Polls to discover the nation's favourite poem have traditionally crowned Rudyard Kipling's If as No 1, while TS Eliot has been hailed as the greatest poet, but now an audit of the poems most-requested on BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please has found that US poet Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is the piece that listeners most want to hear.
Programme producer Tim Dee has totted up every poem featured on the programme since it began in 1979, to produce a list of the most popular. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening has been read out 17 times in the show's 35 years on air.
Dee said: "The number of broadcasts is a direct ratio to the number of requests, so it's the one that people are most asking to listen to. It was a surprise. It's humanly thwarted, not getting to where it wants to get to, and there's that wonderful opening out at the end, like a prayer or a meditation; it speaks of human vulnerability. If you're living in a world where If is voted as the nation's favourite poem and TS Eliot is the favourite poet, it comes as a soft surprise."
The poem's last lines run:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Rudyard Kipling's If was voted the nation's favourite poem by BBC television viewers in 2005 and 2009, as part of its poetry season, and viewers also crowned TS Eliot as the UK's favourite poet.
"To see Frost at the top is a nice correction to the patriotism of the 'nation's favourite' poems or poets. It's much more human," Dee added.
In second place on the Poetry Please requests list, broadcast 16 times in 35 years, is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways, and in joint third place, having been read out 14 times, are Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas and Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, both poems associated with place.
"Adlestrop is a crowd-pleaser, but it's also a lovely, open-ended piece. Robert Frost was the poet who made Ed Thomas into the writer he was. They lived in adjacent villages in Gloucester and Frost helped him," Dee said.
The opening of Thomas's poem runs:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
Listeners most often request poems as a way of marking an emotional life event, whether it is the poem that wooed their spouse, the birth of a grandchild or the death of somebody close to them. Requests for the purposes of showing off are "quite rare", Dee said.
The list is notable for having no contemporary or even particularly recent poems on it – the most recent is Fern Hill, first published in 1945. There is no Simon Armitage, no Carol Ann Duffy, no Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath, and no Seamus Heaney in the top 10. Eliot appears further down the list, with Journey of the Magi (nine readings), Macavity the Mystery Cat (six readings), and The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock, and Skimbleshanks (both five readings).
One feature shared by Poetry Please's top 10 most-requested poems – as well as their mostly emotional rather than intellectual concerns – is brevity: the majority of the top 10 poems are no more than a page or two long.
The top-most-requested poems are being collected in an anthology, Poetry Please: The Nation's Best-Loved Poems, with a foreword by poet Roger McGough, the programme's presenter, to be published by Faber on 3 October.
Poetry Please: the most requested poems
1. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost
2. How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43), by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
3. Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas
4. Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas
5. The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy
6. Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold
7. Sonnet 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds), William Shakespeare
8. The Listeners, by Walter De La Mare
9. Remember, by Christina Rossetti
10. To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell