This article was originally published on The Radical Tea Towel Company's blog: https://www.radicalteatowel.com/blog/7-poems-every-radical-know/
This selection of poems is by no means exhaustive. There are hundreds and hundreds of radical poems I could’ve included, but these are just a few of my favourites – I hope you’re inspired by them too!
1) Dulce et Decorum Est – Wilfred Owen
Though this poem has become an absolute classic over the years, its radical pacifist message shouldn’t be ignored. Indeed, few poems could be more relevant in today’s world. At this very moment, people’s lives are being ravaged and devastated by violence and war. Soldiers are killed and innocent civilians are slaughtered every day.
Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is one of the few poems that truly encapsulates the real horrors of war. He begins with a description of soldiers marching through sludge until, nine lines in, the men are gassed and fumble about looking for their gas masks.
His carefully chosen words and ingenious use of rhythm bring to life the terror experienced by the men of the First World War. For example, his image of “someone still yelling out and stumbling, / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” is frighteningly vivid, testament to Owen’s skill as a writer and to the realism of his verse.
But Owen, having spent time in the trenches, realised that the realities of war are all too often ignored. Rather than focusing on the fearful nature of conflict and violence (evident in Owen’s description of blood “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” and of “incurable sores on innocent tongues”), we tend to aestheticize and glorify the act of going to war.
We instil patriotic ardour into our people, and we present the death of young men as a sacrificial and heroic act. For Owen, though, war is not heroic, nor is it glorious. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite – a horrifying and terrible waste of young life.
So it is Owen’s own experiences of war that led him to see that Horace’s ode was wrong: it is not “Sweet and right to die for your country.” Rather, Horace’s aphorism is just an “old lie” perpetuated to accentuate the false necessity of war. That’s why this poem is so important for pacifists and radicals today.
2) Jerusalem (And did those feet in ancient time) – William Blake
This is yet another classic poem, and you may think it an odd choice. Before I actually began to concentrate on Blake’s words, I imagined this was simply some patriotic and nationalistic call to arms. But the poem is actually far more than that.
True, the poem is certainly a rallying call to the people of England. But when Blake exclaims that ‘his sword will not sleep in his hand’ and that he will not ‘cease from Mental Fight’, rather than advocating war or imperialism, Blake is actually imploring us to devote ourselves to the improvement of our country. He hopes that we might turn England from the land of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ into the New Jerusalem, a socialist utopia.
This may seem somewhat far-fetched, but if you look at some of Blake’s other poems, his progressive and liberal values become clear. For example, his poem ‘London’ (another great poem for radicals) depicts the bleak and wretched lives of the poor – hence he describes the “chimney-sweeper’s cry” and the “hapless soldier’s sigh”.
It’s clear, then, that Blake had quite radical sympathies for those living in poverty. Thus, it can be inferred that, when he dreamt of the ‘New Jerusalem’, he probably envisioned a land of equality and affluence, not plagued by capitalism or neo-liberalism.
So, to me the poem seems to express the hope that an anti-establishment, socialist movement might be created to bring about real change in England’s “green and pleasant land.” What could possibly be more radical?
3) The Masque of Anarchy – Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley wrote this poem in 1819, the year of the Peterloo massacre, when a group of peaceful protesters were charged down by cavalry in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. They were demanding the reform of parliamentary representation – back then, the ‘democratic’ system was fundamentally undemocratic, with only a handful of men being able to vote.
In the poem, Shelley describes the rule of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, Destruction, and finally, Anarchy – all of these represent the false authorities of “God, and King, and Law”. Shelley, seeing this injustice, beseeches the people of England to recognise the wrongs in their society and to act upon them:
“Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!"
He lists the inequalities of life, the struggles of hunger, low pay, and slavery, and calls all the people of England together from their “daily strife” and their “woes untold”. Spurred on by a vision of Hope, they must refuse to succumb to the injustice of these authorities. But Shelley urges against vengefulness and violence. Rather, the people of England must form a “great assembly… of the fearless, of the free” and engage in non-violent protest, despite the bloodthirsty actions of their oppressors.
