Monday 8 February 2010

The Most Quoted Lines of Poetry

Here is the updated list of the fifty most quoted lines of poetry on the internet, including all the readers' suggestions. We started with a long list of over 400 lines taken from dictionaries of quotations, collections of favourite poems and our own knowledge. We put each one into google and google told us how many pages contained that exact line. The number of search results is shown on the right. It should be stated before you begin that google is, for a computer program, often strangely illogical and inconsistent. Click on the author's name for the full poem. Counting down from number fifty...

50. The mind is its own place, and in itself/[Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n] 403,000 Milton
49. Full fathom five thy father lies 438,000 Shakespeare
48. If you can keep your head what all about you 447,000 Kipling
47. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways 467,000 Elizabeth Barrett Browning
46. If music be the food of love, play on 507,000 Shakespeare
45. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers 521,000 Shakespeare
44. What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare 528,000 W.H. Davies
43. The moving finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on 571,000 Edward Fitzgerald
42. They also serve who only stand and wait 584,000 Milton
41. The quality of mercy is not strained 589,000 Shakespeare
40. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 594,000 Coleridge
39. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears 615,000 Shakespeare
38. Shall I compare thee to a summers day 638,000 Shakespeare
37. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness 641,000 Keats
36. A thing of beauty is a joy forever 649,000 Keats
35. Do not go gentle into that good night 665,000 Dylan Thomas
34. Busy old fool, unruly sun 675,000 John Donne
33. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone 741,000 Auden
32. Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality 891,000 T.S. Eliot
31. O Romeo, Romeo; wherefore art thou Romeo 912,000 Shakespeare
30. The lady doth protest too much, methinks 929,000 Shakespeare
29. The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est 990,000 Wilfred Owen
28. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose 1,050,000 Gertrude Stein
27. When I am an old woman I shall wear purple 1,060,000 Jenny Joseph
26. I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree. 1,080,000 Joyce Kilmer
25. Hope springs eternal in the human breast 1,080,000 Alexander Pope
24. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes 1,100,000 Shakespeare
23. I grow old... I grow old.../I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled 1,140,000 T.S. Eliot
22. 'The time has come', the Walrus said,/'To talk of many things' 1,300,000 Lewis Carroll
21. A narrow fellow in the grass 1,310,000 Emily Dickinson
20. Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all 1,470,000 Keats
19. To be or not to be: that is the question 1,640,000 Shakespeare
18. In Flanders fields the poppies blow 1,640,000 John McCrae
17. The proper study of mankind is man 1,770,000 Alexander Pope
16. A little learning is a dangerous thing 1,860,000 Alexander Pope
15. But at my back I always hear 2,010,000 Marvell
14. Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker 2,150,000 Ogden Nash
13. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun 2,230,000 Shakespeare
12. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold 2,330,000 W.B.Yeats
11. Because I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me 2,360,000 Emily Dickinson
10. Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all 2,400,000 Tennyson
9. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair 3,080,000 Shelley
8. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield 3,140,000 Tennyson
7. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams 4,860,000 W.B. Yeats
6. Not with a bang but a whimper 5,280,000 T.S. Eliot
5. And miles to go before I sleep 5,350,000 Robert Frost
4. I wandered lonely as a cloud 8,000,000 Wordsworth
3. The child is father of the man 9,420,000 Wordsworth
2. I am the master of my fate 14,700,000 William Ernest Henley
1. To err is human; to forgive, divine 14,800,000 Alexander Pope

So the winner is a little Catholic from far West London: Mrs Malaprop will be delighted. Alexander Pope was 4'6''. He once proposed to Lady Mary Montagu and she laughed in his face (see picture below). There will be an Inky Fool outing to dance on her grave.

This list surprised the hell out of me, several of the top ten were only googled as an afterthought. Five of the top ten were suggested to me by readers. So there may well be some more that I've missed. Suggestions in the comments please. But please read the rules below.

There are eleven lines from Shakespeare, four from Pope, three from Keats and Eliot and Yeats, two from Milton, Tennyson and Wordsworth. Shakespeare doesn't make the top ten and Gertrude Stein is more quoted than Byron.

