The HyperTexts

The Best Didactic Poems, Epigrams and Prose Writings
Definitions and Examples of Didactic Poems and Epigrams

DIDACTIC DEFINITION: A didactic poem is directly (and usually unapologetically) instructional or informational: it teaches or explains something such as a truth, a moral, a principle or a process. The English word "didactic" derives from the Greek didaktikos ("able to teach or instruct"). While modern literary critics have more or less "written off" didactic poetry (pardon the pun), they are contradicted by the fact that some of the greatest poets wrote didactic verse, including Shakespeare. Many of the Bard's famous sonnets conclude with didactic couplets.


Neither a borrower nor a lender be.William Shakespeare
To thine own self be true.William Shakespeare
When Envy breeds unkind division: there comes the ruin, there begins confusion.William Shakespeare

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
William Shakespeare, the concluding couplet of his first sonnet

Little strokes
fell great oaks.
Benjamin Franklin

An unbending tree
breaks easily.
—Lao Tzu, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Vain woman, foolish thing!
Do you base your worth on a ring?
—Sappho, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Once fanaticism has gangrened brains
the incurable malady invariably remains.
—Voltaire, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A didactic poem usually means exactly what it says, and doesn't beat around the bush. There seems to be a modern myth that didactic poems are universally terrible, but this page demonstrates that there are commendable didactic poems that have stood the test of time. Rudyard Kipling's famous didactic poem "If" may seem too much like a sermon to some readers (including me). Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism" may be an example of a didactic poem that has become unreadable for many modern readers (including me). John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress may be an example of an allegorical morality tale that has become, or borders on, being unreadable for many readers (including me). But the examples below prove that the best didactic poetry remains viable in the 21st century. While many self-alleged "experts" parrot the modern mantra "Show, don't tell!" they have no answer for the magnificent telling of Shakespeare in his plays and sonnets, of John Milton in Paradise Lost, of A. E. Housman in his marvelous direct statement poems, of Voltaire in Candide, or of so many other master tellers.―Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts

My top ten didactic poems of all time (the top ten poems all appear on this page):

(10) "Do not stand at my grave and weep" by Mary Elizabeth Frye
(9) "Advice to a girl" by Sara Teasdale
(8) "This Be The Verse" by Philip Larkin
(7) "Minstrel Man" and "Impasse" by Langston Hughes
(6) "Dispensing Keys" by Hafez
(5) "Shine, Perishing Republic" by Robinson Jeffers
(4) "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden
(3) "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" by Wallace Stevens
(2) "The Lie" by Sir Walter Raleigh
(1) "Jerusalem" by William Blake

Other famous didactic poems include "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann, "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, "Breathes There the Man" by Sir Walter Scott, "Ulysses" by Alfred Tennyson, "Phenomenal Woman" and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou, "A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "A Dream Deferred" and "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes, "Our Deepest Fear" by Marianne Williamson, "i sing of Olaf, glad and big" by e. e. cummings, "Credo" by E. A. Robinson, and "In Memoriam A. H. H." by Alfred Tennyson.

And let's not forget Dr. Martin Luther King's poetic "I Have a Dream" or Abraham Lincoln's poetic "Gettysburg Address" or the ringing iambic pentameter lines of "We hold these truths to be self-evident: / that all men are created equal ..."

Religion is a maiden veiled in prayer,
Whose bridal gifts and dowry those who care
Can buy in Mutakallem's shop of words;
But I for such, a dirham can not spare.

Why linger here, why turn another page?
Oh! seal with doubt the whole book of the age;
Doubt every one, even him, the seeming slave
Of righteousness, and doubt the canting sage.

Famous didactic writers and teachers include the blind Syrian sage al-Ma'arri, Aristotle, William Blake, Buddha, John Bunyan, Robert Burns, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jesus Christ, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Frost, Hafez, Hesiod, Herman Hesse, Homer, Horace, Langston Hughes, Victor Hugo, Samuel Johnson, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, Lucretius, Martial, John Milton, Muhammad, George Orwell, Ovid, Plato, Alexander Pope, Rumi, Sappho, William Shakespeare, Socrates, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Swift, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Virgil, Voltaire, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.

This Be The Verse
by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

If I remember correctly, Philip Larkin never married or had children, so apparently he lived according to his didactic verse!

Dispensing Keys
by Hafiz
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The imbecile
constructs cages
for everyone he knows,
while the sage
(who has to duck his head
whenever the moon glows)
keeps dispensing keys
all night long
to the beautiful, rowdy,
prison gang.

I just love the wisdom and spirit of Hafiz in this subversive (pardon the pun) little poem. I can see jailers putting refugees in cages, while Hafiz goes around letting them out for a moondance!

Minstrel Man
by Langston Hughes

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You did not think
I suffer after
I've held my pain
So long.

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
You do not hear
My inner cry:
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
I die.

Langston Hughes was one of the first American poets to create a "fusion" between the blues, jazz and modern poetry.

by Langston Hughes

I could tell you
If I wanted to,
What makes me
What I am.

But I don't
Really want to—
And you don't
Give a damn.

Didactic poems do not have to be tedious, boring sermons. Mary Elizabeth Frye is, perhaps, the most mysterious poet whose work appears on this page. Rather than spoiling the mystery, I will present her poem first, then provide the details ...

Do not stand at my grave and weep
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep:
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there; I did not die.

This consoling elegy had a very mysterious genesis, as it was written by a Baltimore housewife who lacked a formal education, having been orphaned at age three. She had never written poetry before. Frye wrote the poem on a ripped-off piece of a brown grocery bag, in a burst of compassion for a Jewish girl who had fled the Holocaust only to receive news that her mother had died in Germany. The girl was weeping inconsolably because she couldn't visit her mother's grave to share her tears of love and bereavement. When the poem was named Britain's most popular poem in a 1996 Bookworm poll, with more than 30,000 call-in votes despite not having been one of the critics' nominations, an unlettered orphan girl had seemingly surpassed all England's many cultured and degreed ivory towerists in the public's estimation. Although the poem's origin was disputed for some time (it had been attributed to Native American and other sources), Frye's authorship was confirmed in 1998 after investigative research by Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist better known as "Dear Abby." The poem has also been called "I Am" due to its rather biblical repetitions of the phrase. Frye never formally published or copyrighted the poem, so we believe it is in the public domain and can be shared, although we recommend that it not be used for commercial purposes, since Frye never tried to profit from it herself.

Advice to a Girl

by Sara Teasdale

No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed;
Lay that on your heart,
My young angry dear;
This truth, this hard and precious stone,
Lay it on your hot cheek,
Let it hide your tear.
Hold it like a crystal
When you are alone
And gaze in the depths of the icy stone.
Long, look long and you will be blessed:
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed.

If we are to have real peace in the world,
we shall have to begin with the children.
―Mohandas Gandhi

by William Blake

He who binds to himself a joy,
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity's sun rise.

William Blake's poem reminds me of the Sting song that suggests: "If you love somebody, set them free."

by William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

The births of all things are weak and tender,
therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.
Michel de Montaigne

The Garden
by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
               of a sort of emotional anemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.

She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
             will commit that indiscretion.

Religion is the opiate of the people.—Karl Marx
Religion is the dopiate of the sheeple.Michael R. Burch

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Love distills desire upon the eyes, love brings bewitching grace into the heart.

Excerpts from "More Poems"
by A. E. Housman


Here dead we lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and commune with each other.
—Rainer Maria Rilke

Shine, Perishing Republic
by Robinson Jeffers

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught—they say—God, when he walked on earth.

Any good that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now ... for I shall not pass this way again.
Etienne Griellet

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

He who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.
—Saint Basil

To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time
by Robert Herrick

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
   Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today
   Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
   The higher he's a-getting;
The sooner will his race be run,
   And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
   When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
   Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
   And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
   You may for ever tarry.

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
―Ben Franklin

by George Herbert

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!
The bridal of the earth and sky—
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
      For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,
Thy root is ever in its grave,
      And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie,
My music shows ye have your closes,
      And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season'd timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
      Then chiefly lives.

The ballot is stronger than the bullet.
—Abraham Lincoln

Love Is Not All
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

Love keeps the cold out better than a cloak.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Life’s saving graces are love, pleasure, laughter ...
wisdom, it seems, is for the Hereafter.
Michael R. Burch

The Lie
by Sir Walter Ralegh

Go, soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

Say to the court it glows
And shines like rotten wood,
Say to the church it shows
What's good, and doth no good:
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.

Tell potentates, they live
Acting, by others' action;
Not lov'd unless they give;
Not strong, but by affection.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.

Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition;
Their practice only hate.
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell them that brave it most,
They beg for more by spending,
Who in their greatest cost
Like nothing but commending.
And if they make reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell zeal it wants devotion;
Tell love it is but lust;
Tell time it meets but motion;
Tell flesh it is but dust:
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie.

Tell age it daily wasteth;
Tell honour how it alters;
Tell beauty how she blasteth;
Tell favour how it falters:
And as they shall reply,
Give every one the lie.

Tell wit how much it wrangles
In fickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles
Herself in over-wiseness:
And when they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.

Tell physic of her boldness;
Tell skill it is prevention;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention:
And as they do reply,
So give them still the lie.

Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay:
And if they will reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

Tell faith it's fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell manhood, shakes off pity;
Tell virtue, least preferred.
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing;
Because to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing:
Stab at thee, he that will,
No stab thy soul can kill!

Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata (Latin for "desired things") is a 1927 prose poem that was largely unknown in the author's lifetime. The poem became widely known after being found at Adlai Stevenson's deathbed in 1965.

by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

As an Israeli, I have come to understand:
there is no way to love Israel and reject a two-state peace,
no way to love Israel and reject Palestine.
Yael Dayan, the daughter of Moshe Dayan, Israel's most famous general

by John Donne

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devils foot;
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights
Till Age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one let me know;
Such a pilgrimage were sweet.
Yet do not; I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet.
Though she were true when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three.

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour
by Wallace Stevens

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one ...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Other Famous Didactic Poems and Prose Works:

"The Lie" by Sir Walter Ralegh
"Breathes There the Man" by Sir Walter Scott
"A Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes
"i sing of Olaf, glad and big" by e. e. cummings
"Credo" by E. A. Robinson
"In Memoriam A. H. H." by Alfred Tennyson
"De Rerum Natura" by Lucretius
"Works and Days" by Hesiod
"The Revolt of Islam" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Rugby Chapel" by Matthew Arnold
"If" by Rudyard Kipling
"Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope
"Essay on Criticism" by Alexander Pope
"The Raven" by Edgar Alan Poe
"I Have a Dream" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"The Gettysburg Address" by Abraham Lincoln
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
The Parables of Jesus Christ
The Beatitudes of Jesus Christ
The Ten Commandments of Moses
Large parts of the Bible, the Koran and other religious texts

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