Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Power is a key theme for some of the greatest literature: kingly power in Shakespeare’s history plays, the power of magic in classic fantasy fiction, and the power of the gods in ancient epic poems. But how have poets written about power and power structures, or the struggle for power? Here are ten of the very best poems about power of various kinds, from tyranny to the power between the sexes.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94.
They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow …
Considered one of the most challenging and ambiguous of all the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, beginning ‘They that have power to hurt, and will do none’, is, for our money, also one of the top five best sonnets in the whole sequence. One scholar and poet, J. H. Prynne, has even written a whole book about this one sonnet. The poem is so ambiguous that it can even be read in two entirely different ways: the poet-critic William Empson argued that the poem is ironic, and we shouldn’t take its ‘meaning’ at face value. Decide for yourself by clicking on the link above to read the poem and our more detailed analysis of it.
Phillis Wheatley, ‘To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth’. Published in her 1773 book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral – making Wheatley (pictured right) the first African-American woman to have a volume of poems published – this poem sees Wheatley entreating the new secretary of state for the colonies to be less tyrannical than his predecessor:
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
William Wordsworth, ‘The Power of Armies Is a Visible Thing’.
The power of Armies is a visible thing,
Formal, and circumscribed in time and space;
But who the limits of that power shall trace
Which a brave People into light can bring
Or hide, at will, – for freedom combating
By just revenge inflamed?
Inspired by Napoleon’s campaign in Spain, this sonnet by the prolific English Romantic poet sees the power of people rising up against their oppressors as more mighty than the power of any invading army.
Percy Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’.
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away …
One of the most powerful poems about the fleeting nature of power and the might of empires, this sonnet was actually written as part of a competition. Click on the link above to read the poem and learn more about it.
Emily Dickinson, ‘To Be Alive – Is Power’.
To be alive—is Power—
Without a further function—
To exist at all is a powerful miracle enough, as Emily Dickinson reminds us in this short poem. Taking us away from large power structures and instead focusing on the life of the individual, this poem reminds us that we all have power, if we can only find a way of wielding it.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I took my Power in my Hand’. The second Dickinson poem to feature on this list, this one provides the lesson that boldness and confidence in one’s power are often the secret to making the power we have even stronger:
I took my Power in my Hand—
And went against the World—
’Twas not so much as David—had—
But I—was twice as bold …
W. H. Auden, ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’. This short poem, like many of Auden’s poems of the 1930s, was inspired by the appalling events of that decade, but it also neatly encapsulates the qualities and behaviour of all tyrants, from Herod to Henry VIII to Hitler. And beyond? You can read our analysis of this powerful poem about tyrannical power here.
Audre Lorde, ‘Power’. This is a harrowing but powerful poem about power: both the power of the state (specifically, the case of a police officer shooting dead a black child in the United States) and the power of words. Lorde, one of the finest African-American poets of the twentieth century, takes in the difference between poetry and rhetoric as she responds to the upsetting realities of life in contemporary America.
Louise Glück, ‘Circe’s Power’. Inspired by the episode in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus and his men arrive on Circe’s island and she transforms all of his men into pigs, this poem is about the power not only of the witch Circe specifically but of women over men more generally. The end of the poem is moving as Circe admits, effectively, that love means letting go, and having power over someone without their love is pointless.
Adrienne Rich, ‘Power’. Drawing on (pseudo)science and technology for its imagery and subject-matter, ‘Power’ seems like the perfect poem to end this list of great power poems. Its imagery is enigmatic, with Rich letting the final statement about Marie Curie ‘denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power’ (Curie, who discovered several radioactive elements, died of radiation poisoning).
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.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.