The best poems for friends selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Love may be a bigger topic for poets than friendship, but there are nevertheless some classic poems about friends and friendship to be found in English literature. Indeed, in compiling this list it proved tricky to select just 10 great poems about this topic – although the 10 poems included below are, we think, exceptionally fine examples of friendship poems. Here are ten of the greatest poems about friendship, and poems for friends, that poets have come up with over the centuries.
Edmund Waller, ‘On the Friendship betwixt Two Ladies’. Waller, whose life was as colourful as one might expect of a poet who lived through the English Civil War, is one of the wittiest minor poets of the seventeenth century, although not as great (or as famous) as his contemporaries, Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell. In this poem, Waller (1606-87), a Cavalier poet, celebrates the close friendship between two ladies but also suggests that they are perhaps too close, and deprive themselves of male company (e.g. Waller’s). ‘Why so careless of our care, / Only to yourselves so dear?’ Not so much ‘hoes before bros’ as ‘sisters before misters’?
Katherine Philips, ‘To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship’. Waller may have disdained the women who put their friendship with each other ahead of the men in their lives, but the remarkable seventeenth-century poet Katherine Philips (1632-64), also known as ‘the Matchless Orinda’, shows us exactly why friendship between women in the period was valued so highly. Philips was an Anglo-Welsh poet and translator in an age where few women had the chance to succeed at either. ‘To my Excellent Lucasia’ (Lucasia being the alter ego of Philips’ friend Anne Owen) is a poem of friendship but might also qualify as a lesbian love poem. From its opening lines onwards – ‘I did not live until this time / Crowned my felicity, / When I could say without a crime, / I am not thine, but thee.’ – this poem reads as much as a love poem as a poem for a friend.
William Blake, ‘A Poison Tree’. ‘I was angry with my friend: / I told my wrath, my wrath did end. / I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow.’ Blake (1757-1827), the remarkable visionary artist and poet, originally gave his poem ‘A Poison Tree’ the title ‘Christian Forbearance’. The speaker of the poem tells us that when he was angry with his friend he simply told his friend that he was annoyed, and that put an end to his bad feeling. But when he was angry with his enemy, he didn’t air his grievance to this foe, and so the anger grew. The implication of this ‘poison tree’ is that anger and hatred start to eat away at oneself: hatred always turns inward, corrupting into self-hatred. With our friends, therefore, it’s best to be honest and speak our minds with them. (Blake, we should remember, was the one who said that ‘opposition is true friendship.’)
Henry David Thoreau, ‘Friendship’. Love and friendship often go hand in hand in great poetry, as Katherine Philips testifies in her poem above. In this poem, the great American poet and essayist Thoreau considers the power of love and friendship and the ways that they elude our understanding, and, indeed, the language we use. Can we put into words how we feel about such overwhelming things? Friendship, embodied by two good friends, is like two sturdy oaks weathering a storm; they are able to withstand the winter storm because they stand together, their roots interlinked and entwined under the ground: ‘Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side, / Withstand the winter’s storm, / And spite of wind and tide, / Grow up the meadow’s pride, / For both are strong…’
Emily Brontë, ‘Love and Friendship’. Love and friendship, as we saw above, tend to form a natural double-act in classic friendship poetry, yet in this poem, the Wuthering Heights author – Brontë was also a gifted poet – contrasts the two: ‘Love is like the wild rose-briar, / Friendship like the holly-tree— / The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms / But which will bloom most constantly?’ This should hardly come as a surprise given the way Brontë depicts the powerful but ultimately destructive nature of love in her one novel. Friendship, for Brontë, is much more dependable and constant. As the Spice Girls would have it 150 years later, friendship never ends…
Emily Dickinson, ‘I should not dare to leave my friend’. ‘I should not dare to leave my friend, / Because—because if he should die / While I was gone—and I—too late— / Should reach the Heart that wanted me—’: David Sylvian, erstwhile lead singer of the pop group Japan, has set this poem to music, and it lends itself to song with its use of repetition and its trademark Dickinsonian quatrain structure, echoing the ballad form (although here, unusually for Dickinson, the even lines have four rather than three feet). What if a loved one who needed your friendship and support spent their dying hours without your help and comfort? This is the situation Dickinson considers in this poem about the importance of ‘being there’ as a friend.
A. E. Housman, ‘You smile upon your friend to-day’. This poem is from Housman’s first collection, A Shropshire Lad (1896), the volume that remains his most famous. Drawing on the familiar proverb ‘better late than never’, the poem is about love and friendship coming late in life to someone who has passed most of his life deprived of both: ‘You smile upon your friend to-day, / To-day his ills are over; / You hearken to the lover’s say, / And happy is the lover.’ It’s never too late for friendship or to be there for someone in need (following on from the Dickinson poem above). A number of composers have set Housman’s poems to music over the years; listen to a musical rendition of this poem here.
Robert Frost, ‘A Time to Talk’. Told in Frost’s trademark direct and clear style, ‘A Time to Talk’ is a short poem about finding time for friends, to catch up with them and talk to them even when there is work to do. Frost’s poem is a reminder that we are social beings and that friendship and conversation are the bread and butter of our daily lives as much as honest toil. Frost himself was good friends with another leading poet, Edward Thomas (1878-1917).
Stevie Smith, ‘The Pleasures of Friendship’. A nice short quatrain from one of the twentieth century’s most brilliantly eccentric poets, ‘The Pleasures of Friendship’ celebrates spending time with friends – time which soon flies by. The jaunty and slightly tongue-in-cheek rhyme of ‘exquisite’ with ‘visit’ nicely captures the joyousness of the thing Smith is describing.
Richard Brautigan, ‘Your Catfish Friend’. A remarkably tender but also eccentric poem from the American poet Richard Brautigan (1935-84), which posits a hypothetical case: if the speaker were a catfish in the bottom of a pond, and the poem’s addressee were to come along, he would love her (him?) and be her (his?) friend. That explains the poem’s title, if not its rather surreal setup. Surreal it may be; touching it is.
Discover more classic poetry with these poems about hair, these short poems about death, and these seduction poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here). For a change of pace, see our review of a superb collection of hilariously bad poetry by the great and good.
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.