Pope celebrates his victory

Our rules were that:
1) it had to be a whole line of poetry (minimum 8 syllables) that
2) hadn't become famous as a title (e.g. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind)
3) or as a song (e.g. And did those feet in ancient time)
4) or is pretty exclusively for children (e.g. I do not like green eggs and ham).
5) The phrases were googled in "inverted commas", which gives you only pages with the precise phrase.
6) No more than one line per medium sized poem. 
Originally I didn't allow tetrameters, or at least required a couplet, however "The child is father of the man" changed our minds as it's the second place on it's own and nowhere when linked with the adjacent lines. These rules have been broken a few times at our discretion.

P.S. Google is sometimes eccentric on the number of hits which can vary by clicking refresh. This is because it's keeps adjusting to deal with spam and people trying to fool Google in to high rankings for their page. So sometimes it does odd things with line-breaks or even gives more results when there are more words in the search, which is utterly illogical. They also seem to vary slightly by country. Robert Frost's lines dipped slightly (or I noted them down incorrectly). The final arbiter has to be what pops up on my screen when I try the line in inverted commas.

P.P.S. Many thanks to the fine folk of ablemuse for lots of suggestions

P.P.P.S. I've posted a very rough list of the top 100 here.

Copyright Mark Forsyth 2010


  1. There are like a million lines which are comfortably on that list:

    "A slumber did my spirit seal"

    "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness"


    "She was a Phantom of delight"

    I was surprised stuff from Yeats second coming doesn't score high- journalists were quoting from it every day during the 8 years of the Bush jr administration. Just shows you how out of touch liberal journalists are- trying to be profound by quoting stuff that no one cares about at all.

  2. Sorry about that, pretty much every line in the Second Coming is in the top ten...

  3. You're quite right about The Second Coming, Everet, and it's gone straight in at number six. The rules allow no more than one line from a short poem. "Season of mists" was already in there at number 21.

  4. "East is East, West is West..."

    That's gotta be worth a zillion hits.

  5. My luve is like a red rose

    Worth zillions, billions...

  6. Joyce Kilmer who?
    What about Lord B?

    "She walks in beauty like the night" surely must rank somewhere...

  7. "She walks in beauty like the night" is way down on 184,000 hits. Number 63 on the longlist. Joyce Kilmer was a poety soldiery chap. His line is certainly tosh, but so is Jenny Joseph's purple nonsense. I originally intended to exclude on the basis of quality but feared that that might undermine the mathematical nature of the research.

  8. "The time has come the walrus said" from Lewis Carroll's "the Walrus and the Carpenter" scores 2,560,000. Fourth place on your list.

  9. I was going to object that the Walrus and the Carpenter is mostly for children, and possibly famous because it is a song in the Disney film - but if we are including Jabberwocky I don't think we can exclude this one.

    The alternative is excluding Carroll altogether, which is sad, but at least we would get Betjeman back in (I wonder if any other Betjeman poems would make the top fifty?). Miss Joan Hunter Dunn; phone for the fish knives, Norman.... I did google "I am a young executive", but most of the hits I got were adverts on dating websites.

    I notice you are ignoring Everet's "my luve is like a red red rose".

  10. Just checked the other Betjemans, which are way down there. I also checked "and is there honey stil for tea?", which at 158,000 is respectable but nowhere near the top fifty.

  11. Dogberry - some more contenders here (I hope you don't mind my linking to your site, Able Muse?):

  12. Do not go gentle into that good night.


  13. I was the shadow of the waxwing slain


  14. Do not go gentle into that good night definitely makes it, EL.

    BUT - Storming into the top ten with 2,150,000 hits....

    "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker"

    I told you needed some Ogden Nash in there, Dogberry.

  15. I told you THAT YOU needed. Sorry...typing too fast.

  16. Thank you to the fine fold of ablemuse. I'm putting them in one by one.

  17. "I know why the caged bird sings"

    92 600 000

    92 million!

