8 Famous Lines of Poetry: Where they come from and what they mean
From Elizabethan plays to tragic war poets, English literature is blessed with some incredibly moving and cleverly constructed verse.
Out of countless millions of lines of beautiful poetry, a few lines have resonated with a much wider audience to become some of the most memorable and quoted words in the English language. Some are endlessly paraphrased in newspaper headlines or popular culture; others find a new calling as inspirational quotes. But they’re all more complex than they seem to be when they’re taken out of context, and in this article, we look at where these famous quotations come from, who wrote them, and what they really mean.
1. “To be or not to be: that is the question”
We have our most illustrious playwright to thank for one of the most famous quotations in the English language. William Shakespeare wrote these immortal lines in Hamlet, and to make better sense of them, let’s look at a few more lines:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”
Spoken by Hamlet himself, these words question whether it’s better to live and face one’s troubles, or die and be rid of them. The implication here is that pain in life is inevitable – “outrageous fortune” has this fate in store for us, and it is for us to choose whether we face up to our “sea of troubles” or end them in death. However, the Elizabethans believed that those who committed suicide would be eternally damned (he refers later in this soliloquy to “the dread of something after death”) – which adds an extra complexity to Hamlet’s dilemma. Life, he implies, is bad; but death might be worse. This is a subtlety overlooked by the numerous references to this speech in popular culture.
2. “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”
A favourite quotation of the recently bereaved (or, more commonly, the recently dumped), this line does not, in fact, refer to someone who has lost a lover. The full quotation is:
“I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”
It was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, about his (probably purely platonic) friendship with Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage. The poem, entitled In Memoriam A.H.H., took Tennyson seventeen years to write, revealing how deeply his friend’s death had affected him. Unlike a funeral elegy to a particular person, however, it reflects on bigger concepts, such as the cruelty of nature and death. The poem also raises questions about the clash between traditional Biblical beliefs and the theories of contemporary scientists about evolution (it was published just before Darwin unveiled his theory of the origin of species). The poem’s other famous line is “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, which suggests the idea that nature may not be governed by divine intervention.
3. “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”
This beautiful line ends a short poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), entitled Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. The poem starts off by describing beautiful things such as “embroidered cloths” and “gold and silver light”; the speaker says that if he possessed these things he would spread them beneath the feet of the person to whom the poem is addressed. To add a couple of lines to the most famous line for context, the full quote is:
“But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
The speaker is Aedh, a character who forms a mythology of the poet’s own invention along with two other characters, collectively known as “the principles of the mind”. In many volumes of Yeats’ poetry “Aedh” is replaced by “He” in the title of this poem, and many people, reading this poem by itself, don’t realise this mythological background. Instead, the powerful final line gets quoted by itself because so many people can relate to the idea of entrusting their hopes and dreams to the person they love.
4. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the road less traveled by”
This evocative line comes from The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (1874-1963), an enormously popular but frequently misunderstood poem. The poem ostensibly describes someone walking through a “yellow wood” and coming across a fork in the path. The poem is about choosing which of these two paths to take; roads are a common metaphor in poetry and usually represent paths in life. The “road less travelled” can therefore be taken to mean choosing an unconventional path in life.
However, if you read the poem carefully, you see that the speaker has not actually chosen the less travelled road; he chooses the one he initially describes as “having perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear”. In fact, though, both roads are the same: “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” The path the speaker describes as “less travelled” is actually saved for another day – a day he knows is unlikely to come. He’s describing this with a dose of irony, predicting that, in the future (“I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence”), he’ll tell people that he took the “road less travelled” and that it “made all the difference”, even though he didn’t, because it will present him in a better light. This reflects the idea that when he looks back on his life from the perspective of old age, he might try to justify the choices he made, and make out that he chose to follow an unconventional path; even though at the time, he knew full well that he didn’t. Hence the “sigh” – because he doesn’t believe it himself. This sense of the regrets one may experience in old age is also present in the title of the poem – which is not, as is often misremembered, “The Road Less Traveled” but “The Road Not Taken”.
