20 Powerful Poems About Life That Will Change How You See the World
Art can help us make sense of the world, and these moving poems about life offer a better understanding of the ups and downs we all face
Poems about life for nearly every situation
Poetry doesn’t just reflect life—it makes life an object of art. Whatever state or mood you’re in, poems about life are there to guide you, to ease you and to help you find meaning and make sense of the world around you. Whether you’re toasting a recent achievement with words of congratulations or celebrating your soul mate with love poems, poetry is there to accentuate your feelings of joy and to word them beautifully.
It’s there, too, when life is less than rosy: when you’re feeling down, suffering from heartbreak or full of confusion. Even when you’re dealing with an agonizing loss, funeral poems are a comfort. Moral of the story: Poetry sheds light on our lives, no matter the occasion, and it’d be a shame not to enjoy its wonders.
The world of poetry is wide—you can dig in to a longer poetry book or read short poems when time allows. And it’s an art form that pretty much anyone can appreciate; a lot of poets write beautiful poems for kids, which help build little ones’ artistic taste. But no matter your age or what life throws at you, you can find strength and motivation in inspirational poems.
With that in mind, we’ve rounded up 20 poems about life, a few for each occasion. So dig in and find meaning in their beautiful stanzas.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more poetry, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
1. “Each Life Converges to Some Centre” by Emily Dickinson
Each life converges to some centre
Expressed or still;
Exists in every human nature
Admitted scarcely to itself, it may be,
For credibility’s temerity
Adored with caution, as a brittle heaven,
Were hopeless as the rainbow’s raiment
Yet persevered toward, surer for the distance;
Unto the saints’ slow diligence
Ungained, it may be, by a life’s low venture,
Eternity enables the endeavoring
Emily Dickinson is one of a kind, even in the vast ocean of English-language poetry. She lived in seclusion for most of her life and wasn’t well known in her own time. But after her death, the world began to realize just how brilliant her work was, and today she’s one of the most recognizable literary figures in history. This poem is a beautiful example of her singular style, offering valuable lessons in patience, perseverance and the ultimate reward of waiting. Looking for more verses by a young American poet? Check out Amanda Gorman’s poems.
2. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
You might remember this poem from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams’s character recites the final two lines to his students. Or maybe you remember it from your own high school English class—it’s enough of a classic to regularly make it into the curriculum. “The Road Not Taken” is a famous poem for good reason: Robert Frost offers a valuable lesson on individuality and choice. Don’t follow the crowd, he says through the metaphor of a walk through the woods. Instead of taking the path that others have walked before, forge your own. After all, we each have a distinct personality and should nurture it instead of copying the rest of the world.
3. “Dreams” by Langston Hughes
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
A key figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Langston Hughes wrote about Black life and culture, revealing through his words his people’s music, language, laughter and, yes, suffering. In “Dreams,” he compares life without dreams to a broken bird unable to fly and to a frozen-over land, cold and uninviting. One of America’s foremost Black poets, Hughes writes that dreams are essential to a happy life.
4. “O Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Here’s another poem made famous by the film Dead Poets Society—and by the fact that Walt Whitman is, without question, one of the great American poets of all time. In the film, Robin Williams’s teacher character recites the line “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Talk about a life-changing quote, right? Those are exactly the right words for a group of fictional students in need of motivation and inspiration, but they hit real and modern readers just as powerfully. A beautiful piece about being worthy simply by existing, “O Me! O Life!” is the poem to read when life seems pointless or purposeless. Why does any of it matter? Because you exist. Because you continue to contribute to the world. And that’s enough.
5. “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
In the opening to “A Psalm of Life,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, another great figure in American poetry, challenges the idea that life is simply a precursor to death. Life is short, and it’s better to live in the present and make your mark. If you read the full poem, you’ll see these sentiments again and again: “Act,—act in the living Present!” writes Longfellow, urging readers to seize the day. “Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our lives sublime,/ And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time;” he says, noting that the things we do in life leave behind memories that will outlive us.
6. “If—” by Rudyard Kipling
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;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Written as a long letter of advice to the poet’s son, “If—” contains many lessons on life that should not be missed, chief among them this: You should always persevere and never give up. And Rudyard Kipling would know about perseverance—after a tough childhood, he went on to be a giant of English literature, penning poems that still resonate today, along with children’s books like the beloved The Jungle Book. Not only is “If—” a moving letter from father to son, but it’s also one of the most famous works of poetry. In fact, a 1995 BBC poll even named this the United Kingdom’s favorite poem.
