The greatest goodbye poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poets are often at their most poignant when saying goodbye – to lovers, to lost loved ones, or to a part of their lives they have left behind. Here are ten of the greatest poems about saying goodbye or farewell…
Michael Drayton, ‘Since There’s No Help, Come Let Us Kiss and Part’. 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).
John Donne, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. As this poem’s title suggests, it’s a poem of farewell, written by Donne for his wife Anne in 1611-12 before he left England to go on a mission to Europe. Utilising metaphors of compass points and alchemical processes to describe the relationship between the husband and wife, ‘A Valediction’ is one of the finest examples of Metaphysical poetry.
Lord Byron, ‘When We Two Parted’. How might two lovers part? In silence and tears, as this popular Byron poem has it. Possibly written about a real-life affair between the poet and Lady Frances Webster – who was also involved with the Duke of Wellington – this is a classic Romantic (and romantic) expression of parting as not-so-sweet sorrow.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Going’. ‘The Going’ is one of Thomas Hardy’s great ‘Poems of 1912-13’, written in the wake of the death of his first wife, Emma, from whom Hardy had been estranged for a number of years prior to her death in 1912. The critic James Wood singled out the image of watching ‘morning harden upon the wall’ as an example of Hardy’s poetic style. ‘The Going’ captures a grief tinged with regret – Hardy’s own regret at not having made more of an attempt to avoid such a fate for him and Emma.
A. E. Housman, ‘Shake Hands, We Shall Never Be Friends, All’s Over’. 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.
Edward Thomas, ‘Go Now’. 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 poem of farewell.
Stevie Smith, ‘In My Dreams’. ‘In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away’: so opens this poem by one of the twentieth century’s most distinctive poetic voices, in which the speaker revels in the freedom that saying goodbye can provide.
Cecil Day-Lewis, ‘Walking Away’. Cecil Day-Lewis was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom between 1968 and 1972 (as well as being the father of Daniel Day-Lewis). In ‘Walking Away’, a parent recalls the first time he realised his child’s independence was blossoming, during a game of football. (We’ve picked some of the best football poems here.) The experience is bittersweet because the speaker of the poem senses that a phase of his child’s life – and his own – has come to an end. This is a poem about saying farewell to a time of life as much as to an individual.
Alun Lewis, ‘Goodbye’. Lewis (1915-44) is one of the best-known English poets of the Second World War. Lewis wrote this beautiful poem of farewell about his first night with his wife.
Philip Larkin, ‘Poetry of Departures’. In this early poem, Larkin, perhaps the most famous ‘misanthropic’ poet of the twentieth century, begins by approving of those people who had the courage to throw everything up in the air and leave. But, as with the more famous ‘Toads’ and ‘Toads Revisited’, Larkin ends up having a change of heart, and concludes that what seems like a liberating step forward is actually nothing of the sort: to start again simply sets you back at square one in your search for normality and stability. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again; Larkin suggests that, on the contrary, you can never leave home.
For more classic poetry, check out our pick of the best kissing poems, these great football poems, and these classic poems for birthdays. We can 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).
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.