Famous Poetry Quotes, Explained
Poets have been revered throughout history for their emotive language and flowery expressions - the type that are so powerful they can perfectly encapsulate a feeling within a single line or two. They can bring out the beauty of a language in its purest form.
And yet, as beautiful as poetry can be to read, it’s very easy to often read through extracts without taking the time to properly analyse its intended meaning - or even have a complete understanding of it.
In this article, we seek to explore - in detail - exactly what the poets true ambitions of some of their most famous writings were - giving you greater insight into some of the most famous poetry lines throughout history.
Famous Poetry Quotes, Explained
Below, we’ll be looking into a selection of the most famous poetry quotes throughout history, explaining exactly what they mean.
‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’ - Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Shakespeare is one of the most famous examples of poets who could express an enormous amount of complexity, emotion and thought from a single line. And one of the most famous examples of this can be found in his play Hamlet, in the line; ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks.’
The line was born by Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, in Act 3, Scene 2 of the play about the eponymous protagonist, but has gone on to become a frequently used phrase in modern English. The line’s meaning is a rather cynical and somewhat ironic one, referring to someone overdoing a denial and suggesting that they are guilty over a particular action.
In Shakespeare’s original work, the line is used by Gertrude in a ploy from Hamlet to see he can get Claudius (King of Denmark and husband to Gertrude) to admit to having murdered his brother (Hamlet’s father). To do this, he commissions an actor’s group to perform a play in which a king is murdered by his brother and the queen then marries the murderer - echoing what Hamlet believes has happened in the real world around him.
Whilst watching the play, Hamlet, sitting next to his mother, asks what she thinks about the show, to which she replies; ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks,’ suggesting that she doesn’t believe any of it because the actress playing the queen is too insincere towards the scenes around her; she’s trying too hard to convince the audience around her that she is completely oblivious to the play’s obvious plot, losing her credibility as a believable character.
With that being said, as the play continues, Hamlet’s theories are soon confirmed when Claudius rushes out the room during a scene when the king his greeted by the ghost of his brother and describes his murder with explicit detail.
As such, the quote has also been used as a way to refer to the fickleness of women, a theme that is commonly alluded to during Hamlet, with the protagonist at one point exclaiming; ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ However, today, it is more generally used as to express disbelief in someone’s protestations about their innocence of something they are suspected or accused of being guilty of.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ - Daffodils by William Wordsworth
As one of the leading writers during the late 18th Century Romantic literary movements, it’s no wonder that William Wordsworth’s literary classic ‘Daffodils’ features some much-loved poetry quotes that have gone on to become world-famous and common phrases in many people’s lexicon.
You may have never heard of ‘Daffodils’ before, but that’s probably because the poem is much better known for the opening line which made it world-famous; ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ The poem denotes the spontaneous emotions felt by Wordsworth when he and his sister Dorothy discovered a chorus of dancing daffodils around Glencoyne Bay in the Lake District, here in the UK.
The famous quote opens the first stanza of the poem, with Wordsworth using ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ to describe his state of mind before stumbling across the field of daffodils. The word “wandered” denotes a directionless style of movement, with external forces influencing decision-making. This ‘wandering’ is used as an extended metaphor for the author’s life, de-personifying himself as a cloud who lacks direction and a sense of worth.
Yet, as is demonstrated later in the poem, when he discovers the field of daffodils (in contrast to him, personified), “golden” and “dancing in the breeze.” These daffodils, he writes, “flash upon that inward eye” when “on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood.” To him, when he remembers the fields of daffodils, this liveliness of nature brings him new inspiration, fulfilment and happiness - something he was lacking before.
By metaphorically comparing himself to an object (cloud) and then personifying nature (the daffodils), Wordsworth is implying an inherent unity between mankind and nature - and how nature plays a major role in our everyday fulfilments.
‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ - Hope is the Thing With Feathers, by Emily Dickinson
Out of the nearly 1,800 poems she penned during her lifetime, the 1862 poem, Hope is the Thing With Feathers, is the one which has given Emily Dickinson lifelong fame and recognition as a writer.
The full poem is rather short and goes as follows:
“‘Hope is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.”
Full of figurative language, this poem is an extended metaphor, transforming the feeling of hope into a bird that lives forever in the human soul. This metaphor is set in the opening line of the poem - and has gone on to become a common phrase long associated with people’s personal aspirations, no matter how ‘extreme’ they may seem to outsiders.
Interestingly, the first word of the poem is given special emphasis with speech marks, as though the poet wants to define the elusive word ‘hope,’ which she then does as followed by her descriptive metaphor.
