In case you haven’t put your hands on a copy of the collected works of Shakespeare or Dante lately, here are some classic poems that every man should read.
The “short classic poems” are a list of 20 poems that every man should read. They are all short, so they can be read in just a few minutes. The poems range from romantic to humorous and have been around for centuries.
Editor’s note: C. Daniel Motley and the AoM Team collaborated on this piece.
“The crown of literature is poetry,” said Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, and if our disregard of poetry is any indicator, the crown is rusting. While book sales vary year to year, publishing companies are producing less and fewer volumes of poetry. Poets and their poetry are no longer in high demand.
When we forget to read poetry, though, we are doing ourselves a big harm. One of the founding fathers of the United States, John Adams, encouraged his son John Quincy to write poetry. Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln both memorized their favorite poetry. Poetry was required of ancient monarchs, who were also supposed to be skilled in combat and statecraft. Poetry’s decline in popularity among males in the twenty-first century is a recent trend rather than the norm.
We’ve put up a list of 20 famous poems that every male should read to aid with this. The poems on this list span over two thousand years and constitute some of the greatest masterpieces of poetry ever written. But don’t worry—they were chosen for their conciseness and simplicity of use. Some are about overcoming obstacles, while others are about romantic love and patriotism. These poems are likely to inspire and entertain you, whether you’ve been reading poetry for years or haven’t read a single word since high school.
1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”
Tennyson, England’s poet emeritus in the second half of the nineteenth century, wrote a number of famous poems that are well worth reading. “Ulysses,” his most famous work, starts after the events of Homer’s Odyssey, towards the conclusion of Odysseus’ life. Even as his life approaches sunset, Tennyson describes a man’s longing to go on fresh journeys and explore new vistas. Even the most settled person will be inspired by Ulysses’ remarkable sentences to break forth and start something new.
Here is where you may read “Ulysses.”
2. Rudyard Kipling’s “If–”
From the ancient Book of Proverbs to Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, literature is full with tales of dads passing on their knowledge to their sons. While not everyone has a parent to give them life lessons, Kipling’s most popular poem offers a life lesson that anybody may learn from. For almost a century, soldiers and athletes have benefited from its wisdom, and boys (and men!) have committed its words to memory. This Victorian classic, a glorification of the British “stiff upper lip,” is worth reflecting on every now and again as a reminder of the characteristics and acts that make up a life well-lived.
Here’s where you may read “If–.”
3. W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”
“Is life tougher in the end?” Socrates once inquired to a friend. The meditation on youth and what it means to grow old by W.B. Yeats is a balm for weary spirits. In a letter written at the end of his life, Yeats admits that, even as his body deteriorates, his yearning for what is good will not fade. Youth and vitality are ultimately about how one perceives the world, not about age, as Yeats’ vision for what is “true, good, and lovely” tells us. “Sailing to Byzantium” is a wonderful book that serves as a counterpoint to our present fixation with pursuing the illusion of endless youth.
Here’s where you can read “Sailing to Byzantium.”
4. William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29
Without the Bard himself, no list of poetry would be complete. Shakespeare was a poet who wrote over 150 sonnets throughout his lifetime. He is most known for his plays, which are unanimously regarded as some of the finest works of global literature. Sonnet 29 is a lament for the loss of fame and money, but it concludes with a contemplation on his love for his sweetheart. The concepts of Shakespeare’s Sonnet are echoed in works like It’s a Wonderful Life, which shows us that the companionship of loved ones much transcends all the world’s wealth.
Here’s where you can read Sonnet 29.
5. William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”
We aren’t guaranteed a life free of challenges and tribulations. While horrible occurrences forced many men to retire, William Ernest Henley refused to be defeated by adversity. He suffered TB of the bone as a young man, resulting in the amputation of the lower half of one of his legs. In Henley’s twenties, the condition flared up again, endangering his second decent limb, which doctors again wanted to amputate. Henley was successful in saving the limb, and during his three-year hospitalization, he penned “Invictus,” a rousing call to remember that we are not just victims of our circumstances. While life might be “nasty, brutish, and short,” we can’t sit by and watch the waves break on our shores. Henley’s poem is a clarion cry to resist and persist through the most difficult of tribulations, a consequence of Victorian stoicism and genuine hardship.
