The finest poems about grief selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Grief is a part of life, and we will all know what it is to mourn at some point in our lives. And it’s at such times that many of us turn to the words of the greatest poets, who have found a way to express the grief we feel, putting words together in such a way as to give voice to our feeling of mourning and loss. Here are ten of the finest poems about the experience of grieving and mourning, taken from over 600 years of poetry…
Anonymous, ‘Why have ye no routhe on my child?’ This poem is a lament for a lost child: ‘rode’ is the ‘rood’ or Cross, and ‘routhe’ is ‘ruth’ or compassion – which is why someone who lacks compassion is described as ‘ruthless’:
That’s how the poem begins, but follow the link above to read the full poem, which is the sixth on our list of the best medieval poems. It’s the oldest poem on this list of mourning poems, dating back at least six centuries to the late fourteenth century, though it may be even older.
John Donne, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’.
As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No:
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.
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 but also what might be described as an anti-mourning poem; follow the link above to read the (much longer) poem in full.
Robert Herrick, ‘The Bad Season Makes the Poet Sad’. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was a Royalist who, following the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I in 1649, penned this poem grieving for the loss of the king: ‘everything / Puts on the semblance here of sorrowing.’ For Herrick, the whole land seems to grieve for Charles and the loss to the kingdom that his death signifies:
Dull to myself, and almost dead to these
My many fresh and fragrant mistresses;
Lost to all music now, since everything
Puts on the semblance here of sorrowing.
Sick is the land to th’ heart, and doth endure
More dangerous faintings by her desp’rate cure.
Although the poem is about Herrick’s own feeling of loss, the opening lines (quoted here) give voice to a more universal feeling of grief and mourning.
Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H. Written over the course of sixteen years, between 1833 and 1849, In Memoriam A. H. H. was published in 1850, the year Tennyson became UK Poet Laureate. Over the course of 133 cantos comprising many more quatrains rhymed abba, Tennyson explores and records the grief he felt in response to the sudden death of his close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. The poem begins by asking the Lord’s forgiveness for the intense grief Tennyson felt for his friend:
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Grief is a Mouse’. Although this Emily Dickinson poem explores a range of metaphors for grief, its opening analogy is to a mouse, which ‘chooses Wainscot in the Breast / For His Shy House’. The idea is that grief is deeply felt, but hidden away: like a mouse in the wainscot, we are aware of it continually, but we never (or seldom) see it. The poem goes on to say:
Grief is a Juggler—boldest at the Play—
Lest if He flinch—the eye that way
Pounce on His Bruises—One—say—or Three—
Grief is a Gourmand—spare His luxury—
Best Grief is Tongueless—before He’ll tell—
Burn Him in the Public Square—
Possibly—if they refuse—How then know—
Since a Rack couldn’t coax a syllable—now
See the link provided above to read all of the poem.
Christina Rossetti, ‘One Sea-Side Grave’. Written in 1853 and published in 1884, this little poem contains many of the features and themes we find in Rossetti’s poem elsewhere: mourning, death, remembering, love. Here, of course, mourning and death are the most significant (with a possible pun on mourning in the final line of the poem’s first stanza, quoted here):
Unmindful of the roses,
Unmindful of the thorn,
A reaper tired reposes
Among his gathered corn:
So might I, till the morn!
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Time does not bring relief’. Time is a healer, they say. Consoling and reassuring words, but what if time doesn’t appear to be easing the pain of grief? This sonnet puts forward such a notion: that if anything, the speaker’s grief has become stronger with time, rather than being soothed by the passing of days, weeks, months. Ironically, reading such a poem may help with grief (as Sheila Hancock found in the wake of her husband, John Thaw), because it gives a voice to something we feel when trying to find a way through the grieving process.
W. H. Auden, ‘Stop All the Clocks’. Also known as ‘Funeral Blues’, this poem reached a whole new audience when it was recited by John Hannah’s character in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. What use is the world if it does not have the one we love contained within it? When they are gone, everything becomes pointless, useless, colourless. This feeling of grief and despair is what Auden’s poem captures so well – although, as we reveal here, the poem surprisingly began life as a parody of sentimental poetic tributes to public figures.
Dylan Thomas, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’. Written during WWII when London was frequently being bombed by the Germans, this poem – as its title makes clear – rejects the usual response to death, especially the death of a young girl. What sounds like a heartless premise is anything but: Thomas’s argument in the poem is that it is odd and inappropriate to mourn one particular death (especially when ‘mourning’ in itself does no good) when there is so much suffering in the world, and always has been. Listen to Thomas reading this poem here.
Tony Harrison, ‘Long Distance II’. Stephen Spender (1909-95) said of Tony Harrison’s series of elegies for his parents that they were the sort of poetry he felt he’d been waiting his whole life for. This poem sees the poet reflecting on the grief his father felt following Harrison’s mother’s death, before turning to consider Harrison’s response to the death of his father. These sonnets by Harrison – which contain 16 lines rather than the usual 14 – are among the finest twentieth-century poems about the process of grief, and deserve to be read in full.
Continue to explore classic poetry with these short poems about death and dying, these poignant poems of goodbye, and these poems of unrequited love. 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).
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.
Pingback: Blogbummel Februar/März 2018 – buchpost
Loved the Catullus poem. Thank you for reminding me of the final lines, learned a lifetime ago in Latin class.
Thank you for this – I do enjoy these themed collections. Might I suggest Catullus 101, a poem of mourning for a brother from the first century BC? I think you can see its influence in e.g. the Tennyson, cantos 9-10: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Catullus_101