7. “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Emily Dickinson appears once again on our list of poems about life, this time with words that conjure the image of a bird. But don’t read this simply as a nature poem—it has a deeper meaning. This piece is full of joy and ambition, and in it, Dickinson compares hope to a bird whose many sweet qualities warm us and which doesn’t flit away at the first sign of trouble.
8. “The Guest House” by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Hailing from 13th-century Persia, Rumi wrote some of the most moving and universal poems of all time. It’s no wonder he’s a recognizable name hundreds of years later—his poetry still resonates with contemporary readers. In “The Guest House,” he compares humans to homes in which emotions are guests we should welcome like friends. In a quote about life we’d all best remember, Rumi writes of a negative emotion, “He may be clearing you out/ for some new delight.” When negative thoughts start to affect us too much, he suggests, we should remember that they have the potential to guide us toward positive changes.
9. “Sonnet 29” by William Shakespeare
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
We’ve all found ourselves playing the comparison game—you know the one. It involves someone smarter than you or richer than you or more creative than you. But a good friend or romantic partner is a balm for these self-critical thoughts. That is what William Shakespeare, perhaps the most famous playwright and poet of all time, tries to tell us through this sonnet, one of the 154 sonnets he wrote. Like many of Shakespeare’s other works, this is a love poem for a woman or man who enriched the poet’s life. The opening describes life’s hardships, but the final two lines make it clear that the right person will make life tolerable and worth living.
10. “Leisure” by W.H. Davies
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
If your idea of lighthearted poetry begins and ends with funny roses-are-red poems, it’s time to read “Leisure.” Written in the early 1900s by Welsh poet W.H. Davies, it’s lighthearted but full of life lessons. When things get overwhelming, it’s important to take a step back and let our minds and souls rest. Davies couldn’t have imagined the extreme hustle and bustle of modern life, but he speaks to it beautifully here, urging readers to stop and appreciate the world around them.
11. “Iris of Life” by Zitkála-Šá
Like tiny drops of crystal rain,
In every life the moments fall,
To wear away with silent beat,
The shell of selfishness o’er all.
And every act, not one too small,
That leaps from out the heart’s pure glow,
Like ray of gold sends forth a light,
While moments into seasons flow.
Athwart the dome, Eternity,
To Iris grown resplendent, fly
Bright gleams from every noble deed,
Till colors with each other vie.
‘Tis glimpses of this grand rainbow,
Where moments with good deeds unite,
That gladden many weary hearts,
Inspiring them to seek more Light.
Born in 1876, Zitkála-Šá was a poet, short story writer, musician, activist, member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux and co-founder of the National Council of American Indians. In her 1898 poem, “Iris of Life,” she muses on how good deeds can overcome life’s heavier moments. The kind things we do—the acts that come from our “heart’s pure glow”—have the ability to inspire and “gladden many weary hearts.”
12. “My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
English poet William Wordsworth, one of the founders and pillars of the Romantic movement, wrote this poem to remind readers of the importance of retaining a precious sense of childlike wonder. As we grow in years and life grows in difficulty, it’s easy to overlook the things that once left us awed—like a rainbow after a storm.
13. “Life Is” by Mother Teresa
Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is life, fight for it.
Mother Teresa, the Albanian-Indian nun who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for “her work for bringing help to suffering humanity,” left us with this beautiful poem about how life should be lived through all its joys and hardships. A warm poem that’s at once hopeful, reassuring and relatable, it’s appropriate for pretty much any situation. But considering this comes from a woman who was a mother to many, it’s especially well suited as a Mother’s day poem.
14. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
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.
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.
William Ernest Henley is a 19th-century poet, writer and critic who wrote many great works but is remembered the most for this poem. He wrote “Invictus” as he prepared to have his leg amputated, and it is a beautiful yet harsh lesson about the importance of hope in the most hopeless situations.
15. “The Crystal Gazer” by Sara Teasdale
I shall gather myself into myself again,
I shall take my scattered selves and make them one,
Fusing them into a polished crystal ball
Where I can see the moon and the flashing sun.