Here’s where you can read “Invictus.”
6. Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”
“Poetry and power is the recipe for another Augustan Age,” Robert Frost allegedly told John F. Kennedy. If that’s the case, Frost combined the two in this poem about two neighbors erecting a fence between their properties during a harsh New England winter. In this blank verse fiction, Frost criticizes the saying “Good fences make good neighbors,” which he gives to the other guy in the story. Frost’s writing, which is devoted to neighborliness and good will toward others, is a useful tonic against individuality and selfishness in the twenty-first century.
Here’s where you can read “Mending Wall.”
“Pioneers! O Pioneers!” says number seven. Walt Whitman’s quote
From James Fenimore Cooper to Cormac McCarthy, the West has captured the minds of America’s finest authors. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” by Walt Whitman combines adventure with a call to forge new roads. Whitman is properly regarded as one of the first writers to reduce America down to its core, having published his poem at the close of the Civil War and the beginnings of the great exodus west. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” still inspires us to chart a new path and serves as a reminder of where we’ve come from as well as where we may go.
“Pioneers! O Pioneers!” may be found here.
8. Thomas Babington’s “Horatius”
Politician, poet, and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay fashioned semi-mythical old Roman stories into memorable ballads or “lays” while serving the English government in India in the 1830s. His most famous lie was “Horatius,” a ballad about an ancient Roman army commander named Publius Horatius Cocles, who was acclaimed for standing alone against a swarm of invading enemy Etruscans after making a stand with two colleagues. Many individuals have been inspired by Macaulay’s devotion to Horatius’ honor, including Winston Churchill, who is claimed to have memorized all seventy stanzas of the poem as a child.
Here’s where you can read “Horatius.”
9. Wang Zhihuan’s “On the Stork Tower”
Zhihaun’s meditation on nature also functions as an epigram, a brief motivational work aimed to promote searching out new and better opportunities. It is the shortest poem on our list (the complete text is displayed on the picture above). When the poem is just four lines long, it serves as a meditative focal point, something to think on while sitting alone outdoors or during a crisis as a reminder that no matter the difficulty, there is a solution to be found. Zhihuan’s lone surviving poem offers food for thought clothed in the language of nature, combining Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian religious beliefs.
10. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Builders”
While we commonly associate builders with individuals who work with their hands, the craftsman’s attitude is one that everyone should try to imitate. Life is a craft in and of itself, requiring the same time, care, and integrity that goes into sculpting actual objects. Longfellow argues in this poem that we are all architects; that all of our days are building blocks that contribute to the structure of our lives; and that all of our actions and decisions (even those that no one else sees) determine the strength, and thus the height, that our lives’ edifices can reach.
Here’s where you may read “The Builders.”
Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is number eleven.
This poem was written by Hughes when he was just 17 years old. Written on his trip to see his father, the piece captures the young black writer’s perspective as well as the struggle of African Americans throughout history. Hughes employs well-known African civilizations as a reminder of black people’s glorious past in America. Hughes’ poem is a homage to those who have gone before him, as well as an unstated promise to transcend time and circumstance.
Here’s where you can read “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
12. Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”
“War is horrible,” William Tecumseh Sherman said, and no generation knew this more than the young men who were forced into the grinder of World War I. Rupert Brooke’s poem on loss and remembering in warfare blends young exuberance with a cautious patriotism, while Wilfred Owen’s “Dolce Et Decorum Est” is another required reading. Brooke, reflecting on his own death and what he thinks it means for others, reminds us that nations are made up of individuals who serve and risk their life for the greater good, not flags and songs. His soldier is “an English body, breathing English air,” made out of and constituted of England. “The Soldier” is a moving tribute to all those who have faced danger with bravery, and it should inspire us to keep going — even if it means paying the ultimate price.
Here’s where you may read “The Soldier.”
T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is number thirteen.
What happens when society choose disappointment over satisfaction, individualism over community, and safety above fulfillment? Eliot considers these issues in the perspective of his own time, writing after the tragedy of World War I. The poem, despite its ironic title, lacks another person for the author to admire. The narrator, on the other hand, recalls and laments on wasted chances and possibilities to reach out and connect with another person. Eliot’s renowned poem serves as a cautionary tale: don’t let the discomfort of human connection deter you from developing lasting connections.
