There are some poets (I’m talking about poets in English) who are, by consensus, so far above their contemporaries that they are clearly the greatest living poets of their day. That got me thinking if it would be possible to determine who the greatest English poet was at any given time. In 1600, it’s clearly Shakespeare; in 1667 it’s clearly Milton; no one disputes these. But what about the rest of the time?
I tried to assemble a list, which will be more or less controversial depending on the date. This is not a list of my personal preferences, but an attempt to find an objective “greatest” based on my idea of what the critical consensus is. I may be wrong, in so far as I may have misjudged the consensus, but that’s different from being wrong in terms of who’s greatest; what I mean is you can love Beaumont and Fletcher all you want, but if you think they can consensus-beat Shakespeare you have simply made an error. (Opinion is not always as clear-cut and simple as this, of course.) The critical consensus I have striven for is not necessarily the one contemporary with the poet (or nonames like Samuel Rogers would have made the list), but contemporary opinion is not completely neglected—no one wants a list of poets who most closely flattered the preconceptions of a narrow-minded present. This may be a thin line to walk, but I’m being very careful. The word “greatest” is also pretty vague, but I’m going to charge forward pretending we all have a similar idea of what it means.
“Consensus” means that many of my favorite poets don’t make the list, either because there was always someone “greater” than they (Dickinson, Auden), because they are too minor a talent (Gwendolyn Brooks, Edward FitzGerald), or because no person of taste could stomach calling them the greatest living poet at any time (A.E. Housman, I still love you).
Obviously no “greatest poet” is born greatest; you can’t be the greatest living poet before you’ve written any poetry, and it is unlikely that your juvenilia will propel you to the forefront of living poets. Determining when a poet ascends to the throne is something we’ll be fighting about. I’m assuming that designees remain the greatest living poet until they die or until someone better comes along, even if they are not producing much, or great, poetry by the end of their lives—Shakespeare was still a great poet while he was resting on his laurels in Stratford, not writing. You may be able to think of extreme cases where we’d have to make a cutoff (madness, senility), but they never came up, even with Wordsworth.
The list follows, with notes afterwards.
1370-1385: Langland (1330?-1390?)
1385-1400: Chaucer (1340?-1400)
1400-1408: Gower (1330?-1408)
1408-1424: Lydgate (1370?-1451)
1424-1437: James I (1394-1437)
1451-1462: Lovelich (fl. 1450)
1462-1480: Henryson (c.1425-c.1505?)
1480-1489: Dunbar (1459-?)
1489-1529: Skelton (1463-1529)
1529-1542: Wyatt (1503-1542)
1542-1547: Howard (1516-1547)
1547-1563: Baldwin (c.1510?-c.1570?)
1563-1572: Sackville (1536-1608)
1572-1577: Gascoigne (1535-1577)
1577-1595: Spenser (1552-1599)
1595-1616: Shakespeare (1564-1616)
1616-1631: Donne (1572-1631)
1631-1637: Jonson (1572-1637)
1637-1674: Milton (1608-1674)
1674-1700: Dryden (1631-1700)
1700-1711: Prior (1664-1721)
1711-1744: Pope (1688-1744)
1744-1745: Swift (1667-1745)
1745-1751: Johnson (1709-1784)
1751-1771: Gray (1716-71)
1771-1785: Cowper (1731-1800)
1785-1789: Burns (1759-1796)
1789-1798: Blake (1727-1827)
1798-1812: Wordsworth (1770-1850)
1812-1818: Byron (1788-1824)
1818-1821: Keats (1795-1821)
1850-1892: Tennyson (1809-1892)
1892-1910: Kipling (1865-1936)
1910-1939: Yeats (1865-1839)
1939-1965: Eliot (1888-1865)
1965-1985: Larkin (1922-1985)
1985-2013: Heaney (1939-2013)
1. William Langland: There are contemporary poets who may be greater than Langland—the Pearl Poet, and the Gawain Poet—but they don’t even have names, for Pete’s sake. So Langland gets the first nod, not because he is the first great poet, or even the first great poet whose name we know, but just because before him, dates become spotty and difficult, and we’ll be hopscotching through time from Cynewulf to Layamon.
