Memory, as a wise writer once put it, is the thing we forget with. But poetry, of course, is bound up with the idea of remembering, recollecting, reflecting, memorialising … so here are ten of the very best poems about remembering, memories, remembrance, nostalgia, and related themes.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 30. ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste …’ The second line of this sonnet by Shakespeare is well-known, but what about the rest of the poem? Sonnet 30 very much continues the idea introduced in the previous sonnet (which can be read here), that when he’s feeling a bit down the poet can make himself feel much better simply by thinking of the Fair Youth.
William Wordsworth, ‘Memory’. This short poem is not one of Wordsworth’s most famous, but it is relevant for any list of the best poems about memory: ‘A pen – to register; a key – / That winds through secret wards / Are well assigned to Memory / By allegoric Bards.’
Percy Shelley, ‘Music, when soft voices die’. This short poem, often simply titled ‘To—’, is one of Shelley’s best-known poems thanks to its opening two lines: ‘Music, when soft voices die, / Vibrates in the memory’. The poem was written in 1821, just one year before Shelley drowned, and first published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1824 with a preface by Shelley’s widow, the Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.
Thomas Hood, ‘I Remember, I Remember’. Thomas Hood (1799-1845) is best-remembered for ‘The Song of the Shirt’, one of the most famous poems about the Industrial Revolution, and ‘I Remember, I Remember’, in which he recollects his childhood. Like Vaughan, he feels that he is ‘farther off from heaven / Than when I was a boy.’
Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’. In this sonnet, written when Christina Rossetti was still a teenager, she requests that the addressee of the poem remember her after she has died. What gives the poem a twist is the concluding thought that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her if it makes her lover sad. It is this second part of the poem’s ‘argument’ that saves it from spilling over into mawkish sentimentality, and makes this one of Rossetti’s finest poems about love.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Remorse is Memory Awake’. ‘Remorse—is Memory—awake— / Her Parties all astir— / A Presence of Departed Acts— / At window—and at Door—’: so begins this poem by one of the nineteenth century’s most idiosyncratic and distinctive voices. For Dickinson, feeling remorse over the bad things one has done is like one’s memory never sleeping.
Laurence Binyon, ‘For the Fallen’. This is more a poem of remembrance than a simple poem of remembering: it is used every year in the Remembrance Day ceremony commemorating those who died in the First World War (and, by extension, in other conflicts): ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.’
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Piano’. An exercise in nostalgia in long couplets, D. H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Piano’ sees the speaker recalling his childhood when he listened to his mother playing the piano, while sitting under it and holding his mother’s feet as she played. This memory opens up a ‘vista’ into the past which includes longing for the Sunday evenings of the speaker’s childhood.
Stevie Smith, ‘I Remember’. Like many of Stevie Smith’s poems, this one is a little unusual, and all the better for it. The speaker is an old man remembering his wedding night during the Blitz, when he married ‘a girl with t.b.’ There aren’t many twentieth-century poets who can get away with the breathless romanticism of an ‘Oh’ in their poetry, but Stevie Smith manages it beautifully and poignantly here, in her final line.
Philip Larkin, ‘I Remember, I Remember’. Its title a pointed riposte to Hood’s poem, Larkin’s ‘I Remember, I Remember’ inverts the idea of recalling a happy childhood through rose-tinted spectacles. Instead, Larkin reflects matter-of-factly upon his ‘unspent’ childhood where he didn’t do all the usual things associated with growing up, remembering what he elsewhere called the ‘forgotten boredom’ of his childhood.