English language poetry has changed significantly in the last 250 years. Before the dawn of the Romantic age in 1785, poetry tended to be filled with elevated diction, strewn with allusions to classical literature, and replete with personifications of abstract concepts. Sonnets and long epic poems were popular in Shakespeare's time. However, simple ballads, verses that were often sung in everyday speech or dialect, were also common. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge cooperated in introducing a dramatic change to poetry known as the "lyrical ballad," a form that attempted to bring poetry more into the grasp of the common man by using the words of everyday speech but maintaining a metrical pattern and beauty of language. These poems used traditional verse forms but shunned the excessive high-brow language and personifications of abstract objects that poems had used before. Poets like Keats, Shelley, and Byron brought much beauty, philosophy, and even humor to their poems, still using regular rhythm and rhyme.
The Victorian poets, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, built on the foundation of the Romantics and continued expressing their various themes in traditional rhymed forms or blank verse. However, in the last half of the 19th century, experiments in poetry by Robert Browning in England and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in America presaged more freedom in the forms of poetry. By extensive use of enjambment and caesura, Browning achieved a sense of the rhythms of regular speech in his dramatic monologues, although they actually used consistent rhythm and meter. Emily Dickinson usually wrote in a traditional ballad format known as the fourteener (28 syllables in a stanza), but her frequent use of erratic capitalization and punctuation as well as near rhyme added flexibility to her verse. Whitman gave up the use of traditional verse forms altogether for some of his poems, preferring long, descriptive, unrhymed lines.
In the 20th century, poetry changed dramatically, indicating the dawn of the Modernist era. Extremely influential during this period was Ezra Pound, who introduced the technique of Imagism. Imagist poems used a minimalist approach, preferring short poems whose purpose was simply to evoke a single image in the reader's mind. Although Imagism did not take over English poetry, it influenced it significantly. Wide variations in verse forms became the norm as poets tended to abandon consistent rhythm, meter, and rhyme schemes for the rhythms of natural speech or for inconsistent rhymes and rhythms. Not only that, but the subject matter of poetry changed to reflect the disillusionment of modern society. Rather than providing pat answers, Modernist poetry often prefers questions or deliberate obscurity. "The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot and "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats are two good examples. Not all modern poets, however, fall into the "anything goes" camp. Robert Frost, America's best-known and best-loved poet for half of the 20th century, used primarily traditional verse forms for his poems. Modern poets have the option of drawing on the rich traditions of any of the poetry that precedes them, from the traditional verse forms of the 18th and 19th centuries to the Imagism and free verse of the 20th century.