Heck, Langland’s dates (starting from whenever he writes Piers Ploughman) are pretty much a guess. Guessing dates will be the rule rather than the exception for many of these early years.
2. Geoffrey Chaucer is often called the second-best English poet, so of course he’s going to supplant Langland—the only question is when does he become good enough to do so? I love early Chaucer, especially The Book of the Duchess, but I’m assuming that Piers Ploughman is held in high enough regard that it’s not until Chaucer’s first major work, Troilus and Criseyde, that he takes over. All these dates are, of course, approximates, because it’s the Middle Ages. And of course Chaucer holds the title until his death.
3. John Gower is Chaucer’s main contemporary rival, and is a good enough poet that he’d probably be better remembered if he hadn’t had the misfortune to be writing at the same time as such a towering figure (this is called Marlowe Syndrome); he’s the obvious choice to take the title after Chaucer. Following Gower’s death, prepare for a long slog of mediocrities. You may want to skip ahead a century and a half to Spenser.
4. John Lydgate, the man who would be Chaucer, is our first victor by default, a brazen imitator who could really crank out the verses. According to wikipedia, “Of his more readable poems, most were written in the first decade of the fifteenth century,” which I acknowledge is a backhanded compliment, but which led me to believe the timing is right for him to take over for Gower immediately upon Gower’s death. Hoccleve is the other major poet of this time, and I’ve read very little of either, but Lydgate is more prolific and has a wider range so I’m assuming he’s better.
5. James I: Since no one, perhaps throughout history but certainly nowadays, seems to be very passionate about Lydgate, I assumed he should be dethroned, temporarily, by a poet some people (including me) feel passionate about. Perhaps James I has too small an oeuvre to plausibly be the greatest English poet, but he gets assassinated soon enough (Scotland, am I right?) and that leaves…
6. Lydgate as the winner once again.
7. Henry Lovelich: When Lydgate finally dies, it’s kind of up in the air who’s the best poet. It has to be somebody, of course, and it’s not really easy to think of poets who were writing at this time. Lovelich is pretty much the only one I could find. Even his dates are a guess.
8. Robert Henryson may be most famous, at this point, for being mentioned by Dunbar in his “Lament for the Makaris”; he’s pretty good, but he’s only here as a stretch, frankly.
9. William Dunbar: It’s a strange irony that the two best English poets between Chaucer and Spenser lived at almost the exact same time. We start with Dunbar, but I’m not really sure of when Dunbar starts writing great poetry, or starts writing poetry in general, and this date’s a guess.
10. John Skelton: If you wanted to say that Dunbar should not be supplanted by Skelton, I’m not sure I could argue against you. Dunbar has the reputation, thanks to Walter Scott, of being “unrivalled” among Scottish poets, and Skelton is perhaps best remembered for writing doggerel. Personally, I think they’re equally good, and if I have a slight preference for Skelton it’s probably because I have an easier time reading Early Modern English than Early Modern Scotch. Still, Skelton is so much more anthologized than Dunbar that I have to assume the weight of history gives Skelton the palm here. Also, no one knows when Dunbar dies, so figuring out when he passes the torch becomes spotty.
Of course no one knows the dates for many of Skelton’s poems, and when he takes over from Dunbar is therefore pretty arbitrary.
Skelton and Dunbar are two brief, flickering lights in a long gloomy night of workmanlike poetry. Now we’re back to the unknowns.
11. Thomas Wyatt brought the sonnet to England, so at least he’s influential. Nothing he wrote was published during his lifetime, so I’m just assuming he was already producing stuff when Skelton died.
12. Henry Howard is another figure more influential than read. I think he’s a safe bet, though, even if only by default.
13. William Baldwin I have never read. Frankly, I could find no other poets who fit between Howard’s death (by Tudor) and Sackville’s writing career. Default.
