Join Discovery, the new community for book lovers

Trust book recommendations from real people, not robots 🤓

Blog – Posted on Monday, Jul 11

40 Transformative Poems About Life Everyone Should Know

40 Transformative Poems About Life Everyone Should Know

Let’s face it. Sometimes, life can get confusing and hard. In such times, it can be useful to turn to the wisdom of poetry. Poetry has a way of making us feel understood — it can make us feel empowered, hopeful, and remind us why life is worth living. So, in this post we’ve put together a list of the 40 greatest poems about life. From classics like Robert Frost and Rumi to the more contemporary Rupi Kaur, you’re guaranteed to find something that resonates with what you’re feeling.

1. "Risk", by Anaïs Nin

And then the day came,

when the risk

to remain tight

in a bud

was more painful

than the risk

it took

to blossom.

A single sentence broken up into 8 small lines, Anaïs Nin’s “Risk” uses a flower as a metaphor, to remind us that there will come a day when the pain of complacency will exceed the pain of actually daring to make a change. The poem serves as an understated call to action — make the change now, no matter how scary.

2. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", by Robert Frost

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Reading out like a heartbeat, Frost's most famous work draws from nature to explore the human conflict of being torn between life’s beauty and its responsibilities. With the repetition of ‘and miles to go before I sleep’ closing out the poem, Frost perfectly captures the feeling of a moment we've all experienced — one where we're weary of life and its challenges. 

3. “Hope is the thing with feathers", by Emily Dickinson

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

The evocative extended metaphor at the heart of this work has helped to cement "Hope is a thing with feathers" as perhaps the best-loved of Dickinson's 1,800 poems. In the last stanza, Dickinson beautifully captures the ever-giving, selfless nature of hope⁠— the bird of hope sings in the harshest, most adverse times in our lives, never asking for anything in return. 

4. "The Peace of Wild Things", by Wendell Berry

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Written in free verse, "The Peace of Wild Things” intentionally slips the shackles of a standard meter and rhyme scheme. The loose structure of the poem mirrors the uncontrolled, free-flowing beauty of nature when left to its own devices. Berry admires the power of nature’s simplicity, reminding us that we can always turn to ‘the grace of the '"world’ to soothe an ever-worrying, overthinking human mind.

5. "The Summer Day", by Mary Oliver

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Reflecting on the futility of life, Oliver’s “The Summer Day” shakes the reader by the shoulder, offering a jolt of inspiration. As everything dies ‘at last’ and ‘too soon’, the poem encourages us to live our one life intentionally.  By asking the reader what you plan to do with ‘your one wild and precious life’, the poem serves as a reminder that it’s ultimately our job to fill our own lives with meaning (whatever that might mean for each one of us!). So, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

6. "The Guest House", by Rumi

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.

Written by the great 13th-century Persian poet, "The Guest House" is a call for acceptance — one that is, unsurprisingly,  often invoked in mindfulness circles. Rumi uses the metaphor of a guest house, likening it to the mind. Much like guests in a lodge, thoughts arrive in our head one after another— some making us happy, sad, and even uncomfortable. This poem serves as a reminder to not resist life’s painful thoughts, but to welcome them with warmth and good grace. 

7. "from Milk and Honey", by Rupi Kaur

what is stronger

than the human heart

which shatters over and over

and still lives

Inward-looking in style, Rupi Kaur’s collection of poems, from Milk and Honey, centers around the theme of self-love (which is also a form of introspection). Kaur’s poems ironically remind us that the emotional attention and love that we crave and desire is not something that can be sought in the outside world. Her clarion call to prioritize one’s self and start living intentionally is one that resonates deeply with today’s increasingly alienated generation. 

8. "Sonnet 29", by William Shakespeare

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

"Sonnet 29" is a single sentence, divided into two: a conditional clause and a main clause. Shakepeare first lists a series of misfortunes that he undergoes before revealing that his suffering is compensated for when he thinks of the person he loves. The poem thus reminds us that even in the toughest of times, those who we love have the power to completely change our outlook.

