History Poems


by Thomas Babington Macaulay

‘Horatius’ by Thomas Babington Macaulay is a long narrative ballad about Horatius Cocles, a legendary hero from early Roman history.

'Horatius' is primarily concerned with making the famous, legendary Roman story of Horatius Cocles available to people of all classes within England. While its historical account is rich with cultural and visual detail, it is an easy read, which makes it an accessible and enjoyable source of Roman history.

LARS Porsena of Clusium

By the Nine Gods he swore

That the great house of Tarquin

Should suffer wrong no more.


by Sir Walter Scott

‘Lochinvar’ is a ballad about a young and courageous knight who saves his beloved, the fair lady Ellen, from marrying another man.

'Lochinvar' is a short poem in the much longer work, "Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field," in which Sir Walter Scott tells a story about Lord Marmion, a member of Henry VIII's court. The events of the book all lead up to the Battle of Flodden between Scotland and England. While Lochinvar chronicles the tensions between Scotland and England in the 16th century, it does a double service to history, illustrating the Romantic era's interest in ballads and folklore.

O young Lochinvar is come out of the west,

Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;

And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,

He rode all unarm’d, and he rode all alone

Portrait of Zimri

by John Dryden

‘Portrait of Zimri’ by John Dryden is a political satire that showcases how people in power can be consumed by hollow and pretentious self interest.

This poem is one of the best examples of a poem depicting the times of the era it was set in. It very effectively talked about England in the 17th century and the turbulent phase it was going through.

Some of their chiefs were princes of the land:

In the first rank of these did Zimri stand:

A man so various, that he seem'd to be

Not one, but all Mankind's Epitome.


Hymn to Aphrodite

by Sappho

The ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ by Sappho is an ancient lyric in which Sappho begs for Aphrodite’s help in managing her turbulent love life.

'Hymn to Aphrodite' is a window into Archaic Greece in the 6th century BCE, and surprisingly, the view doesn't look all that different from the modern perspective. While we may not pray to Aphrodite much anymore, we still feel heartbreak and pray for someone to help us in our love lives. For that reason, it has become one of the best-loved poems of antiquity.

Beautiful-throned, immortal Aphrodite,

Daughter of Zeus, beguiler, I implore thee,

Weigh me not down with weariness and anguish

O thou most holy!

Kubla Khan (Xanadu)

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a poem that describes the poet’s dream of visiting the palace of Kubla Khan, a Mongol emperor who ruled over the ancient Chinese Yuan Dynasty.

This poem is based on the historical figure of Kublai Khan, a Mongol emperor who ruled China in the 13th century. The poem uses historical details to create a vivid and exotic setting, but it also goes beyond historical accuracy to create a fantastical vision.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

The Lady of Shalott

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a popular ballad that illustrates the life of a woman isolated in a tower in a tower far from what she wants to live and experience.

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro' the field the road runs by

To many-tower'd Camelot;

O Captain! My Captain!

by Walt Whitman

Saddened by the results of the American civil war, Walt Whitman wrote the elegy, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ in memory of deceased American President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The civil war occurred during his lifetime with Whitman a staunch supporter of unionists.

This is a historical poem that commemorates the life and death of Abraham Lincoln, one of the most significant figures in American history. Whitman's elegy captures the sense of loss and mourning felt by the nation in the wake of Lincoln's assassination.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

Rosa Parks

by Nikki Giovanni

‘Rosa Parks’ by Nikki Giovanni is a poem about activism and the importance of remembering important moments in African American history. The poem pays tribute to the heroic actions of the Pullman Porters who spearheaded the civil rights movement and forever changed history for the African American community.

The poem is a reflection of the history of the Black community in America. The poem reveals the struggles, pain, and sacrifice that the Black community has gone through to achieve equal rights.

This is for the Pullman Porters who organized when people said

they couldn’t. And carried the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago

Defender to the Black Americans in the South so they would


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

‘Ozymandias’ is about the nature of power. It is an important piece that features how a great ruler like Ozymandias, and his legacy, was prone to impermanence and decay.

This poem reflects on the transience of history, reminding readers that even the most impressive monuments will one day be forgotten. It highlights the importance of valuing the present and creating a positive impact rather than seeking to immortalize oneself through physical legacies.

