European Poetry

William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.H. Auden: many of the world's most famous literary legends were European poets. A tradition that goes back roughly 14 centuries, European poetry has largely (and controversially) defined the literary canon. European poetry spans centuries of history defined by war, colonization, industrialization, and social change.

European Poetry European Poetry

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Table of contents

    European Poetry Characteristics

    European poetry can be broken up into several major movements, which are fluid and often overlap. Each of these movements began in response to the social, political, and cultural situation of their times. Some of the more famous ones include the Renaissance, Romanticism, the Victorians, and Postmodernism. The chart below examines each movement in European poetry from the year 450 CE to today.


    Poetry MovementDatesThemesNotable Poets
    Ancient History(Beginnings-450CE)
    • Development of ancient civilizations
    • Epic battles and ancient warfare
    • Mythology and gods/goddesses
    Old English (or Anglo-Saxon)450-1066
    • The praise of ancient warriors and leaders
    • Triumph over enemies
    • The eternal fight between good and evil
    • Beowulf's Poet (Anon)
    • Caedmon
    • Cynewulf
    Middle English 1066-1500
    • Courtly love
    • Chivalry and romance
    • Gender and sexuality
    • Religious values and ethics
    • Dante Alighieri
    • Marie de France
    • Geoffrey Chaucer
    • Petrarch
    The Renaissance 1500-1660
    • Individualism
    • Humanism
    • The secular vs. the Divine
    • Religious reformation
    • Intellectual revolution
    The Enlightenment and Neoclassicism 1600--1785
    • The revival of classical art and culture
    • Rationalism and the rise of scientific thought
    • Human nature as flawed
    • The importance of science and reason over emotions
    The Romantics1785-1832
    • Importance of nature
    • The power of love
    • Individualism and spirituality
    • Elevation of emotionality over reason
    • The supernatural and transcendence
    • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
    • William Wordsworth
    • Robert Burns
    • Victor Hugo
    • William Blake
    • Lord Byron
    • Percy Bysshe Shelley
    • John Keats
    • Giacomo Leopardi
    • Giovanni Pascoli
    Victorians1832-1901
    • Increased industrialization and poverty
    • Social issues and social reform
    • The degradation of nature
    • Loss of faith in modernity
    • The importance of living a good life
    Edwardian1901-1914
    • Disparity between social classes
    • Gender issues and femininity
    • The isolation of the Other
    • Increasing technological advances
    Georgian 1910-1936
    • Response to social stigmas
    • Hedonism
    • Elevated feelings and sentimentality
    • Authentic depiction of warfare as brutal and devastating instead of glorious
    • Siegfried Sassoon
    • Wilfred Owen
    • Robert Graves
    Surrealism1920s-1950s
    • Making sense of a changed world after WWI
    • Bridge reality and imagination
    • Expression of the unconscious mind
    • Element of surprise and the unexpected
    • Guillaume Apollinaire
    • André Breton
    • Tristan Tzara
    • Paul Éluard
    ModernismEarly 1900s-?
    • Break from traditional literature in terms of content, style, and form
    • Experimentation with modes of expression
    • Realism and the depiction of everyday life
    • Quest for meaning and truth
    • Individualism vs. society
    • T.S. Eliot
    • W.H. Auden
    • Dylan Thomas
    • Guillaume Apollinaire
    • André Breton
    • Philip Larkin
    • Primo Levi
    • Rainer Maria Rilke
    PostmodernismMid-1900s-?
    • Embrace of randomness and rejection of strict order
    • Intertextuality: the response to other literary works and historical events
    • Stream of consciousness narration
    • Often written in free verse and toys with traditional styles
    • Ted Hughes
    • Seamus Heaney
    • Dylan Thomas
    • Philip Larkin
    • Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
    • Raymond Queneau

    European Poetry has evolved in response to its time. Much of the earlier movements focused on nature and religion, while later writers responded to industrialization and global conquest. Contemporary writers often look to the future and/or respond to Europe's complicated past. Many of the major themes of European poetry examine the clash between industrialism and nature, war and colonization, human mortality and the passage of time, and the power of love.

