Famous or Forgotten: 12 Poets Everyone Should Know

May the flame of the Famous Five burn ever brighter; may the flame of the Secret Seven be rekindled.

“William Shakespeare (Chandos Portrait),” Attributed to John Taylor, 1610
“William Shakespeare (Chandos Portrait),” Attributed to John Taylor, 1610 (photo: National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain)

It is not often that the name of Enid Blyton, the bestselling children’s author, is mentioned in the same breath or the same sentence as literary giants, such as Homer, Virgil or Dante. The reason for the unlikely association is in relation to the title of two of her popular series of books featuring the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. These sprang to mind with respect to a consideration of the poets whom everyone should know, irrespective of whether they are famous or forgotten. It might be fun, I thought, to name a “famous five” poets and also a “secret seven” poets who have been hidden beneath the sands of time, sadly and unjustly neglected.

The famous five would need to include the four literary pillars of Western civilization — Homer, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare — but who should be chosen as the final pillar? Within the tradition of English literature, there would seem to be two potential candidates. The first would be Chaucer, recognized as the Father of English Poetry; the second would be Milton, whose Paradise Lost deserves its status as the preeminent epic poem in the English language. The easy solution to the selection process would be to select both of them, transforming our famous five into a sensational six. If this temptation is resisted, the choice would need to be Chaucer. The rationale for such a preference is simple enough. Chaucer stands firmly within the tradition of Western civilization in terms of its being the synthesis of the heritage of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. Milton, on the other hand, has stepped out of this tradition in his rejection of the tradition itself and his embrace of new ideas in religion and philosophy, not least of which was his rejection of the Trinity, his relegation of the Son to being a mere creature and the elevation of Satan into an anthropomorphic tragic hero. Ultimately, he is a subversive presence in the authentic tradition, not so much a fifth pillar as a fifth column!

Having courted controversy in our exclusion of Milton from the famous five, we will now assuage the sensibility and sensitivity of his admirers by placing him at the forefront of the famous poets who failed to make the final grade. He is the best of the rest, so to speak.

Before proceeding to the “secret seven” poets who have been sadly forgotten and unjustly neglected, let’s acknowledge seven dastardly sins of omission with respect to those poetic giants whose fame demands at least a deferential nod in their direction. Apart from Milton, we must acknowledge the great Romantic Poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, whose impact on 19th-century culture was pivotal, and also Tennyson, whose poetic presence towered over the Victorian age in literature, which was itself a veritable literary golden age. The other Victorian poet whose omission would be a travesty is Gerard Manley Hopkins, who would remain unknown in his own lifetime but who would prove one of the most influential forces of the following century. This brings us to our final deferential nod which is in the direction of T. S. Eliot, the greatest and most important poet of the last century.

At this point, we will ignore the dissenting whispers of those who are wondering how we could have ignored other giants, such as Donne, Herbert, Dryden, Pope, Blake, Shelley, Poe, the Brownings, Longfellow, Yeats, Belloc and Chesterton. And we could go on. It is, however, time to desist.

Enough of the famous. What of those who are forgotten? What of those whose reputation has suffered through changing fads and fashions? What of those whose flaming presence has dimmed like Shelley’s fading coal? What of the “secret seven” forgotten poets whom everyone should know?

We’ll read the roll of remembrance in chronological order by beginning with Robert Southwell, a contemporary of Shakespeare, whose influence belies the belittling of his posthumous reputation. Apart from the intertextual presence of his poetry in several of Shakespeare’s plays, especially in Hamlet and King Lear, he also provoked or prompted the muse of Spenser, Herbert, Donne, Crashaw and Hopkins. As if this were not enough, he is also a saint and martyr, having witnessed to the Faith even unto death.

We will now move forward in time a full 300 years, from the 1590s to the 1890s, to acknowledge a couple of poets from the English Decadence of the fin de siècle. Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson lived dissolute lives but sought strength in their weakness in Jesus Christ. They were both received into the Church and wrote powerfully evocative religious verse, as well as poetry expressive of their weak and dissolute spirit.

Moving into the 20th century, the fourth forgotten poet in the “secret seven” is Maurice Baring, whose poetry reflects his highly cultured heart and mind. His religious verse is powerful but so are his evocative depictions of his experience in pre-communist Russia and his sonnets in honor of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. His novels, which were very popular in the period between the two world wars, are as sadly neglected as his poetry. Truly his work is a secret worth discovering for those who have not yet been blessed by it.

The fifth of the “secret seven” is David Jones, whose work is largely impenetrable, verging on incoherence, and yet whose brilliance was greatly admired by T. S. Eliot among others. His poetry should be declaimed and not read, the sonorous quality of the blended and interwoven Latin, Welsh and Old English having a haunting quality, not merely metrical but musical.

A poet of a different ilk but of the same faith and philosophy is Roy Campbell, the sixth of the forgotten seven. As with David Jones, Campbell’s verse was admired by T. S. Eliot and, indeed, he was lionized by the illustrissimi of the literati in the 1920s. He fell from favor following his conversion to Catholicism, his support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War and his tendency towards belligerence and the making of unnecessary enemies.

The final “secret” to be revealed is Dunstan Thompson, who differs from the other six forgotten poets in the sense that they are all converts to the Faith whereas he is a cradle Catholic. Like Eliot, he was an American who settled in England. He enjoyed a degree of fame and notoriety in the 1940s due to the homo-erotic suggestiveness of his poetry during the period in which he’d adopted the homosexual lifestyle. It is, however, the poetry which he wrote following his reversion to the practice of the Faith for which he deserves to be remembered and rediscovered.

And thus, with the naming of the final forgotten poet, we will end this litany of the famous and the forgotten poets whom everyone should know. With respect to the former, may the flame of their fame burn ever brighter; with respect to the latter may the flame of fame be rekindled.