Not all poems are easy to decipher. Full of symbolism and double meanings, some poems can seem confusing to readers. But many examples of famous poetry are grounded in the real world. Here are the stories behind three famous poems you may have read:
1. Invictus, William Ernest Henley
A poem that crosses all races and cultures, Invictus inspired former South African President Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, books and TV shows. The English poet Henley put his struggles to paper in this poem, published in 1888, and drew on his experience battling arthritic tuberculosis. The disease required the amputation of one leg in his late teens, with the possibility of losing the other. But Henley refused to accept his fate and instead sought the help of English physician Joseph Lister, who is considered to have revolutionized the science of surgery. Lister was able to perform an alternate surgery that saved Henley’s leg.
2. The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost
Originally written as a joke, Frost’s poem was inspired by his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. The poem was meant to poke fun at Thomas, always regretting the path they would both take when they walk together. The poem has gone from a simple joke to an apt metaphor for life, as it speaks to the incredible human instinct to overthink our choices and wonder – often in vain – what the alternative would be like.
3. She walks in beauty, Lord Byron
The muse behind Byron’s lyric poem was Anne Wilmot, his cousin’s wife. In June 1814, Byron attended a party in London, UK, where he saw Wilmot wearing a striking black mourning dress decorated with sequins. He was so moved by her appearance, which contrasted with the liveliness of the other guests, that he wrote the poem with her in mind. Some have interpreted the “cloudless climates and starry skies” of his poem as a description of Wilmot’s famous dress.