    It is important to remember that the literary canon is inherently flawed because it excludes many groups of people. European poetry can be viewed from the perspective of colonialism and oppression. Much of the canon of literature was defined by European standards and often ignores poets who lived in colonized and stolen land. By reframing European poetry to be conscious of the colonial context, we can look at it from a new lens.

    European Poetry History

    The history of European poetry is rooted firmly in oral tradition and storytelling. Long before the written text, people told stories as a way of remembrance and connection. This oral tradition was often accompanied by music and song. It has since evolved into the poetry that we know today.

    Ancient Poetry (Beginnings-450CE)

    One of the pioneers of written European poetry was Homer, who is famously credited with writing the Odyssey and Iliad. These poems were originally intended to be performed orally, and scholars estimate they were eventually written around the 8th century BCE. They were likely written on rolls made from papyrus or animal skin, although the original copies have since been lost. Today's versions of these ancient poems are copies of copies, originally published in English for the first time in 1614. The works are largely set in Greece and follow the lives of ancient kings, warfare, and mythology. These early poems still influence European poetry today and are considered a major part of the literary canon.

    "The Homeric Question" is a debate over the true identity of Homer. Many scholars argue that Homer is not a real person but the figurative representation of all the people who memorized, contributed to, and would orally present the Iliad and Odyssey prior to the epics being written down.

    Virgil (c. 70 BCE - 19 BCE) was another ancient European poet who helped to popularize the genre of poetry. This Roman writer was known for his epic poem "The Aeneid," which tells the story of Aeneas, a man who fled Troy after the war and was instrumental in the founding of Rome.

    Sappho of Lesbos (c. 610 BCE - 570BCE) was a Greek poet who is remembered for her lyric poetry. Her poetry uses vocabulary similar to Homer's epics, while reflecting on her personal emotions. Unlike her male contemporaries, Sappho's poetry tends to focus on women and femininity instead of wars and political conquests. Several of her poems praise Aphrodite and are full of natural imagery, most notably flowers. Today, most modern readers know Sappho for her expression of homosexual love; in fact, the term lesbian comes from the name of her island, Lesbos.

    Ovid (43 BCE - 17/18 CE) was an ancient Roman poet and contemporary to Virgil and the Roman poet Horace. The three are considered the canonical poets of Latin literature. Ovid is best known for his mythological narrative poem Metamorphoses (8 CE). This epic poem details the creation of the world through Julius Caesar's death in 44 BCE.

    Old English (450-1066)

    The first formally recognized poetry movement did not start until around 450 CE. The Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) Movement encompassed poets like Beowulf's poet (original author unknown), Caedmon, and Cynewulf. Early European poetry is often difficult for modern readers because old English differs drastically from contemporary English. The English language often changed with political and cultural shifts. Almost all of this period's poetry centers around wars, heroes, and conquest. "Beowulf" is the oldest surviving epic poem in English literature.

    European Poetry, Knight Amour, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Old English poetry featured heroes who fought valiantly against their enemies.

    Middle English (1066-1500)

    The Old English Movement was followed by the Middle English Movement (1066-1500), during which time the English language gradually became more standardized and mature. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400), is perhaps the best-known poet of this movement. Middle English poetry was characterized by courtly love, chivalry and romance, and religious ethics and values.

    Renaissance (1500-1660)

    The Renaissance period (c. 1500-1660) was influenced by the artistic and intellectual movement that began in Italy around the 15th century. During this period, many artists, writers, and intellectuals sought to recover the achievements and values of classical antiquity. The time period was notable for its religious reformation and intellectual revolution. Renaissance poets (such as William Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney) examined individualism and humanism in their work. They stressed the importance of the individual experience of love, spirituality, and mortality.

    The Enlightenment and Neoclassicism (1600-1785)

    The Enlightenment emerged as a direct response to the Renaissance and increasing industrialization in Europe. The Enlightenment stressed the importance of scientific thought and experimentation. It emphasized reason over emotions and featured poets such as Alexander Pope. Neoclassicism was a related movement at the same time, which emphasized a restoration of art and culture from classical antiquity. John Milton and Thomas Gray are two examples from this period.

