By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Resilience’ means a certain toughness in one’s psychological and emotional outlook: an ability to pick oneself up when life throws us difficulties and carry on regardless. This can be easier said than done, but resilience can be regarded as the cousin, if not quite the sibling, of hope and determination.
The following poems are, for our money, some of the best poems about being resilient and trying to overcome whatever challenges life throws our way.
1. John Keats, ‘To Hope’.
When by my solitary hearth I sit,
When no fair dreams before my ‘mind’s eye’ flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head …
Written in February 1815 when he was just nineteen years old, ‘To Hope’ is one of John Keats’s early poems. Although it is not as celebrated or as polished as his more mature work, the poem is worth sharing for its positive message about being resilient and optimistic in the face of dark times.
When Despondency, Despair, and Disappointment assail the poet, he asks for Hope – which, like these other moods, is personified here with a capital letter – to come and brighten his outlook.
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘I took my Power in my Hand’.
I took my Power in my Hand —
And went against the World —
’Twas not so much as David — had —
But I — was twice as bold —
I aimed my Pebble — but Myself
Was all the one that fell —
Was it Goliath — was too large —
Or was myself — too small?
This poem from Emily Dickinson (1830-86) is short enough to be quoted in full here. Taking the story of David and Goliath, Dickinson likens herself to the young Biblical hero, with her Goliath that she goes up against being the whole world. Although the poem ends by acknowledging the speaker’s failure, the boldness and courage required to face the world make this poem worthy of inclusion in this list.
3. William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul …
A stirring poem, this, about the importance of taking charge of one’s own fate and striving to be resilient in the face of hardship.
This is a famous poem, even to those who haven’t heard of it. The words which conclude the poem – ‘I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul’ – are well-known, although the author of the poem, who was the inspiration for the character of Long John Silver is not so familiar to people now. We explore the poem’s origins in the analysis above.
4. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Carrion Comfort’.
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 …
In other words: ‘‘No, I will give in to despair, I will not let it unravel the last bits of me that remain intact, weak though these remaining parts of me are. I will not say “I can’t do this any more”. I can do something, even if it’s something as small as wishing for the morning to come …’
So begins this, one of the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ which Hopkins (1844-89), the wonderfully individual Victorian poet, wrote in the 1880s. This is a poem about refusing to give in to despair but striving instead to be resilient and to find the things that are possible.
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 this famous Kipling 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: just get on with it).
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. Langston Hughes, ‘Still Here’.
Hughes (1902-67) was a leading figure – perhaps the leading figure – of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s New York, and he wasn’t simply an African-American voice: he wrote about the lives of ordinary African-Americans, the jobs they did, and the struggles they faced.
This short poem acknowledges these hardships but has a stirringly defiant tone: as Hughes tells us, he is ‘still here!’
8. Sylvia Plath, ‘Mushrooms’.
Often featuring in lists of great poems about resilience, this is perhaps unusual for a poem by Sylvia Plath (1932-63), in being more positive and affirmative in its outlook. The subject is typically atypical: we have mushrooms, speaking to us as a collective voice, in an insistent and almost hypnotic rhythm, as they tell us how they thrive despite their unpromising surroundings and how they will ‘inherit the earth’. Do these mushrooms represent Plath herself, or all women of her time, who are becoming stronger and more independent?
9. Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’.
This wonderfully self-assertive poem about picking yourself up and being resilient in the face of tough times, 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.
10. Derek Mahon, ‘Everything is Going to be All Right’.
Mahon (1941-2020) was, along with Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and several others, a leading light in Irish poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. This is one of his best-known poems, and when Mahon died in late 2020, the poem reached new readers who found its message of resilience reassuring during the dark times of that darkest autumn.
The poem acknowledges the grim realities of life – ‘There will be dying’, Mahon asserts, before sweeping the realisation aside – but is, as the title makes clear, optimistic in tone. Does this refusal to dwell on the fact of death make the poem ostrich-like, with Mahon’s speaker refusing to acknowledge that not quite everything will be all right?
Another way of looking at it is to say that death, whilst sad to those it affects, is a necessary fact of life and that, to borrow from King Lear, men must endure their going hence. And we must be resilient – as best we can – in the face of this uncomfortable fact.