In the poems “We Real Cool” and “Invictus,” how are the moods similar but the endings different?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” might at first seem to have very little in common with William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus.” On closer examination, however, the two works reveal some interesting similarities, including the following:

  • Both poems present highly confident moods.  Indeed, this mood of confidence is implied in the very titles of both works, though "We Real Cool" presents an ironic confidence.
  • The over-all tones of both works also suggest this as self-confidence, which might even be seen as somewhat cocky. Thus, the speakers in Brooks’ poem immediately assert, “We real cool” (1), while the speaker of Henley’s poem quickly proclaims,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul. (3-4)

  • Some readers might find the attitudes of the speakers in both poems a bit arrogant, although Henley seems to want us to admire his speaker’s pride, while Brooks may be mocking the pride of the speakers she presents.

Ultimately, however, the speakers of the two poems seem to differ even more than they resemble each other.  Some of the most significant differences include the following:

  • Henley’s speaker speaks for himself. Brooks’ speakers are part of a group and seem to define themselves as members of a group. Henley's speaker seems strong; Brooks' young men seem weak and shallow.
  • Henley’s speaker seems to have faced and overcome real challenges in his life, whereas the speakers in Brooks’ poem seem to have retreated from even the most simple challenges:

. . . We

Left school. (1-2)

  • Henley’s speaker seems to take pride in the genuine strength he has displayed:

I have not winced nor cried aloud

Under the bludgeonings of chance.

My head is bloody, but unbowed. (6-8)

  • Brooks’ speakers are proud of their accomplishments in the pool hall and of other insignificant achievements:

. . . We

Strike straight. (3-4)

  • Finally, the most significant difference between the speakers in both poems is that Henley’s speaker seems confident even in the face of age and death (9-12), whereas Brooks’ speakers merely (and ironically) concede,

. . . We

Die soon. (7-8)

Henley seems to endorse the values and attitudes of the speaker he presents, whereas Brooks seems to offer her brief poem as a caution and warning to any other young men who think that being “cool” is a mature approach to life.