There’s something strange about quotations and motivational sayings. They are typically just a brief snapshot into some more complex work or topic, yet they transfix us somehow. I saw a great post a while back that was a picturesque image of the ocean with fancy cursive script overlaid onto it with the phrase,
“Your successful friends never post inspirational quotations, do they?”
However, I do think that there is something to using quotations for inspiration. Personally, I like to use poems to serve this purpose. This is because there is the meter and rhyme of poetry that makes it easier for me to remember, and this can be particularly helpful when I need a sudden burst of inspiration to power through some difficulty. I remember that once when sitting in Horse Stance in a karate class for ten minutes I compared notes with a friend, who had been muttering songs to himself while I was frantically whispering poetry. Here are some examples of the poetry that I like to use in my own life for this purpose.
If by Rudyard Kipling
There are many aspects of Rudyard Kipling’s life that are problematic, and it is true that his thinking is deeply flawed in many ways. Mostly regarding the White Man’s Burden. However, the man knew how to turn a phrase, and his poem If is a magnificent tribute to endurance and the virtues of hard work. The poem always reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt, who espoused the idea of the Strenuous Life and believed that it was the responsibility of a man to embrace hardship and difficulty to toughen himself up.
You could say that this is a somewhat chauvinistic piece, and you would probably be right. But feel free to swap out the final line as “You’ll be a Woman, my Daughter,” or whatever you identify as. I’m not judging here. If you’re a Bear-kin or something like that, I encourage you to read it as, “You’ll be a Bear, my Cub.”
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!
The Man in the Glass by Peter Dale Wimbrow
I love this poem, largely for its simplicity. It doesn’t strive to use heavy handed language or overblown words. It just tells you what the poet thinks, and gives a clear message about humility and knowing one’s self. We so often define ourselves by what others think of us and what they say about us. In a sense this is fair, because in a society we can’t really exist in abstraction and we are all, ultimately, what we do. That being said, at the end of the day the only person that you absolutely have to live with is yourself.
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
Ulysses, by Lord Alfred Tennyson
I am going to be completely honest with you. I read this poem as an undergraduate in a class on epic literature and promptly ignored it for the better part of a year. It wasn’t until I watched the exceptional James Bond film Skyfall that I actually appreciated how powerful this poem is. The story of a battered and aged Odysseus setting out for a last adventure despite the certainty of death is incredibly powerful, and Tennyson captures the incredible intelligence and curiosity of this mythic figure with his line, “to follow knowledge like a sinking star.” As haunting and powerful as this poem is, I often find myself repeating the last five lines that were so beautifully performed by Dame Judi Dench in Skyfall.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
(I would watch Dame Judi Dench watch paint dry)
Excelsior by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I first discovered this poem on a cold winter night in my senior year of college when, finally overwhelmed by the titanic task of writing a 130 page Honors Thesis, I found myself on what must have been the third sleepless night in a row. My sure-fire cure for insomnia has always been to write, and I found myself thinking about a terrible poem I had written in High School called, Silent Knight. For the sake of your soul and my ego I will not repeat the achingly bad sonnet. Suffice to say I found it personal and powerful, and it was really only the former.
While trying to spruce up the cringingly bad meter, I started looking into other poems about knights and was led in a roundabout fashion to this poem. I have often told my girlfriend that if I had a motto it would be probably be “Excelsior.” Loosely translated as, “Ever upwards,” this Latin phrase has a long history not least of all because it was the personal motto of Stan Lee of Marvel Comics. He would sign off every one of his letter stop readers with, “Excelsior!” I appreciate the poem because it is an affirmation to try harder and strive to be better than you were yesterday. Which is, in my opinion, the whole point of being on the planet in the first place. Moreover it reminds us that if we must fail, at least we can fail while accomplishing great things.
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
“Try not the Pass!” the old man said;
“Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!”
And loud that clarion voice replied,
“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast! “
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell like a falling star,
Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Most of you are probably thinking… “The soccer movie?” It was rugby, but that’s beside the point. I also was first introduced to this poem through the film Invictus, which I thought was a thoroughly okay movie with moments of greatness. One of these was the moment where Morgan Freeman, in his inimitable Morgan Freeman way, reads this poem.
It’s worth noting that this poem should also be famous for the remarkable man who wrote it. Henley was not a particularly great poet, but his personal experiences fueled this remarkable piece of verse. Throughout most of his life, he suffered from Tuberculosis of the bone, which required him to be hospitalized for long periods of time. In addition, it resulted in the loss of his leg. Undaunted, Henley attacked life with as much vigor as he could muster and was famously the inspiration for his friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous and exuberant pirate Long John Silver.
I have always loved this poem, and it is something that I think of very often. I have even considered getting a tattoo of it. Not because I think that the poem represents me or typifies my approach to life, but because I think that having this kind of affirmation on my body would force me to do better.
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.
Perhaps motivational quotes and poems are ridiculous and serve no purpose. After all, most of the time we read them in the comfort of our living room, peering bleary eyed at a computer screen on r/getmotivated or some similar website. But I think that they have value. To borrow a line from the film Invictus, “How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? … Sometimes I think it is by using the work of others.”
Properly applied, I think that these poems can be useful tools for maximizing our ability to endure and improve ourselves by giving us with words of encouragement from another person. William Ernest Henley died in 1903, but whenever we use his work to make ourselves a little bit stronger, or a little bit bolder, or in my case a little bit braver, he lives again. That bombastic, red-bearded, mountain of a man whispers in your ear and gives you the strength to carry on.