The Stories Behind 15 Poems We All Learned in School

iStock
iStock

Poetry can seem impenetrable for many readers, but the best examples usually have a simple message behind all the flowery language and symbolism. Whether they're tragic or funny, romantic or frightening, the timeless ones are always anchored in the real world—you might just have to give them a careful read to find the meaning.

Part of the reason why certain poems can endure for centuries is because the poets themselves are inspired by the same types of issues we endure every day: love, loss, fear, rage. The best of these works have a backstory that's just as interesting as the verses themselves; here's the story behind 15 poems we all learned in school.

1. "INVICTUS" // W.E. HENLEY

Perhaps no other poet on this list put their struggles down on paper as succinctly as W.E. Henley did with "the age of Invictus." At 12, Henley was diagnosed with arthritic tuberculosis, which eventually required the amputation of one leg during his late teens, and the possibility of losing the other. Refusing this fate, when Henley was in his mid-twenties, he instead turned to Dr. Joseph Lister, who performed an alternative surgery that saved the leg.

It was during the years spent in the hospital that Henley wrote "Invictus," a stark proclamation of his resistance against life's trials and tragedies. "Out of the night that covers me," it starts, "Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul." The poem famously ends with "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

It's a poem that endures across all races and cultures. It was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, television shows, and books ever since its publication in 1888.

2. "THE RED WHEELBARROW" // WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

A picture of a red wheelbarrow
iStock

It was originally published without a title—simply known by the number XXII—but "The Red Wheelbarrow" has grown into one of the most memorable short poems of the 20th century. It sprung from the mind of William Carlos Williams, whose day job was as a doctor in northern New Jersey. It's only 16 words, but it paints an unforgettable picture:

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens."

Williams had said that the imagery was inspired by a patient of his that he had grown close to while making a house call. "In his backyard," Williams said of the man, "I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing."

It took some research and census records, but William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, finally discovered in 2015 that the man was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr. of Rutherford, New Jersey.

3. "IF—" // RUDYARD KIPLING

Rudyard Kipling portrait
Elliott & Fry, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There may be no more fitting national mantra for the British people than Rudyard Kipling's "If—." The poem, which champions stoicism, is routinely one of the UK's favorites in polls, with lines like "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same" and "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone" serving as a rallying cry for the stiff-upper-lip crowd.

For everything that Kipling put on the page, the story behind the poem is just as notable. Kipling was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson, a politician and adventurer responsible for leading the infamous Jameson Raid, a failed attempt over the 1895-96 New Year holiday to incite an uprising among the British "Uitlanders" in South Africa against the Boers, or the descendants of early, chiefly Dutch, settlers.

The raid was a catastrophe, and Jameson and his surviving men were extradited back to England for trial as the government condemned the attempt. He was sentenced to 15 months (though he was released early), but his actions had gained the respect of the people of England—Jameson was punished, but it was felt that he was betrayed by his own government, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who was widely suspected of having supported the raid during the planning but denounced it when it failed.

This theme can be read in Kipling’s words "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you" and "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."

4. "JABBERWOCKY" // LEWIS CARROLL

Statue of Alice in Wonderland
iStock

Long before Lewis Carroll introduced the nonsensical "Jabberwocky" in 1871's Through the Looking-Glass, he wrote a rough version of the poem in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It appeared in the periodical he created to amuse his friends and family called Mischmasch.

The poem featured the stanza: "Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves/Did gyre and gymble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogoves;/And the mome raths outgrabe," which would remain (though slightly tweaked) in Looking-Glass years later as both the first and final stanzas.

When he wrote Looking-Glass, Carroll returned to the basic foundation of the poem, but he added the five middle stanzas that introduced the Jabberwock. The inspiration behind the monster itself has been said to be anything from Beowulf to a local folk monster called the Sockburn Worm from the village of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll wrote.

So where did Carroll get the name Jabberwock from? The author himself later explained it by saying "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion,' this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.'"

If all that still sounds like nonsense to you—well, that's probably how he wanted it.

5. "WE REAL COOL" // GWENDOLYN BROOKS

A picture of a pool table
iStock

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became "Poet Laureate" in the 1985–86 term (back when the position was properly called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Despite all the accolades, Brooks might be best known to casual readers for the poem "We Real Cool," a brief, four-verse piece that depicts the lives of young people playing pool, drinking gin, and "singing sin."

Brooks was inspired to write the poem when she was walking through her neighborhood and noticed seven young boys at the local pool hall during school hours. As she said during a live reading of the poem, she wasn't so much concerned with why they weren't in school, she was more curious with "how they feel about themselves."

Apparently the answer is "real cool."

