Working primarily in the 1800s, these writers used their vastly different backgrounds and personal experiences to depict their worlds as they knew them. From Walt Whitman to Louisa May Alcott, the writers on this list are some of the greatest American poets of the 19th century. Dig deeper into some of the greatest poems ever written in our Top Ten Series.
Best 19th Century American Poets
Walt Whitman was born in West, Hills, Long Island, New York. Throughout his early life, he jumped from different jobs, learning about the American experience. His best-known work is the collection of personal poems, Leaves of Grass. Its publication in 1855 was a turning point in American poetry. His work is situated between Transcendentalism and Realism. He died at the age of 72 in Camden, New Jersey. Today, he is considered to be one of the most popular and influential poets of all time.
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12th, 1817. In was during the early years of his writing career that he first began studying and dedicating himself to Transcendentalism. It was in March of 1845 when Thoreau, frustrated with the confines of his daily life, decided to embark on his two years of simple living in Walden Woods. He built a small house on land which was owned by Emerson, near Walden Pond.
In 1846 he began his studies of the surrounding natural environments and started composing ‘Walden’ as an essay addressing the questions of the local townspeople who wondered why he’s chosen to live as he did. Thoreau was increasingly seen to be as much a philosopher as an ecologist. The final years of his life were spent writing letters, revising his manuscripts, and petitioning for the further publication of his works. After suffering from illness for an extended period of time, he died in May of 1862.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in December of 1830 to a moderately wealthy family. She was frequently ill as a child, a fact which some think contributed to her later agoraphobic tendencies. Dickinson never married, but became solely responsible for the family household. Solitude, and the pleasures and pains associated with it, is one of Dickinson’s most common topics—as are death, love and mental health.
During her lifetime she wrote hundreds of poems and chose, for a variety of reasons, to only have around ten published. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered a collection of almost 1800 poems amongst her possessions. The volume, Complete Poems was published in 1955. Dickinson is now one of the most popular poets of all time and is credited with writing some of the most skillful, and beautiful poems the English language has ever seen.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine in February of 1807. He published his first poem in November of 1870 when he was only thirteen years old. By his senior year at Bowdoin College, he knew that he wanted to become a writer. He submitted poetry to a variety of publications and was successful in publishing more than thirty poems from 1824 to 1825.
Longfellow spent time in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and England. He returned to the United States in August of 1829. His travels were productive and he was able to learn four languages. He published his first collection of poetry ‘Voices of the Night’ in 1839 as well as his prose romance work, ‘Hyperion.’ Longfellow was a well-loved professor and a prominent member of the literary scene.
The works of 1839 were followed by ‘Ballads and Other Poems’ in 1841. A number of these poems, such as ‘Wreck of the Hesperus’ immediately became popular. In 1874, he sold one of his poems for $3,000, the highest price ever paid for a single piece of poetry. In March of 1882, Longfellow’s health began to decline and he died on March 24th, 1882.
Helen Hunt Jackson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in October of 1830. Jackson’s poetry is noted for its intense sorrow and an exploration of all feelings associated with loss. In an effort to escape from her ruined life, she moved to Newport in 1865. It was here that she first began to write seriously. Her first successfully published poem, ‘Coronation,’ appeared in The Atlantic three years later. She would go on to publish in The Nation, The Century, and Independent.
Jackson wrote prolifically, but her earliest works were published under the name, H.H. Today she is remembered for her efforts to shed light on the plight of the Native Americans. One of her best-known works, A Century of Dishonour, speaks on the “Indian policy.” This was the first work published under her own name and she sent a copy to every current member of Congress. Helen Hunt Jackson died in 1885 of stomach cancer. She now rests in the Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his macabre short stories. But most lovers of poetry will certainly know at least a few of his better-known pieces of verse. From ‘The Raven’ to ‘A Dream Within A Dream’, Poe’s poetic works are beautifully haunting. He speaks on familiar themes: loss, love, and death, and often within a supernatural setting.
