The greatest ‘break-up poems’ in English, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Is it better to have loved and lost? The following classic poems suggest not. In the following post, we’ve gathered together ten of our favourite poems about lost love, about the sad side of being in love – ranging from the Renaissance to the modern day.
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow …
Like many poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ – one of the earliest sonnets written in English – is a loose reworking of a poem by the Italian poet Petrarch.
But Wyatt may have been drawing on very personal romantic experience when he penned this poem, which sees him ‘taking himself out of the running’ when it comes to pursuing a beautiful woman. The woman, it has been suggested, is Anne Boleyn, now involved with no lesser a person than the King, Henry VIII…
2. Michael Drayton, ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’.
Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part.
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free …
One of the greatest ‘breaking-up’ poems, this sonnet was written by Michael Drayton (1563-1631), a Warwickshire poet born one year before Shakespeare.
The poet tells his erstwhile lover that the best thing for them to do is to end their relationship, shake hands, and walk away – though in the closing sestet Drayton dares to dream that the relationship may yet be salvaged.
The poem appeared towards the end of Drayton’s sonnet sequence Idea’s Mirror (1594).
3. John Clare, ‘The Secret’.
I loved thee, though I told thee not,
Right earlily and long,
Thou wert my joy in every spot,
My theme in every song …
This poem by an often-overlooked voice in Romantic poetry, John Clare (1793-1864), strikes to the heart of what many of us have felt at some time in our lives: having kept his love of somebody a secret, the poet is doomed to transfer or deflect that love onto other people who remind him of his first, true love. Not so much a lost love as a love never had, this one – but poignant and affecting nevertheless.
4. Emily Brontë, ‘Long neglect has worn away’.
Long neglect has worn away
Half the sweet enchanting smile;
Time has turned the bloom to grey;
Mould and damp the face defile …
This short poem about lost love – written by the poet who also gave us the novel Wuthering Heights, of course – is included in our pick of Emily Brontë’s best short poems. Click on the link above and scroll down to number 6 on the list (it’s also worth reading the other seven poems, as well!).
5. A. E. Housman, ‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over’.
Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All’s wrong that ever I’ve done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here’s luck, good-bye …
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) wrote very powerfully about lost and hopeless love, and this poem is a fine example of how he transmuted personal unhappiness (he fell in love with Moses Jackson, a fellow student at Oxford, as an undergraduate) into great poetry.
Although this is a fine poem about breaking up – or, more accurately, parting from somebody who doesn’t like you in that way – the loyalty expressed in the second stanza is touching and heartfelt.
6. Charlotte Mew, ‘I so liked Spring’.
I so liked Spring last year
Because you were here; –
The thrushes too –
Because it was these you so liked to hear –
I so liked you …
Mew is best-remembered for ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, but this short poem, about getting over somebody you once loved and shared your life with, is an underrated gem. Addressing her former lover, the poet declares that she liked spring last year because she was sharing it with someone special.
It is implied that this special lover has forsaken the poet, who is determined to enjoy this springtime for its own sake, not because of who she might have been sharing it with. A soft note of defiance pervades the poem’s second stanza.
7. Edward Thomas, ‘Go Now’.
Like the touch of rain she was
On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes
When the joy of walking thus
Has taken him by surprise …
Inspired by Thomas’s impassioned friendship with Eleanor Farjeon, this poem is about a woman parting ways with the male speaker and the effect that her two simple words – ‘Go now’ – had on him and his appreciation of nature. A classic break-up poem.
8. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sonnet XLII.
This poem, beginning ‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why’, muses upon all the lads whom the poem’s speaker has loved, who now love her no more.
9. Stevie Smith, ‘Pad, Pad’.
One of our favourite poems by one of the twentieth century’s most eccentric poets. ‘Pad, Pad’ is spoken by someone whose lover sat down and told her he didn’t love her any more. The animal suggestion of ‘padding’ rather than walking, as well as the ‘tigerish crouch’ of the departed lover, are trademark Stevie Smith touches, and make this classic break-up poem all the more affecting.
10. Vicki Feaver, ‘Coat’.
This short poem likens the departed lover to a coat, which the poet longed to throw off and be free of – until, that is, she actually did cast it aside. Now, she only feels the cold…
What do you think is the best poem about lost or hopeless love? What are the most moving and powerful breaking-up poems? Continue to explore classic poetry with our pick of Valentine’s Day poems, these great poems about unrequited love, these non-sentimental poems for weddings, and these fine religious poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, published by J. Chamberlain in 1812, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Edward Thomas in c. 1905, from the Hutton/Stringer Archive; Wikimedia Commons.