9. "I took my power in my hand", by Emily Dickinson

I aimed by Pebble—but Myself

Was all the one that fell—

Was it Goliath—was too large—

Or was myself—too small

Whilst not particularly uplifting, Dickinson’s “I took my power in my hand” brings out a harsh reality many of us struggle with — accepting failure. The poem is populated with unorthodox punctuation (particularly a liberal use of dashes) and mid-sentence capitalization to emphasize the confusion and bewilderment in the poet’s thoughts as she comes to terms with failure. 

10. "O Me! O life!", by Walt Whitman

O Me! O 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?

One of Whitman’s shortest and most celebrated poems,“O Me! O Life!” highlights the daily struggle that is life. After his early lamentations, the poet concludes that the meaning of life lies in life itself — that we are present, alive, and can contribute our own verse to life. In Whitman’s case this is literally a verse, but metaphorically this refers to whatever you bring to the table.

11. "Life Doesn’t Frighten Me", by Maya Angelou

Shadows on the wall

Noises down the hall

Life doesn't frighten me at all

Bad dogs barking loud

Big ghosts in a cloud

Life doesn't frighten me at all

If you’re looking for a little courage, “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” is the poem to turn to. Angelou takes us into the mind of a child who lists an elaborate array of things that seemingly don’t frighten her — ‘shadows’, ‘big ghosts’ or even ‘tough guys’. The refrain ‘frighten me at all’, is repeated ten times throughout the poem. This repetition causes one to question the speaker’s honesty — is the child really not frightened? Or is this repetition simply a way to make her feel braver? Whether the child is truly unafraid or not, this poem perfectly encapsulates the concept of facing your fears with a smile.

12. "A Psalm of Life", by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way; 

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.

On reading “A Psalm of Life” , you might just feel an instant urge to live your best life. The poem rejects the idea that life can be broken down into meaningless, emotionless metrics. It advocates that life is neither made to suffer through, nor is it made to solely enjoy. While both these emotions are a part of the journey, the purpose of life is ‘to act’, improve oneself, and make each day better than the previous one.

13. "Do not go gentle into that good night", by Dylan Thomas

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One of the most famous villanelles (a 19-line poem with a fixed form and rhyme scheme) written in English, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem not about life, but about death. While the poet acknowledges the inevitability of death, he uses this to highlight that life is precious and worth fighting for. Written as a dedication to his late father, the poem feels deeply personal and vulnerable —not just as a poet’s advice to the world, but as a son’s advice to his father.

 14. "Desiderata", by Max Ehrmann 

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,

even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

The didactic tone of “Desiderata” stems from the fact that it is a poem Max Ehrmann wrote to his daughter as a manifesto to living a happy life. In Latin, desiderata means ‘things that are desired’. The poet lays out the ground rules he believes one must live by to have an authentic, virtuous life. The protective nature of Ehrmann’s advice to his daughter has resonated with millions, resulting in the poem being regarded as a manual to a life well-lived.

15. "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 or cows.

In a world increasingly ‘busy’ chasing material goals, “Leisure” reminds us to make time for the mind and soul. The poem begins with an irony-filled rhetorical question, where W.H Davies takes a jab at modernity and explains how it has robbed us of the simple things in life (such as to ‘stand’ in and ‘stare’ at nature). Davies’ belief in nature’s powers is evident, and he insists that we take some time to admire it and replenish our soul. So, if you’ve been overdoing it at work, “Leisure” is just the reminder you need to take a step back and stare!

16. "Opportunity," by Berton Braley

With doubt and dismay you are smitten

You think there's no chance for you, son?

Why, the best books haven't been written

The best race hasn't been run,

The best score hasn't been made yet,

The best song hasn't been sung,

The best tune hasn't been played yet,

Cheer up, for the world is young!

When feeling doubtful, ‘cheer up’, and let Braley’s words motivate you into action! The narrator addresses the poem to his ‘son’, adding a caring, reassuring tone to his speech. The poem celebrates the abundance of life, mentioning the vast sea of opportunities that we can capitalize on — to write the best books, sing the best songs, etc. It reiterates that opportunities are plentiful (and there’s enough for everyone).  