    The German poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is notable for bridging the gap between the Enlightenment and the Romantic. Although many of his scientific writings centered around natural sciences like botany and anatomy, his poetry speaks to the beauty of the natural world. Goethe redefined German poetry and is often regarded as the most famous writer in the German language.

    The Romantics (1785-1832)

    Perhaps the most commonly read literary movement, the Romantics (1785-1832) wrote in response to Enlightenment ideals and the Scientific Revolution. They stressed the importance of emotionality and spirituality and argued that emotions should be elevated over reason. English Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed that nature was sacred and served as a connection between people and God. French writer Victor Hugo is best known in the Romantic movement for his novels, but his poetry was also well-renowned. And Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi constantly questioned the human condition and the meaning of human existence in his works. The Romantics are most known for their themes surrounding the power of love and the importance of nature.

    European Poetry, Beach Sunset, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Romantics emphasized the beauty and spiritual importance of nature.

    The Victorians (1832-1901)

    The Victorian Era was named after the English Queen Victoria and lasted the length of her rule, from 1832 until her death in 1901. The poetry in this movement was marked by increasing concerns about industrialization and the social injustices that arose as a direct result of dangerous working conditions in factories. In addition to the fear of environmental degradation, the poetry featured a decrease in faith and spirituality. Major poets of this time period include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and William Butler Yeats.

    Edwardian (1901-1914)

    Only lasting from 1901-1914, the Edwardian movement was short but impactful. Poets like Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and William Butler Yeats wrote about social disparities, especially in terms of social class and gender. Edwardian poets were also concerned with the isolation of the Other and the effect of technological advances. Like the Victoria era, the Edwardian era spanned the reign of King Edward VII.

    Georgian (1910-1936)

    The Georgian poets emerged during the reign of King George V. This movement was originally defined by a series of five anthologies called Georgian Poetry. The poets who contributed to this anthology wrote on a variety of topics and differed from one another. One common theme stressed elevated feelings and sentimentality.

    This movement also responded to the devastation of World War I. Fighting in the war was often glorified as the ultimate display of patriotism, but in reality many young people died awful, painful deaths fighting for their country. Some Georgian poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves reveal the brutality of warfare in their poetry.

    Modernism (early 1900s-?)

    Modernism began in the early 1900s and does not have a clear end date. Some scholars argue that the movement ended in the mid-1930s but others use the term "Late Modernism" to refer to works written much later. Modernist poets wrote on a variety of themes and on a variety of subjects. Unlike the movements before them, modernists rejected traditional literature in terms of content, style, and form. Instead, they embraced the unconventional and toyed with new means of expression.

    Modernists believed that by rejecting tradition, they could revolutionize how art was created and perceived. The movement was influenced by the rebellious attitude that spread across Europe in the early 1900s, as intellectuals rebuked European culture for its political and social corruption. Modernism also elevated realism, a type of poetry that centers around everyday events and everyday people instead of glorifying "great" or "important" figures. These poets include T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Primo Levi.

    Postmodernism (1945-?)

    Beginning a few decades after Modernism, Postmodernism questioned the beliefs of the previous movement and presented a new way of thinking. Instead of rejecting traditional literature completely, postmodernist poets toyed with conventions and used traditional forms to write about contemporary issues. Postmodernists emphasized intertextuality, positioning their poems in conversation with previous works. The stream-of-consciousness style also became more popular with postmodernist writers. Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin are some of the most prominent poets in this movement.

    Contemporary Poetry

    Current poetical trends have built off of postmodernism and evolved to speak to today's social and political climate. Contemporary European poets respond to Europe's complicated history as well as issues the world is currently facing. Some major topics discussed in poetry today include climate change, immigration, women's rights, and educational reform, as well as tackling deeply personal issues. Popular contemporary European poets include Warsan Shire, Adam Zagajewski, Carol Ann Duffy, Cécile Coulon, Silvio Ramat, and spoken-word poet Suli Breaks, among others.

    Famous European Poets

    Some of the most famous European poets include William Shakespeare, Voltaire, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot.

