Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
For John Keats, ‘Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul.’ For James Elroy Flecker, ‘It is not the poet’s business to save man’s soul but to make it worth saving.’ Poetry and the soul have always been closely intertwined; so with that in mind, here are ten of the best poems about the soul and spirit.
John Donne, ‘O My Black Soul’. This is one of John Donne’s finest sacred poems. It is also, perhaps, one of the finest and most powerful deathbed poems in all of English literature. The sonnet sees Donne addressing his own blackened and degraded soul near the time of his death:
Oh my black Soul! Now thou art summoned
By sickness, death’s herald, and champion;
Thou art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he is fled …
Andrew Marvell, ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’.
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go …
So asks the Body in this dialogue-poem from one of the seventeenth century’s greatest English poets. This poem explores the relationship between the body and the soul through an Early Modern understanding of theology.
Alexander Pope, ‘The Dying Christian to His Soul’. Famous for its final line, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’, this poem sees the Christian martyr calling upon his soul to ‘Quit, O quit this mortal frame: / Trembling, hoping, ling’ring, flying, / O the pain, the bliss of dying!’
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Canto LXV from In Memoriam. The original title for In Memoriam A. H. H., Tennyson’s long elegy for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, was ‘The Way of the Soul’; and as well as being personal elegy, the poem is also a meditation on death, the afterlife, and the soul, as this canto from the longer poem demonstrates:
Sweet soul, do with me as thou wilt;
I lull a fancy trouble-tost
‘With Love’s too precious to be lost,
A little grain shall not be spilt …’
Emily Brontë, ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’. As well as writing one remarkable novel, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (1818-48) also wrote many fine poems. ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’ wonderfully showcases Emily’s dauntless and elemental spirit:
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear …
Walt Whitman, ‘The Imprisoned Soul’.
At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful, fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks—from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.
Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks—with a whisper
Set ope the doors, O soul!
This poem by the American pioneer of free verse, Walt Whitman (1819-92), sees the poet calling upon his soul to free itself from its constraints of ‘the powerful, fortress’d house’ of the poet’s body.
Emily Dickinson, ‘The Soul selects her own Society’.
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
On her divine Majority
Obtrude no more …
Dickinson (1830-86) was famously reclusive, and this poem suggests why: she was clearly selective in her choice of ‘Society’ or friends, and her ‘Soul’ would shut out or exclude everyone else.
William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’. 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.’
A. E. Housman, ‘Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle’.
Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
Think rather,—call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long …
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) stopped believing in the existence of the soul when he was a teenager, but he saw the symbolic significance of the ‘soul’ nevertheless, as this fine poem demonstrates.
W. B. Yeats, ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’.
My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air,
Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?
Another ‘dialogue’ poem about the soul, but this time – by way of conclusion of this pick of the best poems about souls – Yeats (1865-1939) gives us the self in dialogue with the soul, with the latter calling upon the former to transcend the mortal world and live on after death.
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.