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The Classics: Quotes From History’s Greatest Poems

“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” These words were written by none other than Aristotle, proving that poetry has long been considered one of the highest and purest forms of creative expression. Indeed, poetry already had a lengthy history to call upon by Aristotle’s time, in the fourth century BCE: The Epic of Gilgamesh, often considered the oldest known poem, dates all the way back to 2100 BCE.

Since then, poetry has undergone an extensive evolution, from the epics and odes of antiquity to the sonnets of Shakespeare to the inventive structures of modernist poets such as E.E. Cummings. And while the longest epic poems — including the Mahābhārata and Homer’s Iliad — run on for thousands of lines, the shortest can be testaments to the power of brevity.

Strickland Gillilan’s couplet “Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes” (also known as “Fleas”) is often considered the shortest poem ever written, containing just three words: “Adam / Had 'em.”

Through the many centuries we’ve had the privilege of enjoying poetry, some compositions have become permanently etched onto the collective consciousness by way of their enduring themes and haunting language. Here are quotes from 23 of history’s most famous poems, from the classical works of Shakespeare and John Milton to modern verses from Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate: / Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, / And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”

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The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
John Milton, “Paradise Lost”

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Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake, “The Tyger”

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For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.
William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”

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When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, / “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

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I hold it true, whate'er befall; / I feel it, when I sorrow most; / ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson; “In Memoriam A.H.H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 27”

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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. / … / I love thee with the breath, / Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Sonnets from the Portuguese 43”

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Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me — / The Carriage held but just Ourselves — / And Immortality.
Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death”

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Now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, / And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon, “For the Fallen”

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O God! can I not save / One from the pitiless wave? / Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?
Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”

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’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.
Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky”

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Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”

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April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain. / Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow
T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

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here is the deepest secret nobody knows / (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud / and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows / higher than soul can hope or mind can hide) / and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart / i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
E.E. Cummings, “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]”

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Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses. / Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes. / I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her. / Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Pablo Neruda, “Tonight I Can Write (The Saddest Lines)”

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Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”

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The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; / Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; / Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. / For nothing now can ever come to any good.
W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”

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If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!
Rudyard Kipling, “If—”

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You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.
Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

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Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly.
Langston Hughes, “Dreams”

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You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”

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Featured image credit: Culture Club/ Hulton Archive via Getty Images

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About the Author
Tony Dunnell
Tony is an English writer of non-fiction and fiction living on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
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