17. "The Builders", by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

All are architects of Fate,

Working in these walls of Time;

Some with massive deeds and great,

Some with ornaments of rhyme.

Considering Longfellow’s long career as an educator, the optimistic nature of “The Builders” comes as no surprise. By calling everyone ‘an architect of Fate’, working in the ‘walls of Time’, he conveys that all humans have a meaningful impact on the world. Be it with ‘massive deeds’ or ‘ornaments of rhyme’, each and every person has a role to play. 

18. "Life", by Charlotte Brontë

Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,

But these are transient all;

If the shower will make the roses bloom,

O why lament its fall?

A simple message resides at the core of Brontë’s “Life” — to live with a fearless outlook. Brontë wishes to dismiss the glorified idea that life is dark or unpleasant. She highlights the transient nature of the gloomy aspects of life, reminding us that they eventually clear and are replaced by something pleasant (like blooming roses after rain). So why dread the rain? 

19. "Full Life", by D. H. Lawrence

A man can’t fully live unless he dies and ceases to care,

ceases to care.

An extremely short poem, D.H Lawrence’s “Full Life” can be entirely quoted in two sentences. While Lawrence may be advocating a nonchalant, unbothered approach to life (as clearly reflected in the poem’s length), the paradoxical nature of the poem’s very existence often leaves readers wondering what the poet really means.

20. "What Is This 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.

A somber contemplation on life’s brevity, “What is This Life” likens life to a play —  specifically, a ‘short comedy’. The rhyme scheme of the poem (aa bb cc dd ee) is short and simple, reflecting the monotony and shortness of life. Further, the predictable nature of the repeating couplets highlights that life always comes to the same end — death. The poem serves as a matter-of-fact reminder that life is meaningless, short, and therefore not to be taken too seriously.

21. "Each Life Converges to some Centre", by Emily Dickinson 

Each Life Converges to some Centre –

Expressed – or still –

Exists in every Human Nature

A Goal –

Aligned with Emily Dickinson’s quest for universal truth, this poem considers the purpose of human existence. It says that all of humanity, whether consciously or unconsciously, strives towards an end goal. Dickinson then alternates between saying that this goal is achievable and that it isn’t, mirroring the uncertain manner in which we aim to reach a goal of which we have no proof. This complex, philosophical poem will definitely leave you questioning life!

22. "Stream of life", by Rabindranath Tagore

The same stream of life that runs

through my veins night and day runs

through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy

through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and

breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

A celebration of the universe’s connectedness, “Stream of life” reflects Tagore’s world view that humans create their own segregation. The rhythm and flow of the poem, along with lively descriptions of the stream of life like ‘dancing in rhythmic measures’, or ‘shooting with joy’ will uplift your mood instantly. The poem leaves us with an innate sense of belonging to the world we live in. Seen from Tagore’s lens, isn’t this an incredible world to be part of? 

23. "Still I Rise", by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Angelous’s “Still I rise” boldly celebrates the power of the human spirit, and highlights the importance of not being defeated by the obstacles life throws at you. Angelou specifically refers to the discrimination faced by African-Americans. The lesson? Life might pin you down, write you off, or have you up against the wall. Still you rise!

24. "Life Is a Privilege", by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Life is a privilege.  Its youthful days

Shine with the radiance of continuous Mays.

To live, to breathe, to wonder and desire,

To feed with dreams the heart's perpetual fire;

The nostalgic tone of “Life is a Privilege'' makes one feel blessed to have the opportunity to live. Wilcox artfully describes all of life’s blessings (from the sun’s rays to the chance to chase our dreams). Serving as a bitter-sweet reminder of how short life is, the poem encourages the reader to leave no room for regret, and live out their heart's desires.

25. "Lines on a Skull", by Ravi Shankar

life’s little, our heads

sad. Redeemed and wasting clay

this chance. Be of use.