6. "THE RAVEN" // EDGAR ALLAN POE

The front of Edgar Allan Poe house
iStock

A lot of real-life inspiration went into Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." First, there was the fact that his wife was deathly ill with tuberculosis during the time of writing and publication. Then, the raven itself was partly inspired by one owned by Charles Dickens, who had also been inspired to include it in his own book, Barnaby Rudge. (Rudge's raven even coaxes a character to exclaim "What was that? Him tapping at the door?" Similar to Poe's "rapping at my chamber door" raven.)

But while so many great works have backstories that are more legend than fact, Poe detailed his writing process of "The Raven" in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he revealed in meticulous detail how he came up with the tone, rhythm, and form of the poem, even going as far as to claim he decided on the refrain of "nevermore" because "the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant."

7. "THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" // ROBERT FROST

Poet Robert Frost posing for a photo
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For "The Road Not Taken," poet Robert Frost found inspiration in his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. It was originally conceived as sort of an inside joke at Thomas's expense, a callback to the fact that Thomas would always regret whatever path the two of them would take when out walking together.

It's a very human instinct to regret or overthink our choices and wonder—often in vain—what the alternative would be like. While many people tend to think the poem is about the triumph of individuality, some argue that it's really about regret and how we either celebrate our successes or blame our misfortunes on our seemingly arbitrary choices.

When you read it like that, saying "And that has made all the difference" smacks of a bit more irony than it did back when you first read it in high school.

8. "THE NEW COLOSSUS" // EMMA LAZARUS

An image of the Statue of Liberty
iStock

When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, it was only meant to be part of an auction to raise money for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. It sold for $1500—not bad for a 105-word sonnet written in two days—but though it was printed in some limited-release pamphlets by the fundraising group, the poem wasn't read at the dedication of the statue in 1886.

Unfortunately, Lazarus never got to see how far and wide her words would resonate—when she died in 1887, her New York Times obituary didn't even mention the poem. It was only well after the statue had been completed that "The New Colossus" was added to its base, thanks to the urging of Lazarus's friend and admirer Georgina Schuyler. Then, slowly, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" entered the public lexicon and became ingrained as part of America's national identity.

9. "O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!" // WALT WHITMAN

A photograph of Walt Whitman
iStock

Walt Whitman witnessed the Civil War up close. Though he was already in his forties during the fighting, he volunteered at hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area—sometimes he would bring food and supplies to the soldiers, other times he just kept them company.

Seeing the schism the war had caused, Whitman began to take a genuine interest in, and found a deep respect for, the burden President Abraham Lincoln was dealing with. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman channeled his grief into a number of poems, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!"

The poem was a metaphor for what the country had just been through—America itself as the ship that had just weathered a great storm, and Lincoln as the fallen captain, whose "lips are pale and still."

10. "SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY" // LORD BYRON

A row of books by Lord Byron
iStock

The story behind the lyrical poem "She Walks in Beauty" is as lovely as the verse Lord Byron weaved. In June 1814, Byron attended a London party where he first saw Anne Wilmot, his cousin's wife. She was wearing a striking black mourning dress that was adorned in spangles, and her beauty inspired Byron's poem, most famously its first four lines:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Some have interpreted the "cloudless climes and starry skies" as a description of the famous dress that drew Byron's attention to Mrs. Wilmot.

11. "THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS" // LANGSTON HUGHES

Poet Langston Hughes

He was just 19 when he published this poem, but Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of his most well-known works. The idea came to him while he was traveling by train to Mexico City to visit his father—specifically, as he was crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.

In the poem, the narrator speaks of rivers—how they're ancient, older than humans themselves. He also says, despite this, he knows rivers. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." He's bathed in the Euphrates, built a hut on the Congo, looked upon the Nile, and heard the singing of the Mississippi. These rivers have important links to human history, to new societies, to African Americans, and to slavery. And all it took was a simple train ride to find the ties that bind them all together.

12. "TULIPS" // SYLVIA PLATH

A field of red and white tulips
iStock

"Tulips" has a simple enough backstory—it was inspired by a bouquet of flowers Sylvia Plath received while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. But Plath turned the event into one of her most renowned poems, beginning with the line "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."

Sprinkled throughout are visuals of the red tulips and the white, sanitary hospital, staffed with a never-ending army of nurses.

"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."

So much of Plath's life and work revolved around tragedy, and "Tulips" is one of the most discussed windows into her personality.

13. "OZYMANDIAS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

A crumbling statue
iStock

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled in an elite literary circle that included the likes of Lord Byron and John Keats. So what would a group of young intellectual writers do to stimulate their interest and spark their creativity? Well, they'd compete, of course.