As the stanza progresses, so too does the strength of the imagery; not only is hope feathery, but it has the ability to sing too, especially during times of difficulty. But the song is extra-special than any other song in the world for there are no words, and no diction for anyone to understand rationally - just like our sometimes un-seemingly rational hopes and aspirations.
‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.’ - Little Gidding - T. S. Eliot
Anglo-American poet, T. S. Eliot was arguably one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century, playing a central role in the development of the English-language and Modernist poetry.
His poem, Little Gidding, was the final of four poems written by Eliot, known as the Four Quartets. Each poem discusses time, perspective, humanity and salvation. At first glance, it can be considered as quite a striking poem about religion, combining imagery of fire and the Pentecost to emphasise the need for purification and purgation.
Within the body of the poem, the narrator meets a ghost that is a combination of various literary figures throughout history - like Dante, Swift and Yeats - uniting elements of the past, present and future to understand the need for unity in salvation.
The line; ‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice’ is a discussion on time and actions - and the need for new perspectives in new periods of time.
At first glance, it indicates that last year’s sayings and behaviours may have been powerful and relevant in making good choices, guiding the author in the right direction. Yet, just because they worked back then doesn’t mean that they translate well into situations where the author finds themselves in today.
However, the line is a wider discussion on the idea of new beginnings, especially in the dawn of a new year and its connections with religion. A new year always dawns ideas of hope, freshness, and newness. There’s promise in the air and aspirations and goals are usually buoyant amongst celebrants.
Eliot embraces this idea of newness, encouraging readers to become bigger and better versions of themselves to salvage actions of the past. He’s trying to tell her reader; don’t just follow in the same actions (or words) that have served yourself well in the past, impart personal energy into new interactions to become an even better version of yourself.
‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ by Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas was a Welsh poet and prose writer, known for creating works that exuberate rhapsodic charm and compassion with his readers. His nameless poem, recognised more commonly by its famous line; ‘do not go gentle into that good night’ is one of his most famous works - with a line that appears as a refrain throughout the poem.
If you read the full poem, you’ll soon notice that the famous line ‘do not go gentle into that good night’ is used by the narrator to describe the experience of watching his father die. As a result, the poem’s primary purpose is to think about death - or, more to the point - the unavoidable nature of death and the choices we can make towards our own circumstances.
Once the speaker has realised that death cannot be avoided, he instead looks to challenge the notion. The famous line “do not go gentle into that good night” is followed by “rage against the dying of the light,” where he’s telling the reader not to accept death passively. Instead, they should choose how they face death.
For Thomas, he suggests that the best way to face death is with strength and power, giving dying people one final chance to embrace the energy of life and triumph over something which, ultimately, we have no control over in the end.
In this sense, Thomas’ line “do not go gentle into that good night” is not about saying goodbye passively. Yes, he does end the poem with “good night,” suggesting the end of life, but it’s more about giving someone the final decision on how they face the inevitable.
‘All that glitters is not gold’ - The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare
Another of Shakespeare’s famous poetry quotes comes from his 15th-Century play, The Merchant of Venice. The original line was actually written as ‘all that glistens is not gold,’ rather than ‘all that glitters is not gold.’ However, long ago the original was superseded by the word ‘glitters’ which is now universally recognised as the quote.
The line is read from a note in Act 2, Scene 7, the full version of which can be found below:
“O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.”
The extract features in the play when Portia - a beautiful, educated and high-achieving young lady - is left with a fortune on the death of her father. Concerned, before his death, that Portia would be vulnerable to gentlemen looking to steal her wealth, he stipulates in his will that the suitors must be subjected to a ‘test.’ The test: three suitors would have to correctly pick one of three caskets that contains Portia’s picture. One of the caskets is made of gold, one silver, and the last - base lead.
Suitors undertake the test with the first, the Prince of Morocco, choosing the gold cast to reveal a skull and rejection letter including the ‘all that glitters’ quote. His preference for gold and the ‘finer things’ in life has proved deceptive and Portia is pleased to see him leave, uttering ‘a gentle riddance.’ Of course, as per her father’s wishes it is the poor young venetian man who is given the lead casket option who ends up marrying Portia.
In this sense, the phrase, ‘all that glitters is not gold,’ expresses the idea - in the form of a beautiful metaphor - that things that often seem the most valuable on the surface, such as gold, are often deceptive. Frequently, it’s the more seemingly-modest items in life that yield a certain type of substance that makes them more valuable.
This universal statement attacks our modern consumerist assumptions that the prettiest, most seemingly-obvious materials are the most rewarding to our lives. Instead, the most modern ‘appearances’ - referring to both objects and people - often hide inner ‘gold’ - the more use, value and general fulfilment in our lives.