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,


by Joaquin Miller

‘Columbus’ by Joaquin Miller is a perfectly rhymed poem that narrates a few moments in Columbus’ voyage to the new world. It focuses on the hardship the crew had to endure. 

This poem alludes to one of the most important voyages in the history of exploration. It led to the "discovery" of the North American continent, even though this wasn't the goal of the trip.

Behind him lay the gray Azores,

Behind the Gates of Hercules;

Before him not the ghost of shores,

Before him only shoreless seas.


by Giusue Carducci

‘Virgil’ by Giusue Carducci uses nature imagery to evoke historical and mythical themes and events.

The poem is part of a long tradition of Italian poetry, especially the Petrarchan sonnet, which Carducci uses as the form for this poem. The poet also alludes to the historically important works that Virgil completed and how incredibly inspiring and influential they have been.

As when above the heated fields the moon

Hovers to spread its veil of summer frost,

The brook between its narrow banks half lost

Glitters in pale light, murmuring its low tune;

The Virgins

by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Virgins’ gives a holistic view of the life, economy, and culture of one of the Virgin Islands of the US, Saint Croix.

This lyrical piece dives deeper into the 20th-century history of the Virgin Islands of the United States.

Down the dead streets of sun-stoned Frederiksted,

the first free port to die for tourism,

strolling at funeral pace, I am reminded

of life not lost to the American dream;

The Way Through the Woods

by Rudyard Kipling

‘The Way through the Woods’ by Rudyard Kipling explores the hidden depths of a forgotten road, once traversed but now concealed beneath the resurgent power of the natural world.

This poem hints at the presence of forgotten history. The existence of the road, now hidden and obscured by time and nature, suggests the erasure of human endeavors and the gradual fading of collective memory.

They shut the road through the woods

      Seventy years ago.

Weather and rain have undone it again,

      And now you would never know

There was once a road through the woods

Archaic Torso of Apollo

by Rainer Maria Rilke

‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ by Rainer Maria Rilke details the remaining beauty and power of a damage sculpture missing its head and legs.

The poem is inspired by an ancient Greek sculpture, and it reflects Rilke's fascination with history and the enduring power of the past. Rilke often writes about the ways in which the past continues to shape our present experiences and influence our understanding of the world.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

In Kyoto

by Matsuo Bashō

‘In Kyoto’ by Matsuo Bashō expresses a deep sense of longing and nostalgia for the city of Kyoto through a 3-line haiku.

Basho's poetry is deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture, and 'In Kyoto' reflects this connection through its mention of the city and its association with a rich artistic and cultural heritage.

In Kyoto,

hearing the cuckoo,

I long for Kyoto.

Character of the Happy Warrior

by William Wordsworth

‘Character of the Happy Warrior’ by William Wordsworth is a poem about what it means to be a “happy warrior” and what the elements of this kind of person’s life would be. 

While not clear within the poem’s text, Wordsworth was alluding to the life of Lord Nelson in this historically important poem. By not mentioning his name, a date, or a place, Wordsworth is also ensuring that this poem can apply to many different people across history.

  Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he

That every man in arms should wish to be?

—It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought

Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:

We Should Make a Documentary About Spades

by Terrance Hayes

‘We Should Make a Documentary About Spades’ is written by contemporary American poet Terrance Hayes. This imaginary piece explores the theme of racism and implicitly comments on the history of Spades.

The poem references the history of slavery and diaspora, as well as the history of Spades and its cultural significance.

And here is all we’ll need: a card deck, quartets of sun people

Of the sort found in black college dormitories, some vintage

Music, indiscriminate spirits, fried chicken, some paper,

A Small Needful Fact

by Ross Gay

‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay is a powerful poem that presents an image of hope and beauty after a loss. The poem addresses the legacy of Eric Garner and how one might still find his presence in the world. 

The poem acknowledges Eric Garner's past employment in the Parks and Rec. Horticultural Department, highlighting the significance of the contributions of the black community to society's growth and development.

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

Still I Rise

by Maya Angelou

‘Still I Rise’ is an inspiring and emotional poem that’s based around Maya Angelou’s experiences as a Black woman in America. It encourages readers to love themselves fully and persevere in the face of every hardship.

The poem acknowledges the history of racism and slavery that has plagued the black community and their ancestors. It also speaks to the history of resilience and strength in the face of adversity.