“Lines On a Skull” is a wake up call to be intentional with life.  The poet compares life to clay, stating that every day we have a chance to either waste it, or create something meaningful.  The poet urges us to use our heads and make our lives useful. Rather sound advice, isn’t it?

26. “The Room of My Life”, by Anne Sexton

Here,

in the room of my life

the objects keep changing.

Ashtrays to cry into,

the suffering brother of the wood walls,

the forty-eight keys of the typewriter

each an eyeball that is never shut,

Sexton’s “The Room of my Life” describes household objects in unconventional ways. The poet strikingly describes ashtrays, typewriters, etc for purposes that are out of their ordinary use — an ashtray being used to catch tears, etc. These objects highlight Sexton's pain and despair, showing life from a different perspective.

27.  "A Question", by Robert Frost

A voice said, Look me in the stars

And tell me truly, men of earth,

If all the soul-and-body scars

Were not too much to pay for birth.

Frost’s “A Question”, consisting of merely 4 powerful lines, will hit you like an emotional shot. The poet questions whether the gift of life is worth the pain and suffering humans go through. True to the nature of the title, Frost ends the poem with the question itself—perhaps reflecting his inability to arrive at an answer (or the lack of a definite answer at all). 

28. "Life", by Sarojini Naidu

Till ye have battled with great grief and fears,

And borne the conflict of dream-shattering years,

Wounded with fierce desire and worn with strife,

Children, ye have not lived: for this is life.

Addressed directly to children, this poem serves as a warning about life’s inevitable hardships. The poem states that children haven’t yet experienced the harsh realities of life (e.g., battled with great grief and fears, etc).  While acknowledging the sufferings of life, this sonnet isn’t meant to demoralize, but instead to prepare children to face life.

29. "Each Moment Is Precious", by Pat A. Fleming

And the person you’re with,

In that moment you share,

Give them all of your focus;

Be totally there.

Written from the second person perspective, “Each Moment Is Precious” directly addresses the reader as ‘you’. This laces the poem with a sense of intimacy, making it feel like heartfelt advice by someone elderly and wise. Fleming beautifully reminds us to live in the present and savor every moment, as there are only a precious few.

30. "My Inner Life", by Robert William Service

For I've a hidden life no one

        Can ever hope to see;

A sacred sanctuary none

        May share with me.

“My Inner Life” celebrates the relationship we have with ourselves. The poem presents a narrator who seems to be misunderstood and alone. However, he then reveals that his ‘hidden life’  is precious, something he wouldn’t trade for the world. This poem reassuringly encourages us to be true to ourselves, regardless of what others may think. 

31. "Life is Fine", by Langston Hughes

So since I’m still here livin’,

I guess I will live on.

I could’ve died for love—

But for livin’ I was born

The spirited “Life is Fine” highlights the theme of perseverance. Structurally similar to a blues song, it tells the story of a man who often considers suicide but never goes through with it. Towards the end of the poem, after several close encounters with death, the man realizes that he has something to live for. The honest, vulnerable tone of the poem resonates with many, encouraging us to keep going — even when we feel like giving up.

32. "Futility", by Wilfred Owen

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth's sleep at all?

Owen’s “Futility” questions how something as beautiful as life always loses to death. A combination of slant and perfect rhymes, the poem’s rhyme scheme reflects the uncertainty of soldiers' lives during the Great war. While the speaker does possess an admiration for life, he gradually begins to question its futile nature. This duality leaves the reader in two moods, savoring life but also questioning its meaning at the same time.

33. "Suppose", by  E.E. Cummings 

suppose

Life is an old man carrying flowers on his head.


young death sits in a café

smiling,a piece of money held between

his thumb and first finger

In “Suppose”, life and death are personified. The old man carrying flowers on his head might refer to a fear-led life. The man wants someone to buy his flowers, but is also scared for the moment when someone will take them away. Money in hand, Death would like to buy the flowers. Cumming brings out the fact that death will inevitably take everything from life, but his striking use of this metaphor evokes in us an urge to not waste ours in the first place.

