10 of the Best Poems about Strength

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Strength can take many forms: physical toughness and sheer muscle, strength of character and qualities such as perseverance, and strength of mind. Poets have paid tribute to all of these kinds of strength, as the following classic poems demonstrate.

1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’.

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 …

Written when Tennyson was a young man in his early twenties, ‘Ulysses’ is a dramatic monologue spoken by the ageing warrior Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus). Having returned from the Trojan war, Ulysses yearns to don his armour again and ride off in search of battle, glory, and adventure.

Some people admire the poem for its message of hope and triumph, seeking to ‘sail beyond the sunset’ and make the most of one’s days on Earth, while some see Ulysses as a slightly pathetic figure who is unable to accept he’s not as young as he was.

But the stirring closing words are often quoted for their optimism and sense of camaraderie, as Ulysses spurs his fellow men to join him in one last adventure.

2. Emily Brontë, ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’.

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear …

This poem by the author of Wuthering Heights showcases Emily Brontë’s dauntless and elemental spirit. She asserts that her soul is not afraid because her faith in heaven arms her against fear.

Her relationship with God is a reciprocal one: God has ‘rest’ or welcome within her soul, and in return she has ‘Power in Thee’. The ‘thousand creeds’ which most men believe in are ‘unutterably vain’ – with ‘vain’ carrying the double meaning of both ‘egotistical’ and ‘fruitless’. They are no stronger than the ‘idlest froth’ or foam of the sea, the ‘boundless main’: short-lived, constantly changing, inconsequential and insubstantial.

3. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Give Me Strength’.

‘Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows. Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service.’

These words are featured in this short poem, which is also a prayer, written by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was known as the Bard of Bengal and who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

4. Emily Dickinson, ‘There is a Strength in Proving’.

There is a strength in proving that it can be borne
Although it tear —

What are the sinews of cordage for
Except to bear

The ship might be of satin had it not to fight —
To walk on seas requires cedar feet

This short lyric from Emily Dickinson (1830-86) – reproduced in full here – is about the strength that comes from enduring something, even if it ‘tear’ us (or threatens to).

Our muscles are made to bear weight, and that is how we make them stronger: by giving them something to work with.


5. George Herbert, ‘The Pulley’.

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
‘Let us,’ said he, ‘pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.’

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

This poem from the devotional metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633) is a Creation poem, which imagines God making man and bestowing all available attributes upon him – except for rest. Work is important so that man should worship the God who made Nature, rather than Nature itself.

We suppose one way of looking it is to say that God is advocating hard work as its own reward, and justifying having just one day of the week as a ‘day of rest’ on which to worship Him. Strength is an important aspect of hard work, as the stanzas quoted above demonstrate.

6. 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 …

This oft-anthologised poem (its title is the Latin for ‘unconquered’) is about the importance of taking charge of one’s own fate and striving to be strong and resilient in the face of hardship.

This is a famous poem, even to those who haven’t heard of it. 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.

7. Maya Angelou, ‘Phenomenal Woman’.

This is a 1994 poem by Maya Angelou (1928-2014): singer, dancer, composer, actor, teacher, memoirist, and poet: a woman of many talents. She was also a key voice in the American civil rights movement. Much of her work is about striving to succeed, even in the face of adversity, and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ is a good example of this.

In the poem, she celebrates her own confidence, strength, and appeal which make her a phenomenal woman.

8. Audre Lorde, ‘Coal’.

‘Coal’ is a 1968 poem by the African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92). Lorde was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’

She was also an important voice in the Civil Rights movement, and in this poem – perhaps her most celebrated – Lorde uses the image of coal, that ‘total blackness’, as a metaphor for her toughness and ability to endure, becoming diamond under extreme pressure.

9. Sandra Lim, ‘The Stronger’.

Sandra Lim was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in California. Lim has said that ‘poetry always alerts me to the solitariness of individual consciousness, to the mystery of other people with other subjectivities, and to the conditions and dilemmas of moving through private and public forms of life.’

This poem, written about an ageing woman (possibly the poet’s own mother), is tender, empathic, and, above all, strong, despite the tone of ‘defeat’ which Lim describes in relation to the passage of time.

10. Amanda Gorman, ‘We Rise’.

Gorman (born 1998) read this poem at Variety’s Power of Women event. At the event, the poet encouraged the women in the audience to rise up and speak their truth to power, in rousing lines which emphasise the collective power of women.

Gorman is keen to depict women’s strength: they are victors, rather than victims. They are powerful, but they need to work together to bring about change in the world.

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