The topic of life has been explored by numerous poets through the ages. Poems with the dominant theme of life are often didactic, i.e. containing a moral instruction as an ulterior motive. They, at times, have a message regarding how one should lead one’s life. They also often philosophize about life. This list contains a variety of poems about life including Robert Burns’ To a Mouse, which talks about how our plans in life often go awry; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life, which stresses on the importance of living life in the present moment; William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, which calls on its readers to resist and persevere through the most difficult circumstances in life; and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, which stresses on the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life. Here are the 10 most famous poems about life.
Poet: W. H. Davies
William Henry Davies was a Welsh writer who was one of the most popular poets of his time. His most famous work, Leisure, talks about the life of an individual in the modern world; where he is so occupied that he has no time to appreciate the beauty of the world. The poem comprises of seven rhyming couplets. They primarily talk about how a modern man has no time for leisure activities like staring at the branches of trees and observing “where squirrels hide their nuts in grass”. Through Leisure, Davies warns that “the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit.” It is one of the most anthologized poems and its opening two lines are especially extremely popular.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
#9 To a Mouse
Full Title: To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785
Poet: Robert Burns
Burns’ father was a farmer in Ayrshire, Scotland. According to legend, Burns was ploughing in the fields and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest at a time when it needed it to survive the winter and he composed this poem then and there while holding the plough. In To a Mouse, the speaker of the poem apologizes to a mouse after accidentally destroying its nest. He reflects on the difficulty the mouse will have to face now and then philosophizes that plans going awry is not just the problem of mice but also of men. To a Mouse is considered by many as the best poem of Robert Burns and it has been a source of inspiration for several works in literature.
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
#8 A Psalm of Life
Poet: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This poem is often subtitled “What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist”. A psalmist is a person who composes a psalm, a sacred hymn. In this poem, the speaker addresses a psalmist who claims that life is an empty dream. The speaker disagrees with the psalmist asserting that even though one has to die one day, one must live actively. The poem aims to inspire the readers to neither lament the past nor to take the future for granted; and instead to live life in the present moment as a “hero” and leave your mark on this world. The poem is a didactic, i.e. it teaches a moral lesson. It uses a vigorous trochaic meter and frequent exclamation to underline its message. A Psalm of Life remains a hugely popular and often quoted poem.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time
#7 Mother to Son
Poet: Langston Hughes
In this famous poem, a mother tells her son, through an analogy of climbing a staircase, about the difficulties she has had to face in her life and how important it is to persevere through them and keep climbing on. She tells him that life for her has been no ‘crystal stair’, perhaps referring to the path the wealthy have to tread which is not loaded with such difficulties. Instead her stairs have tacks, splinters, dark spaces and no carpet to cover the floor. At the end of the poem, she urges her son to keep climbing up like she has done and never to turn back or fall. Mother to Son is one of the best known works of Langston Hughes and one of the most famous poems on life.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Poet: Max Ehrmann
Max Ehrmann was an American writer who rose to fame after his death primarily due to this poem. Desiderata is a Latin word which means “something that is desired”. The poem is morally instructive and it talks about desired qualities in life. It begins with advising calmness in everyday life and sticking to one’s values. Among other things, it then talks about not comparing oneself to others; enjoying your occupation; developing a strong character to endure misfortune; not being over critical of yourself; being in peace with God; and finally trying your best to remain happy and cheerful. Desiderata is a prose poem. It does not have a pattern or a rhythm. It consists of twenty eight lines and its tone is conversational.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
#5 A Dream Within a Dream
Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
In this poem the narrator questions whether it is really important that life has robbed him of purpose, ambition or love since it all feels like a dream. He compares important things in life slipping away to the slipping away of grains of sands he holds in his hand; and unable to hold on to even one grain leads him to the question whether it is possible to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The poem’s line “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream” is one of the most popular quotations from the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets in American literature.
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
#4 Nothing Gold Can Stay
Poet: Robert Frost
Robert Lee Frost is considered by many as the greatest American poet of the 20th century. Gold in this poem refers to the color of vegetation in its first stage. The speaker says that the rich hue of gold, after a brief while, gives way to the green of life. In the second couplet, this is emphasized again, this time with the analogy of a leaf existing as a flower briefly before taking its true form. The Fall of Man is a term used to refer to the story of Adam and Eve committing the sin of disobedience by consuming the fruit from the tree of knowledge leading to their expulsion from paradise. Frost uses metaphors, like that of the Fall and of dawn transforming to day, to comment on the necessity of the transformation of life from its rich, beautiful and even paradise like state, to that which is wholesome and complete. Nothing Gold Can Stay is one of Frost’s most brilliant short verses and is renowned for its rich symbolism.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
Poet: Alfred Lord Tennyson
Ulysses, or Odysseus, was the legendary Greek king of Ithaca who is the central character of Homer’s epic, the Odyssey. In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses has returned to his kingdom after his long and famous journey. However, he is discontented and restless with domestic life after his exciting travels. So, despite his old age, he calls on his fellow mariners to join him on another quest. Several critics consider elements of the poem to be autobiographical. Tennyson wrote Ulysses soon after the death of his dear friend Hallam, and he himself said that the poem “gave my feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life”. Ulysses is one of the most well-known poems in English literature and is also one of the most quoted. T. S. Eliot called it a “perfect poem”.
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Poet: William Ernest Henley
William Ernest Henley was a hugely influential English writer in the 19th century. He suffered from tuberculosis from the age of 12 and at the age of 16, his left leg had to be amputated due to complications arising from tuberculosis. The disease again flared up in his twenties compromising his other good leg, which doctors also wished to amputate. Henley successfully fought to save his leg with the help of distinguished English surgeon Joseph Lister. While he was hospitalized for three years, Henley wrote his masterpiece, Invictus, which permanently etched his name in literary history. The poem calls on its readers to resist and persevere through the most difficult circumstances in life and to not give in to one’s fate. It calls on stoicism, discipline and fortitude in adversity. Invictus is perhaps the best known poem on bravely facing the challenges life throws on you.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Poet: Rudyard Kipling
By far the most famous poem of Rudyard Kipling, If—, presents a set of situations and the ideal behaviour a person should adopt when he encounters them. It acclaims Victorian-era stoicism and displaying fortitude in the face of adversity. The person Kipling had in mind while writing this verse was his friend Sir Leander Starr Jameson, who incidently was betrayed and imprisoned by the British Government. The poem doesn’t have a physical setting but is often seen as a father giving the most valuable lesson of life to his son. The lines of the poem are hugely popular; and the third and fourth lines of its second stanza are written on the wall of the players’ entrance to the Centre Court of the Wimbledon Championship. If— is one of the most well-known poems in the English language and it was voted the favourite poem of Britain in a 1995 BBC poll.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: