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Inspirational poems and songs are pieces that reaffirm our core values and beliefs. This is not a great age for belief of any sort, so inspirational works are often equated with religious ones. However, even an agnostic like me can find inspirational poems and songs.

In my case, the situation is complicated by a temperament that requires that a piece has to have artistic merit as well as reaffirm in order to move me. I don’t expect inspirational works to necessarily demonstrate the same talent as poems or songs that I value as art, but, because many works that try to inspire wind up being insipid, they leave me massively unmoved. When I’m looking for inspiration, a Hallmark greeting card just won’t cut it. Still, over the years, I have found a few that satisfied me on both accounts.

For instance, earlier this year, I decided to write an email that might be hostilely received. As I psyched myself up to press the Send button, my mind flitted to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Looking Glass.” The poem is perhaps sexist in its assumption that aging is a distress to all women, but what I remember best is its insistence that sometimes you have to face up to what makes you afraid, even if the result is unpleasant.

The poem concerns Elizabeth I in late middle-age, stealing herself to look in the mirror:

Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking glass.

She is haunted, if only in her mind, by Mary Tudor and Robert Dudley, and, in the end she tells herself:

Backwards and forwards and sideways though I’ve been,
Yet I am Harry’s daughter, and I am England’s queen!

Then she draws herself up in front of the mirror, and sees what she must have known all along: That she is aging, and no longer beautiful. I always like to think that I’m the sort of person to face up to unpleasant truths, so the poem is apt to come back to me whenever I’m dealing with something whose results I may not like.

Another inspirational piece for me is Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter.” The song is about a group of sailors – fisherman, most likely – whose ship goes down. They decide to salvage the ship, despite being mocked. The chorus apparently kept at least one man alive while trying to survive a shipwreck. It certainly kept me going in the worst period of my life:

Rise again! Rise again!
Let her name not be lost to the knowledge of men,
All those who loved her best and were with her till the end,
Will make the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again.

The song is sung when all the work is done, and the sailors plan to raise the ship tomorrow:

And the drunken lying rats
That left her to a sorry grave,
They won’t be laughing in another day.

There, Rogers leaves them to deliver the moral – the only moral, incidentally, that I have been able to tolerate:

And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Turn to and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise again! Rise again!
Though your heart it be broken, or life about to end,
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again!

Endurance, success being the best revenge, never giving in – yeah, I can get behind all of that.

More recently, OysterBand, another of my favorite musical groups, came up with a song that has always seemed a deliberate echo of “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Advising listeners to “lift your head up /gonna rise above,” they launch into the chorus:

And we’ll rise where shadows fall,
And we’ll fly where money crawls,
Looking out for a higher love,
Not gonna fall, gonna rise above.

And we’ll fly where shadows fall,
Till the pain can’t touch you at all,
Crazy things you were thinking of,
Rise above, rise above!

The independence and determination of this song also speaks to me.

Technically speaking, these aren’t the best works by any of these artists. Yet we all need some reinforcement of our core values from time to time, if only to get up on Monday morning. For better or worse, these are the works that keep me moving most often, although from time to time others join the play list: A stray line or two from Shakespeare, a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, and a satire by Robert Graves among them. I’m sure they all speak volumes about the kind of person I am.

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When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

The gingerbread on her house
is only architectural excess
not culinary, the consequences
of gnawing no more than splinters.
Her worst eccentricities are earnest ramblings
on herbs to her old cat
and a lack of belief in bathing.
At times, she cheats at cards.

If you go by road
you fall in with the tollkeeper first.
He swaggers with his helm and two-handed sword,
says he is a gentleman, and lowers himself
if he hurries to help you.
All day he props over
hot pastries and ale
and his indigestion
(and hence his temper)
is not of the best.
He taxes you once for the king, he says,
and twice for himself;
the third time is for practice.

He keeps six hounds
hungry and well-lashed
and loosed at night
to take toll of another kind.
Bluff past him with your blade or bow,
and he semaphores, they say,
to bandits in the swamp.
The bandits, like the dogs,
strike only faces and hands
and after the dead’s clothes
are sold to second-hand merchants.

In his village
(where they do not travel
and are fond of fashion)
he passes for an honest man.

If you go overland, the foresters
lounge in the bracken.
Dour in dun hoods, they
preserve the forest and wild pigs for the king’s pleasure
(which he takes elsewhere)
and for their own
forbid crofters any firewood except
branches fallen from the bracken.

They arrive at the crofters’
doors near dinner
with dogs they say can sniff out
purloined hams and pork chops.
Their hands fall like a pedophile’s
on the shoulders of crofter children.
“The law is your friend,” they say,
“Tell us where your mother
cuts firewood.”

In the lonely places on the moor
they saunter in from the shadows
and mistrust travellers at random.
Sometimes, they plant
sausages or pig’s feet
in the packs of those
grown querulous at their questions.
Such wayfarers, they say,
become careless in their custody,
falling face first in the fire.

But in nearby villages, the burghers
(honest men, all of them)
say you must not believe
the bitter ones with broken fingers.
They declare the foresters upstanding men,
their only fault (and that occasional)
over-dedication to duty.

The coachman of the royal mail
empties your purse for passage, then
flings you off with the luggage
in his flight from trouble or fancy.

The army whose members
maneuver on the moor says
you can always lose your virginity somewhere.

Better the wild dogs and night-walkers,
the barrow guest and the quaint
cannibalisms of the turf cutters or
the one who walks behind.
Better take a stone from
the strange-arched ruins or
whistle at
the third milestone at midsummer.
Play riddles with
the watchers in the reeds or
thank the hanging man.
Let your voice reply
to the women who sing at twilight
before you trust
in your city polish and manners
the customs of the king’s men.

When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

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