    William Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare's poetry and dramas are still widely studied today. His most famous sonnets were published in his quarto, Shake-speare's Sonnets, in 1609. These 154 sonnets range widely in theme, from mortality and time to love and beauty. Shakespeare is known for popularizing the sonnet form. The opening line of his "Sonnet 18"—"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (1)—is one of the most-quoted lines in English poetry.

    Some scholars are skeptical about Shakespeare's true identity. While some believe the sonnets and plays were collaborations between Shakespeare and other writers, others believe that Shakespeare is simply a pseudonym and the author's true identity is a complete mystery.

    Voltaire

    Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer who wrote works in nearly every literary form. He was one of the first writers to become internationally famous for his literary works. He is best known for his satires on contemporary society as well as his own philosophical contributions to the Enlightenment. Voltaire's book-length epic poem the Henriade (1723) was written as an imitation of Virgil's work, and it was the first book-length epic to be written in the French language.

    European Poetry, Voltaire Statue, StudySmarterFig. 3 - In addition to being a famous writer, Voltaire is remembered as a famous philosopher.

    William Wordsworth

    William Wordsworth is a famous Romantic poet. He is best known for Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collection he collaborated on with fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and which is generally recognized as the beginning of the Romantic Movement. Wordsworth was deeply interested in portraying and celebrating the beauty of the natural world. His poems "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" (1798) and "The Solitary Reaper" (1807) were inspired by his walks in the countryside and speak to themes of memory, nature, beauty, and sorrow.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) is one of the few female poets who is recognized and celebrated in the European poetry canon. Browning wrote in the Victorian Era and was popular even while she was alive. She is famous for her collection of love poems, Sonnets From the Portuguese (1850), and the novel Aurora Leigh (1856), which many consider to be an early feminist text. Browning lost some popularity during her lifetime for her outspoken progressive views on politics and social injustices. Nevertheless, her poems are still widely read today.

    Other female European poets include Aphra Behn (1640–1689), Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), and Mary Ann Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot (1819-1880). Why might these women have been able to write while their contemporaries were not?

    W.H. Auden

    W.H. Auden was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. Born in England, Auden had dual citizenship in Britain and the United States. He is well known for his ability to write in a variety of poetic forms. Auden wrote nearly 400 poems in his lifetime, ranging on topics as diverse as religion, politics, warfare, death, technology, and love.

    T.S. Eliot

    T.S. Eliot is a central figure in the Modernist movement and is often considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He is most famous for his poems "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), "The Waste Land" (1922), and "The Hollow Men" (1925). Compared to other poets of his time, Eliot published relatively little, but what he did publish was largely influential, marking a shift away from 19th-century poetry and changing the literary landscape forever.

    Do you notice any issues with representation in the literary canon?

    For centuries, white men have been hailed as great poets, while women were often not even taught how to write and Black people were kept as slaves. These issues with oppression and inequality will likely forever define European literature. Women and people of color are underrepresented in European poetry because they were not afforded the same opportunities.

    Is there any way to rectify this issue? What effect does the lack of representation have on the literary canon?

    European Poetry Examples

    Below are some of the most famous poems in European poetry. They cover themes as vast as religion and creation, love and mortality, power and time, and innocence and experience.

    Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)

    Paradise Lost is Milton's masterpiece, solidifying his place in the literary canon and influencing countless other works. It centers around the biblical Fall of Man when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. One of the story arcs in this epic poem follows Satan after his fall from grace and banishment to Hell, while the other follows Adam and Eve.

    Milton created the word "pandemonium" as the name for the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost.

    "Sonnet 18" by William Shakespeare (1609)

    "Sonnet 18" is one of the best-known love poems in the history of European poetry. In this poem, the speaker compares the Fair Youth to a summer day, saying his lover's qualities surpass the beauty and loveliness of summer. The poem also examines themes of mortality, as the speaker knows that—like summer—his love's youth and beauty will give way to time. The speaker's solution is to immortalize the Fair Youth in poetry so that his legacy will live on forever.

