Poets often write about fate and how the world around us seems governed by some kind of Providence: we can call it God or destiny or merely a sense that things seem predetermined, whether because of our own unconscious drives or desires or because of a concatenation of circumstances which make certain things – falling in love, meeting the right person, landing the right job – seem inevitable.
Below, we introduce ten of the greatest poems about fate. We think you’re destined to love them …
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate …
So begins this poem in which Shakespeare finds himself cursing his fate and enviously eyeing what other men have. But there’s a twist in the tail of this sonnet, as the Bard comes to realise that one person – the Fair Youth to whom the poem is addressed – can turn his fate around and make him rich, though he seems poor. Love can alter our destinies.
2. John Donne, ‘Death Be Not Proud’.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
In this poem, one of the ‘Holy Sonnets’ Donne (1572-1631) wrote later in his life, he offers a metaphysical response to Death’s proud boasts about all of the men he has slain. No, Death, too, is a ‘slave to fate’, and man has come up with ways of cheating death or at least robbing it of its sting.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Fate’.
Deep in the man sits fast his fate
To mould his fortunes, mean or great:
Unknown to Cromwell as to me
Was Cromwell’s measure or degree;
Unknown to him as to his horse,
If he than his groom be better or worse.
He works, plots, fights, in rude affairs,
With squires, lords, kings, his craft compares,
Till late he learned, through doubt and fear,
Broad England harbored not his peer:
Obeying Time, the last to own
The Genius from its cloudy throne.
For the prevision is allied
Unto the thing so signified;
Or say, the foresight that awaits
Is the same Genius that creates.
The ‘fates’ and fortunes of ‘Great Men’ such as Oliver Cromwell, the English revolutionary leader, are the focus of this short poem from the American Transcendentalist thinker and poet, reproduced in full above.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘Superiority to Fate’.
Superiority to Fate
Is difficult to gain
’Tis not conferred of Any
But possible to earn
A pittance at a time
Until to Her surprise
The Soul with strict economy
Subsist till Paradise.
In this brief poem, Dickinson (1830-86) opens with an intriguing statement: it is difficult to become superior to the force that we call ‘Fate’, and although nobody is automatically gifted such an ability, it is possible for us to earn it, through effort.
5. William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’.
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 guiding one’s destiny.
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.
6. Carolyn Wells, ‘Fate’.
Two shall be born the whole world wide apart,
And speak in different tongues, and pay their debts
In different kinds of coin; and give no heed
Each to the other’s being. And know not
That each might suit the other to a T,
If they were but correctly introduced.
And these, unconsciously, shall bend their steps,
Escaping Spaniards and defying war,
Unerringly toward the same trysting-place,
Albeit they know it not. Until at last
They enter the same door, and suddenly
They meet. And ere they’ve seen each other’s face
They fall into each other’s arms, upon
The Broadway cable car – and this is Fate!
Wells (1862-1942) was an American author and poet. ‘Fate’, which is reproduced above in full, invites us to question what we mean when we say ‘fate brought two people together’, by stretching such an idea to extremes. The two people who meet on a cable car in New York are from different countries and cultures, but end up coming together and meeting.
7. W. B. Yeats, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before …
This is one of W. B. Yeats’s best-known poems: it is simultaneously both a war poem and a poem about Irishness, and yet, at the same time, neither of these. Yeats’s airman, fighting in the First World War when Ireland was still a British possession, knows that his ‘fate’ lies in the skies and that he will almost certainly die during combat. This seems inevitable, so much so that he can predict it with some certainty.
8. Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Fate Defied’.
Were tissue of silver
I’ll wear, O fate, thy grey,
And go mistily radiant, clad
Like the moon.
The American poet Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) is not much remembered now, but she left one mini poetic legacy: a new form she called the cinquain. ‘Cinquain’ had existed as a word before her miniature verse innovation, but Crapsey co-opted it to describe the five-line unrhymed form which she used in her finest poetry.
In this example of a cinquain, Crapsey talks about the wispy immateriality of fate, which is grey and ethereal like the moon.
9. Langston Hughes, ‘Laughers’.
Hughes (1902-67) was one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In this poem, he considers ‘My people’, fellow African-American people of New York who work at a variety of jobs and laugh in the face of Fate, which constantly seeks to keep them down.
10. Cynthia Manick, ‘Things I Will Tell My Children about Destiny’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best poems about fate with a glorious poem from another poet associated with New York. Manick is the author of Blue Hallelujahs (Black Lawrence Press, 2016), and in this poem, she offers a series of images and snapshots that relate to ‘destiny’ in some way. The emphasis is on not being restricted, as the repeated reference to a smile being best when ‘unpenned’ suggests.