Despite being popularised by Shakespeare in the 15th Century, the phrase can actually be dated back to the 12th Century when French monk Alain de Lille, wrote “do not hold everything that shines like gold.” in Parabolae.
‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’ - Funeral Blues - W. H. Auden
‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’ is a line from possibly W. H. Auden’s most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’ or ‘Stop all the clocks’ - as it’s commonly referred to after its opening words.
Auden’s poem was brought to fame when it was quoted in full in the 1994 film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. The popularity of the film led Auden’s publisher, Faber and Faber to issue a slim pamphlet of his love poems, including this one, which went on to become a bestseller and broke publishing records for poetry books published in the UK.
The poem is an elegy; a tribute to man whom he loved dearly. It reflects the depths of his feelings towards the nameless man and how much he meant to him - lamenting the loss of a lover.
The famous poetry quote; ‘he was my North, my South, my East and West; opens its third stanza and is used to make clear that the man he is describing is the poet’s everything. Since the north, south, east and west cover all four points of the compass, the line is another way of saying that the man was Auden’s world.
‘But still, like dust, I’ll rise’ - Still I Rise, Maya Angelou
Recognised as one of the most famous female writers in history, it’s no surprise that Maya Angelou’s poetry has gone on to stand the test of time and become used with regularity in modern language.
‘Still I Rise’ is just one example of her inspiring works. Based around her experiences as a Black woman living in America during the first-half of the 20th Century, it encourages readers to love themselves fully and persevere during times of hardship and discrimination.
The poem takes the reader through a series of statements that the writer makes about herself, praising her strength, her body, and her ability to move forward and away from both her personal and historical past. There is nothing, the speaker declares, that can stop her. No matter what, she will still ‘rise’ above and beyond anything that tries to control her.
The famous line ‘but still, like dust, I’ll rise’ can be found to close the opening stanza of the poem:
"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."
It follows a long list of nasty, often painful things that people ‘could’ do to the author, that would try to shame her for who she is. But, using the simile ‘like dust, I’ll rise,’ she openly declares that nothing can stop her from living her life to the fullest. In particular, the use of the word ‘dust’ which often flies around with ease, suggests that she will very easily shake off any negative comments and continue to lead her life as she wishes.
‘She walks in beauty, like the night’ - She Walks in Beauty - Lord Byron
British poet Lord Byron is recognised as one of the most prominent figures in Romanticism - an artistic movement which swept the poetry and literary sphere during the late 18th and early 19th Century.
‘She Walks in Beauty,’ is one of his shorter but most famous poems that seeks to capture a sense of and celebrate the beauty of an unnamed woman.
The opening line - and perhaps the two most famous poetry lines that Byron has ever written; ‘she walks in beauty, like night’ - sets the scene for the rest of the poem, comparing this unknown woman to the awe and beauty that comes from a clear night sky:
‘She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes…’
Using the simile, Byron indicates that her beauty is not purely physical either; instead, it is almost an aura, an innocent unawareness that surrounds her.
It’s interesting to note here that the poet is describing his beloved’s beauty as comparable to night, rather than daylight. In fact, later in the poem he describes the daylight as “gaudy.” This is a common aspect of Romantic poetry, where writers would compare people not just to nature, but to ‘bright nature.’ In this line especially, Byron is comparing his lover to the ‘bright’ night sky.
This association can be a nod to the historic Greek ideal, where beauty is so strong that it can almost be catastrophic. For example, Helen of Troy, daughter of Zeus, was one such beauty; a divine being whose enchanting looks were an indirect cause of the Trojan War.
In this sense, Byron is describing his beloved’s love as comparable to the highest of the high - indicating the strength of his feelings and adoration of this unnamed woman’s looks.
Build your poetic flair with a Creative Writing Summer Course
Have ambitions of becoming a world-famous poet one day? Start crafting your work with an expert on one of our Creative Writing summer courses.
To write well, you must feel inspired. And what better way to find your poetic muse than in a university city where some of the greatest writers throughout history have studied, lived and published iconic pieces of work.
Take charge of your future and spend your summer learning more about a subject you love when you study Creative Writing. You’ll be taught by one of our expert tutors, many of them accomplished writers in their own right, on a busy academic timetable that will have you working on your piece of writing.
You’ll also learn amongst a small group of international students who all share the same passion for writing as you do. It’s a truly inspiring environment with which to spark ideas, share tips, and offer guidance on each others’ work.
Share this article
Learn the true meaning behind some of the most famous poetry quotes throughout history. From Shakespeare to Lord Byron, read our selection!