    "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816)

    "Kubla Khan" is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's most well-known poems. The result of an opium-induced dream, "Kubla Khan" imagines the beauty and power of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan's kingdom. The poem speaks to themes of beauty and art but also power and danger. "Kubla Khan" can be seen as an extended metaphor for the power and limitations of art.

    According to Coleridge, "Kubla Khan" was the result of an opium-induced dream. The poem was originally intended to be 200–300 lines long, but Coleridge was interrupted while writing and forgot the rest of the dream.

    "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

    Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" speaks to the ravages of time and the impermanence of human beings and their influence. Ozymandias was the Greek name of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II. The speaker happens upon the statue of a once great and powerful ruler. Although the statue was once awe-inspiring and grandiose, it has deteriorated over time as a body would decay. Even powerful men who once commanded armies and ruled entire nations cannot escape death and the devastation of time.

    European Poetry Quotes

    Below are some of the most famous quotes in European poetry with their sources.

    I hold it true, whate'er befall;I feel it when I sorrow most;'Tis better to have loved and lostThan never to have loved at all" (Canto XXVII)

    This quote comes from the poem "In Memoriam A.H.H." (1850) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "It is better to have love and lost than never to have loved at all" is now a famous saying of comfort whenever a relationship ends or a loved one passes away.

    I wandered lonely as a cloudThat floats on high o'er vales and hills,When all at once I saw a crowd,A host of golden daffodils;Beside the lake, beneath the trees,Fluttering and dancing in the breeze" (1-6)

    Coming from William Wordsworth's famous poem "Daffodils" (1807), this poem describes the beauty and comfort one can find in nature.

    European Poetry, Field of daffodils, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Wordsworth uses the imagery of daffodils to show that one is never truly alone in nature.

    But I, being poor, have only my dreams;I have spread my dreams under your feet;Tread softly because you tread on my dreams" (6-8)

    The final lines of William Butler Yeats's famous poem "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" (1899), this quote speaks to vulnerability, love, and hope.

    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" (1)

    This quote is the opening line of "To Autumn" (1820) by John Keats. It was Keats's last poem, written after an Autumn walk. Although the poem is often read as a meditation on death, it also explicitly emphasizes the beauty and power of the natural world.

    European Poetry, Tree Autumn Leaves, StudySmarterFig. 5 - "To Autumn" celebrates the beauty of the natural world while also pondering death.

    European Poetry - Key takeaways

    • European poetry is comprised of several movements, each responding to the political and social changes of its time.
    • European poetry spans centuries of history defined by war, colonization, industrialization, and social change.
    • Many of the major themes of European poetry examine the clash between industrialism and nature, war and colonization, human mortality and the passage of time, and the power of love.
    • Some of the most famous European poets are William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and W.H. Auden.
    • Some of the most famous European poems include Paradise Lost, "Sonnet 18," "Kubla Khan," and "Ozymandias."
    Frequently Asked Questions about European Poetry

    Who are the pioneers of European Poetry?

    The pioneers of European poetry include ancient poets like Homer, Virgil, Sappho, and Ovid. Other important early poets were Beowulf's Poet (Anon), Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare. 

    What are the major themes in European Poetry?

    Many of the major themes of European poetry examine the clash between industrialism and nature, war and colonization, human mortality and the passage of time, and the power of love. 

    How can European Poetry be viewed from different cultural lenses?

    European poetry can be viewed from the perspective of colonialism and oppression. Much of the canon of literature was defined by European standards and often ignores poets who lived in colonized and stolen land. By reframing European poetry to be conscious of the colonial context, we can look at it from a new lens. 

    What are the major literary movements in European Poetry?

    The major literary movements include Old English, Middle English, the Renaissance, The Enlightenment and Neoclassicism, the Romantics, Victorians, Edwardians, Georgians, Modernism, and Postmodernism.

    How has European Poetry evolved over time?

    European Poetry has evolved in response to its time. Much of the earlier movements focused on nature and religion, while later writers responded to industrialization and global conquest. Contemporary writers often look to the future and respond to Europe's complicated past. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What war did Owen fight in?

    Who originally wrote the words, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori?"

    Who was Owen's mentor?

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