- In Flanders Fields, Lt. Col. John McCrae. If there's a poem that expresses more succinctly, or more viscerally, the simultaneous tragedy and nobility of war, I've never encountered it. This poem is responsible for the indelible association of poppies with celebrations of remembrance, and also responsible for some of the most moving imagery in modern poetry: Take up our quarrel with the foe:/ To you from failing hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high./ If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.
- Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe. Since time immemorial soldiers have derived comfort from the conviction that they were fighting on the side of God (or gods, as the case may be). To my mind, no poem expresses the power and glory of this conviction better that this hymn composed during the American Civil War. While I love the imagery of I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps, and the glorious conviction of He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:, it's a particular line in the final verse of the hymn that makes me want to actually take up arms and go off to join the fight: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,/ While God is marching on!
- Destruction of Sennacherib, George Gordon Byron. Heard this for the first time when a college history teacher of mine read it aloud, and the opening couplet - The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; - still has the power to raise goosebumps on my arms. What a simile! What imagery! But the poem may be better known for the more sober lines that follow, a reminder of the ghastly cost of war: And there lay the rider distorted and pale,/ With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:/ And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,/ The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
- Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Theirs not to make reply,/ Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die:/ Into the valley of Death. Rarely has any poet done a finer job of capturing in verse both the courage and horror of soldiers staltwartly marching into a battle against impossible odds, fully aware that they will not survive.
- The Soldier, Rupert Brooke. Though Brooke's "war sonnets," composed in the early years of the first World War, are considered by some to be naively patriotic, that's precisely what I love about them. Whatever your politics, surely we can all get behind the notion that warriors deserve to believe that they are risking their lives for something that is worth dying for, and no one does it better than Rupert, as the opening lines of this verse attest: If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England.
- Paul Revere's Ride, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Next to most of the verses here, Longfellow's contribution must appear a bit simplistic and idealized. But given that the events retold have themselves become simplified and idealized, you could argue that Longfellow perfectly captures the essence of the famous events leading up to the first battle of the American War for Independence. That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,/ The fate of a nation was riding that night;/ And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,/ Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
- Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen. Unlike Rupert Brooke, Owen was under no illusions about the glories of the first World War. This poem, in which he describes the gruesome death of a soldier by poison gas (If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs), is as brutally realistic - and horrific - as Brooke's poems are sentimental. The title, which translates (roughly) as "It is good and right to die for your country," is entirely ironic.
- Gunga Din, Rudyard Kipling. Also from the "realism school of war poetry" comes this tale of a native water boy who gives his life to save a British officer. Though the poem is perhaps best known for it's final lines (Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you,/ By the livin' Gawd that made you,/ You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!), the poem also stands as a testiment to the courage of all the men who, despite being despised for their race, fought and died alongside the men who disdained them.
- The Iliad, Homer. A story so thrilling - and themes so immortal - that two thousand years later it's still as relevant as the day Homer first set the events of the Trojan War to verse.
- Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln. Not technically considered a poem, but anyone who's thrilled to the alliteration of four score and seven years ago, or felt their hearts break upon the dolorous vowels of we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground, or felt their pulse quicken at the rising momentum of of the people, by the people, for the people, intuitively comprehends that the 144 words of the Gettysburg Address are poetry at its finest and most effecting.
I once read a book on brain science that would seem to explain our almost primitive emotional response to the repetition of sounds and phrases. Turns out our brain's ability to recognize such patterns was the foundation upon which we evolved language. And in its more primitive form, we still celebrate our visceral attraction to patterns of sound, rhythm, and rhyme through our love of poetry, music, and dance. (What other explanation could there possibly be for the success of Sir Mix-a-lot's Baby Got Back?)
All of which is my way of introducing the notion that when you need a boost of inspiration, confidence, or courage, nothing serves like a few measures of well-crafted verse. Below are some favorite examples I've collected over the years. When I need a little motivation, encouragement, or courage to make a change in my life, these are some of the standards that I turn to.
- The Road Less Travelled, Robert Frost. Is there anyone in the western world that isn't familiar with this poem? Well, there's a reason. There comes a time in everyone's life when we contemplate choosing a "path less travelled" - pursuing a dream, for instance - and this poem feels like a beloved grandfather patting you on the back and telling you: "Go ahead, child: you won't regret it." Pure, uncomplicated reassurance.