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.


by Danez Smith

’C.R.E.A.M.’ by Danez Smith is a complex, moving poem that depicts a speaker’s personal life and speaks on the American racial wealth gap. 

By invoking his ancestors' experiences as sharecroppers and slaves, the speaker highlights the legacy of racism and oppression that continues to shape the present.

in the morning I think about money

green horned lord of my waking

forest in which I stumbled toward no salvation

prison made of emerald & pennies

The Hand That Signed the Paper

by Dylan Thomas

‘The Hands that Signed the Paper’ is a war protest poem that derides the appalling apathy and ruthlessness of the rulers toward ordinary citizens.

The poem connects the present to the past by referencing the death of a king, possibly hinting at the cyclical nature of history and the power struggles that have plagued humanity for centuries.

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;

Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,

Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

These five kings did a king to death.


by Carol Ann Duffy

‘Beautiful’ by Carol Ann Duffy explores the physical and mental damage that can come from beauty by tracing the lives of four women.

The poem references the classical Greek myth of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War, one of Western history's most famous stories. The poem also references the historical figure of Caesar, adding a historical element to the story.

She was born from an egg,

a daughter of the gods,

divinely fair, a pearl, drop-dead

gorgeous, beautiful, a peach,

America For Me

by Henry van Dyke

‘America For Me’ by Henry Van Dyke is a passionate, patriotic poem about America. It celebrates how different the United States is from Europe. 

One of the main reasons that the speaker sees America as superior to Europe is his belief that Europe is stuck in the past while America is looking towards the future.

'Tis fine to see the Old World and travel up and down

Among the famous palaces and cities of renown,

To admire the crumbly castles and the statues and kings

But now I think I've had enough of antiquated things.

First Flight

by U.A. Fanthorpe

‘First Flight’ by U.A. Fanthorpe follows a narrator’s first flight as they rise above the ground and commentate on their journey.

This poem briefly taps into the topic of history. The poet sees the ground receding below them and is inspired to think about the passage of time and how much the world has changed.

Plane moves. I don’t like the feel of it.

In a car I’d suspect low tyre pressure.

A sudden swiftness, earth slithers

Off at an angle. The experienced solidly

God Save the Flag

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

‘God Save the Flag’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a simple, optimistic, and passionate poem in which the speaker emphatically delivers his opinion on the United States. 

Throughout this poem, the speaker alludes to the history of the United States. It may not be perfect, but there is a lot to admire.

Washed in the blood of the brave and the blooming,

Snatched from the altars of insolent foes,

Burning with star-fires, but never consuming,

Flash its broad ribbons of lily and rose.


Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold is dramatic monologue lamenting the loss of true Christian faith in England during the mid 1800s.

The reference to Sophocles suggests that the themes of the poem have been present throughout history. The ebb and flow of human misery are seen as a universal constant.

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Behaving Like a Jew

by Gerald Stern

‘Behaving Like a Jew’ by Gerald Stern is a lyric poem with elements of an elegy. It includes poet’s understanding of how suffering and death should be approached.

Much of this poem, and the poet's depiction of Jewish people, results from the history of the Jewish people. The poet suggests that the years of loss, death, and violence have had a broad, cultural impact on all Jewish men, women, and children.

When I got there the dead opossum looked like

an enormous baby sleeping on the road.

It took me only a few seconds—just

Lincoln, Man of the People

by Edwin Markham

‘Lincoln, Man of the People’ by Edwin Markham is a unique poem about Abraham Lincoln that paints him, and his legacy, in idealized, universal terms. The speaker spends the poem describing Lincoln the perfect leader.

One of the main topics of this poem is history, specifically the history of the United States during the Civil War and the influence of Abraham Lincoln on this period.

When the Norn Mother saw the Whirlwind Hour

Greatening and darkening as it hurried on,

She left the Heaven of Heroes and came down

To make a man to meet the mortal need.

3 November 1984

by Sujata Bhatt

In ‘3 November 1984,’ Indian-English poet Sujata Bhatt shows how history plays a vital role in the process of writing poetry, and their interconnectedness.

A Different History

by Sujata Bhatt

‘A Different History’ by Sujata Bhatt is not a raging piece of protest, rather it teaches how to revisit one’s cultural past in a curious, sensible way.

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