By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best poems about progress – whether they celebrate progress, call for things to improve in the world, or focus on specific examples of social change and reform?
Below, we introduce ten of the best poems which deal with social and political progress of various kinds. These poems belong to different literary periods and are written by poets from various countries, but they are all united by their focus on the power of social change as a tool for good.
1. William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’.
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land …
In many ways, it was the Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who first made poetry a real tool for social change and protest, and William Blake (1757-1827) led the vanguard. ‘Jerusalem’ is one of the most famous hymns around, a sort of alternative national anthem for England.
Yet the poem on which Hubert Parry based his hymn, although commonly referred to as ‘William Blake’s “Jerusalem”’, is actually from a much larger poetic work titled Milton a Poem and was largely ignored when it was published in 1804.
Is the poem the patriotic paean to England – its landscape, its Christian foundations, its courage and indomitable spirit? Well, not entirely. It is also an attack on the Industrial Revolution, and seems to argue that it is possible to build a godly paradise in England, but one must take up arms against the industrialised world in order to do so.
2. Percy Shelley, ‘England in 1819’.
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day …
This poem is not so much about progress as a call for progress: in the poem, Shelley itemises a number of unpleasant and damaging aspects of England in the year 1819, including the recent Peterloo massacre, in which people protesting for political reform were attacked by the army (and a number of people were killed).
It’s a sonnet by the second-generation English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). It’s one of Shelley’s most angry and politically direct poems, but Shelley concludes by offering a glimmer of hope that, out of such stormy events, a better world may be born. If you enjoy this short poem by Shelley, you might also be interested in his longer work, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, which also deals with the need for social change.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die …
Of course, in its broadest sense the word ‘progress’ simply means ‘to keep going on’: to persist, to continue. And in this poem by the Victorian poet Tennyson (1809-92), the ageing hero of the Trojan War, Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus), home from his famous ‘odyssey’ across the Mediterranean, decides to eschew retirement in favour of ‘seek[ing] a newer world’. As the poem’s rousing final line has it, Ulysses will continue ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’.
4. Walt Whitman, ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow …
This is a marvellously rousing clarion call from Whitman (1819-92), the pioneer of free verse and one of the most important American poets of the nineteenth century (perhaps the most important).
5. Matthew Arnold, ‘Progress’.
The Master stood upon the mount, and taught.
He saw a fire in his disciples’ eyes;
‘The old law’, they said, ‘is wholly come to naught!
Behold the new world rise!’
‘Was it’, the Lord then said, ‘with scorn ye saw
The old law observed by Scribes and Pharisees?
I say unto you, see ye keep that law
More faithfully than these …’
Arnold (1822-88) is now best-remembered for his poem ‘Dover Beach’, but many of his other poems are also worth reading.
This poem is slightly different from many of the others on this list, in that it sees Arnold questioning the idea of ‘progress’ if such social change comes at the expense of forgetting our core values (which, for Arnold, included Christianity). Arnold makes this point by beginning his poem with Jesus – ‘The Master’ – addressing his disciples 1,800 years ago, before contrasting Jesus’ teachings with the Victorian world of Arnold and his readers.
6. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Progress’.
Let there be many windows to your soul,
That all the glory of the universe
May beautify it. Not the narrow pane
Of one poor creed can catch the radiant rays
That shine from countless sources. Tear away
The blinds of superstition; let the light
Pour through fair windows broad as truth itself
And high as God …
Wilcox (1850-1919) is often derided for her poetry, which some consider to be sentimental or trite, but her work proved hugely popular with many readers. In this poem, Wilcox urges her readers to reject superstition in favour of ‘Reason’ and ‘Knowledge’. She doesn’t reject God, though, but wishes to find a way of getting closer to God, avoiding organised religion. As the poem’s inspiring final lines have it: ‘Be not afraid / To thrust aside half-truths and grasp the whole.’
7. Maxine Kumin, ‘Progress’.
Kumin (1925-2014) was an American poet and author who won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing. This marvellous poem is about the progress of human beings but also the progress of language, beginning with that famous seventeenth-century ‘progress’, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, as its point of departure.
8. Langston Hughes, ‘I Look at the World’.
Langston Hughes (1901-67) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. Over the course of a varied career he was a novelist, playwright, social activist, and journalist, but it is for his poetry that Hughes is now best-remembered.
In this poem, Hughes describes the world as he sees it as a black American poet: he is filled with hope that he can make the world he sees into the world he dreams of. The ‘world that’s in my mind’ can be realised, even if it doesn’t yet exist.
9. Gwendolyn Brooks, RIOT.
Brooks (1917-2000) was an important American poet whose work often engaged with the lives of Black Americans. This long poem was written in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King (who provides the poem with its epigraph) in 1968, and the social unrest that followed. Brooks’s poem suggests that social progress can be effected not just by protest or action but by thinking, reading, and reflecting.
10. Nikki Giovanni, ‘Rosa Parks’.
Giovanni (b. 1943) is a well-known African-American poet and activist, who has written about one of the most significant Civil Rights activists, Rosa Parks, on several occasions (including writing a book for younger readers, Rosa, all about her).
Parks, who played a pivotal role in US Civil Rights, came to widespread attention in December 1955 when, during the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, she resisted racial segregation on a local bus and refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. Giovanni’s poem considers Parks’s role in the Civil Rights movement but also broadens the focus to consider the concerted movement which grew up around the bus boycott.