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The Best Short Poems of All Time

compiled by Michael R. Burch

The best short poems ever written include ancient Greek epigrams, haiku by the Oriental masters, lyric poems by Western poets like William Shakespeare, A. E. Housman and Dylan Thomas, and songs old and new like "Auld Lang Syne" and "Let It Be." Some of the best composers of lyric poems are singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Carole King, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen.

Lyric Poetry Definition, Origins and History

Sing, my sacred tortoiseshell lyre;
sing, let my words
accompany your voice
—Sappho, fragment 118

Lyric poetry is usually brief and expresses personal thoughts and emotions without the plot and character development common to narrative poetry, dramatic poetry, plays and novels. A great lyric poem is like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky. If you stick with me for a few minutes, you'll have the chance to experience some of the most dazzling lightning bolts in the English language, and judge for yourself. But for now here's a quick example, by the great Greek lyric poet Sappho (my translation):

Eros harrows my heart:
wild gales sweeping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.
—Sappho, fragment 142, translated by Michael R. Burch

In the ancient world, such poems were often accompanied by someone playing the lyre: hence lyric poems and song lyrics are closely related "kissing cousins." The connection between lyric poems and song lyrics can be clearly seen in the first epigram of  Sappho above, and in this one below:

Now, I shall sing these songs
Beautifully
for my companions.
—Sappho, fragment 3, translated by Julia Dubnoff

Sappho fans can find other translations of her poems later on this page. Please be sure not to miss this opportunity to read some truly wonderful poems by a remarkable female poet.

Differences Between Lyric, Dramatic and Narrative Poetry

Dramatic poetry is meant to be spoken: for instance, the soliloquies of Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth. Narrative poems tell stories: for instance, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and the wonderfully haunting poetic ghost story "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. Epic poems are generally longer narrative poems, such as "Beowulf" and "Paradise Lost." Ballads also tell stories; for instance, "Sir Patrick Spens." But a lyric poem may exist merely or primarily to convey an image, feeling, thought or impression, as in ancient Greek epitaphs (a form of epigram). By way of example, here are my modern English "interpretations" of gravestone inscriptions attributed to various Greek masters:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
—Michael R. Burch, after Plato

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits may tell.
—Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Passerby,
tell the Spartans we lie
here, dead at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
—Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

Here he lies in state tonight:
great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not,
neither does War relent.
—Michael R. Burch, after Anacreon

Blame not the gale, or the inhospitable sea-gulf, or friends’ tardiness,
mariner! Just man’s foolhardiness.
Michael R. Burch, after Leonidas of Tarentum

The Method of Lyric Poetry: How Does it Work?

Lyric poems often strike chords in readers and set them resonating instantaneously by "invoking" things common to all humanity: the fear of death, the sadness of lives cut short, the sorrow of parting, etc. But of course lyric poems can also strike sweet, highly positive chords as well: love, friendship, companionship, etc. Here's a moving example of a lyric poem that blends sweet and sad chords beautifully, and well:

Bread and Music
by Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

Mary Elizabeth Frye is, perhaps, the most mysterious poet who appears on this page, and perhaps in the annals of poetry. Rather than spoiling the mystery, I will present her poem first, then provide the details ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

This consoling elegy had a very mysterious genesis, as it was written by Mary Elizabeth Frye, a Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education, having been orphaned at age three. She had never written poetry before. Frye wrote the poem on a ripped-off piece of a brown grocery bag, in a burst of compassion for a Jewish girl who had fled the Holocaust only to receive news that her mother had died in Germany. The girl was weeping inconsolably because she couldn't visit her mother's grave to share her tears of love and bereavement. When the poem was named Britain's most popular poem in a 1996 Bookworm poll, with more than 30,000 call-in votes despite not having been one of the critics' nominations, an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's many cultured and degreed ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources), Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The poem has also been called "I Am" due to its rather biblical repetitions of the phrase. Frye never formally published or copyrighted the poem, so we believe it is in the public domain and can be shared, although we recommend that it not be used for commercial purposes, since Frye never tried to profit from it herself.

