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
Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin Press


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


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.