Poetry For Self-Discovery

4 min read

Many great poetic works touch upon the theme of selfhood. From Shakespeare to the poets of the Romantic Age and beyond, discussions of the self have threaded their way through countless verses. 


Literary Lessons 

The inner conscience and the growth of the self have fascinated artists for centuries. While many classic verses seek to understand the darker side of human emotion, others consider the transformational qualities of courage, individuality and self-belief. 

While the poems of the past may not be self-help manuals, they can teach readers key lessons about humanity. With inspiring themes and poetic prophecies, the verses explored in this article seek to reveal truths about the inner self. 


William Shakespeare 

Many of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets attempt to unravel the mystery of human nature. His works unveil uncertain truths about the power of identity and human will. While self-love is presented as a “sin” without “remedy” in Sonnet 62), self-empowerment and the meaning of free will are openly explored. Explore our William Shakespeare Collection.



 The Merchant of Venice

Shylock’s famous speech about shared humanity in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ calls the cruelty of human nature into question. The famous line, “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” seeks to shatter religious differences and see humanity as a shared entity. Shylock’s speech highlights the importance of valuing all selves within society and the courage needed to stand up for individual rights. 



In ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare once again reveals truths about the inner self. Polonius’ famous words, “to thine own self be true”, sums up the value of self-truth. While the words are perhaps less powerful within the context of the play, as a standalone phrase they share great wisdom about individual courage and self-belief.



Julius Caesar

“It’s not in the stars to hold our destiny but ourselves.” Spoken by Cassius, these words attempt to unravel the meaning of fate and individual will. While Shakespeare often writes about fate, here he observes a different force at play – that of free will. Cassius’ words remind modern readers that we are in control, for the most part, and it is only by taking hold of ourselves that we can change the course of our lives. 


Looking for a child-friendly version of Shakespeare? We stock 'Tales From Shakespeare' by Charles & Mary Lamb


Romantic Reflections 

The great Romantic poets sought to explore the raw depths of human emotion in their writings. They sought to identify with the inner self, endeavoring to understand the mind as a force at one with perception yet also as an entity searching for confirmation of reality. 



Penguin Book of English Verse,Various (c.1956) 

‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’, William Wordsworth 

This contemplative poem explores the narrator's “sad perplexity” about his changed self. He reflects upon his altered perception of a landscape visited “five years” before, reflecting that he cannot “paint what then I was”. In this poem, Wordsworth muses on the ‘true self’ which is eventually rediscovered through creativity. Self-disenchantment becomes an acceptance of temporal change and the inevitable transformation of the self.


‘Duty Surviving Self-Love’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

Coleridge expresses a fascination with the unconscious mind in his poetry, seeking to explore the uncertain boundary between agency and imagination. As in Wordsworth’s poem, the inevitability of change is a key theme in ‘Duty Surviving Self-Love’. The poem suggests that while others change and “old friends burn dim”, you shouldn’t have to alter yourself to keep up. Self-growth may naturally occur with the passing of time, but should not be forced. 

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Progressions in Poetry 

As poetic boundaries expanded throughout the decades, the need to understand the self remained a major theme. Poets still sought to explain human actions and emotions by delving deep into their own hearts and minds. Alongside revelations of deep pain, the importance of self-love, growth, belief and individual identity were unveiled.



Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies, Rudyard Kipling (1975) 

‘If’, Rudyard Kipling 

This beautiful poem reminds the reader of two important human traits: self-trust and the ability to understand others. Kipling urges readers not to succumb to hatred and lies, but remain true to themselves instead. Readers are encouraged to dream but not forget the real world, to suffer and fail yet rise again and endure. Kipling looks to the human self, exploring the importance of moral courage and inner strength. 



The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry,Various (1974-77)


 ‘Ariel’, Sylvia Plath 

This poem explores the shifting nature of identity. It is a poem of self-expression and of desired freedom. The self clashes with identity, two entities that are separate yet somehow interconnected. This duality of the self delves deep into the human psyche, exploring what self-recognition really means. The poem contains a self-exploratory tone, expressing the desire to replace an old self with a new identity. The language is self-destructive and yet demonstrates the power of self-assertion and self-expression. 

Explore our full poetry collection here.


The Power to Illuminate 

We define 'great' literature as that which has the power to touch diverse people and illuminate what connects us. All poetry seeks to understand the self in one way or another, whether this means the self of the poet or that of humanity itself. 

The poetic verses used in this discussion attempt to do both. While they expose the inner conflicts and imaginings of their creators, each verse teaches readers key messages as well. 

We can learn from the poetry of the past – and of the present. Poetry teaches us how to understand our minds and our imaginations, connecting us to raw emotions and unraveling what it means to be human.

1 Response

Jennifer Yates
Jennifer Yates

19 October, 2023

How lovely to find you supporting poetry books. I will be scouring your listing to find new to me, Poets. Now I have one for you: The Unwinding Dream and Other Poems, self published. I hope you may at lease take a look.

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