Ever since Homer composed his epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, poetry has been concerned with heroes and heroism. Sometimes it’s extolled the virtues of bravery and heroics, while at other times poets have held our ideas and ideals of ‘heroism’ and ‘heroes’ up for more critical scrutiny. Below is a selection of both kinds.
Sappho, ‘He Is More Than a Hero’. Since we mentioned Homer’s ancient Greek epic poetry in our introduction, we may as well begin this selection of classic poems about heroes with a poem from a similar era, by the greatest female poet from that period. Although it only briefly touches upon the theme of heroism, the poem suggests the importance of heroes to writers of Sappho’s time (c. 630-570 BCE), and is also an early example of a female poet writing to another woman about her desire for her.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.
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.
We could have chosen a number of other Tennyson poems here – ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is one obvious alternative – but we’ve opted for ‘Ulysses’ because it’s about a hero of classical myth, Odysseus (or Ulysses to the Romans) and so follows Sappho’s poem nicely. In this classic dramatic monologue, the ageing Ulysses prepares to leave his home of Ithaca and sail off into the sunset on one last adventure. Is he old and deluded, a man who cannot just accept he’s past it? Or is he a bold and hardy adventurer whose persistence we should admire as – well, as heroic? Readers are often divided on that issue…
Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Hero’. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was known as the Bard of Bengal and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, wrote this long poem about a child who imagines that he saves his mother from dacoits, or bandits. Tagore contrasts the exciting world of heroism in the imagination with the rather humdrum and uneventful daily reality of living.
Katharine Tynan, ‘A Hero’. Ireland has its fair share of heroes, and here, Tynan pays tribute to one:
He was so foolish, the poor lad,
He made superior people smile
Who knew not of the wings he had
Budding and growing all the while;
Nor that the laurel wreath was made
Already for his curly head.
Silly and childish in his ways;
They said: ‘His future comes to naught.’
His future! In the dreadful days
When in a toil his feet were caught
He hacked his way to glory bright
Before his day went down in night.
Click on the link above to read the full poem.
AE, ‘The Last Hero’.
We laid him to rest with tenderness;
Homeward we turned in the twilight’s gold;
We thought in ourselves with dumb distress—
All the story of earth is told.
A beautiful word at the last was said:
A great deep heart like the hearts of old
Went forth; and the speaker had lost the thread,
Or all the story of earth was told.
The dust hung over the pale dry ways
Dizzily fired with the twilight’s gold,
And a bitter remembrance blew in each face
How all the story of earth was told.
AE, real name George William Russell (1867-1935), wrote this poem during the First World War, when the traditional idea of heroism was being sorely tested by machine warfare and mass industrial slaughter.
Amy Lowell, ‘Hero-Worship’. Lowell became head of the imagists after Ezra Pound left the movement to help found Vorticism, although Lowell’s poetry is written in a variety of styles and bears the mark of numerous disparate influences. We include the full text of her hero-worship poem below:
A face seen passing in a crowded street,
A voice heard singing music, large and free;
And from that moment life is changed, and we
Become of more heroic temper, meet
To freely ask and give, a man complete
Radiant because of faith, we dare to be
What Nature meant us. Brave idolatry
Which can conceive a hero! No deceit,
No knowledge taught by unrelenting years,
Can quench this fierce, untamable desire.
We know that what we long for once achieved
Will cease to satisfy. Be still our fears;
If what we worship fail us, still the fire
Burns on, and it is much to have believed.
Robert William Service, ‘A Hero’. As a society we tend to celebrate heroes, and the bravery of those willing to fight and even die to protect us from those who would do us harm. But what psychological impact does being a killer, or potential killer, have on a soldier? What sort of psychological type does it take to make a good soldier? Here, Service speaks in the voice of a man haunted by his demons, and by the strong desire to kill.
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘The Hero’. The First World War, as we remarked above, wasn’t the most heroic of wars: although many individual acts of bravery were witnessed, the new mechanised way of fighting with poison gas and shells meant that one could be ignominiously killed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this angry poem, Sassoon tells it how it is: Jack was just an ordinary young lad who tried his best to avoid being killed in the war, but back home, his grieving mother has to tell herself the lie that her boy was brave – was, indeed, a hero.
Dylan Thomas, ‘My Hero Bares His Nerves’. Is this a poem about the visceral, powerful act of writing, or about having some, ahem, ‘time to oneself’ in the toilet? That all depends on how we interpret the ‘hero’ which Thomas holds in his hand – but by the final line, the latter interpretation seems far more likely (although the ‘cistern’ here should probably be read figuratively rather than literally). An unusual take on the idea of the ‘hero’, for sure…
Eavan Boland, ‘Heroic’. Ireland has had its fair share of heroes in history and myth, and in this contemporary poem, the female Irish poet Eavan Boland muses upon how she fits in with Ireland’s heroic past. Although, as Boland has said in an interview, no statue such as she describes in the poem actually exists, it neatly expresses the aspects of the hero which Boland associates with Irish culture and history. The poem is a sonnet – but note how each line ends with the same consonant, the ‘n’ sound.