Literature

10 of the Best Poems about Men and Masculinity

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

Yesterday, we offered ten poems about womanhood and womankind, written by both men and women. But how have poets tended to approach manhood, masculinity, and what it’s like to be a man? Or how have female poets written about men? Here are ten of the very best poems about men, manliness, masculinity, and related themes.

1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.

’Tis 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 …

Written when Tennyson was a young man in his early twenties, ‘Ulysses’ is a dramatic monologue spoken by the ageing warrior Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus). Having returned from the Trojan war, Ulysses yearns to don his armour again and ride off in search of battle, glory, and adventure. Some people admire the poem for its message of hope and triumph, seeking to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and make the most of one’s days on Earth, while some see Ulysses as a slightly pathetic figure who is unable to accept he’s not as young as he was. But the stirring closing words are often quoted for their optimism and sense of camaraderie, as Ulysses spurs his fellow men to join him in one last adventure.

2. William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’.

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 …

Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa is named Invictus after this poem, and for good reason: Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners while he was incarcerated on Robben Island. ‘Invictus’ was partly inspired by Henley’s own struggles as an invalid (he lost a leg when young) and his determination to remain ‘bloody but unbowed’. The poem introduced a couple of famous phrases into the language: ‘bloody, but unbowed’, and the final two lines: ‘I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.’ Like Kipling’s poem below, ‘Invictus’ offers a vision of masculine determination which has proved popular for over a century since the poem was first published.

3. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘To Men’.

Sirs, when you pity us, I say
You waste your pity. Let it stay,
Well corked and stored upon your shelves,
Until you need it for yourselves.

We do appreciate God’s thought
In forming you, before He brought
Us into life. His art was crude,
But oh, so virile in its rude

Large elemental strength: and then
He learned His trade in making men;
Learned how to mix and mould the clay
And fashion in a finer way …

Wilcox (1850-1919) has often been ridiculed for her bad verse, but she was capable of writing poems that rose above the level of ‘doggerel’, and in ‘To Men’ she makes the argument, in plain speech, that men should not pity women, because the sexes should view each other as equals: ‘Sirs, when you pity us, I say / You waste your pity. Let it stay, / Well corked and stored upon your shelves, / Until you need it for yourselves…’

4. A. E. Housman, ‘Ludlow Fair’.

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave …

In this poem, from his 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, Housman offers an idyllic view of a world now largely vanished: young men arriving in the Shropshire town of Ludlow from the surrounding villages and farms, some of whom, Housman ominously notes, ‘will never be old’ because they will ‘die in their glory’. A Shropshire Lad is shot through with an admiration for a stout and stoic masculinity, and Housman admires the men not least because he romanticises the idea that many of them, through death (whether war or suicide), will die in their prime rather than live to grow old and weak.

5. Rudyard Kipling, ‘If—’.

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!

So concludes this poem, which was first published in Kipling’s volume of short stories and poems, Rewards and Fairies, in 1910, it has become one of Kipling’s best-known poems, and was even voted the UK’s favourite poem of all time in a poll of 1995. A certain masculine stoicism looms large in Kipling’s poem – that is, the acknowledgement that, whilst you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you can deal with them in a good way. ‘If’ you do so – then, Kipling says addressing his implied male reader, ‘you’ll be a man, my son!’ (Or, as Alan Partridge paraphrased it, ‘If you do X, Y, and Z – Bob’s your uncle’.)

6. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’.

Published in 1925, ‘The Hollow Men’ captures a different mid-1920s mood from the one we get from The Great Gatsby and other works written across the Atlantic, during the ‘Jazz Age’. Although born on the US, Eliot was living in Britain by 1925, and ‘The Hollow Men’, on one level, describes a people in stasis and limbo, men (and it is specifically men) who have lost their way. Perhaps partly a response to the First World War and the various accounts of PTSD/shell-shock that followed it, as well as Eliot’s own recent nervous breakdown, ‘The Hollow Men’ is a poem about masculinity in crisis.

7. Dorothy Parker, ‘Men’.

This poem offers a different take on men yet again. Parker (1893-1967) is known for her witty one-liners, but she was also a poet who penned memorable verse, as here, in her poem ‘Men’, which sees Parker lamenting the fact that once men have ‘won’ the girl, they want to change women and ‘educate’ them…

8. Ogden Nash, ‘Old Men’.

Like Parker, Ogden Nash is known for his short and pithy poems, and ‘Old Men’ offers a very different attitude to the ageing man from the view we got in Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. But unusually in Nash’s oeuvre, ‘Old Men’ is poignant and moving, stating that people expect old men to die and so do not mourn them, but ‘the old man knows when an old man dies’.

9. Maya Angelou, ‘Men’.

In this poem, Angelou (1928-2014) recalls watching men go past her house when she was a little girl, and how, aged fifteen, girls are ‘starving for’ men as they reach puberty and want to know what it’s like to be with a man. That first experience changes everything. This poem offers another perspective on men: how young women feel vulnerable when they view older men and how their first sexual encounter has a real impact on their lives, and their attitudes to men.

10. Wendy Cope, ‘Bloody Men’.

In this poem by the master of contemporary comic verse, Wendy Cope laments the fact that ‘Bloody men are like bloody buses’ because, as with the old piece of wisdom about waiting for a bus, you wait ages for a man to come along and then two or three others arrive at the same time.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

7 Comments

  1. William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’ — actually I have this up in my cubicle/collage at work so I can see/read it on the phone. Sent it to many military folks both male/female over the years as well. I also love “If” by Kipling.

  2. Thanks for refreshing my soul with that bouquet of breathtaking poems.

  3. I like this list it cheers all that men could and should be. It’s refreshing to see this.
    If – they just gives me goosebumps.

Leave a Reply