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Poetry Through the Ages

The Power of Verse from Ancient Lyricists to Instapoetry

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • August 18, 2022

Poetry is more than an artform. You could say, it is an articulation of the human spirit. A gifted poet has the ability to evoke the purest, most intrinsic elements of life—passion, desire, love, anger, beauty. Poetry also reflects the era it comes from. It has evolved alongside the history of civilization. For National Poet's Day on August 21, we are celebrating with a tour of poetry through the ages.

Ancient (3000 BC–500 AD)

Although they are only breath, words which I command are immortal. —Sappho

Much of the earliest poetry we know of took the form of songs, chants, and rituals recorded on clay tablets, but it is reasonable to believe that poetry existed in spoken form long before the written records that have been discovered. Several of the enduring works from this era are epic heros' tales that were often recited for the entertainment of those who could afford it. Here are a few of the most famous examples:

  • The Odyssey by Homer: From the eighth century BC, this epic follows the Greek hero Odysseus on his journey home after the Trojan War.
  • The Mahabharata attributed to Vyasa: Written in India sometime around 350 BC, this weighty volume follows the path of a human incarnation of the god Vishnu.
  • The Aeneid by Virgil: This classic epic written in 19 BC offers the story of Rome's origins.

Medieval (500–1500)

My body, wandering, lost,
knows only night now—
that is why my sleeves
stay soaked in darkness,
unable to dry. —Izumi Shikibu

Also known as the Middle Ages, medieval times were marked by dramatic shifts, beset by wars and the plague. The literature of the time reflects this changing world. New forms of poetry emerged during this era with greater structure, like rhyming couplets and ballads with refrains. As education became more prevalent, the ability to write and document one's stories and poems became more common and the drama of the times lent itself to some very passionate verses. Here are some standouts:

Renaissance (1500–1660)

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove —Christopher Marlowe

The Renaissance Era is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of literature, a term coined by a 16th-century French scholar. Popular themes for the poetry of these times included romance, mythology, and nature; it was something of a departure from the religious fervor of the Middle Ages. Poetry was often written to be performed, either in song or spoken word. Newer poetry forms like sonnets and blank verse gained popularity. One especially prominent figure of the era was William Shakespeare. (You may have heard of him?) Here are a few publications from other notable Renaissance poets.

Neoclassical (1660–1800)

Look round our world; behold the chain of love
Combining all below and all above. —Alexander Pope

The artists of the mid-17th century found a renewed interest in the ancient world, specifically Greece and Rome. Poets of the time returned to more traditional forms of verse such as epics and odes. The English Restoration marked a turning point in English literature, a further shift away from the religious focus of Puritanism into more secular themes. The verse of this era reflects the growing social unrest.

  • The Poems of Alexander Pope: With a focus on satire, morality, and wit, Pope was one of the most well-known poets of the era.
  • Selected Poems by Nicolas Boileau: The French poet was influential during this era because he helped shape what people thought about literature and art.
  • The English Poems by Thomas Gray: Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" established many motifs that are still popular today, such as pastoral imagery.

The Romantic Era (1798–1850)

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils; —William Wordsworth

Romantic poetry was characterized by themes of subjectivity, emotion, spontaneity, and the natural world. Writing about everyday life, the poets of this era were more accessible to the broad population. The work was centered in the belief that art should represent the artist's own experience, rather than lofty, high-minded ideas. Here are some recommendations:

Modern (1850–Present)

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. —Walt Whitman

Modern poetry took the ball that the Romantics set rolling and ran with it, bringing plain-spoken, self-expression to a new level. There is a sense of freedom and democracy in the way poetry has evolved in this era without the need to adhere to rules of meter and rhyme, as well as the depth of focus on individual experience. Modernist poets tend to use a more conversational voice as they explore complicated human psychology and society. Here are just a few of our favorites who helped shape this era:

  • The Wasteland and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot: Eliot's poetry reshaped modern literature with a daring and overpowering vision of a decaying civilization and the urgent need for spiritual renewal.
  • Observations by Marianne Moore: Her groundbreaking open-mindedness and prescient views on multiculturalism, biodiversity, and individual liberty mark Moore's work as uniquely suited to our times.
  • The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes: A key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes spoke intimately and powerfully of the experiences of African Americans at a time when their voices were underrepresented in our literature.

Hopefully this review of verse through the ages has been as interesting to you as it was for us! It has certainly left us inspired to read more poetry! Do you have any favorite works to share?

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