By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poetry can be inspirational and motivational, and perhaps this is most apparent when poets are addressing the topic of bravery, courage, and the need to face one’s fears and stand up.
Throughout the centuries, poets have written memorably about both individual acts of courage and the collective bravery people have marshalled when facing extreme oppression or discrimination, and the following selection of some of the best poems about bravery of various kinds is designed to offer a snapshot of some of the greatest poetic examples of this theme.
1. 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.
In this classic dramatic monologue, the ageing Ulysses (i.e., Odysseus) 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 brave adventurer whose persistence we should admire? Readers are often divided on that issue …
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘To Fight Aloud, Is Very Brave’.
To fight aloud, is very brave –
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe –
Who win, and nations do not see –
Who fall – and none observe –
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love …
Many battles take place not out there in the field of conflict but inside the human heart (and mind). This is what Dickinson (1830-86) refers to as the fight ‘within the bosom’ against the ‘Cavalry of Woe’. When individuals win their victories against their own private demons, no nations observe that victory, but it matters to the person who has conquered their fears.
3. William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’.
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 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.’
4. A. E. Housman, ‘Lancer’.
I ’listed at home for a lancer,
Oh who would not sleep with the brave?
I ’listed at home for a lancer
To ride on a horse to my grave.
And over the seas we were bidden
A country to take and to keep;
And far with the brave I have ridden,
And now with the brave I shall sleep …
Taken from Housman’s second collection, Last Poems (1922), this poem is perfectly poised between the hopeful ambitions of the young lad who enlists to be a lancer in the army and the fate that awaits so many young men who find themselves in the field of battle.
The word ‘sleep’ in ‘sleep with the brave’ hovers between its literal meaning (while also carrying a suggestion of ‘sharing a bed’ romantically with someone) and its darker meaning, summoning what Hamlet calls ‘that sleep of death’.
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).
6. Edgar Albert Guest, ‘Don’t Quit’.
The British-born American poet Edgar Albert Guest (1881-1959) became known as the People’s Poet, and this poem, written in a clear and direct manner, is a fine example of how he acquired such an epithet. The title of this poem says it all: no matter how tough things get, no matter how uphill the struggle may be, we should keep going and not quit.
7. Siegfried Sassoon, ‘The Hero’.
The First World War wasn’t the most heroic of wars, although many individual acts of bravery were witnessed. 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.
8. William Empson, ‘Success’.
Many poems by the modern metaphysical poet and critic William Empson (1906-84) are about fear and the need to acknowledge it without allowing it to control us. Courage is an idea that runs through much of his slim oeuvre, and this fine villanelle – a form which Empson made his own in the late 1920s and 1930s – offers a taut, powerful account of the disappearance of ‘torment’ and ‘fear’ from one’s life.
9. Audre Lorde, ‘A Litany for Survival’.
Many of the most powerful poems about courage and bravery are themselves courageous because they don’t shy away from facing the fear which is a feature of many people’s lives. And Audre Lorde (1934-92), a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’, offers a powerful summary of the struggles faced by black Americans who have lived their lives afraid – a word that recurs again and again in this poem – because of the oppression and violence they have faced.
Despite all this, there is ‘triumph’ in the Civil Rights movement and the victories it has won, thanks to African-American people facing their fears and bringing about real change.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’.
We’re all going to fear something at some point in our lives – perhaps many things. This is a powerful poem about overcoming fear and not allowing it to master you, a 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’. A rousing note on which to conclude our pick of the best poems about fears of various kinds.