Poetry never goes out of style, even though its adherents and detractors both agree that being a poet generally doesn’t pay very well during the poet’s lifetime. The true test of a poet is their enduring message, and the more quotable a poet’s work, generally the more popular the poet is. Here are twelve famous lines from great pieces of literature that people are still quoting, frequently long after the people who wrote them have passed on, securing these writers’ immortal place in history!
1) “No man is an island.”
This titular line by John Donne refers to the interconnectedness and brotherhood of man. Whether we
like it or not, each of us is connected to every other person on Earth. (See #6 for more Donne.)
2) “The moving finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on“
Edward Fitzgerald’s landmark translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of the most epic poetic
works ever to arise from the Middle East, included this popular line, commenting on the futility of
lamenting or attempting to change the past.
3) “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.“
John Keats’ Endymion talks about the enduring nature of beauty and how the beautiful things we carry
with us through our lives stay with us even in death. This is widely regarded as one of Keats’ most
popular and well-written poems.
4) “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Dylan Thomas was speaking of fighting against death, even when the struggle seems futile, in “Do Not
Go Gentle into That Good Night.” This line was famously quoted by Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School
and (slightly misquoted) by Bill Paxton in Independence Day.
5) “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
These famous last words from Milton’s Paradise Lost are Lucifer’s farewell to Heaven and the sight of
God as he is cast down by the archangel Michael from Heaven. This line was quoted in the Star Trek
episode “Space Seed” by Khan Noonian Singh, who returned in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
6) “Seek not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
This famous line from John Donne’s No Man Is an Island has served as the inspiration for Ernest
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as the Metallica song of the same name from the Ride the
Lightning album. (See also #1)
7) “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”
This line from Alexander Pope’s The Essay on Man is a commentary on man’s seemingly limitless ability
to cling to hope even in the face of dire suggestions that hope should be abandoned.
8) “The time has come, the Walrus said/To talk of many things.“
This famous line from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has become popularized almost
to the point of cliché, being used in boardrooms and conversations across the English-speaking world.
9) “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism criticized those who themselves criticize. If the circular logic of
this makes your head ache, you’re in great company with a legion of English students the world over.
10) “Candy/is dandy/but liquor/is quicker.”
Ogden Nash’s tongue-in-cheek Reflections on Ice-Breaking was quoted by Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka
and the Chocolate Factory.
11) “To be, or not to be/That is the question.“
Hamlet’s famous lament while attempting to steel his courage to become a regicide has been quoted in
everything from Star Trek to sitcoms.
12) “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.“
W.B. Yeats The Second Coming was a lament of both the human condition and our collective loss of
innocence because of technology and war. This poem is widely regarded as one of the finest and most
evocative pieces of verse in the English language.
This article was supplied by B.H. Fraser, London’s City Poet at www.bhfraser.com. If you’re looking for a new poet to read, check out his poems Best Bargains or Rotting Sun. They’re pretty solid.