Poets have often tried to emphasise the hopeful aspects of human nature, and our tendency to look optimistically towards the future as a brighter, happier time. Individual ambitions and aspirations, too, have often come under the purview of some of the best and most celebrated poets writing in English.
Below, we select and introduce ten of the greatest poems about ambitions and aspirations of various kinds.
1. Robert Herrick, ‘Ambition’.
In man, ambition is the common’st thing;
Each one by nature loves to be a king.
In just two lines, an example of the form known as the heroic couplet, the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) cleverly plays off the ‘common’ or widespread ambition most men have against the royal exclusivity of the role of king.
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘Aspiration’.
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.
The heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the cubits warp
For fear to be a king.
Dickinson (1830-86) was a prolific poet, whose poetry largely remained unpublished until after her death. Indeed, she was more famous as a gardener while she was alive!
This lesser-known poem from her is about fear of ambition: the idea that we would ‘daily’ achieve the great heights of heroism if it weren’t for fear of reaching too high.
3. William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed …
Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa is named Invictus after this poem, and for good reason: Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners while he was incarcerated on Robben Island. ‘Invictus’ was partly inspired by Henley’s (pictured right) own struggles as an invalid (he lost a leg when young) and his determination to remain ‘bloody but unbowed’.
The poem introduced a couple of famous phrases into the language: ‘bloody, but unbowed’, and the final two lines: ‘I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.’
4. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘I Will Be Worthy of It’.
I may not reach the heights I seek,
My untried strength may fail me;
Or, half-way up the mountain peak,
Fierce tempests may assail me.
But though that place I never gain,
Herein lies comfort for my pain—
I will be worthy of it.
The American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is not usually lauded as a great poet. Indeed, quite the opposite: in his The Joy of Bad Verse, a glorious celebration of ‘good bad poetry’ in English, Nicholas T. Parsons includes a chapter on Wilcox, discussing the bad reception her poetry received among American soldiers during the First World War.
However, Wilcox could write not just good bad poems, but out-and-out good ones which can lift the spirits and rouse her readers. This short poem is a fine example of that.
5. Henrietta Cordelia Ray, ‘Aspiration’.
We climb the slopes of life with throbbing heart,
And eager pulse, like children toward a star.
Sweet siren music cometh from afar,
To lure us on meanwhile. Responsive start
The nightingales to richer song than Art
Can ever teach. No passing shadows mar
Awhile the dewy skies; no inner jar
Of conflict bids us with our quest to part.
We see adown the distance, rainbow-arched,
What melting aisles of liquid light and bloom!
We hasten, tremulous, with lips all parched,
And eyes wide-stretched, nor dream of coming gloom.
Enough that something held almost divine
Within us ever stirs. Can we repine?
This sonnet, reproduced in full here, is by the African-American poet Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852-1916). Ray’s most famous poem, the ode ‘Lincoln’, was read at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1876, but it’s fair to say that she had to wait until the current century for her work to be rediscovered and reappraised. She is now regarded as a pioneering early African-American poet.
6. Rudyard Kipling, ‘If—’.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise …
Stoicism looms large in Kipling’s famous poem – that is, the acknowledgment that, whilst you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you can deal with them in a good way. This is summed up well in the reference to meeting with triumph and disaster and ‘treat[ing] those two impostors just the same’ – in other words, be magnanimous in victory and success (don’t gloat or crow about it) and be dignified and noble in defeat or times of trouble (don’t moan or throw your toys out of the pram).
A phrase that is often used in discussion or analysis of ‘If—’ is ‘stiff upper lip’, that shorthand for the typically English quality of reserve and stoicism in the face of disaster.
7. Kahlil Gibran, ‘Ambition’.
Gibran (1883-1931) is thought to be one of the three biggest-selling poets in the world, alongside William Shakespeare and Lao-Tze. His success rests principally on his long poetic work The Prophet. In this poem, which is almost more of a prose poem or a parable, three men meet at a tavern table: a weaver, a carpenter, and a ploughman. But the core of this short poem is the tavern-keeper, who has ambitions for his son, whom he wants to train as a priest.
8. Langston Hughes, ‘Dreams’.
Another word for ‘ambition’ or ‘aspiration’ is, of course, ‘dream’. In just eight short lines, probably the best-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1901-67), gives us words to live by – reminding us that it’s important to ‘hold fast to your dreams’ because a life without them is a ‘barren field’.
9. Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’.
‘Still I Rise’ 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. The poem is a rousing paean to the individual’s ambition to overcome whatever obstacles life throws her way.
10. 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.’ Like Angelou, Lorde was an important voice in the US Civil Rights movement, and in this poem – perhaps her most celebrated – Lorde discusses her blackness, her political activism, and her sexuality.
The poem explores the poet’s ambitions to be open and honest. In the poem’s final stanza, Lorde asserts that love is another way of being open, and she returns to the image of a bright diamond shining in a ‘knot of flame’.