Inspiring readers has been a prominent theme in poetry, particularly since the late 19th century. Though there are numerous poems which may inspire their readers, we have only included poems in which inspiration is the dominant theme. There are various ways in which a poem may inspire its readers. It may tell you an extraordinary incident like Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade; it might be autobiographical instilling inspiration by narrating how the speaker overcame adversity like Invictus of William Ernest Henley; and it might directly address the readers urging them to fight adversity through inspirational words like Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. The earliest poem on our list is the 1838 poem A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and the latest is Marianne Williamson’s 1992 poem Our Deepest Fear. Here are the 10 most famous inspirational poems by renowned poets.
#10 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.
#9 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.
#8 Our Deepest Fear
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness That most frightens us. We ask ourselves Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small Does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking So that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, As children do. We were born to make manifest The glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; It's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, Our presence automatically liberates others.
Marianne Williamson is a renowned American author and spiritual activist; and Our Deepest Fear is her best known poem. The poem begins with the famous line: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” The speaker then asks the reader to remove his/her self doubt. She goes on to say that as children of God, we are meant to shine and achieve our potential; and that “we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us”. The poem ends with the speaker asserting that as we liberate from our fears, we help the people around us to liberate too. Our Deepest Fear is a hugely popular poem and it has inspired and motivated many of its readers.
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.
#6 Phenomenal Woman
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies. I say, It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me. I walk into a room Just as cool as you please, And to a man, The fellows stand or Fall down on their knees. Then they swarm around me, A hive of honey bees. I say, It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me. Men themselves have wondered What they see in me. They try so much But they can’t touch My inner mystery. When I try to show them, They say they still can’t see. I say, It’s in the arch of my back, The sun of my smile, The ride of my breasts, The grace of my style. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me. Now you understand Just why my head’s not bowed. I don’t shout or jump about Or have to talk real loud. When you see me passing, It ought to make you proud. I say, It’s in the click of my heels, The bend of my hair, the palm of my hand, The need for my care. ’Cause I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Maya Angelou has been referred to as “people’s poet” and “the black woman’s poet laureate”. In this poem, the narrator, a self-confident woman, talks about the traits that make her phenomenal despite her not adhering to the world’s view of how a woman should look. Despite not being “built to suit a fashion model’s size”, women wonder where her secret lies and men swarm around her like honey bees. Maya Angelou said that she wrote Phenomenal Woman for all women, regardless of their race or appearance. It is perhaps the most popular of her poems that she often recited for audiences during her public appearances. It was also one of Angelou’s poems featured in the 1993 American film Poetic Justice.
#5 The Charge of the Light Brigade
|Poet:||Alfred Lord Tennyson|
I Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. II “Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. III Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell Rode the six hundred. IV Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air Sabring the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wondered. Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Reeled from the sabre stroke Shattered and sundered. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred. V Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell. They that had fought so well Came through the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of hell, All that was left of them, Left of six hundred. VI When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October 1854, in the Crimean War. It was originally intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue a retreating Russian force but miscommunication led to them launching a suicidal attack against a different and heavily defended position. Weeks after news of the assault reached Britain, Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom at the time, wrote this poem to commemorate the heroism of the Light Brigade for bravely carrying out their orders regardless of the obvious outcome. The poem has since remained hugely popular and it is one of the most famous works of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
|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 one of the best known poems on bravely facing the challenges life throws on you.
#2 Still I Rise
You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I'll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells Pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise. Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, Weakened by my soulful cries? Does my haughtiness offend you? Don't you take it awful hard ’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines Diggin’ in my own backyard. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I've got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.
Still I Rise directly addresses the white oppressors of black people and responds to centuries of oppression and mistreatment they have suffered. It talks about various means of oppression, like writing, which the narrator addresses in the first stanza of the poem. Still I Rise hails the indomitable spirit of Black people; and expresses faith that they will triumph despite adversity and racism. It is the most famous poem of Maya Angelou and it was also her favorite. She quoted it during interviews and often included it in her public readings. In 1994, Nelson Mandela recited this poem at his presidential inauguration. Still I Rise is perhaps the most famous poem written by an African American and it has been called a “proud, even defiant statement on behalf of all Black people”. It is also perhaps the most famous poem by a female.
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. It is also perhaps the most famous inspirational poem of all time.
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