Haiku and Epigrams Are Related Forms of Lyric Poetry


Haiku can be quite similar to the best Greek epigrams: short and sweet, or (more often) short and bittersweet. Here are my translations of two wonderful haiku by Oriental masters:

The butterfly
perfuming its wings
fans the orchid
— Matsuo Basho, translated by Michael R. Burch

Oh, fallen camellias,
if I were you,
I'd leap into the torrent!

— Takaha Shugyo, translated by Michael R. Burch

The fact that the ancient Greek masters and ancient Oriental masters adopted similar methods may indicate that lyric poetry may rise from a wellspring of common humanity.

Attributes of Popular Lyric Poetry and Song Lyrics

Lyric poems do not require rhyme or regular meter, although many lyric poems do rhyme, have a discernable "beat" and/or have been set to music. Some of the best-known songs of all time are lyric poems that were set to music: for instance, "Auld Lang Syne" by the Scottish poet Robert Burns and "To Celia" by the English poet Ben Jonson:

To Celia
by Ben Jonson

Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.

Traditional songs like "Greensleeves," "Shenandoah" and "Danny Boy" are other examples of lyric poems set to music, as are most of the best-loved hymns. Some of the best-known contemporary songwriters are lyric poets. In fact, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Jewel have published books of poems, while Paul Simon wrote some of his most famous songs as poems, then set them to music later:

I Am a Rock
by Paul Simon; performed by Simon & Garfunkel

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

The History of Lyric Poetry, Spoken-Word Poetry and Performance Poetry

Lyric poetry has a long history, with a good degree of "cross pollination" down the years. (Indeed, the song above seems to be a young, unhappy poet's refutation of the lyric poet John Donne's assertion that "no man is an island.") Aristotle mentioned lyric poetry (kitharistike, played to the cithara, a musical instrument similar to the lyre, and the forerunner of the modern guitar) in his Poetics, along with drama, epic poetry, dancing, painting and other forms of mimesis. Archaic and classical Greek lyric poetry involved live performances accompanied by stringed instruments, so lyric poetry may be the first "performance poetry" that didn’t require a stage, actors and a chorus. If the poet was also the musician, he could be a "one man band," so the first lyric poets were probably the Bob Dylans of their day. Here's one of the earliest lyric poems to have been written in the English language (although the original poem is virtually unreadable today, resembling ancient German more than modern English):

Wulf and Eadwacer
anonymous ballad, circa 960-990 AD
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The outlanders pursue him as if he were game.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like a panting hound.
Whenever it rained and I woke disconsolate
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, there was pleasure, but its end was loathsome.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, but why should I eat?
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A she-wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.

Lyric Poetry was the Province of the First Great Female Poets

"Wulf and Eadwacer" has been one of my favorite poems since the first time I read it. In fact, I liked the poem so much that I ended up translating it myself. This is quite possibly the first extant English poem by a female poet. It is also one of the first English poems to employ a refrain, and its closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in English literature.

One of the best and most famous lyric poets of antiquity was a woman, Sappho. Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. According to the Parian Marble, Sappho was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594. Cicero mentioned that a statue of her stood in the town hall of Syracuse, so she was famous in her own day, or not long thereafter. “She is a mortal marvel,” wrote Antipater of Sidon, before proceeding to catalog the Seven Wonders of the World. It is because of the homoerotic nature of some of Sappho's poems that "lesbian" and "sapphic" have their current  sexual denotations and connotations. Most of Sappho's poetry has been lost, but her reputation has endured through surviving fragments, many of them fleshed out by other poets who sought to "fill in the blanks." (Of the 189 known fragments of her work, twenty contain just one readable word, thirteen have only two, and nearly half have ten or fewer.) Major poets like Ben Jonson, T. S. Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Lowell and Lord Byron either translated her work, or wrote poems in response to hers, so she has been (and remains) obviously influential ...

Sappho, fragment 58
translated by Mary Barnard

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

Sappho, fragment 156
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case
and her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.

Sappho, fragment 39
"Songs of the Springtides"
by Charles Algernon Swinburne

The tawny sweetwinged thing
Whose cry was but of Spring.