14. Thomas Sackville: Another guy I’ve read only minimally, but he wrote the first blank verse drama in English, so we take pioneering when we have nothing else. In 1576 George Turberville called him the greatest English poet, so that’s evidence, right?
15. George Gascoigne is probably going to be better remembered as a proto-novelist than a poet, but I still think he’s better remembered as a poet than Sackville is (sorry, Turberville), so he steals the title.
16. Edmund Spenser: With Spenser we are out of the wilderness. He didn’t write his Shepherd’s Calendar until 1579, but I’m assuming he had some poetry up his sleeve a couple years before that, to prevent us from having to find someone to jump briefly in after Gascoigne’s death in 1577 (Philip Sidney doesn’t seem to have written anything until 1580, or he’d be a shoe-in).
Spenser is the undisputed title holder for the early part of his reign, but we have the problem with him of when to end it. Because Shakespeare and Spenser are contemporaries, and Shakespeare will dethrone all contenders.
Mark Van Doren’s Great Poems of Western Literature (not an anthology, a book of criticism) has five English poems in it, and one of them is the Faerie Queen, so the Faerie Queen’s author has to be pretty high in any pantheon of English poets; but by the time the first books of Faerie Queen come out, Shakespeare has had his first play performed. At some point Shakespeare’s going to lap Spenser, this is a given, but are his early works better than the Faerie Queen? 1595 is a pretty arbitrary date for the handoff—the final installment of the (unfinished) Faerie Queen wouldn’t come out until 1596, but by this point Shakespeare has Romeo and Juliet and Richard II and III under his belt, and these are certainly imprinted in the popular consciousness more than a long, occasionally tedious poem of which Macaulay wrote, “Of the persons who read the first Canto, not one in ten reaches the end of the First Book, and not one in a hundred perseveres to the end of the poem. Very few and very weary are those who are in at the death of the Blatant Beast.” Macaulay revealed too much here, for [spoiler!] Spenser died before he could kill off Blatant Beast, something Macaulay should have known if he had managed to plow all the way through the text.
17. William Shakespeare: Not really in question.
18. John Donne: Ben Jonson is probably Shakepeare’s big rival, but I think I’m safe in assuming that Donne’s star is higher now than Jonson’s.
19. Ben Jonson. But then Donne dies, so that leaves Jonson to take up the mantle. There are other Jacobean poets that I prefer, but I think Jonson still beats them all for canonicity. George Herbert is a good alternate, though, if you want to make a case for him.
20. John Milton: Jonson dies that same year Milton writes Comus, so it looks like this is a happy time for Milton to take over. Another obvious choice, and Milton will clearly reign until his death, but his greatest works, which I’m assuming we all agree are Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, don’t get written until thirty years after Comus, so he’s vulnerable to attacks for the early part of his reign. I don’t know who would hold him off, though: Vaughan and Marvell don’t start till 1650 or so, and that’s too late.
21. John Dryden: By the time Milton dies, Dryden is already Poet Laureate, and his influence is hard to beat. Herrick is the only real rival, I think, but the match isn’t close.
22. Matthew Prior: But what happens when Dryden dies? Pope is his obvious successor, but Pope’s Essay on Criticism doesn’t come out till 1711. Prior’s good, but he’s clearly a minor poet compared to the people framing him.
23. Alexander Pope: Another no-brainer. (Although Oscar Wilde once said that there are two ways of hating poetry: to hate it and to like Pope.) He holds the title till his death.
24. Jonathan Swift: Pope’s death leaves a power vacuum. One way of looking at it is that Pope more or less destroyed poetry by making everyone else into a Pope-imitator (Papist?), until Romanticism came along and livened things up again. But his contemporary Jonathan Swift, a better prose writer than a poet—but he was a better prose writer than anyone at the time—had nevertheless had a distinguished career that in an age not dominated by Pope would have had him closer to the forefront—I mean, he beats Prior, doesn’t he? But Swift only outlives Pope by a year.
