By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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.
1. 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.
The second line may be familiar to some readers as the title of one of the English translations of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (although in fact, Shakespeare himself was quoting the phrase: it’s found in the Wisdom of Solomon, a book from the Old Testament Apocrypha: ‘For a double griefe came upon them, and a groaning for the remembrance of things past’).
This, and that opening line’s reference to ‘the sessions of sweet silent thought’, set the trend for Sonnet 30: it’s a poem of quiet contemplation, less ranting or frenetic than the previous sonnet.
2. 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 …
3. Percy Shelley, ‘Music, when soft voices die’.
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken …
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.
4. Thomas Hood, ‘I Remember, I Remember’.
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away …
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 Henry Vaughan in his poem about childhood memories, he feels that he is ‘farther off from heaven / Than when I was a boy.’
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay …
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.
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘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.
7. 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).
Binyon wrote ‘For the Fallen’ in northern Cornwall in September 1914, just one month after the outbreak of the First World War. Binyon wasn’t himself a soldier – he was already in his mid-forties when fighting broke out – but ‘For the Fallen’ is without doubt one of the most famous poems of the First World War.
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 …
8. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Piano’.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide …
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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. 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.