The greatest, saddest poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve considered poems of farewell and break-up poems, as well as classic elegies in English and poems about depression and melancholy. But what about ‘sad poems’: poems designed to make us cry? What makes a sad poem a good sad poem? What makes us shed a tear? Here, we’ve gathered together ten poems which we think are guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Dark House’ from In Memoriam.
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp’d no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door …
If Tennyson’s fame as a poet was built on such poems as ‘Mariana’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, and ‘Ulysses’, it was In Memoriam A. H. H., the long 1850 elegy Tennyson wrote about the untimely death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, which ensured him a place in the Hall of the Immortals. This short lyric, one of 133 cantos that make up the whole poem, sees Tennyson revisiting the ‘dark house’ where his friend Arthur grew up, on Wimpole Street in London (the same street where Elizabeth Barrett Browning also lived), in the wake of Hallam’s death, and trying to come to terms with the loss of his dearest friend. The final stanza of this short three-stanza poem is heart-breaking in its simple declaration of fact: ‘He is not here’.
Thomas Hardy, ‘Beeny Cliff’.
O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.
The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day …
‘Nevermore’, as Edgar Allan Poe proved with ‘The Raven’, is a phrase ripe with poignancy and so a fitting way to end a sad poem – if the rest of the poem has earned it. And this poem, one of Hardy’s celebrated ‘Poems of 1912-13’ which he wrote in the wake of the death of his first wife Emma, is our pick out of this suite of moving poems. Everything about the poem, from its plangent reminiscences of better times when Hardy and Emma were both younger, to the use of triplets which create a sense of incompleteness, contributes towards its tearful conclusion.
A. E. Housman, ‘Because I Liked You Better’.
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’
‘I will, no fear’, said I …
Housman didn’t publish this poem in his lifetime, perhaps because the second line, ‘Than suits a man to say’, hinted at Housman’s homosexuality. However, we think it’s one of the greatest poems about unrequited love ever written, and about promising to abide by the loved one’s wish that the lover put them out of mind. Part of its power comes, perhaps, from the fact that we know the speaker never did forget the one they so hopelessly loved: Housman certainly didn’t. The final stanza is a heart-tugger, like many of Housman’s.
Charlotte Mew, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’. Mew (1869-1928) is best-known for her narrative poem ‘The Farmer’s Bride’. Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was a popular poet in her lifetime, and was admired by fellow poets Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy, among others; indeed, Hardy helped to secure a Civil List pension for Mew in 1923. ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ was published in Charlotte Mew’s 1916 volume The Farmer’s Bride. The French title of this poem, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’, translates as ‘what good is there to say’. It’s a moving poem about lovers divided but then, the speaker hopes, reunited in death:
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
But you …
Edward Thomas, ‘In Memoriam, Easter 1915’. ‘Never again’ is a phrase which concludes many a sad poem that’s likely to draw tears from the reader, as we saw with the Hardy poem above. And in this short four-line poem, Thomas (1878-1917) poignantly laments the loss of so many young men who had gone off to fight in the First World War less than a year earlier. Tragically, Thomas himself would die later in the war: he was killed in the Battle of Arras in April 1917 just two years after writing this poem.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell …
No other English poet of the First World War can move readers to tears quite like Wilfred Owen, who himself stated that his aim was to reflect ‘the pity of war’. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. The poem is narrated by a soldier who dies in battle and finds himself in Hell. There he meets a man whom he identifies as a ‘strange friend’. This other man tells the narrator that they both nurtured similar hopes and dreams, but they have both now died, unable to tell the living how piteous and hopeless war really is. This other soldier then reveals to the narrator that he is the enemy soldier whom the narrator killed in battle yesterday. He tells the narrator that they should sleep now and forget the past.
Stevie Smith, ‘Pad, Pad’. One of our favourite poems by one of the twentieth century’s most eccentric poets. ‘Pad, Pad’ is spoken by someone whose lover sat down and told her he didn’t love her any more. The animal suggestion of ‘padding’ rather than walking, as well as the ‘tigerish crouch’ of the departed lover, are trademark Stevie Smith touches, and make this sad, wistful poem all the more affecting.
W. H. Auden, ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’. Along with ‘never again’ (and ‘no more’), the phrase ‘carrying on’ (or ‘going on’ and other variants) is another one which, if used well at the end of a poem, can carry an emotional punch. It’s one that Auden used several times, such as when the deep river runs on at the end of his ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’. This poem has the memorable opening statement, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters’; Auden muses upon how, in many old Renaissance paintings, while something grand and momentous is taking place – the Nativity, say, or the Crucifixion – there are always people present in the painting who aren’t much bothered about what’s going on. Auden then poignantly considers a painting of Icarus, and the presence of a ship whose occupants seem unconcerned by ‘a boy falling out of the sky’. The poem builds to a moving conclusion about man’s indifference to others’ suffering.
Tony Harrison, ‘Continuous’. When his parents died, Tony Harrison wrote a series of sonnets about them, innovating with the usual 14-line sonnet form to create a Meredithian 16-line sonnet. The result was some of the most moving poetry written about the poet’s own grief: poems which Stephen Spender said were the kind of poems he’d been waiting his whole life to read. We could have opted for any number of Harrison’s poems here, but we’ve chosen ‘Continuous’, in which the poet recalls his trips to the cinema with his father to see James Cagney films, one of the things they bonded over. If you don’t have a bit of grit in your eye by the end of this poem, you’re made of sterner stuff than we are.
Michael Donaghy, ‘Black Ice and Rain’. This is a long poem, but well worth taking five minutes to read (or hear read aloud here). Taking the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by a man who gets talking to a girl at a party while they both hide away from the other guests, it takes in everything from religious belief to personal tragedy and if you don’t end with a tear … well, you get the idea by now.
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.