Once they have united, they must “Declare with measured words” that they are free. And even if some are killed by tyrannous authorities (as in the Peterloo Massacre), they will act as a source of inspiration to all who came after. They must demand their freedom, and they must demand change, says Shelley, but without becoming violent tyrants themselves.
This poem was one of the first ever arguments in favour of non-violent action, and it was often quoted by Gandhi during his campaign for a free India. This alone shows what a great radical poem it is, one that inspires us to change the world we live in for the better.
4) The New Colossus – Emma Lazarus
This poem, part of which is etched onto the base of the Statue of Liberty, has a beautiful message of love, compassion, and warmth.
Emma Lazarus describes how the statue shall stand as a “Mother of Exiles” with a beacon glowing “world-wide welcome,” and shall cry with silent lips the poignant and moving words:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
This message of sympathy and hospitality is one that all progressives can share. Indeed, the poem is particularly pertinent today in light of the current refugee crisis and the huge swathes of people currently travelling across land and sea to escape war. If anyone, it is those people that should be welcomed with open arms.
5) Still I Rise – Maya Angelou
This poem, like no other, seems to encapsulate the opposing forces of struggle and perseverance, suffering and hope. This dichotomy is clear from the very start of the poem with the lines: “You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise”.
Angelou, as a black woman living in the USA, has suffered from persecution and mockery (“You may shoot me with your words, / You may cut me with your eyes, / You may kill me with your hatefulness”), but she refuses to let that hold her back: still, she will rise. She refuses to give up her supposed “haughtiness” and “sexiness” – in fact, she revels in it, acting as if she had a gold mine in her back yard and diamonds between her thighs. She rejects stereotyping, and she refuses to be restrained.
She refuses, too, to be held back by the suffering of her ancestors and their pasts. Thus, “Out of the huts of history’s shame” and “Up from the past that’s rooted in pain” she rises. She turns that struggle into ambition and optimism, a resolution expressed in one of the poem’s most inspiring lines: “I am the dream of the hope of the slave.” In these words, she conveys the determination and hopefulness of all those who have been tormented and anguished, and this is what makes her message into such a great radical, hopeful poem.
6) Mushrooms – Sylvia Plath
This poem is slightly less well known, but likewise inspiring and encouraging in its hopefulness. What Plath is actually talking about is hard to define, but its clear that the poem is about a movement of some sort, perhaps feminism, that is fighting against persecution and tyranny.
Like the mushrooms, those who partake in this movement fight for freedom, quietly acquiring the air, heaving the needles and the pavement above them, a metaphor for their oppressors. The freedom-fighters have struggled (they “Diet on water, / On crumbs of shadow, / Bland-mannered, asking / Little or nothing”) but still there are so many of them, and their struggling will not have been in vain.
Indeed, one day they will succeed: they are “nudgers and shovers” who will multiply and, one day, “Inherit the earth”. If this poem is about the plight of women and their struggle for emancipation, then Plath is attempting to incite a silent revolution amongst the women of the world. She hopes that one day, women will no longer be seen as “meek” and even “edible” but will in fact be equal to their male counterparts. In this sense, the poem is yet another radical and inspiring call to arms.
7) The Man With the Hoe – Edwin Markham
This poem was originally inspired by Millet’s famous painting, “L’Homme a la houe”, but the poem is now just as famous as Millet’s work. Socialist and compassionate in its themes, the poem depicts a haggard man working in the fields with the “burden of the world” on his shoulders. He suffers despair and he never has any source of hope, working as he does all day in the fields.
Markham questions and laments the injustice of this way of life, and argues that this image demonstrates “the world’s blind greed” that has led to such inequalities and inhumanity. Humanity itself, he says, has been betrayed.
In the final two stanzas, Markham questions the “masters, lords and rulers in all lands” and asks them how they will “Make right the immemorial infamies, / Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes” that have led to this man’s suffering and poverty. He asks, too, how the human race will be judged in light of these inequities.
Though this poem seems bleak, it can also be read as another source of inspiration. We, the people of the world, can change things. We can end the inequality that blights so many lives. We can bring about the “whirlwinds of rebellion” of which Markham speaks!