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What Are the Best Adventure Poems?

Old library
Greg Melville

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It would be even more pretentious of me than normal to try to name the absolute best adventure travel poems ever written—but I’m willing to try. These five classics should be placed near the top of any armchair voyager's list. As for how to interpret them, you'll have to decide that for yourself.

The Best Adventure Poems: ‘Song of the Open Road’

Henceforth I ask not good fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing.

Strong and content, I travel the open road.
—Walt Whitman

In this poem from Leaves of Grass, Whitman imagines traveling on the open road as the ultimate egalitarian experience, where beggars and drunkards find themselves beside an eloping couple, a doctor, and a rich man. “None are but accepted—none are but dear to me!” Whitman exclaims. He wants the reader to keep moving with him, never settling for long, never staying indoors, celebrating the joy of the journey.

The Best Adventure Poems: ‘The Road Not Taken’

Forked path
Forked path via Shutterstock (CWB)

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost

You probably remember this ubiquitous poem from grade-school English classes. Frost wrote the work to poke fun at a friend, poet Edward Thomas, who would often agonize over which path to take when the two were on walks in the woods. But the poem’s longevity owes a lot to its universal appeal. As travelers, we never know with certainty if we’re following the correct path, and always wonder about other options that we could have taken. The narrator tells himself he’ll come back to the other path some day, but knows that, as in life, once you travel down one road, you can’t cover the same ground again.

The Best Adventure Poems: ‘Hard Is the Journey’

Ice bars my way to cross
the Yellow River,

Snows from dark skies to climb
the T’ai-hang mountains!
—Li Po

Li Po, who lived and worked in the 8th century, was one of the greatest classical Chinese poets. “Hard Is the Journey” varies somewhat based on the English translation, but the gist is the same. The narrator lives a life of riches, but yearns to toss aside his worldly goods and seek adventure. The poem ends with him imagining himself crossing the “blue oceans.” He could be any one of us today, stuck in a cubicle, daydreaming about the adventures we want to have.

The Best Adventure Poems: ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This classic story tells the tale of a sailor whose ship experiences all sorts of bad luck after he kills an albatross near Antarctica. The crew forces him to wear the rotting bird around his neck because of his deed. Everyone on the ship then dies of thirst, except for him.

He’s eventually rescued, but spends the rest of his life wandering the earth, paying penance by telling everyone he encounters about the fate that befell him for thinking that he could callously plunder nature.  Talk about a powerful environmental message. And written in the 1790s, no less.

The Best Adventure Poems: ‘The Odyssey’

The Odyssey
Vase depicting a scene from The Odyssey via Shutterstock (Kamira)

The prince and goddess to the stern ascend;
To the strong stroke at once the rowers bend.

Full from the west she bids fresh breezes blow;
The sable billows foam and roar below.

This epic Greek poem, authored by Homer roughly 2,800 years ago, is one of the first true adventure epics. Odysseus just wants to get home to his wife and son after the Trojan War, but he’s sidetracked by all sorts of mishaps and misfortunes along the way. Every single road story ever written owes a debt to it.

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