The best poems about pining away for love selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Love’ and ‘poetry’ go together to form a natural pair, but as Shakespeare pointed out, the course of true love never did run smooth. Sometimes the greatest lovers are those who pine away, hopelessly devoted to someone who will never return their affections. From the medieval courtly love tradition onwards, poets have been treating the subject of unrequited love. Here are ten of the best poems about love that is not reciprocated…
Sir Philip Sidney, ‘With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies’. This poem, Sonnet 31 from Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, is a great Elizabethan poem about hopeless love (Stella, the object of Astrophil’s affections, is married to another man), although the sonnet appears to teeter on the edge of self-parody.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 87. This is probably Shakespeare’s greatest poem about unrequited love – and we think it qualifies as an ‘unrequited love poem’ because, although the poet and the Fair Youth appear to have been in a relationship of sorts, with the younger man reciprocating the Bard’s affections, it’s clear Shakespeare feels that the Fair Youth is out of his league and doesn’t really love the poet the way he loves him.
John Clare, ‘The Secret’. 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.
John Keats, ‘You Say You Love’. This isn’t one of Keats’s best-known poems, but it’s his finest statement of unrequited love (something Keats knew all about, thanks to his unreciprocated feelings for Fanny Brawne). Although the addressee of this poem tells the poet she loves him, he doubts the sincerity of her words. The refrain, ‘O love me truly!’, becomes more and more despairing – and desperate – as the poem develops.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Mariana’. This early poem, published in 1830, ‘arose to the music of Shakespeare’s words’ (according to Tennyson) – the words in question being taken from Measure for Measure, in which ‘the dejected Mariana’ dwells ‘at the moated grange’, having been forsaken by Angelo, who promised to marry her but then broke his promise. The imagery of the poem is vivid and memorable, from the ‘mouse’ that ‘behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d’ or the ‘blue fly’ that ‘sung in the pane’. It is perhaps Tennyson’s first great success as a poet, written when he was only just into his twenties. The recurring refrain, ‘He cometh not’, and ‘He will not come’, highlights Mariana’s status as a victim of unrequited love.
A. E. Housman, ‘Because I Liked You Better’. Housman didn’t publish this poem in his lifetime, perhaps because the second line, ‘Than suits a man to say’, hinted at Housman’s homosexuality. However, we think it’s one of the greatest poems about unrequited love ever written, and about promising to abide by the loved one’s wish that the lover put them out of mind. Part of its power comes, perhaps, from the fact that we know the speaker never did forget the one they so hopelessly loved: Housman certainly didn’t until his dying day in 1936.
W. B. Yeats, ‘Never Give All the Heart’. As the title of this short Yeats poem makes clear, Yeats offers the would-be lover some advice: don’t dive headlong into love or infatuation, for your beloved won’t thank you for it. It’s best to keep a little passion back: ‘He that made this knows all the cost, / For he gave all his heart and lost.’
W. H. Auden, ‘The More Loving One’. Here’s an unusual take on the poem of unrequited love: perhaps it might be better to be the one whose love is unrequited, than to be the recipient of such love. ‘If equal affection cannot be,’ Auden writes here, ‘Let the more loving one be me.’
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 poem about unrequited love all the more affecting.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Warming Her Pearls’. This poem by the UK’s current Poet Laureate is narrated by a servant who, we learn as the poem progresses, harbours a secret love for her mistress. Almost unbearably sensual in its depiction of a woman who wears her mistress’s pearls but longs to be closer to her than they can ever be, this is one of Carol Ann Duffy’s finest poems.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. Continue to explore the world of love poetry with this pick of the best poems to read at weddings, these classic breaking-up poems, these Valentine’s Day poems, and these great church poems. For a change of pace, see our selection of the best ‘so bad they’re good’ 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.