One of Shelley's most famous poems, "Ozymandias," was likely born out of a competition between himself and writer Horace Smith (very similar to the 1816 competition between Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley, Byron, and physician John Polidori over who could write the best horror story—Mary's Frankenstein was the winner there). The goal was to write dueling poems on the same concept—the description of a statue of Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) from the works of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Most important was the statue's inscription: "I am Osymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Shelley described Siculus's same statue but in decay, a boastful monument now left to rot. This would serve as a warning that no matter how powerful one may think themselves to be, we're all helpless to the scourge of time. For a political writer such as Shelley, the imagery was too perfect.

Shelley's version of "Ozymandias" appeared in The Examiner in 1818 almost a month before Smith's, which, by the rules of these arbitrary competitions, likely led to Shelley being victorious.

14. "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT" // DYLAN THOMAS

Poet Dylan Thomas
Gabriel Hackett, Getty Images

In one of the most cherished poems about mortality, Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to fight back against the inevitability of death and immortalized the refrain "Do not go gentle into that good night." Published in 1951, the poem focuses on a son urging his father to be defiant ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light") and arguing that while all men eventually die, they don't have to do so resignedly. The poem was released shortly before Thomas's own death in 1953 at the age of 39 and is still studied in schools and referenced in popular culture.

15. "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS" // DISPUTED

Santa Claus leaving presents
iStock

Everyone knows the poem—"'Twas the night before Christmas" and all that—but scholars can't quite agree on the author. Some say it was a poet and professor named Clement Clarke Moore, who allegedly wrote the piece for his kids before his housekeeper sent it in to New York's Troy Sentinel for publication in 1823 without his knowledge.

On the other side is Henry Livingston, Jr., whose family said they were reciting this poem 15 years before it was published in the Sentinel. Unfortunately, any proof they had was gone when their home—which allegedly contained handwritten versions of the poem that predate Moore's—burned down.

For now, it's Moore who officially gets credit for the cherished poem, but it's not without a bit of holiday controversy.

11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

Can a house be born bad? That’s the question Shirley Jackson asks in her classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Released in 1959, the gothic novel follows four strangers who converge on a purportedly haunted house to “scientifically” seek out evidence of the paranormal. Things rapidly devolve and the characters—in particular, the novel’s lonely protagonist, Eleanor—realize, too late, that they’re in over their heads.

Upon its release, the novel sold briskly, earning Jackson a National Book Award nomination and high praise from critics. In its review, The New York Times called the story “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic” and described Jackson as “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale.” It also caught the attention of Hollywood, and within four years MGM released a film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise. Since then, the novel has been made into a play and into a widely panned 1999 movie. On October 12, the first ever television series based on the novel will be released by Netflix.

Whether you’re getting ready to dig into the horrors of Hill House on Netflix or a fan of the original novel, here are 11 facts about The Haunting of Hill House you should know.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS

A photo of a ghost in the 1890s
The National Archives UK // Public Domain

Jackson was inspired to write the novel after reading about a group of 19th century “psychic researchers” who rented a house they believed to be haunted in order to study paranormal phenomena. The researchers studiously recorded their experiences in the house, and presented them in the form of a treatise to the Society for Psychic Research. In her essay “Experience and Fiction,” Jackson explained that she was most intrigued by the way the researchers revealed their own personalities and backgrounds throughout the study. “They thought they were being terribly scientific and proving all kinds of things,” she explained. “And yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds.”

2. JACKSON HAD A TERRIFYING SLEEPWALKING EXPERIENCE WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL ...

Early on in the writing process, Jackson awoke one morning to find something terrifying atop her writing desk: A note, with the words “DEAD DEAD” scrawled upon it, written in her own handwriting. Jackson, who loved ghost stories but did not believe in ghosts, brushed the strange discovery off as sleepwalking. In “Experience and Fiction,” she wrote that she used the strange note to motivate her, explaining, “I decided that I had better write the book awake, which I got to work and did.”

3. ... AND MADE AN UNSETTLING DISCOVERY WHILE RESEARCHING HAUNTED HOUSES.

A haunted house on a hill
iStock.com/DNY59

Before she began writing The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson scoured magazines and newspapers for photos of houses that seemed haunted. During her research, she stumbled upon a photo of a house in California that had a particular air of “disease and decay.” She was so struck by it, she asked her mother, who lived in California, if she could find any additional information about the house. Her mother’s response shocked Jackson: Not only was she familiar with the house, but Jackson's own great-grandfather had built it. After standing empty for many years, the house had been set on fire—possibly by a group of townspeople.