    AJ Gonzales

  18. "I know why the caged bird sings" is the title of Maya Angelou's autobiography. It's a quote from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar but the original whole line is "I know why the caged bird sings, ah me" and that only gets 4,000 hits.

  19. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

    1 200 000 hits!


  20. I'm getting 1,050,000. Google, I believe, can vary slightly between countries, which may account for some vagaries and variations. The defining search has to be on my computer in London. But that still gets it in at number 21. Thanks, Corky.

  21. "I am the master of my fate" from Invictus by William Ernest Henley - 1,400,000 hits, per Google.

    15th in the list?

  22. How do you define a line- what about "slam" poems where it is ambigous- like "I saw the best minds of my generation" is about 10 million hits but as it rambles on it gets less and less referenced...

    Same problem with haikus and more "natural" style poets like William Carlos Williams- is "old pond" or "so much depends" a line?

    Even if we somehow solve the issue of non-linear poetry what about cases where the spelling varies from edition to edition? Right now I'm reading two versions of a Chicano poem with multiple versions of the word "Ay"...


    Elizabeth Alexander

  23. Anon: I googled "I am the master of my fate" and got 14 million. I called Mrs Malaprop and she got the same. So that seems to be the new winner, unless google's variations are a lot bigger than I thought.

    Elizabeth Alexander. In my copy of the Penguin Book of American verse Howl is divided into lines. It has "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" which I'm afraid only gets 49,000.
    The lines have to be a minimum of eight syllables long. If they're shorter than that then we can search for the couplet, or indeed in the case of "Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker" the quatrain.

    In terms of spelling I've doubled up and added them together "tyger, tyger burning bright" and the more modern spelling put together don't get on the list. The road less travelled/traveled (which has recently been shunted off the bottom of the list) worked like that.

    Poetry is defined as writing with line-breaks. I know that that's simplistic as hell but without it we've suddenly got the Gettysburg address, the whole Bible and the manual for my computer and the whole thing gets too big. So no prose poems. Sorry.

  24. Hi Dogberry,

    Thanks for addressing these concerns, I was about to do a follow up on "prose" poetry!

    I have some concerns about Google from a left/libertarian perspective.

    I've put all the poems into Wandex and I get different results...this search engine is less biased by commercial/monopolist agendas...

    I have a really good instinct for these things from years of reading- if Wordsworth/Tennyson type poets are more popular than "Howl" there's gotta be a glitch/conspiracy in there somewhere...

    E. Alexander

  25. Did you make a note of the wandex numbers? It would be fascinating to see them, although don't worry if you haven't.

    Many of the entries in that list depress me. I do not think that I shall see W.H.Davies, but if I do I'm going to punch him.

    I nearly cried when I found Henley had made number 1.

    I used google because it's the default, most used engine. It's like saying that somewhere is five minutes drive away: you assume that the drive won't be in a steamroller or a Ferrari. You just assume bland. That's the point of the world.

    The problem is that if I were picking the search engine because of the result I wanted then I might as well simply have made a list of my favourite lines.
    What's the wandex url? I can't find it

    P.S. Are you the poet Elizabeth Alexander?

  26. I'm getting 10,600,000 for "About suffering they were never wrong..."


  27. And then, subsequently, I got 188,000. What the hell?

  28. Hi Dogberry,

    Yes, I am a poet and a poetry expert.

    Not sure about your question about URL's- "computer" language is not something I understand or use every day :(

    "Wandex" is something I just have sitting around in my poetry lab. It's pretty ancient but trusty and honest, just like my favorite poems...

    I think there are real political issues with Google- as a poet I try to avoid the "default" settings, always try to go beyond, question...


  29. "I nearly cried when I found Henly had made number 1."

    Why would this be? Joy - sorrow - something else?

  30. Chris: "About suffering they were never wrong" got 171,000 when I first tried it last week and it's exactly the same now. Were you using inverted commas? Easy to miss one off, though google results do sometimes change.

    Musée Des Beaux Arts is somewhere in the seventies on the long list, which I may put up some time.

    Anon: I hate inspirational poetry, thank God "Play up, play up and play the game" gets only 37,000. Though, to be fair Invictus (like Henley's life) does concede that life is a horrible pit of suffering followed by death.

