By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
For Matthew Arnold, ‘Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life.’ But Ezra Pound responded that ‘Poetry is about as much a “criticism of life” as red-hot iron is a criticism of fire.’ Whether poetry is a ‘criticism’ of life, poems about life itself – about the business of living, about what it means to live a full life, and about what ‘lived experience’ might be – abound.
Here are ten of the greatest poems about life and living.
1. Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘What Is This Life’.
Raleigh (c. 1552-1618) is credited with many things: introducing tobacco and potatoes to England (neither of which he did), laying down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth I (a later myth), and writing courtly poetry.
Only the last of these has any truth, and between his various travels to the New World, Raleigh penned this short poem in which he wonders what life is all about:
What is our life? A play of passion;
Our mirth the music of division;
Our mothers’ wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss;
Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest – that’s no jest.
2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘A Psalm of Life’.
Let’s continue this pick of classic poems about life with one of Longfellow’s most famous, not least because of the memorable line about ‘footprints on the sands of time’. This poem has been popular at funerals in particular, suggesting as it does that we can make our mark on the world before we leave it.
3. Whitman, ‘O Me! O Life!’.
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d …
One of the shortest poems on this list, this poem was memorably featured in Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams’s character recites it to his class. It contains many of the features of Walt Whitman’s greatest poetry: the free verse rhythm, the alternation between long and short lines, the rhetorical (or not-so-rhetorical?) questions, the focus on the self.
4. Charlotte Brontë, ‘Life’.
Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
So begins this poem from Charlotte Brontë (1816-55), the eldest of the three famous Brontë sisters, which offers an update take on life: after acknowledging the hardships present so often in people’s lives, the poet asserts that life is not so bad as all that.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘Each Life Converges to some Centre’.
This wonderful Emily Dickinson poem is another positive approach to life: every human life has a purpose, a goal, which we may ourselves be scarcely aware of – yet it nevertheless exists. It begins:
Each Life Converges to some Centre —
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal …
6. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Full Life’.
Let’s continue this pick of the greatest poems about life with a very short poem from the prolific poet, novelist, and short-story writer D. H. Lawrence. Indeed, this poem is so short it can be quoted in full here, as it simply reads: ‘A man can’t fully live unless he dies and ceases to care, ceases to care.’ Now there’s a paradox for you…
7. Philip Larkin, ‘Dockery and Son’.
Beginning with Larkin returning to Oxford to look round his old student digs in college, this poem sees the poet comparing his life with a contemporary of his, a man named Dockery whose son is now up at Oxford, while Larkin remains childless and unmarried.
The final stanza muses thoughtfully on what makes a good life. Whether we ‘use it’ or not, he concludes, it goes…
8. Anne Sexton, ‘The Room of My Life’.
Sexton (1928-74), who took her own life following a long battle with depression, is often eclipsed by her contemporary and fellow American poet, Sylvia Plath. But Sexton’s poetry is even more stark than Plath’s in confronting the harsh realities of her own life experiences.
Here, we get knives, eyeballs, ashtrays (to ‘cry into’), and other symbols of despair and pain, all inhabiting the ‘room’ that represents Sexton’s troubled life.
9. Maya Angelou, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’.
This is the title poem from Angelou’s 1993 collection Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, which was marketed as a children’s book although Angelou did not originally conceive the poems as being specifically for children.
A poem about overcoming fear and not allowing it to master you, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ is a powerful declaration of self-belief and the importance of facing one’s fears. Angelou lists a number of things, from barking dogs to grotesque fairy tales in the Mother Goose tradition, but comes back to her mantra: ‘Life doesn’t frighten me at all’.
That said, there is a question mark hanging over precisely how the speaker of the poem has mastered her fear, and whether, in fact, she has fully succeeded. Is she trying to convince herself by repeating her mantra until she starts to believe it?
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘A Life’.
As we mentioned Plath above, we thought we’d conclude this pick of the greatest poems about life and living with one simply titled ‘A Life’. The poem is about death almost as much as it is about life, since it was probably at least partly inspired by Plath’s memories of her suicide attempt in the early 1950s, and subsequent stay in hospital; she wrote it in 1960.