25. The mid-eighteenth century really isn’t the time for great poetry. Johnson, another prose master who also wrote poetry, is just the best of a bad lot, I think. I like John Byrom, but I can’t propose him with a straight face. Johnson’s got some good ones, I guess—“London,” for one.
[Incidentally, I really have tried to keep things neutral, and not to allow my prejudices to creep in—there’s no Samuel Butler or the Earl of Rochester to be seen—but I can’t help but worry that having Johnson and Jonson on a list compiled by a Johnson smacks of nepotism.]
26. Thomas Gray is here for one poem, and not even a very long one. (To be fair, the same is true for James I.) But single works won Golding and Grass a Nobel Prize each, and Gray vaults over Johnson with his “Elegy” (it was published 1751, but possibly written a few years earlier: should Johnson’s reign be truncated?). Twenty years as the greatest living English poet for 128 lines; not a bad investment of his time.
27. William Cowper: In 1932 Agnes Repplier, in her typical backhanded way, referred in her essay on Cowper to a time “before the English world had ceased reading him”; but in his day he was loved and read, and a huge influence, especially on Wordsworth and Coleridge . He had the advantage of being a proto-Romantic and a hymn-penning evangelical who also wrote popular comic verse and translated Homer, so you can see how his work would have broad appeal. The only strike against him (aside from insanity; he was also, like any decent proto-Romantic, insane) is that he’s not really good enough to be the greatest English poet. Coasting in on his reputation from two hundred years ago, he placeholds the title until Burns comes along.
Now Gray dies in 1771; it’s debatable whether Cowper’s unsteady brain was up to producing his best poetry as early as 1771, but we’ll leave him in to avoid the indignity of having to dredge up brief and dubious reigns for Oliver Goldsmith and Peter Pindar.
28. Robert Burns: As soon as Burns starts writing poetry he dethrones Cowper. He was probably overvalued in his day, and he may be undervalued today, but at least he is, at long last, a decent choice. He doesn’t last long though.
29. William Blake: Not his earliest, but still some pretty early work of Blake’s is enough to wrest the title form Burns. If I had my way, I’d leave Blake on the top for the rest of his life, but I’m trying to be objective here, which means he’s enough of an outsider that he’s going to lose to Wordsworth sooner or later.
30. William Wordsworth: Maybe Wordsworth’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads shouldn’t be enough to take Blake’s place, but I figure that the book is so influential, and the dethroning has to happen eventually, so make like a bandaid and rip it off.
In 1770 Coleridge was a better poet than Wordsworth, wasn’t he? But especially compared to Wordsworth he isn’t really prolific enough to be the greatest English poet. We don’t want any more Grays.
31. Lord Byron: When does Byron become the greatest English poet? I’m partial to late Byron myself, but in 1812 he published Childe “I woke up one morning and found myself famous” Harold, and who am I to disagree with the adoring throngs that greeted its publication? Byron temporarily, defeats Wordsworth.
32. John Keats: We are so far from the dark days of Baldwin and Sackville that by 1818 we have an embarrassment of riches, a time when Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, any one of whom could cleared the field of another era, were all writing poetry (well, maybe not Coleridge by 1818. Sigh). This is the EC Comics of poetry, a collection of talent the world will never see again.
For much of the nineteenth century Byron would have been seen as undethronable, but I think his star has sunk enough, and Keats risen enough, that Keats will, at least starting in 1818, his so-called annus mirabilis, begin his brief reign.
33. Byron. Keats being Keats, though, he’s not long for the world. When he dies, the title passes back to Byron, who’s really cooking with gas now, and completely deserves it.
34. Wordsworth. Byron being Byron, he has to go off and try to become king of Greece, and when he dies Wordsworth, who outlives everyone, reclaims the title. Some people roll their eyes at late Wordsworth, but I’ve come around to it, and there’s no one of Wordsworth’s stature still alive by this point.
