Editor’s note: This article was written through a collaboration between C. Daniel Motley and the AoM Team.
Matthew Arnold, a Victorian poet, once claimed, “The crown of literature is poetry,” and if our neglect of poetry is any indication, the crown is rusting. While books sales fluctuate from year to year, fewer and fewer publishing houses are printing volumes of poetry. The demand for poets and their poems has ebbed.
However, we do ourselves a great disservice when we neglect the reading of poetry. John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, commended poetry to his son John Quincy. Both Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt committed their favorite poems to memory. Ancient kings were expected to produce poetry while also being versed in warfare and statecraft. That poetry has fallen out of favor among men in the 21st century is a recent trend rather than the norm.
To help remedy this, we have compiled a list of 20 classic poems that every man should read. Spanning the past two thousand years, the poems on this list represent some of the best works of poetry ever composed. But don’t worry—they were selected for both their brevity and ease of application. Some are about striving to overcome, others about romantic love, and still others about patriotism. Whether you’ve been reading poetry for years or haven’t read a single line since high school, these poems are sure to inspire and delight you.
1. “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Tennyson, poet emeritus of England during the latter half of the 19th century, has composed a number of classic poems that deserve careful reading. “Ulysses,” possibly his most anthologized poem, begins at the end of Odysseus’ life after the events of Homer’s Odyssey. Tennyson depicts the desire of a man wanting to set out on new adventures and see new sights, even as his life is passing into twilight. Ulysses’ memorable phrases will encourage even the most settled soul to strike out and start something new.
2. “If–” by Rudyard Kipling
Literature is filled with examples of fathers passing their wisdom down to their sons, from the biblical Book of Proverbs to Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. While not everyone had a father to teach them life lessons, Kipling’s most read poem provides an education in living that anyone can benefit from. Soldiers and athletes have drawn from its wisdom, and boys (and men!) have committed its lines to memory for over a century. A celebration of the British “stiff upper lip,” this Victorian classic is worth meditating on every so often as a reminder of the virtues and actions that make up a life well-lived.
3. “Sailing to Byzantium” by W. B. Yeats
Socrates, speaking to a friend, once asked, “Is life harder at the end?” W.B. Yeats’ meditation on adolescence and what it means to grow old is a salve for world-weary souls. Writing near the end of his life, Yeats confesses that, although his body wastes away, his desire for what is good will not cease. Yeats’ vision for what is “true, good, and beautiful” reminds us that youth and vitality are ultimately about how one sees the world and not about age. Filled with beautiful imagery, “Sailing to Byzantium” offers a corrective to our modern obsession with chasing the phantom of eternal youth.
4. Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare
No list of poems is complete without the Bard himself. Known primarily for his plays, universally accepted as some of the best works in world literature, Shakespeare was also a poet, composing over 150 sonnets in his lifetime. Sonnet 29 is a lamentation on the loss of fame and fortune but ends with a meditation on the love that he has for his beloved. Works such as It’s a Wonderful Life echo the themes in Shakespeare’s Sonnet, showing us that the company of loved ones far outweighs all the riches that the world offers.
5. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
We’re not promised a life absent trials and suffering. While horrific events have sidelined many men, William Ernest Henley refused to be crushed on account of hardship. As a young man he contracted tuberculosis of the bone, which resulted in the amputation of the lower part of one of his legs. The disease flared up again in Henley’s twenties, compromising his other good leg, which doctors also wished to amputate. Henley successfully fought to save the leg, and while enduring a three-year hospitalization, he wrote “Invictus” — a stirring charge to remember that we are not merely given over to our fates. While life can be “nasty, brutish, and short,” we cannot sit idle while waves crash against us. A product of Victorian stoicism, and lived struggle, Henley’s poem is a clarion call to resist and persevere through the hardest of trials.
6. “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
Robert Frost once told John F. Kennedy that “Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age.” If that is the case, then Frost brought both to bear in this poem about two neighbors rebuilding a fence between their property during a cold winter in New England. A story told in blank verse, Frost critiques the phrase that he attributes to the other man in the story, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Dedicated to neighborliness and good will towards others, Frost’s work is a helpful tonic against 21st century individualism and selfishness.
7. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” by Walt Whitman
The West has captivated the imaginations of America’s greatest writers, from James Fenimore Cooper to Cormac McCarthy. Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” mixes adventure and a summons to tread out on new paths. Published at the end of the Civil War and the start of the great migration west, Whitman is rightly considered to be one of the earliest poets to distill America down to its essence. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” still moves the spirit to chart a new course and serves as both a reminder of where we have come from and where we can go.
8. “Horatius” by Thomas Babington
While serving the English government in India during the 1830s, politician, poet, and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay spun semi-mythical ancient Roman tales into memorable ballads or “lays.” His most famous lay was “Horatius,” a ballad that recounted the legendary courage of an ancient Roman army officer, Publius Horatius Cocles, who was lauded for making a stand with two comrades, and then alone, against a horde of advancing enemy Etruscans. Macaulay’s homage to the honor of Horatius has proved an inspiration to many men, including Winston Churchill, who is said to have memorized all seventy stanzas of the poem as a boy.
9. “On the Stork Tower” by Wang Zhihuan
The shortest poem on this list (the entirety of its text is contained on the image above), Zhihaun’s meditation on nature also serves as an epigram, a short motivational work meant to encourage seeking out new and better prospects. While the poem is only four lines long, it works as a meditative focus point, something to ponder whether sitting alone outside or during a crisis as a reminder that there is a solution to be found no matter the problem. Combining Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian religious ideas, Zhihuan’s only surviving poem provides food for thought dressed in the language of nature.