Read J. Alfred Prufrock’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” here.
14. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”
Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon all had one thing in common: their empires did not outlive them. Despite the fact that they wore insignia designed to signify the everlasting, they ultimately died, just like the rest of humanity. In “Ozymandias,” written from the viewpoint of a man interacting with a tourist who had just seen the old realm of the great Ozymandias, Shelley captures this idea. The monuments and memorials of the deceased king are still standing, but they are decrepit and dusty, a sign of the passage of time that dooms anybody who dreams of constructing empires. Shelley’s famous work is a morality tale, a rebuke to arrogance, and a warning that no matter how beautiful our efforts are, they will all eventually deteriorate as time passes.
Here’s where you can read “Ozymandias.”
15. John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”
Donne’s poem, written to his wife before he left for a journey abroad, employs the literary idea of a “conceit,” an extended metaphor, to persuade his wife to consider their temporary separation as an enlargement of their love rather than a rupture. Donne compares their connection to that of a drawing compass, with her as the fixed arm and his as the stretched, but still linked, arm. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is one of the best love songs ever written, because to Donne’s excellent use of the English language combined with emotional desire. Reading Donne’s work with your spouse or significant other is a great idea.
Here’s where you may read “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”
16. Poem from Jack London’s The Iron Heel
This poetry is included inside another piece of literature, Jack London’s book The Iron Heel. The text is described as her husband’s favorite poem and an encapsulation of his spirit by the book’s narrator, Avis Everhard, 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 say the following with exciting, scorching, and exaltation and yet be simple mortal earth, a fleeting energy, an evanescent form?” Everhard inquires. Of course, that’s a rhetorical question; say it out loud and see for yourself.
Here’s a poem from The Iron Heel that you may read.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is number seventeen.
During the Crimean War, a misunderstanding caused a small group of British cavalrymen to gallop into a valley surrounded by twenty Russian battalions equipped with heavy artillery. While the British cavalry was soundly and cruelly beaten, and their commanders were roundly chastised for the high number of deaths, the valor of the troops who stormed into the “valley of death” was recognized and remembered in a variety of ways, none more renowned than Tennyson’s poem.
Here’s where you may read “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
18. John James Ingalls’ “Opportunity”
Opportunity only comes knocking once, as the saying goes. In the mid-nineteenth century, Kansas Senator John James Ingalls wrote an ode to this simple but deep notion, which is claimed to have been Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite poem. Apart from a photograph, a signed copy of it hung in TR’s executive office in the White House while he was president. We all need a powerful reminder to listen for opportunity’s subtle call, just as the Bull Moose did.
Here’s where you can read “Opportunity.”
19. William Wordsworth’s “Character of the Happy Warrior”
What qualities distinguish an excellent soldier? What characteristics characterize a “happy warrior”? These are the questions posed by William Wordsworth in the first line of one of his most famous poems, which he then answers in the following lines. A great warrior strikes a delicate balance between a desire to fight and a longing for the comforts and pleasures of home. An inner spark of virtuosity and benevolence guides a great fighter. Suffering has a purpose in the eyes of a great fighter. While the words are addressed to the soldier’s spirit, their motivation is applicable to every man fighting for his life.
“Character of the Happy Warrior” may be found here.
20. Horace’s Ode 1.11
Horace’s Ode 1.11 features one of the most repeated Latin lines — Carpe diem, or “Seize the Day!” — made famous by Robin Williams’ inspirational literature instructor in the film Dead Poets Society. In a letter to his friend Leuconoe, Horace attempts to persuade him not to ponder about tomorrow or to consult astrologers to see into the future. Instead, he advises Leuconoe to “seize the day!” – to make each day count rather than depending on the faith that tomorrow would bring better things on its own. Ode 1.11 reminds us that tomorrow is not certain, and it is up to us to accomplish what has to be done now.
Here’s where you can read Ode 1.11.
Here’s where you can read Ode 1.11.
C. Daniel Motley lives with his wife, cat, and dog in Washington state. They’re both Southern transplants who are constantly on the lookout for Cracker Barrel and sweet tea. @motleydaniel is his Twitter handle.
The “classic poetry books” is a list of 20 classic poems that every man should read. They are all written by different authors, and each one has a unique style and message.
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