34. "Ode To A Nightingale", by John Keats

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

        What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

        Here, where men sit and hear each other groan

In an “Ode To a Nightingale”, Keats suggests that human consciousness itself is suffering. The singing nightingale has ‘never known’  these troubles, and represents freedom from the anxious, lonely human mind. The speaker later admits that while death would end his suffering, he would then be unable to enjoy the beauty of the nightingale’s song. So, the poem argues both for and against human consciousness, with no final stance on the matter.

35. "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; 

Despite being 32 lines long, “If” is a single continuous sentence! The poem comprises many clauses beginning with ‘if you can’, each clause laying out a condition that the speaker believes the reader should fulfill to live a successful life. Widely considered as Kipling’s advice to his own son,  “If” is a guide to living an ideal and worthwhile life.

36. "Dockery and Son", by Philip Larkin

Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,

No house or land still seemed quite natural.

Only a numbness registered the shock

Of finding out how much had gone of life,

Larkin’s “Dockery and Son” considers the fleeting nature of time. Candid and emotional, the poem captures the shock that the narrator faces after learning that one of his university juniors has a child (who now goes to the same university they used to attend). By repeating the ‘no’ in the 4th stanza, Larkin emphasizes the emptiness and regret he feels when he realizes ‘how much had gone of life’. This poem brings out a classic lesson — time shall pass, and waits for no one.

37. "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is", by Sir Edward Dyer 

My mind to me a kingdom is;

Such present joys therein I find,

That it excels all other bliss

  That earth affords or grows by kind:

“My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is”, dating back to the Renaissance, declares that one’s mind is the most powerful source of one’s happiness. The poet metaphorically compares his mind to a kingdom, one where he reigns with a blissful state of control. Rather than constantly seeking pleasure elsewhere like several others, he reveals a refreshing sense of being content in possession of his most powerful tool, a peaceful mind.

38. "A Quoi Bon Dire", by Charlotte Mew

And one fine morning in a sunny lane

Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear

That nobody can love their way again

While over there

You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.

In the first two stanzas of “A Quoi Bon Dire”, poet Charlotte Mew introduces a curious protagonist — one who does not despair at the loss of a soulmate; who doesn’t fret at the passing of the years. For indeed, the question of a quoi bon dire (or, ‘what’s the point?’) is answered in the closing lines that you see above — a sentiment that the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas would echo many decades later: “Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”

39. "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!

Wordsworth’s "My Heart Leaps Up" emphasizes the importance of retaining a child-like sense of enthusiasm throughout life. The poem begins by the speaker stating the joy he feels on seeing a rainbow, the very same delight he first felt when he saw it as a child. The poem argues that adults should not let this child-like sense of awe and appreciation for nature die out, as it is what makes life worth living. 

40. "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.

Mother Teresa’s “Life Is” leaves us with wise words to live by. Filled with words of encouragement, the poem is the Nobel Peace laureate’s view on all that life is, and how it should be lived. The poem’s positive, inspiring tone promises to leave you in high spirits.

Well, we hope that these poems made you smile, reflect, and view life from a different lens! If you simply can’t get enough and would like to continue exploring the world of poetry, do check out our post on must-read love poems.

Continue reading

More posts from across the blog.

The 25 Best Places to Find Free Ebooks in 2022

The 25 Best Places to Find Free Ebooks in 2022

In recent years, the ebook format has exploded in popularity. Today, it only takes a few clicks to find the ebook version of almost any title. And while you can always sa...

Read post
The 30 Best Sci-Fi Audiobooks

The 30 Best Sci-Fi Audiobooks

When you’ve got a good audiobook piped into your earbuds, time takes on a different texture — sometimes it zips along, impelled by laughter, or slows to an ooze thanks to suspense. Either way, audiobooks keep your brain engaged with a good story even if your hand...

Read post
Get Paid to Read: 17 Legitimate Sites That Pay Reviewers

Get Paid to Read: 17 Legitimate Sites That Pay Reviewers

Serious question: do you want to get paid to read? You might laugh it off at first, thinking that that sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. You can get paid for spending time on what you love: reading books.  Of course, the key to thi...

Read post