10. “The Builders” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
While we often think of builders as limited to those who work with their hands, the ethos of the craftsman is something everyone should strive to emulate and cultivate. Life is a craft in and of itself — one that needs to be learned and attended to with the same kind of patience, care, and integrity that go into shaping tangible materials. All of us, Longfellow argues in this poem, are architects; all of our days are building blocks that contribute to the structure of our existence; and all of our actions and decisions (even those no one else sees) determine the strength, and thus the height, that the edifices of our lives can reach.
11. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
Hughes penned this poem when he was just 17 years old. Written on his way to visit his father, the work both summarizes the experience of the young, black writer and encapsulates the struggle of African Americans across the span of time. Hughes uses famous locations of African civilizations as a reminder of the proud history of black people in America. Exasperated but not undone, Hughes’ poem is a tribute to those who have come before and an unspoken pledge to transcend time and circumstances.
12. “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke
“War is hell” quipped William Tecumseh Sherman, and no generation understood this better than the boys thrown into the grinder of World War I. While Wilfred Owen’s “Dolce Et Decorum Est” also makes for necessary reading, Rupert Brooke’s poem about loss and remembrance in wartime marries youthful vigor with a cautious patriotism. Meditating on his own death and what he hopes it means for others, Brooke reminds us that countries aren’t composed of flags and anthems, but the people who serve and sacrifice their lives for the greater good. His soldier is “A body of England’s, breathing English air,” composed of and composing what England is. “The Soldier” is a heartfelt memorial to all of those who met danger with courage and should stir us to press forward — even at the highest cost.
13. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot
What happens when societies favor disillusionment rather than contentment, individuality rather than community, safety rather than fulfillment? Eliot explores these questions in his own context, writing after the devastation brought on by World War I. Ironically titled, the poem lacks another individual for the poet to praise. Rather, the narrator reflects and laments on missed chances and opportunities never taken to reach out and connect with another person. A difficult but rewarding read, Eliot’s iconic poem serves as a warning — do not allow the awkwardness of human connection to keep you from making meaningful relationships.
14. “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon have one thing in common — they were unable to outlast the empires they forged. Though they garbed themselves in symbols meant to represent the eternal, eventually they went to the grave like the rest of mankind. Shelley encapsulates this motif in “Ozymandias,” written from the perspective of a man speaking with a traveler who had just visited the former empire of the great Ozymandias. Although the dead ruler’s statues and memorials remain, they are dilapidated and gather dust, a symbol of the passage of time that dooms any who dreams of building empires. Shelley’s classic work is a morality tale, a check on hubris, a reminder that no matter how great our works, they will all ultimately decay as the wheel of history turns round.
15. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne
Written to his wife upon leaving for a trip abroad, Donne’s poem uses the literary concept of a “conceit,” an extended metaphor, to encourage his wife to see their momentary separation not as “A breach, but an expansion” of their love. Donne describes their relationship in terms of a drawing compass, her being the arm that is fixed in place and his as the arm extended outward, yet still connected. Donne’s masterful use of the English language, blended with emotional longing, makes “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” one of the greatest love songs ever penned. Donne’s work is an excellent poem to read with your spouse or significant other.
16. Poem from The Iron Heel by Jack London
This poem is actually contained within another work of literature — Jack London’s novel, The Iron Heel. The book’s narrator, Avis Everhard, describes the text as her husband’s favorite poem and an encapsulation of his sprit, but it is also clearly a description of London’s own philosophy of life — his belief in the infinite power and potential of man and desire to experience everything the world had to offer. “How can a man, with thrilling, and burning, and exaltation, recite the following and still be mere mortal earth, a bit of fugitive force, an evanescent form?” Everhard asks. It’s a rhetorical question, of course; speak it aloud and see for yourself.
17. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
During the Crimean War, a miscommunication led a small band of around six hundred British cavalrymen to ride into a valley surrounded by twenty Russian battalions armed with heavy artillery. While the British cavalry was resoundingly and tragically defeated, and their commanders sharply criticized for the heavy casualties, the bravery of the men who charged into the “valley of death” was celebrated and honored in many forms — none more famous than this poem by Tennyson.
18. “Opportunity” by John James Ingalls
Opportunity, it is famously said, knocks only once. John James Ingalls, a U.S. Senator from Kansas, penned an ode to this simple but profound principle in the mid-19th century, and it was said to have become Theodore Roosevelt’s very favorite poem. When he was president, an autographed copy of it was the only thing besides a portrait to hang in TR’s executive office in the White House. If the Bull Moose needed a potent reminder to listen for opportunity’s subtle call, we all surely do as well.
19. “Character of the Happy Warrior” by William Wordsworth
What makes a good soldier? What qualities are attendant in a “happy warrior”? These are the questions that William Wordsworth lays out in the opening line of one of his most famous poems, and then proceeds to answer in the lines that follow. A great warrior deftly finds balance between being eager for battle, and yet aching for the joys and pleasures of home. A great warrior is guided by an inner light of virtuosity and generosity. A great warrior knows that suffering contains purpose. While the words pertain particularly to the soul of a soldier, its inspiration applies to every man engaged in the fight of life.
20. Ode 1.11 by Horace
Made famous by Robin Williams’ inspiring literature teacher in the film Dead Poets Society, Horace’s Ode 1.11 contains one of the most quoted Latin phrases — Carpe diem, or “Seize the day!” Writing to his friend Leuconoe, Horace tries to convince him to avoid thinking about tomorrow, or attempt to speak to astrologers in order to peer into the future. Instead, he encourages Leuconoe to “seize the day!” — to make every day count and to stop relying on the hope that tomorrow will bring something better on its own. Ode 1.11 admonishes us to remember that we are not promised tomorrow, and calls us to do what needs to be done today.