The Most Popular Form of Western Lyric Poetry Historically: the Sonnet

Historically the most popular form of lyric poetry in the Western tradition has been the sonnet, most commonly Petrarchan or Shakespearean, but with many other varieties, such as unrhymed blank verse sonnets; the curtal, sprung-rhythm sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins; the free verse sonnets of e. e. cummings with their eclectic phrasing, capitalization and typography; and basically "the kitchen sink," or everything in between ...

Sonnet 147
by William Shakespeare

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest.
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed,
  For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
  Who art as black as Hell, as dark as night.

Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line, with a fairly regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables: for I have SWORN thee FAIR and THOUGHT thee BRIGHT) with a predefined rhyme scheme. For instance, a Shakespearean sonnet has the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. But metrical variation is allowed in such sonnets, and even the poets who made up the "rules" sometimes broke them: Shakespeare, for instance. In fact, Shakespeare had to break the existing rules of his day in order to create the form that is now named after him. As Anthony Hecht pointed out in his article on the sonnet for Encyclopedia Britannica, canonical forms like the sonnet demand innovation from poets who wish to become original artists in their own right.

Other Popular Forms of Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry also appears in a wide variety of other forms, including ballades, canzones and villanelles:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

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.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is the best-known villanelle in the English language, and justifiably so.

The Free Verse Lyric

But today the most common form of lyric poetry is unrhymed, metrically ad-hoc free verse:

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

But the lines easily blur, as in the magnificent poem below, which has elements of both formal blank verse and free verse:

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden is probably an unknown or undervalued poet to most readers today, but every reader should be intimately familiar with this wonderful poem. "Those Winter Sundays" illustrates how one poem can make a poet immortal. I may never remember another poem by Hayden, but I will certainly never forget this one.

Other Influences on Lyric Poetry and its Continuing History

English poetry has its roots ancient Greek lyric poets like Sappho, but other later European poets were also highly influential, as were Oriental masters like Basho and Li Po, once Western poets discovered their work. In Italy, Petrarch developed the sonnet form he inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante had used in his Vita Nuova. In 1327, the sight of a woman named Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon inspired Petrarch to celebrate her in Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later, Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named his collection of  poems Il Canzoniere ("Song Book"). Petrarch's love poems were both the culmination of medieval courtly love poetry and the origin of the Renaissance love lyric.Shortly thereafter English poets like Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare helped popularize the sonnet with their readers ...

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Thomas Wyatt lived during the reign of King Henry VIII. Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" may have been written to Anne Boleyn, the mistress of Henry who became his queen, only to be beheaded. Another wonderful poem of this period is "Sweet Rose of Virtue" by the Scottish poet William Dunbar:

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.


I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such terrible pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.


William Dunbar's magnificent "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is one of my favorite poems from the early days of English poetry. I chose to translate it myself, to make it more accessible to modern readers.

In France, Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf led the way. Ronsard influenced the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, as we can see in his loose translation of a poem by Ronsard:

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Spanish devotional poetry adapted the lyric for religious purposes. Notable Spanish poets include Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Garcilaso de la Vega and Lope de Vega. Although better known for his epic Lusiadas, Luís de Camões is also considered the greatest Portuguese lyric poet of the period.

Lyric was the dominant poetic idiom in 17th century English poetry from John Donne to Andrew Marvell. The best poems from this period are usually short, rarely tell a story and are intense in expression, often in a metaphysical vein. Other notable lyric poets of this era include Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Aphra Behn, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, John Milton, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan.

Other notable short English lyric poems include:

Song by John Donne
To His Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell
A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns
Music When Soft Voices Die (To
) by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Song by Christina Rossetti
Excerpts from "More Poems," XXXVI by A. E. Housman
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by William Butler Yeats
The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats
The Garden by Ezra Pound
Piano
by D. H. Lawrence
in Just- by e. e. cummings
Acquainted With The Night  by Robert Frost
The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens
The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad by Wallace Stevens
Song For The Last Act by Louise Bogan

If you made it this far, I thank you for your time and attention, and I hope you were hit by a few lightning bolts from out of the blue, along the way.

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