- If, Rudyard Kipling. You don't have to be a boy to be inspired by this sagacious advice from a father to his son on the subject of how to live a worthwhile life. This paeon to the virtues of hard work, tolerance, tenacity, modesty, and moral courage reminds us all that what makes us great isn't the things that happen to us, but how we choose to react to the things that happen to us.
- Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou. With apologies to all you phenomenal men out there (hey, I included If for you), this celebration of femininity is just the ticket for women who feel insecure about the way they look or interact with the world, reminding us that while beauty may be sexy, confidence is a thousand times sexier.
- Not In Vain, Emily Dickinson. For all those people who have laid in bed in the morning looking for a reason to get up, this sweet little verse reminds us that even our smallest actions may have worthy consequences. (Just in case you've somehow missed any of the 1000 showings of It's A Wonderful Life on television over the years.)
- Be Strong, Maltbie Davenport Babcock. If you aren't in the mood for Emily Dickinson's coddling, let Ms. Babcock whip you into shape with this fierce and unforgiving call to action. She isn't going to let you forget that "It matters not how deep entrenched the wrong,/ How hard the battle goes, the day, how long./ Faint not, fight on!"
- Invictus, William Earnest Henry. Can't be coincidence that this is also the title of a movie that explores the struggle over apartheid in South Africa. My head is bloody, but unbowed ... these words from the poem could be written on Nelson Mandela's memorial one day. But my favorite lines comes later, because there comes a time when all of us need to be reminded: I am the master of my fate:/ I am the captain of my soul.
- The Wreck of the Hesperus, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This thoroughly melodramatic narrative poem relates the story of a ship wrecked in a storm. Alas, the skipper of the vessel is too proud to heed the warnings of the Crusty Old Sailor, who sagely advises him to "Put into yonder port/for I fear a hurricane." Not only does the skipper laugh scornfully, but he decides to take his beautiful young daughter along as well. (Hubris, anyone?) Note to skipper: Everyone knows you ignore the advice of Crusty Old Sailors at your peril!
- The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes. You have to appreciate the way-over-the-top pathos of this tale of a lass awaiting the return of her dashing lover who, alas, also happens to be a ruthless highwayman with a price on his head. (Some women just can't resist the bad boys, can they?) Every time I read the poem I keep hoping that she's going to shout "Hey, the soldiers are coming to get you!" (or words to that effect) rather than killing herself. But she never does.
- Annabelle Lee, Edgar Allen Poe. This deservedly famous poem is so romantic and tragic that has been known to reduce whole middle school classes to sniffling tears. Supposedly a semi-autobiographic account of the untimely death of Poe's own young wife of tuberculosis, the story may draw you in, but it's the gorgeous language (that assonance! that consonance! that alliteration!) that will keep you reaching for the box of tissues.
- O Captain! My Captain!, Walt Whitman. Yes, it's that poem from the movie Dead Poet's Society. More to the point, it's a tribute to Abraham Lincoln penned shortly after his assassination, and it works as an eloquently affecting paeon or homage to anyone who you have admired or looked up to. I dare you to read it aloud and not get at least a little teary.
- The Ballad of John Henry, author unknown. Some say John Henry's a folktale, others argue that the legend stems from the feats of a real man, possibly a slave who worked laying down railroad track in the late 1800s. Whatever the origin, the basic story is always the same, as is the outcome: John Henry challenges a steam drill to a contest, wins, but dies of exhaustion promptly afterwards, his life cut short by his superhuman effort. One of a long, long lineage of literary ludditia (think Terminator I, II, III and/or IV) devoted to the contention that technology is soulless and evil.
- Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink." Before it became a metaphor for pretty much everything, this was one of a great many affecting lines in this tale of ship doomed to slow death. And in case you weren't paying attention earlier: always heed the advice of Crusty Old Sailors!
- The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde took as his inspiration for this long, georgeously tragic ode the true story of a man who was hanged for the murder of his wife. Many, many dazzling stanzas, the most famous of which is surely Wilde's haunting lament, repeated several times: "Yet each man kills the thing he loves,/By each let this be heard,/Some do it with a bitter look,/Some with a flattering word,/The coward does it with a kiss,/The brave man with a sword."
- Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Out flew the web and floated wide;/The mirror cracked from side to side;/'The curse has come upon me!' cried/The Lady of Shalott." Making the eponymous Lady of Shallot neither the first nor the last maiden to be lured to her doom by the charms of that chivalric rogue, Sir Lancelot. (Some men just can't keep it in their fauld, if you know what I mean ....)
- Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Lord Tennyson. If you like your tragedy served up with a side of valor, you can't do better than this ode to the disastrous charge of British cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War: "Theirs not to make reply;/Theirs not reason why;/Theirs but to do or die:/Into the valley of Death." (It's the "into the valley of Death" part that chokes me up every time.)
- The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe. On the other hand, if you like your tragedy served up with a side of creepy, Poe's The Raven is just the ticket, combining a dark and story night, the recent death of the narrator's true love, a perseverating raven, and a meter/rhyme scheme that would make a rap star swoon into one truly eerie tale. Definitely don't read this one in the dark.
- The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot. Doesn't get much more tragic or melodramatic than this true tale of the sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. By all means read the lyrics, but you'll want to listen to the song that goes with the lyrics to fully appreciate the gleefully unapologetic pathos of the tale.
- Bonnie Barbara Allen, author unknown. And finally, the grand-daddy of them all, a ballad that for the past 300 years has reminded us to be careful what we say to the people we love, lest they are taken away from us before we have a chance to repent of the cruel things we say. All the more tragic and melodramatic because it's true.
Happily, Elizabeth I ends up recanting her skepticism, and the poems listed below have gone a long way towards causing me to recant mine. This list may not include some of the most famous poetry about love, but it does contain some of the most sincere poetry about love.
- My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, Robert Burns. I love this poem for its artlessness; you don't have to have an advanced degreee in literature (though an understanding of colloquial Scottish language and spelling is useful) to understand that the narrator intends to be faithful until the seas go dry, until rocks melt in the sun, until the end of time. My heart especially flutters at the part where he vows to come again, "tho' it ware ten thousand mile." It would take a heartless woman indeed not to be moved by so simple yet genuine an appeal.
- How Do I Love Thee (aka Sonnets from the Portuguese, 43), Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Since the 1800s people have swooned over the romantic story of how sickly, middle-aged Elizabeth Barrett was swept off her feet by the devotion of the dashing, younger Robert Browning. Perhaps it takes a great love story to produce great love poetry like this glorious verse. "I love thee with the breath/ smiles, tears of all my life!" Barrett says, and I can't imagine a sentence that does a better job of expressing the joyful abandon of pledging your heart and life to another soul.
- My Mistress's Eyes (aka Sonnet 130), William Shakespeare. The charm of this timeless sonnet is the way that it dares to mock the inherent hyperbole of "courtly love." While admitting his lover's eyes are nothing like the sun, that her skin is dun rather than the white of snow, and that her lips bear no resemblence to the rosy red of coral, "... yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare." As novel as it must to be have one's cheeks compared to roses, Will shrewdly divines that true love isn't about flattery, but about understanding.
- The Great Lover, Rupert Brooke. Though the first couple of stanzas of this poem can be a bit dense, they're worth wading through to get to the glorious stanzas in the middle, where Rupert begins to list the things he has loved: "White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,/ Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;/ Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust/ Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;/ Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;/ And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;/ And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,/ Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;/ Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon/ Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss/ Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is/ Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen/ Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;/ The benison of hot water; furs to touch;/ The good smell of old clothes; and other such/ The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,/ Hair's fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers/ About dead leaves and last year's ferns..." Only a man who possesses a true understanding of love could compose so passionate a list!
- The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, Christopher Marlowe. This one used to make me a little self-conscious, because everything to do with shepherds and shepherding has become so irrevocably associated with the silliest sort of pastoral romanticism. But even Marie Antoinette hasn't been able to entirely stamp out my affection for this wonderfully earnest little poem in which the narrator pleas: "Come live with me and be my love,/ and we will all the pleasures prove ...". Simply the best marriage proposal ever.
- Let Me Not to The Marriage of True Minds (aka Sonnet 116), William Shakespeare. Another entry from the Bard, who must have known a thing or two about love in order to pen these lines about the unwavering nature of true love. What are our traditional Christian wedding vows ("... for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health," etc.), after all, but a dramatically less elegant paraphrasing of the Bard's immortal sentiment: "...love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds"?
- Annabelle Lee, Edgar Allen Poe. What Romeo and Juliet is to drama, Annabelle Lee is to poetry ... truly, the "truth and essence of love" distilled, intensified, and dispensed straight from the soul of the poet. Yes, Edgar does engage in a fair amount of hyperbole ("The angels, not half so happy in heaven,/ Went envying her and me"), but you don't have possess an advanced knowledge the details of the tragic death of Poe's own beloved to appreciate that there's absolutely nothing extravagant or false about the grief that drips from every line of this devastating lament.