Who is your favourite poet? It may well be someone who isn't on this list. Poetry, much like music, speaks to something very personal in us, and it can be hard to define why we love the poetry we do.


With that in mind, we've compiled a list of poets whose work has withstood the test of time and, in some cases, has even changed the direction of literature altogether. Here are our top ten.

Best poets of all time

1. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

The man behind ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ amongst many classics, Alfred Lord Tennyson is widely considered to be the granddaddy of Victorian poetry. Born in 1809 to a family of minor landowning status, he started writing poetry in his childhood, and in 1850 succeeded William Wordsworth as Poet Laureate, a position he held until his death, more than 40 years later.

In that time, he wrote a heck of a lot of poetry, employing a wide range of styles and covering themes as varied as rustic life, mythology, science and religion. One unifying characteristic of Tennyson’s work, however, was its sense of musicality, which helps to explain why so many composers - from Charles Stanford to Olivier Messiaen to Charles Ives - have tried their hand at setting it.

2. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

In contrast to Tennyson, Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote relatively few poems for a poet of his standing. Keenly aware of this himself, the Anglo-American poet once wrote to one of his former professors: ‘My reputation is built upon one small volume of verse and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year.

The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.’ His poems are like symphonies: epic in scope and sweep, with 'The Wasteland' in particular, widely regarded as a pillar of modernist poetry.

Troubled in his early years by illness, and later by his famously unhappy marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, he wrote melancholic poetry, frequently focusing on the disillusionment of the post-World War One generation. One joyous exception to this is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats - his collection of whimsical light poems about feline psychology, which inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Cats.

3. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

For all that she has come to be known as one of the most iconic figures in American poetry, and for all that she wrote prolifically, Emily Dickinson (pictured) had only ten of her nearly 1800 poems published in her lifetime.

One scholar even noted that Dickinson was known more widely as a gardener than as a poet. That might be because of her experimentalism: ignoring the norms of rhyme, versification and even grammar, she may have been reluctant to see her work edited to fit a conventional poetic mould.

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Or it may be that she herself did not want to alter her work to make it more accessible. If so, she made a good call: Dickinson’s use of ambiguity was one of her most powerful tools, and it plays a huge part in her current popularity, with legions of scholars continuing to dispute the meaning of every line she ever wrote.

It has also provided myriad possibilities to composers, several of whom, including Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and the contemporary composer Anna Clyne, have attempted to capture the essence of Dickinson’s poetry in music.

4. Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

Long reviled for the part many believed he played in driving his wife, Sylvia Plath, to suicide, Ted Hughes never lived to see his image fully rehabilitated. Yet, in the years since his death, in 1998, there has been a turning of the tide in his favour.

Despite all the controversy surrounding him, the former Poet Laureate is regularly ranked as one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, with a kind of elemental force to his style - most evident in poems like ‘Hawk Roosting’ and ‘Jaguar’ - that has won him such nicknames as ‘Heathcliff’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk of English literature.’

Viscerally compelling, his poetry would translate easily into music, yet surprisingly few composers have explored the opportunities, one exception being Sally Beamish, who based her Cello Concerto No. 1 on Hughes's ‘River’ poems.

5. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Not everyone is sold on Sylvia Plath's self-confessional - some might even call it self-absorbed - style of poetry. But she was certainly one of the most dynamic poets of the last century, who, by the time she committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, already had a huge following.

Clinically depressed for much of her life, the American writer used poetry as a medium for exploring her inner turmoil, her tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes, her relationship with her parents and other, similarly troubling, subjects. It made for a pretty depressing body of work, but one that - thanks to her masterful feel for the rhythm and power of language - kicks the reader in the gut.

6. John Milton (1608-1674)

He is best known for 'Paradise Lost', the greatest epic poem in the English language, but John Milton had a long and diverse career, writing some of the most groundbreaking literature in the literary Canon. Many of the words and phrases we use every day came to us from Milton, who used his knowledge of Latin and other languages to suggest words that might otherwise never have entered our lexicon.

Moreover, through his engagement with scientific, theological, and political ideas, he set a precedent for generations of successors. Would The Lord of the Rings exist without him? Or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy? Almost certainly not. In fact, many would say he was second in prestige and influence only to William Shakespeare, which brings us onto...

7. William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

He might not need an introduction, but we can hardly miss him out can we? Apart from the fact that every line of Shakespeare's plays drips with poetry, the poems themselves are recognised as some of the greatest the world has ever known.

Dealing with timeless themes - life and death, youth versus age, love and hate, fate and free will, and so on - Shakespeare toyed with the conventions of Elizabethan poetry, leaving a body of work that was as significant for its verbal richness as it was for its ambiguities and profundities. That goes for the sonnets, yes, but also other poetry, such as the 'Rape of Lucrece' and the nearly 1200-line poem of 1593, Venus and Adonis, which was Shakespeare's best-selling work in his lifetime.

Surprisingly though, his poems have had relatively little in the way of musical settings - at least by classical composers. One composer who has thrown his hat into the ring is Robert Hollingworth, director of the vocal ensemble I Fagiolini. Their 2012 album 'Shakespeare: the sonnets', paid tribute to the Bard's time by using authentic instruments from the early 17th century, including the lirone, theorbo, viol, cornett, sackbut and shawm, amongst others.

8. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

She lived through poverty, violence and racism. She worked with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and her poems, while telling the story of her life, describe the broader experience of African American women.

Born in Missouri in 1928, Maya Angelou became a poet and writer after a string of odd jobs, including fry cook, sex worker, nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator, and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa.

Self-confessedly using poetry as a way of coping with trauma, she wrote in a way that was direct and conversational, full of vivid imagery, that felt as though she were speaking directly to the reader. Some criticised the result as being little more than prose with line breaks. Nevertheless, there is no denying Angelou's significance as a cultural and historical figure, demonstrated by her many accolades, including more than 50 honorary degrees and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

9. John Keats (1795-1821)

Known for his use of sensuous imagery, John Keats made one of the biggest contributions to the Romantic literary movement, and it would have been bigger still, had he not died of tuberculosis aged only 25. The son of a livery-stable manager, he received relatively little formal education and - as a rather pugnacious young boy - did not seem destined for a literary career. But at 14 he began to read voraciously and, following a stint as a junior house surgeon at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital, devoted himself to poetry.

In all, he wrote 150 poems but those on which his reputation primarily rests were written over the course of nine months, from January to September 1819. Most famous among them are 'Ode to to a Nightingale' and 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', both of which have been set by various composers, including Valentin Silvestrov and Gustav Holst.

10. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Losing his actor parents at a young age, Edgar Allan Poe grew up in a foster family and had a difficult relationship with his adoptive father, who disapproved of his writer ambitions. They later parted ways, with Poe going on to become the first well-known American writer to earn his living through writing alone.

Widely credited with being the inventor of the detective story, as well as a key figure in the establishment of science fiction as a genre, Allan Poe revelled in experimentalism. He was among the first writers to employ the literary technique of 'show, don't tell' – a technique he employed with great aplomb.


He is best known, however, as the leading exponent of Gothic Horror, with 'The Raven' - his poem in which a young scholar is emotionally tormented by a raven’s ominous repetition of 'Nevermore' - ranking among the most famous American literary writings of all time. It has been set by several composers, among them Joseph Holbrooke, Leonard Slatkin and Toshio Hosokawa.


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.