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
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
#9 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.
#8 Our Deepest Fear
Poet: Marianne Williamson
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.
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.
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.
#6 Phenomenal Woman
Poet: Maya Angelou
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.
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
#5 The Charge of the Light Brigade
Poet: Alfred Lord Tennyson
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.
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.
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 one of the best known poems 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.
#2 Still I Rise
Poet: Maya Angelou
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.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
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. It is also perhaps the most famous inspirational poem of all time.
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: