Five classic women poets from around the world

Do you want to read more poetry but not sure where to start?

For April, poetry month, I’ll be sharing various poetry recommendations to help you read more poetry.

For this week, I wanted to share five women poets that are considered classics. I tried to give a range of options from around the world and from across the centuries.

All five of the women poets discussed below lived before the 20th century (so in the 1800’s or earlier).

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing more women poets, each week moving closer to present day.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Five classic women poets

Here’s a list of five women poets that lived before the 20th century.

  1. Sappho
  2. Mīrābāī
  3. Phillis Wheatley
  4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  5. Emily Dickinson

I’ve listed them in order of when they lived. Keep reading to find out more about each one.

Sappho (620 BCE–550 BCE)

  • 620 BCE–550 BCE
  • Archaic Greek Poet
  • Counted among the greatest of poets in Greek Antiquity

Very little is known about Sappho, a well-renown poet from Greek antiquity. Details of her life are often inconsistently reported or are simply unknown.

Additionally, most of her poems have been lost over time, and what has remained are mostly just fragments of poems. Her poem “Ode to Aphrodite” is one of the only complete poems that remain.

But in antiquity Sappho was considered among the greatest of poets. Just as Homer was called “the Poet”, she was called “the Poetess”, and Plato considered her the “tenth Muse”.

She is from the island of Lesbos, and is considered a symbol of love and desire between women as many of her love poems were about women. Due to this, the words lesbian and sapphic were inspired by her.


Mīrābāī (1498–1546)

  • 1498–1546
  • Northern India
  • Hindu mystic poet and devotee of Krishna

Mīrābāī was a 16th century mystic poet, with most of her poems and songs about Krishna (the Hindu God of Protection, Compassion, Tenderness, and Love). She considered Krishna to be her best friend, lover and husband.

Millions of hymns are attributed to Mīrābāī, but only a few hundred are considered to be authentically written by her. The rest are likely written by others who admired her. Also, many of her compositions continue to be sung today in India, with one of her most popular compositions being “Payoji maine Ram Ratan dhan payo” (पायो जी मैंने राम रतन धन पायो।, “I have been given the richness of Lord’s name blessing”).

She is also the subject of many legends and folk tales, but with very inconsistent details across them. However, one consistent aspect is that most legends discuss her fearless disregard for social and familial conventions.


Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

  • 1753-1784
  • Died at age 31
  • Former slave, and first Black American woman to publish poetry
  • Key book:
    Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, but was then kidnapped and sold to the Wheatley family of Boston when she was seven or eight. In addition to her domestic obligations, the Wheatley family did provide her with an extensive education and encouraged her to pursue writing. However, she was not emancipated/manumitted (set free) from the family until after she published her book of poetry.

Phillis Wheatley was the first Black American woman to publish poetry, and considered the first to make a living from her writing. Even after she was interviewed by 18 prominent men in Boston to prove that she wrote her own poetry, no one in the Americas was willing to publish her poetry. She was finally able to publish this collection of poetry in London in 1773.

Despite international recognition, she was unable to find anyone to publish any further volumes of poetry. She was able to publish some poetry in pamphlets and newspapers, but only in limited amounts.

Unfortunately, she ended up dying in abject poverty, with many of her poems lost due to lack of support.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

  • 1806–1861
  • English poet of the Victorian era
  • One of the most respected poets of the Victorian era

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most respected poets of the Victorian Era. She started writing poetry at a very young age and was primarily self taught in the areas of literature and the languages of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

She published her first collection of poems as an adult in 1838, and then wrote prolifically through 1841-1844. Her volume Poems published in 1844 was very successful and caught the attention of her future husband Robert Browning.

She was successful and quite popular in the UK and the United States. She heavily influenced both Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe.

Elizabeth held strong liberal values, especially for that era, and actively campaigned against slavery and in favour of children’s rights (against child labour).

One of her most famous poems is Number 43.

Number 43

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height 
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight 
For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace. 
I love thee to the level of everyday's 
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight. 
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right; 
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise; 
I love thee with the passion put to use 
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith; 
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose 
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath, 
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose, 
I shall but love thee better after death.


Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)

  • 1830–1886
  • Amherst, Massachusetts, USA
  • One of the most important American poets

Emily Dickinson is regarded as one of the most important and original American poets, but was little-known during her life and lived most of her life in isolation.

She was a prolific writer, but only 10 of her poems were published in her lifetime. Her sister discovered her extensive poetry collection after Emily’s death, and her poems were later published by her acquaintances.

Many of her poems were heavily edited before her acquaintances published them, especially with regards to her dedications and references to Susan (her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson). Scholars often interprete this relationship as romantic, but edits were often done to hide the true nature of their relationship.


Final thoughts

I hope I was able to do these women some justice. Each of them had a significant influence on the world and within the realm of literature.

Since this only includes five poets, this is a small sampling of the classic poets. It’s simply a way for you to discover a new poet or learn something new about these incredible ladies.

Have you read any of these poets’ work?

Who would you add to this list of classic women poets?

I would love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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