10 of the Best Poems about Adversity and Hardship

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Adversity and hardship have been common themes in poetry, because they are, of course, common experiences for many people. Poets seeking to raise awareness of the suffering people have undergone, or their financial dire straits, have often drawn attention to the hardships suffered by particular groups of people: refugees in a new country, people who belong to a minority ethnic group, or people who simply don’t have much money to pay the bills or feed their families.

Below, we introduce ten of the best poems which address the theme of hardship and adversity from a variety of perspectives. They range from the eighteenth century – when the Romantics brought a new social conscience to poetry – through to the present day.

1. Anna Lætitia Barbauld, ‘To the Poor’.

Child of distress, who meet’st the bitter scorn
Of fellow-men to happier prospects born,
Doomed Art and Nature’s various stores to see
Flow in full cups of joy—and not for thee;
Who seest the rich, to heaven and fate resigned,
Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind;
Whose bursting heart disdains unjust control,
Who feel’st oppression’s iron in thy soul,
Who dragg’st the load of faint and feeble years,
Whose bread is anguish, and whose water tears …

Anticipating the focus on the tough lives of the poor which we can find in later poetry by the Romantics, this poem by Barbauld (1743-1825), a sort of proto-Romantic figure, takes up some of the lines the well-off often tell the poor to keep them poor and happy: it’s part of God’s grand plan, and he has decreed that they should remain in poverty.

But Barbauld urges the poor to take comfort in the fact that they will be the rich ones in Heaven, while facing their plight with equanimity. It’s even been argued that we can read her poem as ironic: she is merely ventriloquising the ‘suck it up’ attitude the well-off adopt towards people enduring extreme hardship, in order to satirise the heartlessness of such a view.

2. William Blake, ‘London’.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls …

Blake (1757-1827) was the first Romantic to address the hardship of people living in squalor and poverty in the capital, and in ‘London’ he focuses on the adversity many people face, and the ways in which such suffering is normalised (those ‘mind-forg’d manacles’).

The third stanza (included above) sees two institutions associated with wealth and grandeur – the Church and the Palace – invaded by the corrupt realities of Blake’s London: a world in which industrialisation leads to small children being exploited and maltreated through their employment as chimney-sweeps, and in which ‘hapless’ (i.e. unlucky) soldiers sent off to fight spill their blood for uncaring kings.

3. Wordsworth, ‘Resolution and Independence’.

He told, that to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor:
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance;
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance …

This poem is part meditative and part narrative: after he was pondered the various early deaths of other poets associated with Romanticism (including Thomas Chatterton and Robert Burns), Wordsworth (1770-1850) recounts his meeting with an old leech-gatherer who has had to endure the various hardships of his life, but has done so with patience and fortitude.

4. Thomas Hood, ‘The Song of the Shirt’.

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the ‘Song of the Shirt …’

First published in 1843, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ takes its title from the song the woman sings to herself as she works hard at her stitching, making shirts from dawn till – well, beyond dusk. ‘Work! work! work! / While the cock is crowing aloof! / And work — work — work, / Till the stars shine through the roof!’

All day, every day, the woman slaves away at her stitching, yet she remains in ‘poverty, hunger, and dirt’. Given the exploitation of cheap labour still occurring around the world, this poem remains all too topical.

5. Langston Hughes, ‘Mother to Son’.

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.

‘Mother to Son’ is one of Hughes’ best-known poems, and sees a mother addressing her son, telling him about how hard and challenging her life has been, and offering him some parental advice. Using the metaphor of the staircase, she tells him that her life hasn’t been an easy or luxurious progression or climb.

There have been plenty of stumbling-blocks and obstacles, which she likens to tacks, splinters of wood, or torn-up floorboards, and sometimes the wooden stairs she has trodden have been uncarpeted and bare.

6. W. H. Auden, ‘Refugee Blues’.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in Yorkshire, England but later moved to the United States. He wrote ‘Refugee Blues’ about the many Jewish immigrants who had fled to the US, and especially New York, from persecution in Europe.

The poem highlights the plight of many New Yorkers who had fled death and exchanged it for poverty, and feel displaced and unwelcome in the city.

7. Audre Lorde, ‘Coal’.

This is a 1968 poem by the African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92). Lorde was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ The ‘warrior’ is as important as the other words.

Her poem ‘Coal’ is one of her most frequently anthologised, and sees Lorde harnessing the rage she feels when, for instance, she sees white people’s attitudes to black Americans. ‘Coal’ is black, of course, but if you put it under enough pressure, it can produce diamonds.

8. Anne Sexton, ‘The Room of My Life’.

Sexton (1928-74), who took her own life following a long battle with depression, is often eclipsed by her contemporary and fellow American poet, Sylvia Plath. But Sexton’s poetry is even more stark than Plath’s in confronting the harsh realities of her own life experiences. Here, we get knives, eyeballs, ashtrays (to ‘cry into’), and other symbols of despair and pain, all inhabiting the ‘room’ that represents Sexton’s troubled life.

9. Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’.

This is a poem by the American poet Maya Angelou (1928-2014), published in her 1978 collection And Still I Rise. A kind of protest poem which is defiant as well as celebratory, ‘Still I Rise’ is about the power of the human spirit to overcome discrimination and hardship, with Angelou specifically reflecting her attitudes as a black American woman.

10. Warsan Shire, ‘Home’.

We bring this pick of classic poems about adversity and hardship up to the present with this poem from the contemporary British poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Kenya, to Somali parents, in 1988.

In ‘Home’, Shire writes an impassioned poem about the reasons why refugees are forced to leave their homes in search of new ones: as the opening lines have it, nobody leaves home unless ‘home’ is the mouth of a shark. A powerful note on which to end this selection of great poems about the plight of refugees – and all too relevant in our own times.

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