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What Are the Different Types of British Poetry?

By David Bishop
Updated May 23, 2024
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British poetry is verse written in the United Kingdom. Most of the poetry in this category comes from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Poetry in the British Isles dates back to the sixth century A.D. and provides several rich literary traditions. Many important movements, such as Romanticism, are heavily represented in the poetic history of Britain. British poets wrote in many genres and forms and are still studied extensively in English departments around the world.

English poets constitute a large part of the poetic landscape of Britain. Beginning in the seventh century A.D., Anglo-Saxon poets composed hymns and epics such as Beowulf. The Norman invasions brought new genres of poetry to Britain, including romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Chaucer continued to add to this tradition with his Canterbury Tales, which blends several poetic genres together with a framing narrative.

The Renaissance provided better methods for the printing and distribution of poetic works and led to the Elizabethan period. Many famous sonnets, songs and courtly poems were composed in this period by notable poets such as Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare. Post-Restoration England saw British poets experimenting with satire as well as looking back and emulating classical Roman poetry.

The Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century was an important trend in British poetry that emphasized nature and emotion. Famous British poets of this era included William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats. The ensuing Victorian era contained important works by Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and provided a transition to the modern era that would shape British poetry through the 20th century and beyond.

The traditions of Irish poetry extend back even further than the English traditions and are acknowledged as some of the oldest non-Latin verse in Europe. Early Irish and Scottish poets were known as bards and served an important role in medieval society by recording and relating historical events. Gaelic poetry was dominant until the 19th century, when the language usage shifted toward English. Early 20th century poets such as William Butler Yeats sought to reclaim their Celtic heritage and helped to influence Irish independence. Seamus Heaney, a poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, continues in 2011 to focus on the political issues of Northern Ireland as well as the history and cultural traditions of the island.

Welsh and Scottish poems also represent distinct bodies of work within the scope of British poetry. Welsh and Scottish traditions date back to the sixth century. Another distinct type of poetry — Cornish verse stemming from Britain's Cornwall region — did not emerge until the Middle Ages. Contemporary writers continue to compose poetry utilizing the languages and traditions of these specific areas.

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