father was a lawyer who compelled his son to study law at the universities of Montpelier and Bologna, but Petrarch’s interests lay in writing and Latin literature, and he detested the legal profession. After his parents’ death, he worked in clerical offices, which gave him time to devote to his true passion, writing, and his first major work, an epic about the Roman general Scipio Africanus, won him acclaim.

His poems to Laura, an idealized beloved who was beyond his reach, contributed to a flowering of lyrical poetry. Laura’s death during the Black Death led Petrarch to renounce sensual pleasure, but his love for her continued for the remainder of his life. That chaste love formed the basis of his most celebrated work, the Italian poems Rime, which he divided into rimes during Laura’s life, and rimes after her death. Even before penning Rime, his poetry had earned him considerable praise such that, in 1341, he became only the second poet laureate crowned since antiquity.

Petrarch became known as the “first tourist” for his propensity to travel for pleasure. During those travels, he visited monastic libraries to collect manuscripts from antiquity, and was prominent in the recovery and propagation of knowledge from Greco-Roman writers – his scholarly life mission, which lasted until his death in 1374.

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Lord Byron. Government Art Collection, UK

Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Lord Byron – excerpt from She Walks in Beauty

A leading figure in the Romantic movement, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824), was an English poet, satirist, politician and peer, whose poems and personality captured Europe’s imagination. Among his best-known poetic works are the gloomy Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the satiric Don Juan, and the short love poem She Walks in Beauty.

Byron is widely regarded as one of Britain’s best poets, known and acclaimed for his brilliant use of the English language. However, he gained further fame, or infamy, and became even better known for his flamboyance, amorous lifestyle, and the notoriety of his sexual escapades with both men and women, including allegations of an incestuous relationship with his sister.

His work often reflects a deep melancholy caused by the tension between his awareness of life’s imperfections, and his tendency to seek perfection in life’s experiences. That resulted in swings between depression and humorous mockery of the contrast between ideal life and real life, which is reflected in the contrast between his melancholic Childe Harold and the satirically realistic Don Juan, which could be viewed as two sides of the same coin that is Byron.

He traveled around Europe for years, including seven years lived in Italy, before he joined the Greeks in their war of independence from the Ottomans. He was disappointed with the Greeks of his day, and complained of his struggle to find a semblance between the Greeks he knew and the heroic ones in history books. While pondering that, he caught a fever and died in Greece at age 36.

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin Press

Pushkin

Rose maiden, no I do not quarrel,
With these dear chains, they don’t demean.
The nightingale embushed in laurel,
The sylvan singers’ feathered queen,
Does she not bear the same sweet plight?
Near the proud rose’s beauty dwelling,
And with her tender anthems thrilling
The dusk of a voluptuous night.
Pushkin – Dear Chains

Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837) was also an outstanding novelist, short story writer, playwright, and dramatist who is deemed the founder of modern Russian literature. His verse and prose addressed conflicts between personal happiness and duty, the rebellion of loners against the system, and were rife with vigorous life-affirming themes such as the triumph of human goodness over oppression, and of reason over narrow-minded prejudice.

A born aristocrat, Pushkin was a descendant of Abram Gannibal, an African kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child, who ended up in Istanbul and from there was taken to Russia and presented as a gift to Peter the Great. The Tsar adopted Gannibal and raised him in the imperial household as his godson, and he rose to prominence as a general and courtier during the reign of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth – an extraordinary life described in Pushkin’s biographical novel The Negro of Peter the Great.

Precocious, Pushkin published his first poem at age 15 while a student at the elite Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum. While still at the Lyceum, he began his first major work, the romantic poem Ruslan and Ludmilla, which used folkloric Russian themes of an epic hero overcoming numerous obstacles in the course of rescuing his bride. It flouted accepted genre rules by rejecting the traditional Russian style of classic poetry, and by breaking the barriers to the use of colloquial speech in verse. It was violently attacked, but it brought Pushkin fame and cemented his place as an innovator.

By the time he graduated, he was a committed social reformer, which upset the Tsarist authorities and secret police, who placed him under surveillance for the remainder of his life. At age 21, he was exiled from St. Petersburg to southern Russia. In exile, he traveled through Crimea and the Caucasus, and the impressions gained furnished material for his “southern cycle” of romantic poems, such as The Robber Brothers and Prisoner of the Caucasus.

Pushkin’s literary outflow was frequently interrupted by authorities censoring his work and prohibiting or otherwise impeding its publication. Despite officialdom’s ham-handedness, he kept writing. His poetic novel Eugene Onegin revolutionized Russian literature as the first to take contemporary society as its subject matter, and led a wave of realistic Russian novels. Pushkin’s use of the Russian language was both simple and profound, and became the foundation of the style adopted by novelists such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev.

In 1837 Pushkin discovered that his brother-in-law had attempted to seduce the poet’s wife. The code of honor of the day compelled Pushkin to challenge the offender to a duel, in which he was fatally wounded. Thus, his life was cut short at the height of his literary career, but the tragic ending was somehow fitting for a man who embodied the Romantic movement.

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Goethe. Wikimedia

Goethe

Now I leave the little cottage
Of my dearest; through the dark,
Secret, in a dreary silence,
Wander through the wooded park.
Luna peers through bush and oak tree
Birches bow, they strew a fragrance
On the winds of midnight blown.

