The greatest poems of perseverance – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Survival is a recurring theme in poetry through the ages, whether it’s the survival of love, the survival of the individual, or the survival of hope. In the following poems, a range of poets explore and reflect the spirit of determination and perseverance that is needed to survive. We hope you enjoy these classical poems of survival.
Emily Dickinson, ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’. As with many of her poems, Emily Dickinson takes an abstract feeling or idea and likens it to something physical, visible, and tangible. So hope becomes a singing bird. Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it: ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all – ’.
William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed …
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’. This classic poem of determination 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.’
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Carrion Comfort’. Although this is classified as one of Hopkins’s ‘Terrible Sonnets’, written out of darkest despair while Hopkins was living in Ireland in the 1880s, the tone of the poem is also defiant: ‘Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; / Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man / In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can; / Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be…’
Rudyard Kipling, ‘If—’.
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
Stoicism looms large in Kipling’s poem – that is, the acknowledgment that, whilst you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you can deal with them in a good way. This is summed up well in the reference to meeting with triumph and disaster and ‘treat[ing] those two impostors just the same’ – in other words, be magnanimous in victory and success (don’t gloat or crow about it) and be dignified and noble in defeat or times of trouble (don’t moan or throw your toys out of the pram). A phrase that is often used in discussion or analysis of ‘If—’ is ‘stiff upper lip’, that shorthand for the typically English quality of reserve and stoicism in the face of disaster.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Survival’. Kipling’s poetry makes two appearances on this list, because as well as penning the immortal ‘If—’, he also wrote this poem about survival, which we include in full here:
Securely, after days
Unnumbered, I behold
Kings mourn that promised praise
Their cheating bards foretold.
Of earth-constructing Wars,
Of Princes passed in chains,
Of deeds out-shining stars,
No word or voice remains.
Yet furthest times receive,
And to fresh praise restore,
Mere breath of flutes at eve,
Mere seaweed on the shore.
A smoke of sacrifice;
A chosen myrtle-wreath;
An harlot’s altered eyes;
A rage ‘gainst love or death;
Glazed snow beneath the moon —
The surge of storm-bowed trees–
The Caesars perished soon,
And Rome Herself: But these
Endure while Empires fall
And Gods for Gods make room….
Which greater God than all
Imposed the amazing doom?
Edith Wharton, ‘Survival’. This poem from the author of Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence is short enough to be quoted below in full. Comprising a single sentence, the poem considers the immortality of the writer on the ‘silent page’, even after their bodies have returned to the earth:
When you and I, like all things kind or cruel,
The garnered days and light evasive hours,
Are gone again to be a part of flowers
And tears and tides, in life’s divine renewal,
If some grey eve to certain eyes should wear
A deeper radiance than mere light can give,
Some silent page abruptly flush and live,
May it not be that you and I are there?
Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’. This wonderfully self-assertive poem about picking yourself up and striving to achieve, even in the face of adversity, was used for an advertising campaign by the UNCF in the US, but its message of selfhood and determination is one that should be heard by all. A rousing poem from one of the most rousing voices in American poetry from the last fifty years.
Audre Lorde, ‘A Litany for Survival’. This is a poem for people on the fringes, the ‘shoreline’, the threshold of society. Speaking in a collective voice like a religious litany or prayer, Lorde – a prominent African-American poet – highlights that some people are always afraid because life is tough and constantly throwing challenges at them. Although the poem seems pessimistic about survival, its collective voice and insistent tone sounds a vague note of hope.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
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.