5. “If I should die, think only this of me”
Often quoted out of context, and paraphrased by Blackadder, this famous, haunting line is the first line of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, which is the final sonnet in a collection entitled 1914. It continues: “That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” The “England” theme continues throughout the poem; it’s mentioned six times in the poem’s fourteen lines and it’s portrayed as so idyllic that the poem ends with the idea of an “English heaven” – implying that God was on the British side, not that of the opposition.
The Soldier represents a highly idealised and sentimental view of going to war that many doubt would have been written later in the war; it was written in 1914, when the true scale of the carnage of the First World War had yet to unfold. Certainly, its tone is very different indeed from the poems that would emerge from the trenches later in the war from the pens of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others. Ironically, Brooke himself died a year later, not in the trenches, but in the Aegean after contracting blood poisoning through a small wound.
6. “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”
This line is a favourite with journalists in times of national flood crises. It comes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), a very, very long ballad told from the point of view of a sailor who has just returned from an epic voyage. The most famous symbol in this poem is the Albatross, which leads the ship away from Antarctica (to which it had been blown off course by a storm), only for the mariner to shoot it. This turns out to have been a move that doomed them to ill-fortune, as it arouses the anger of spirits, who carry the ship into calm water, with no wind, so that it cannot move.
This is where this oft-quoted line comes from: the crew of the ship suffer extreme thirst, surrounded by ocean water (“Water, water, everywhere”) that is undrinkable (“Nor any drop to drink”). The poem gets more surreal after this, with the appearance of a ghostly ship upon which Death is playing cards with “the Night-mare Life in Death” for the souls of the mariner and his fellow crew. One by one the rest of the crew dies, and the mariner lifts the curse of the albatross by seeing the true beauty of the sea creatures he once dismissed as “slimy”.
It’s thought that this extraordinary tale may have been inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook, whose astronomer, William Wales, was Coleridge’s tutor. The poet Wordsworth said that the poem came about after a walk in the Quantock Hills he had taken with his sister, Dorothy, and Coleridge, during which Wordsworth had talked about a book he was reading by Captain George Shelvocke, which contained an account of shooting dead an albatross.
7. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”
Conjuring up wonderful images of the delights of Autumn, this line opens To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821), inspired by a walk the poet took near Winchester on autumnal evening in 1819. In three stanzas, this exceptionally popular poem describes different characteristics of the autumn, starting with its fruitfulness, moving on to the hard labour of harvesting these fruits and preparing for winter (the “cider-press”, “the granary” and “a half-reap’d furrow” are all mentioned), and finally the aspect of autumn that sees life decay, with words such as “wailful”, “mourn” and “soft dying” used to create a sense of mourning for the loss of spring and summer. The tripartite structure of the poem creates a sense of movement through time, both from early to mid to late autumn, and from morning to afternoon to evening; the first (and most famous) line mentions “mists”, suggesting the early morning. Tragically, this was to be Keats’ last poem. Struggling with ill-health, he moved to Rome the following year, where he died a few months later.
8. “I wandered lonely as a cloud”
William Wordsworth’s most famous poem is often known by the title Daffodils, which gives you all the clues you need about the subject of this poem. It was inspired by a walk the poet took with his sister Dorothy in the Lake District in 1804, during which they chanced upon a long strip of daffodils:
“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;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
From an Englishman, the simile “lonely as a cloud” is surprising. If you live in the UK you’ll know that you never see just one cloud – the sky is full of them. Rather than suggesting the idea of loneliness (as might be suggested when considering this line superficially and completely out of context), this popular line actually portrays the opposite – one is not lonely when in the company of nature. This seems to ring true later in the poem with the mention of “the bliss of solitude”; loneliness is certainly not portrayed in a negative light in this poem. Similarly, the sea of daffodils are anything but lonely in each other’s company, dancing together in the breeze. It’s a simple poem that describes man’s closeness to nature, and it’s made the Lake District even more popular during the spring.
There are so many more wonderful lines of poetry we could have included, but we’ve run out of time for now. If you have a favourite line of verse, we’d love to hear it in the comments below!