I found this poem on a bookmark in WH Smith when I was a teenager. It wasn’t attributed to anyone, and this site, which has a fuller version of the poem, says the author is unknown.
When things go wrong,as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit
Success is failure turned inside out -
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit -
It’s when things go wrong that you must not quit.
I memorised it and repeated it to myself like a mantra. I used to define myself by my strength of will, and this poem both encapsulated how I saw myself and gave me the strength to continue.
I don’t know what to make of it, now. It feels slightly tarnished by the stigma of having been on a bookmark. I’m sure a lot of people would regard it as ‘cheesy’ - I hate the word ‘cheesy’, it’s so often used to denigrate and rob things I like of their authenticity. And whilst I actively dislike its use, I still end up being influenced by it to set aside things I like, and I hate that about myself as well as the word.
I also wonder what it means, now- now that I am not as strong as I once was. Now I am weary and have sometimes quit, and felt disgusted with myself for it. Or maybe it wasn’t quitting, it was resting. Or maybe it’s just that if you learn something off by heart it loses its power. (Except that the Hamlet soliloquy I memorised hasn’t lost it’s power; but perhaps it’s unfair to compare an unknown author to Shakespeare.)
I know I became embarrassed of this poem, for a time. I know it hurt when I chose it to read in an English class where we all had to choose a poem and read it, and I read mine with the passion that comes of reading something you’ve tied yourself to for support, but the teacher gave me a low grade because I wasn’t loud enough, and other children asked to see the bookmark I was reading off, and I was embarrassed to be reading it off a bookmark, and I worried that they would mock me because they would read the poem and know that the reason I chose it was because I was being bullied, and clearly the bullying was working.
I know that I am not the same as the girl who relied on that poem. She was strong, that girl - so strong. And staying strong in that situation nearly drove her mad - maybe did make her a bit mad, for a time. I wonder what that girl would make of me; but I do not wish I could go back and talk to her. Because if she knew I was still depressed after all these years - that university would only provide a brief escape before things got bad again - I’m pretty sure she would give up. The light at the end of the tunnel, and studying hard to make sure she reached it, was her one comfort. That, and reading, and films, to escape the world she had to endure before she could reach that light.
There are good things I could tell her: you’ll have friends - lots of them - for a while you’ll even be popular, the centre of your social group, the president of a large society; you’ll share your writing with others, and for the most part, they will like it, and some of it will even be published; you’ll proofread actual novels; you’ll be accepted onto a PhD programme; you’ll present papers at conferences; you’ll meet like-minded people who are feminist activists; you’ll perform in the Vagina Monologues; more people will tell you you’re beautiful than that you’re ‘fucking ugly’.
I think she’d be happy to hear those things. But I know she would have expected me to do more. She had such ENERGY. Such FIGHT. Where did that girl go? I suppose I know: eventually she found that her stores of strength and energy were not endless; that a lot of her new friends were still pretty sexist, and not as enlightened as she hoped they would be; she had to support herself a little earlier than she was expected to; she found herself bullied again and unpopular again; she worked in one particularly horrible place; and she learnt what it was like to fight the good fight without the buffer of middle-class living standards she had grown up in.
Where is this post going? I don’t know. I guess just to the fact that I still have a poem memorised that used to mean a lot to me at the worst time in my life, when, paradoxically, I was at my strongest… and I don’t know what any of that means, or whether it should mean anything to me, now.~Rhube