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. They range from the Renaissance to the second half of the twentieth century, and show how, when it comes to writing valedictory verses, poets have produced some of the most moving and ingenious poems that say Goodbye…
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.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain …
So begins 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’.
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent …
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. It begins:
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this …
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. It includes the affecting lines:
Never to bid good-bye
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.
Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!
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.
Edward Thomas, ‘Go Now’.
Those two words shut a door
Between me and the blessed rain
That was never shut before
And will not open again …
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:
So we must say Goodbye, my darling,
And go, as lovers go, for ever;
Tonight remains, to pack and fix on labels
And make an end of lying down together.
I put a final shilling in the gas,
And watch you slip your dress below your knees
And lie so still I hear your rustling comb
Modulate the autumn in the trees.
Follow the link above to read the full poem.
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.