  31. Elizabeth, Inky Fool is truly honoured/honored.

  32. "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair" gets 3,080,000 - much more than the first line. I think you should bump up "Ozymandias" to the top ten.

    Dorothy Parker's "Resume" will also make it in again if you use "Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give" - 639,000.

  33. From my post at Able Muse:

    "What I do is me; for that I came"--Hopkins 936,000

    "not with a bang but a whimper"--Eliot 5,220,000

    "Let us then be up and doing"--Longfellow 3,450,000

    "A narrow fellow in the grass"--Dickinson, 1,340,000

    "But at my back I always hear"--at 2,050,000 this line would move Marvell up significantly


  34. It may break your non-song criterion thanks to Ralph Vaughn Williams, but "There is but one and that one ever" from "Easter" by George Herbert rings in with 3,340,000. "Can there be any day but this?" scores a million plus. The song is lovely and the poem is even better.

  35. "The old lie: dulce et decorum est" comes up with 985,000.

  36. "This is no country for old men" - 26,500,000.

    I think that this counts because the book and film are called "No country for old men". Does this put the unrivalled Irish poet™ in first place?

  37. Sorry - I misquoted. According to Dogberry, the first line of poem is actually "That is no country for old men". But that apparently is 194,000,000 so a runaway winner.

  38. Many changes made:

    Mrs Malaprop, you are right.

    Anon: When I searched for "There is but one and that one ever" the first page of results were all about Vaughn Williams. So that's out. But Dulce should go in. Will do in a moment.

    Misc.: The full line is "Crying what I do is for me for that I came". Not sure about dipthongs.

    I'm going to post the top 100 somewhere.

  39. I'm afraid that "I think that I shall never see" is too pushed up by a) parodies (half of the first page of google results, especially Ogden Nash's) and b) The easy possibility of saying the words anyway. E.G. "I think that I shall never see him again".
    If I were to write a poem that began "Excuse me, do you know the way..." it would be a perfect iambic tetrameter but also an ubiquitous and pre-existent English phrase. "I'm doing great, thanks. How are you?" "What are you doing Friday night?" "I've never been in here before" etc etc etc.

    Combined, I'm afraid those reasons force it out.

  40. Actually, the full Yeats line is: "That is no country for old men; the young" which gets me 111,000. If you're going to take it without the young, you should also take "Death is the mother of beauty," which gets me 12,100,000.


  41. Also, if you don't like "Let us then be up and doing" by Longfellow, because it could just be uttered incidentally (i.e., "Let us then be up and doing something today" though I can't really imagine anyone in this country anyway talking like that), other lines from A Psalm of Life (Art is long and Time is fleeting--a Latin proverb, I know--and Tell me not in mournful numbers) also would make the list.


  42. Chris - thank you for the full first line of Sailing to Byzantium. Relying on memory is very dangerous. Is Pope number one again then?

  43. Thank you for reminding me. I used to know that poem by heart and now I feel utterly foolish and illiterate.

    Pope is reinstated on his dwarfish throne.

  44. 2,030,000 for "I think of you with nothing on". Question - is that something that one might say in the course of normal conversation?

  45. You have a typo on the list with "ducle [sic] et decorum est." I know, anal, but it's been bothering me.

  46. The Antipodean15 June 2010 at 14:46

    Oh, I'm sad I missed this! I shall think on't, but can not imagine I have anything to add.

    Glad both the 50 and the 100 are listed, but personally, I'd like to see your 'edited for quality' top 50.

    Hmm; wonder if I have a top 50.

    On the rules: I appreciate the Bible is troublesome, but no room for the Psalms? If we're picky about translations or certain books - surely some psalms and canticles qualify?

    The difference in numbers between 50 and 1 is amazing. One of these days I shall use the other half of my brain (the part that can use Excel) and make some graphs out of all that. Or suggest it to someone cleverer.

  47. What about this one?:
    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true;
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face.(From 'When you are old' by Yeats)

  48. Living is easy with eyes closed
    John Lennon
    5,660,000 hits

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