35. Alfred, Lord Tennyson is not loved the way he was a hundred years ago, and I can see some controversy over his placement here. Compared to the Romantics who preceded him, he may look like another default winner, but he’s a great enough poet, in terms of quality and stature, that this is really an unfair post hoc judgment. There are other great poets of the era, but Tennyson is clearly their master, and the late Victorian literary landscape is unimaginable without him.
I know that passing the baton to Tennyson helps make this list hopelessly British (one of several homogeneities we can fight over), but no American from the second half of the nineteenth century shares the literary and popular appeal to tag the merely canonical with the vague term “great.” Longfellow’s not good enough, Lowell is too light, Poe and Dickinson are too fringe (and Poe is dead), and even Whitman, who seems comfortably mainstream today after Dead Poets’ Society and everything, was too modern for his era; a 1909 school reader (Elson’s fourth) explicitly attaches Whitman’s reputation solely to “O Captain My Captain,” which “differs from his other poems in that it shows a great deal of attention to form, to meter, and rhyme.”
Tennyson lives long, like Wordsworth, and keeps the title till he dies.
36. Rudyard Kipling. And when Tennyson dies, there’s a problem. The Brownings, Hopkins, Arnold, and even Whitman (by six months) are dead. Hardy hadn’t started writing poetry yet (and I’m not going to let Hardy have the title anyway). So then there’s Kipling, whom Orwell labeled, with damning finality, a “good bad poet.” But Kipling, even if he is sneered at today, is all the things a greatest poet should be—a Nobel-prize winner, a household name, heavily anthologized, a coiner of phrases, esteemed by his peers, etc.—except perhaps great.
This is Orwell: “During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.” Whoever you think should bear the title is forgotten, and Kipling gets to hold it.
37. W.B. Yeats. Ha ha! I was tricking you! Yeats has totally started writing great poetry in 1892 when Tennyson died, and I concealed this fact to give Kipling his day on the sun.
Yeats is like three poets, and no one likes all of them equally, and everyone’s going to fight about when he becomes the greatest English poet. I picked 1910 (i.e. the Green Helmet collection) as the date when he’s firing on all cylinders. Once crowned, he will of course hold onto his title until he dies.
38. T.S. Eliot, our third consecutive Nobel laureate, and almost an American, is such a safe choice that you may be wondering how Yeats could’ve stepped in and beaten him, at least after 1915 (Prufrock) or 1922 (Wasteland). I think an alternate model could have given Eliot Yeats’ title in 1915, and then passed it back to Yeats in 1928, when the Tower comes out. In any event, Eliot takes over at Yeats’s death, and then outlives Frost as well as Stevens, Williams, and a bunch of also-rans whom I love, and to whom I can only apologize.
39. Philip Larkin is a strange choice in many ways. He is the least prolific of major poets, and the most (at least since Swift) misanthropic, but I can’t think of another poet that fits the bill so well. When the Times ranked their 50 greatest British postwar writers, Larkin was #1; it’s a pretty questionable list, and it’s not exactly chock full of poets, but I’ll accept Times’ blessing. When Eliot died Larkin had already written a hefty percentage of his meager output, so the title goes to him—Ezra Pound stayed mad and alive this long and still gets passed over—and Larkin will reign until his death.
40. Seamus Heaney: The closer we come to today, the less critical consensus we have, but I’ll use a Nobel prize as well as a personal fondness for his Beowulf as my justification (Brodsky won a Nobel, too, but so much of his poetry is in Russian that I’m balking at letting him be the greatest English poet)
You’ll notice that Seamus died three years ago, and so there is no listing for a current greatest poet. Maya Angelou, who was at least a household name, survived Heaney by a year—did she get the nod after he died? The only living poets I like (Patricia Lockwood, Frederick Seidel, etc.) are too minor to count, but this is an age of minor poets. It’s got to be somebody. By definition, it’s got to be somebody.