Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poetry should move us, make us think, even make us laugh (we’ve selected some great comic poems here). But poetry can also inspire us and motivate us. Below, we introduce ten of the most inspirational and motivational poems ever written. These are poems which spur us to achieve great things, or tell us we can make it, or encourage us to think big and be ambitious. We hope you find these poets’ words inspirational!
For a good anthology of inspirational poetry, we recommend the Faber book Winning Words: Inspiring Poems for Everyday Life.
1. Sir Edward Dyer, ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’.
My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such present joys therein I find,
That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind:
Though much I want that most would have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave …
This poem has been popular with readers ever since it was first published in 1588 in William Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets, & Songs. Yet the authorship of ‘My mind to me a kingdom is’ is by no means certain, and some anthologists now prefer to credit Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, with authorship rather than Dyer. Whoever wrote it, it’s an inspiring Renaissance poem about the power of ‘mind over matter’ and the wonders of the human imagination.
2. Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass …
When Whitman’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition containing just a dozen untitled poems – even Whitman himself could have had little idea of the influence it would go on to have. Whitman would continue to revise and add to this collection throughout his life, and his exuberant free verse would go on to inspire French vers libre as well as numerous fellow American writers.
‘Song of Myself’ headed Leaves of Grass, and it’s a long and very inspirational opening poem. This statement of selfhood contains the famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’. The link above takes you to several choice excerpts from the longer poem.
3. 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 –
4. W. E. 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 (pictured right) 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.’
5. Rudyard Kipling, ‘If—’.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise …
Stoicism looms large in Kipling’s famous 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.
6. Max Ehrmann, ‘Desiderata’.
This poem from the 1920s is a little different from others on this list, in that it’s an example of the prose poem. Having drafted the poem in 1921 and registered it for copyright in 1927, Ehrmann then distributed the poem in a Christmas card in 1933.
A few years later, the psychiatrist Merrill Moore was given a copy of the poem, and he distributed 1,000 copies to his patients and soldiers during World War II. The poem thus became one of the great inspirational poetic messages of the twentieth century, particularly in the United States.
7. Langston Hughes, ‘Dreams’.
In just eight short lines, probably the best-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1902-67), gives us words to live by – reminding us that it’s important to ‘hold fast to your dreams’ because a life without them is a ‘barren field’.
8. Philip Larkin, ‘Coming’.
What, Philip Larkin, the poet who famously said that ‘deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’, appearing on a list of the most inspirational poems? But this quietly happy poem is arguably all the more inspiring and uplifting precisely because it is understated and written by a poet isn’t predominantly known for writing joyously about the world.
Here, Larkin reconnects with his childhood self as spring comes into view again, and he feels mysteriously happy.
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘Ariel’.
Sylvia Plath – plagued by depression throughout much of her adult life, and eventually taking her own life in 1963 – may also seem an unlikely poet to find in a list of inspiring poems. But one of the most powerful ways that poets can inspire us is by taking their own personal suffering and showing how art can arise from it, and ‘Ariel’ is a beautiful example of this. This enigmatic poem uses the metaphor of an early morning horse-ride to explore numerous shifting notions of identity.
The poem is often viewed as a reflection of Plath’s early morning poetry-writing ritual in the months leading up to her death: she would wake, write poetry, and then spend the rest of the day employed in household chores. Read in this way, ‘Ariel’ can be understood as a powerful, if ambiguous, declaration of self-expression and freedom, albeit freedom desired rather than fully possessed. Nevertheless, the final image of Plath riding into the red dawn of the sunrise is inspirational in the extreme.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘Phenomenal Woman’.
Being a ‘phenomenal woman’ is not about being a certain size, or a particular shape. It’s about how you carry yourself, and how you behave. As with several other classic Maya Angelou poems, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ is about being unbowed, about holding one’s head high and being proud of who one is.
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.