4. THERE WAS ORIGINALLY MORE THAN ONE VERSION OF ELEANOR.

In A Rather Haunted Life, Shirley Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin writes that Jackson initially struggled to decide what kind of character her protagonist, Eleanor, would be. Jackson wrote three different iterations of Eleanor before settling on her final version. One, according to Franklin, was “a spinster with a swagger”—a far cry from the introverted Eleanor of the finished novel.

5. IT'S A GHOST STORY WITHOUT GHOSTS.

Jackson often referred to the novel as a “good ghost story” despite the fact that it doesn't have any overt ghosts. Instead, it’s the house itself that seems to do the haunting. In her notes for the novel, Jackson explained, “The House is the haunting.” While much of the novel is left ambiguous, Jackson was clear about the connections between Hill House and her protagonist, Eleanor. “Jackson clearly intended the external signs of haunting to be interpreted as manifestations of Eleanor’s troubled psyche,” Franklin explains in A Rather Haunted Life. At the same time, Franklin notes, “The novel makes it clear that something in the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”

6. JACKSON'S HUSBAND WAS TOO AFRAID TO READ IT.

Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a well-known literary critic and professor who enthusiastically read all of his wife’s books—but not The Haunting of Hill House. According to Franklin, “For the first time he refused to read her manuscript: He found the concept of ghosts too frightening.”

7. THE NOVEL HAS EARNED COMPARISONS TO THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

Since its release, critics and fans have drawn comparisons between The Haunting of Hill House and the writings of everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Hilary Mantel. But the comparison that comes up the most is to Henry James’s classic novel The Turn of the Screw. In her introduction to The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller explains that the two novels share common themes, including “a lonely, imaginative young woman” and “a big isolated house.” In his 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes, “It seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.”

8. IT WAS JACKSON'S FIRST PROFITABLE NOVEL.

The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t just Jackson’s most popular novel: It was her first profitable novel. “Hill House was a financial and critical triumph," Franklin writes. “For the first time, a novel of [Jackson’s] had finally earned back its advance and was even making a profit.”

9. SHE SOLD THE FILM RIGHTS FOR $67,500—AND USED THE MONEY TO BUY A WASHING MACHINE.

When Jackson sold the movie rights to Hill House for $67,500 (“an astronomical fee for the time,” notes Miller), it propelled her family into true financial stability for the first time. They used the money from the film to pay off their mortgage and all other debts, and to buy living room drapes, a player piano, and a washing machine and dryer.

10. ROALD DAHL SENT JACKSON A LETTER AFTER READING IT.

Roald Dahl
Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Legendary children’s author Roald Dahl was so struck by The Haunting of Hill House, he wrote to Jackson suggesting she write for television. According to Jackson biographer Lenemaja Friedman, Dahl asked her to “consider writing a script for a television show that Ellyn Williams was doing in Britain.” It’s unclear whether Dahl himself was working on the show (his TV series Way Out premiered in 1961, two years after the publication of Hill House), but Jackson ultimately refused his request.

11. THE NOVEL HAS A LOT OF FAMOUS FANS.

Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, and Carmen Maria Machado are all huge fans. Del Toro included Hill House in a series of six classic horror novels he curated for Penguin, Maria Machado called it “the scariest novel I’ve ever read,” and Neil Gaiman has written that, while plenty of novels have scared him, Hill House “beats them all.” Stephen King, meanwhile, has written that Hill House has one of the best openings he’s ever read, calling it “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for.”

JK Rowling's Newest Obsession? A Teenager's 350-Year-Old Math Notebook

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

Inspiration can be found in surprising places—including the math notebook of an 18th-century farm boy. As the BBC reports, a collection of 350-year-old doodles posted on Twitter recently went viral, and now they've caught the attention of author JK Rowling.

The Museum of English Rural Life shared pages pulled from its archives in a Twitter thread on Saturday, October 6. The book, dating from 1784, belonged to a 13-year-old boy named Richard Beale from Biddenden in the English county of Kent. It was primarily a math notebook, but the owner also apparently used it to explore his artistic side.

Beale scribbled some elaborate drawings around his equations. In one doodle, a pair of triangles spans the width of a city street. In another, an angle overlaps with a mountain with a burning fortress at its peak.

One figure, a black-and-white dog, appears throughout the book, leading the museum to believe it may have been the teen's family pet. Beale also sketched a picture of a chicken wearing trousers.

J.K. Rowling retweeted the thread on Sunday, to which the museum responded with a request for her to make the pants-clad chicken the protagonist of her next book series.

She responded: "Way ahead of you. He's best friends with a duck in a balaclava."

The notebook is part of a collection of farm diaries that was donated to the Museum of Rural English Life a few years ago. Researchers looking to appreciate Beale's detailed doodles in person can access them through the museum's reading room.

[h/t BBC]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER