It was Henry James, a writer known for his prose writing rather than poetry, who once summed it up: ‘Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.’ Here are ten of the very best poems about kindness, giving, generosity, and compassion.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 152. This poem by Shakespeare comes near the end of his 154-sonnet sequence, and sees the Bard reminding his mistress, the Dark Lady: ‘For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness, / Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy, / And, to enlighten thee, gave eyes to blindness, / Or made them swear against the thing they see’. Because the Dark Lady is his mistress, Shakespeare freely acknowledges that he is guilty of unfaithfulness; the Dark Lady goes one better (or worse), by being unfaithful not only to her husband but to her paramour, William Shakespeare, as well…
John Newton, ‘Is This Thy Kindness to Thy Friend’. For Christians, the kindness act of all was performed by Christ, having himself crucified so that he could redeem all of the sins of mankind. Newton (1725-1807) was a celebrated English hymn-writer, and here we get a fine hymn about the virtues of kindness: ‘Poor, weak and worthless though I am / I have a rich almighty friend; / Jesus, the Saviour, is His Name; / He freely loves, and without end.’
William Wordsworth, ‘Alice Fell, or Poverty’. Wordsworth (1770-1850) often wrote about the plight of the poor, as did other leading Romantic poets such as Percy Shelley. In ‘Alice Fell’, Wordsworth tells the story of a little orphan, ‘fatherless and motherless’, whom the speaker of the poem meets on the road to Durham. He shows her an act of kindness which lifts her spirits and helps her to forget, at least for a while, her grief at being poor and without a family. This is from the poet who wrote elsewhere of ‘little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love’…
Henry David Thoreau, ‘Friendship’. In this poem, Thoreau implies that, just as the truth of love cannot be spoken, so the real strength of true friendship is out of sight, unseen, like those roots underground. Friendship is not about being seen to be someone’s friend, or at least not always: sometimes it is about those ‘little unremembered acts of kindness and of love’, as Wordsworth put it.
Emily Dickinson, ‘If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking’. ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain’, declares Emily Dickinson in this short poem about being kind.
A. E. Housman, ‘In My Own Shire, If I Was Sad’. This poem from the Laureate of Unhappiness is something of an anomaly on this list, since it is about an absence of kindness – specifically, about moving to a new town and finding that people there are not as kind as they had been ‘back home’: ‘I see / In many an eye that measures me / The mortal sickness of a mind / Too unhappy to be kind.’
Robert W. Service, ‘Compassion’. Service (1874-1958) was a British-Canadian poet, who penned this simple but generous-hearted poem about the importance of giving, compassion – kindness. ‘For God knows it is good to give; / We may not have so long to live, / So if we can, / Let’s do each day a kindly deed, / And stretch a hand to those in need, / Bird, beast or man.’
Wilfred Owen, ‘Greater Love’. The title of this poem by the First World War’s greatest poet is borrowed from the New Testament: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ What greater act of kindness is there than to sacrifice one’s life for others? And whatever our feelings about the carnage of the Great War, the fact that men gave their lives for millions of people they would never meet goes beyond common kindness, as Owen acknowledges in this poem: ‘Kindness of wooed and wooer / Seems shame to their love pure.’
Sylvia Plath, ‘Kindness’. It would probably be remiss of us not to include this poem, called ‘Kindness’, on this list of the best poems about kindness. Personifying kindness as a woman – indeed, a lady, Dame Kindness – Plath presents kindness as a benign but ultimately limited force. Like the Housman poem, this poem offers a bleaker view of the world, although in Plath’s case this isn’t because kindness is absent, but because it’s ineffectual. The fact that this poem was written just weeks before Plath’s suicide lends it extra poignancy.
Simon Armitage, ‘Give’. This is a remarkably simple poem, spoken by a homeless person sleeping in a doorway and asking for some compassion from a stranger. Armitage – the new UK Poet Laureate – exploits the potential of a simple word – here, ‘change’ – to carry multiple connotations, suggesting not only loose money but also social change.