I shall sit like a sibyl, hour after hour intent,
Watching the future come and the present go,
And the little shifting pictures of people rushing
In restless self-importance to and fro.
Sara Teasdale, a poet from Missouri born in 1884, led a harsh existence: She was in poor health all her life, married a man whom she did not love and lost her best friend to suicide (and a few years later, her own life in the same way). Her work, however, is full of hope and strength, reminding readers of the importance of finding oneself in the middle of the confusion of life. The dichotomy is what makes poems about life so powerful: Great poets don’t leave behind uplifting quotes because their lives were wonderful; they see through their difficulties to create poetry that offers a light in the darkness.
16. “What Is Our Life” by Sir Walter Raleigh
What is our Life? The play of passion.
Our mirth? The music of division:
Our mothers’ wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for Life’s short comedy.
The Earth the stage; Heaven the spectator is,
Who sits and views whosoe’er doth act amiss.
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus playing post we to our latest rest,
And then we die in earnest, not in jest.
Sir Walter Raleigh lived an interesting life: He volunteered for France’s army at the age of 15, was imprisoned in the Tower of London and explored South America in a voyage that helped reinforce the legend of El Dorado. From this well-lived poet of the Elizabethan era comes a poem that likens life to a play. But, as he points out, our lives may be short comedies, but our deaths are real and true.
17. “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Written by one of the greats of English poetry, “Ode to a Nightingale” is John Keats’s admission that life is full of pain and his spirit may suffer from time to time. Yet while death may seem like a solution in desperate times, it would stop him from enjoying the nightingale’s song. It’s a beautiful metaphor for what life has to offer. The excerpt above is beautiful and moving, but for even more uplifting stanzas, check out the full poem. And if you’re finding life a little overwhelming right now, try one of these inspirational books.
18. “Start Where You Stand” by Berton Braley
Start where you stand and never mind the past,
The past won’t help you in beginning new,
If you have left it all behind at last
Why, that’s enough, you’re done with it, you’re through;
This is another chapter in the book,
This is another race that you have planned,
Don’t give the vanished days a backward look,
Start where you stand.
The world won’t care about your old defeats
If you can start anew and win success,
The future is your time, and time is fleet
And there is much of work and strain and stress;
Forget the buried woes and dead despairs,
Here is a brand new trial right at hand,
The future is for him who does and dares,
Start where you stand.
Old failures will not halt, old triumphs aid,
To-day’s the thing, to-morrow soon will be;
Get in the fight and face it unafraid,
And leave the past to ancient history;
What has been, has been; yesterday is dead
And by it you are neither blessed nor banned,
Take courage, man, be brave and drive ahead,
Start where you stand.
Throughout his career, Berton Braley wrote more than 11,000 lines of poetry and hundreds of short stories, making him one of the most-read poets of his generation. His talent emerged early—when he was only 11, a small publication published a story he’d written. He wrote this poem as inspiration for anyone stuck in the past. Let it go, he says, urging readers to start anew today, failure be forgotten.
19. “Don’t Quit” by Edgar A. Guest
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
when the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
when the funds are low and the debts are high,
and you want to smile but you have to sigh,
when care is pressing you down a bit – rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns.
As everyone of us sometimes learns.
And many a fellow turns about when he might have won had he stuck it out.
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow – you may succeed with another blow.
Often the goal is nearer than it seems to a faint and faltering man;
Often the struggler has given up when he might have captured the victor’s cup;
and he learned too late when the night came down,
how close he was to the golden crown.
Success is failure turned inside out – the silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
and when you never can tell how close you are,
it may be near when it seems afar;
so stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit – it’s when things seem worst, you must not quit.
Written over a century ago, “Don’t Quit” is a gentle reminder that this too shall pass. Those hardships you’re facing—the bills, the grief, the nonstop stress at work? They’ll soon be replaced by much happier days.
20. “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Appearing in Walt Whitman’s 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself” is the poet’s most celebrated and well-recognized work. Whitman opens his American epic with the three-line excerpt above (the full poem has 52 sections), which serves as a statement of individuality. The full poem is worth a read, but this short open is a wonderful reminder that our little quirks make us who we are, and they should be dear and sacred to us. Ready for more poetry? These funny poems will have you cracking up.