What a pleasure in the coolness
Of so rich a summer’s night!
What a hush! The feeling spirit
Revels in untold delight.
Rapture I can hardly cope with,
Nights of secrecy astir,
Yet, I’d trade them, by the thousand,
For a single night with her.
Goethe – A Beautiful Night

Embodying the Enlightenment’s ideal of a polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), famed author of Faust, was an all-around giant of German and Western literature who shone as a poet, playwright, theatrical director, novelist, critic, botanist, scientist, and amateur artist. Goethe’s poetry ran the gamut from lyrical to epic, and his 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is seen as the spark which ignited the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) literary movement, a forerunner of the Romantic movement that swept 19th-century Western literature and arts.

Goethe was born in comfortable circumstances to a wealthy bourgeois family, and was educated at home by tutors until age 16, when his father sent him to study law at the University of Leipzig, which at the time was the center of German literary revival. He imbibed the literary ferment at Leipzig, and began penning pastoral dramas and erotic verse. A sensitive soul, his university experiences stayed with him after he left Leipzig and were reflected in works published decades later, such as his 1787 Partners in Guilt, a poetic comedy about a woman’s regret for marrying the wrong man, which was unsubtle revenge on a young woman he had fallen in love with decades earlier while a student, but who chose another.

He was already a literary giant by 1794, when he began a friendship with the philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose impact elevated Goethe’s work to even greater heights. The period of that friendship, which lasted until Schiller’s death in 1805, was the happiest and most of productive of Goethe’s life.

Goethe was among a group of geniuses, including Kant, Hegel, and Humboldt, who carried out an intellectual revolution that is the basis for modern thinking about society, religion, art, and thought itself. His impact is such that an argument could be made that Goethe stands in relation to Western culture since the Enlightenment as Dante does to the culture of the High Middle Ages, or Shakespeare does to that of the Renaissance.

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Edgar Allan Poe. Poe Museum

Edgar Allan Poe

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eager I wished the morrow; – vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore –
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door –
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; –
This it is and nothing more.”
Edgar Allan Poe – excerpt from The Raven

A central figure of the Romantic movement in the US, Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) was a poet, writer, editor, and critic famous for his cultivation of mystery and the macabre. Best known for his poetry, he was also an influential prose writer who created unrivaled atmospheres in his tales of horror, invented the detective story genre, and was a pioneer in the emerging field of science fiction.

Born into a family of actors, Poe’s father abandoned the family when he was a year old, and his mother died when he was two. He was raised in Richmond, Virginia, by his godfather John Allan, from whom Poe took his middle name, and who took him to Britain to receive a classical education. Returning to America, Poe enrolled in the University of Virginia, but ran up high gambling debts while there so his godfather forced him to withdraw. Poe’s dissolute habits, coupled with his desire to become a poet in defiance of his godfather’s wishes that he pursue a respectable career, eventually led to a falling out and parting of ways.

Poe enlisted in the army in 1827, and his literary career began humbly that year with the publication of Tamerlane and Other Poems. Soon thereafter, he switched to prose and became a literary critic, but drink and drugs were the banes of his life, and he drank himself out of many a job with periodicals and journals, which led to frequent moves from city to city, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York, in search of work.

On the upside, drink and drugs induced in him feverish dreams that helped take his writings down creative paths none had trod before, and lent his work, the best of which was devoted to terror and sadness, an unmatched aura and edge. In 1845, he published The Raven, which became an instant success and things finally seemed to be on the upswing, but then his wife died in 1847, and he never recovered. Poe died in 1849, reportedly drinking himself to death, although other causes such as drugs or tuberculosis have been suggested.

12 of History’s Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century
Langston Hughes. The Grio

Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes – The Negro Speaks of Rivers

A poet, playwright, novelist, columnist, and social activist, Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, and a pioneer of jazz poetry who made the African American experience the subject of his writings. His signature poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, was published in the summer after his high school graduation and attracted significant literary attention.

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes’ parents separated soon after his birth and he was raised by his mother. He attended Columbia University for a year, during which he fell in love with nearby Harlem, then was bitten by a wandering bug, took a job on a freighter, and sailed around the world. During his seafaring years, Hughes visited various parts of West Africa and Europe, before jumping ship to temporarily live in Paris, followed by a stay in England, returning to America in 1924.

He worked as a busboy in a Washington, DC, hotel, where in 1925 he placed three of his poems beside the plate of America’s most famous poet of the day, Vachel Lindsay. Impressed, Lindsay publicized his discovery of a “negro busboy poet”, which garnered Hughes broader notice and helped land him a scholarship to attend Lincoln University. By the time he graduated in 1929, Hughes had published two volumes of poetry, won a prestigious literary award, wrote for major publications such as The Nation, and helped launch an influential literary magazine, Fire!

After graduation, he traveled widely to the USSR, Japan, Haiti, and elsewhere, and served as a newspaper correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. A prolific writer, he published a short story collection in 1934, wrote a Broadway play in 1935, and produced a number of plays in the late 1930s. He also founded theatrical companies in Harlem in 1937 and Los Angeles in 1939, and published the first volume of his autobiography in 1940, with a second volume coming out in 1956.

In 1961 Hughes penned Black Nativity, a play which became an international success, in which he used poetry, combined with biblical passages and gospel standards, to retell the story of Jesus’ birth. He documented African American culture and literature in a number of anthologies, such as The Poetry of the Negro in 1949, and The Book of Negro Folklore in 1958, and continued writing poetry until his death in 1967.

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