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|
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.
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.
#9 To a Mouse
|Full Title:||To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785|
Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast, O, what a panic is in your little breast! You need not start away so hasty With argumentative chatter! I would be loath to run and chase you, With murdering plough-staff. I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union, And justifies that ill opinion Which makes you startle At me, your poor, earth born companion And fellow mortal! I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal; What then? Poor little beast, you must live! An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves Is a small request; I will get a blessing with what is left, And never miss it. Your small house, too, in ruin! Its feeble walls the winds are scattering! And nothing now, to build a new one, Of coarse grass green! And bleak December's winds coming, Both bitter and keen! You saw the fields laid bare and wasted, And weary winter coming fast, And cozy here, beneath the blast, You thought to dwell, Till crash! the cruel plough passed Out through your cell. That small bit heap of leaves and stubble, Has cost you many a weary nibble! Now you are turned out, for all your trouble, Without house or holding, To endure the winter's sleety dribble, And hoar-frost cold. But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes of mice and men Go often awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy! Still you are blessed, compared with me! The present only touches you: But oh! I backward cast my eye, On prospects dreary! And forward, though I cannot see, I guess and fear!
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.
#8 A Psalm of Life
|Poet:||Henry Wadsworth Longfellow|
Tell me not, in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream! For the soul is dead that slumbers, And things are not what they seem. Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul. Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way; But to act, that each to-morrow Find us farther than to-day. Art is long, and Time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums, are beating Funeral marches to the grave. In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife! Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! Let the dead Past bury its dead! Act,— act in the living Present! Heart within, and God o’erhead! Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time; Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again. Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.
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.
#7 Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor— Bare. But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on, And reachin’ landin’s, And turnin’ corners, And sometimes goin’ in the dark Where there ain’t been no light. So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. 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.
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.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. 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. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
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.
#5 A Dream Within a Dream
|Poet:||Edgar Allan Poe|
Take this kiss upon the brow! And, in parting from you now, Thus much let me avow — You are not wrong, who deem That my days have been a dream; 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. I stand amid the roar Of a surf-tormented shore, And I hold within my hand Grains of the golden sand — How few! yet how they creep Through my fingers to the deep, While I weep — while I weep! O God! Can I not grasp Them with a tighter clasp? O God! can I not save One from the pitiless wave? Is all that we see or seem But a dream within a dream?
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.
#4 Nothing Gold Can Stay
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.
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.
|Poet:||Alfred Lord Tennyson|
It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole Unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. I cannot rest from travel: I will drink Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades Vext the dim sea: I am become a name; For always roaming with a hungry heart Much have I seen and known; cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments, Myself not least, but honour'd of them all; And drunk delight of battle with my peers, Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy. I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades For ever and forever when I move. How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use! As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life Were all too little, and of one to me Little remains: but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things; and vile it were For some three suns to store and hoard myself, And this gray spirit yearning in desire To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. This is my son, mine own Telemachus, To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,— Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil This labour, by slow prudence to make mild A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees Subdue them to the useful and the good. Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere Of common duties, decent not to fail In offices of tenderness, and pay Meet adoration to my household gods, When I am gone. He works his work, I mine. There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners, Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me— That ever with a frolic welcome took The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old; Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done, Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 'T is not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 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.
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”.
|Poet:||William Ernest Henley|
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.
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.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: 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: If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
By far the most famous poem of Rudyard Kipling, If—, presents a set of situations and the ideal behavior 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 incidentally 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 favorite poem of Britain in a 1995 BBC poll.