Today, Poe is generally regarded as the progenitor of the detective genre and is considered to be, in part, behind the popular rise of science fiction. His life mirrored the tragedies explored in his writing. His mother died when he was a child and he was raised by a foster family. Over the years which followed he lost jobs and money, married his young cousin, Virginia, and then lost her to tuberculosis. She is widely considered to be the inspiration behind many of his darkest, and most beautiful poems, such as ‘Anabel Lee.’
William Cullen Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts in November of 1794. Bryant developed an interest in poetry early in life and learned much from his father who helped him study Neo-Classic British poets. Bryant’s best-known work ‘Thanatopsis’ was in the works in the early 1810s. His father took some pages from the long poem off Bryant’s desk and brought them to the editor of Review. The work was published and accidentally attributed to Bryant’s father. It was after the error was fixed that Bryant’s poems began to appear regularly in literary publications.
Until the mid-20s, he practiced law in order to support his family. In 1825, he became editor of the New-York Review and Literary Gazette. At this point in his career, he was accepted as a prominent figure in the literary scene. His later years were dedicated to translation. He died in 1878 from complications from an accidental fall.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts in May of 1803. He is now remembered as one of the most important transcendental writers. The Transcendental Club, of which he was a founding member held meetings in Concord, Massachusetts. It was founded in the mid-1830s. The essay, “Nature,” his best-known work, was published in September of 1835 and a year later he delivered his address, “The American Scholar.” In 1841, he published the essay “Self-Reliance” which has since become one of his most popular. In the late 1840s, Emerson toured around the British Isles and France where he continued his popular series of lectures.
The later years of his life were marked by travels out into the Adirondacks in order to become closer to the nature he was writing about. The publication of The Conduct of Life, his seventh collection of essays, saw Ralph Waldo Emerson take a stand on some of the most controversial issues of the day including slavery and national identity. The poet and essayist was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1864. After suffering from health problems since the early 1870s, Emerson contracted pneumonia which proved fatal in April of 1882.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio in June of 1872. His parents, Joshua and Matilda, were former slaves in Kentucky during the Civil War. Dunbar’s mother had moved to Dayton along with her two sons from her first marriage. It is known that Dunbar wrote his first poems when he was only six years old. He was reading them aloud by the time he was nine. As a young man, Dunbar was the only African American student in his high school class of 1890. When he was sixteen years old he published two poems, ‘Our Martyred Soldiers’ and ‘One the River’ in The Herald.
Two years later he was writing for The Tattler. Eventually, a speaking opportunity at the Wester Association of Writer in Dayton culminated with Dunbar publishing his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. This work was traditional in its verse form but written in dialect. Positive reviews and endorsements from civil rights leaders such as Fredrick Douglass brought Dunbar some fame. He spent time touring the United States and Great Britain reading his poetry aloud. His second and third collections, Majors and Minors and Lyrics of Lowly Life were published in 1896.
The last years of his life were spent writing all manner of works from his mother’s home. It was there that he passed away in February of 1906 at only thirty-three. Today, Paul Lawrence Dunbar is considered one of the most important writers of the early 20th century and his legacy continues to influence Modern American literature.
Louisa May Alcott was born in November of 1832 in Germantown, an area Pennsylvania now part of Philadelphia. She also took on jobs working as a seamstress, governess and writer. Her first book, Flower Fables, was published in 1849 and was comprised of stories written for the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
At the beginning of 1860, Alcott started writing for the Atlantic Monthly. Throughout the mid-1860s Alcott was writing under the nom de plume, A.M. Barnard. Under this alias, she wrote A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. In 1868 she published the widely popular first part of Little Women: or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.
Since her death in 1888, Alcott has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. There have also been a number of works, original unpublished, released to the public for the first time. The novels, The Inheritance and A Long Fatal Love Chase, originally written in 1849 and 1866, were published in 1997 and 1995.
Popular poems include: ‘Transfiguration’ and ‘My Kingdom’