Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poets often write about love, and there are many great poems written to mark weddings, or to express love for a mother or mother-figure in the poet’s life. But what about brotherly relationships and brotherly love? Here are some of the very best poems written for brothers or about brothers.
Sappho, ‘The Brothers Poem’. Lost for over two millennia, this poem – believed to have been written by Sappho, the female poet of ancient Greece (specifically, the island of Lesbos) – was discovered, more or less intact, in 2014. The poem concerns Sappho’s own brothers, including Kharaxos, who exported cargoes of wine from Lesbos to Naukratis in ancient Egypt.
Robert Herrick, ‘To His Dying Brother, Master William Herrick’.
Life of my life, take not so soon thy flight,
But stay the time till we have bade good-night.
Thou hast both wind and tide with thee; thy way
As soon dispatch’d is by the night as day.
Let us not then so rudely henceforth go
Till we have wept, kiss’d, sigh’d, shook hands, or so …
So begins this poem by one of the greatest Cavalier poets (a group of English poets writing in the seventeenth century, who supported King Charles I). One of several poems on this list written by famous poets about their dying or dead brothers, ‘To His Dying Brother’ movingly sees Herrick asking his brother William not to leave the world just yet – not until they’ve had a chance to say goodbye.
Richard Lovelace, ‘Advice To My Best Brother, Coll: Francis Lovelace’.
Yet settle here your rest, and take your state,
And in calm halcyon’s nest ev’n build your fate;
Prethee lye down securely, Frank, and keep
With as much no noyse the inconstant deep
As its inhabitants; nay, stedfast stand,
As if discover’d were a New-found-land,
Fit for plantation here …
Like Herrick, Lovelace was a Cavalier poet, and a near-contemporary of Herrick’s. Loosely modelled on a poem by the Roman poet Horace, ‘Advice to My Best Brother’ sees Lovelace urging ‘Frank’ to exercise caution and take care as he undertakes a voyage overseas.
John Keats, ‘To My Brother George’.
Many the wonders I this day have seen:
The sun, when first he kist away the tears
That fill’d the eyes of morn;—the laurel’d peers
Who from the feathery gold of evening lean;—
The ocean with its vastness, its blue green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears,—
Its voice mysterious, which whoso hears
Must think on what will be, and what has been …
The Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) wrote many sonnets. This one, to his brother, was written at Margate, and sees the poet describing the seaside atmosphere and the morning sun in a poem written specially for his brother George. Keats concludes: ‘But what, without the social thought of thee, / Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?’
Lewis Carroll, ‘Brother and Sister’.
‘Sister, sister, go to bed!
Go and rest your weary head.’
Thus the prudent brother said.
‘Do you want a battered hide,
Or scratches to your face applied?’
Thus his sister calm replied.
‘Sister, do not raise my wrath.
I’d make you into mutton broth
As easily as kill a moth …’
This comic poem by the master of nonsense verse for children sees a brother advising – nay, threatening – his sister to go to bed, otherwise he’ll turn her into mutton stew. The moral of this frivolous little poem? Well, all is revealed in the wise last line.
Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Gardener LXVIII’. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was known as the Bard of Bengal and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, dedicated his 1915 sequence The Gardener to W. B. Yeats, and the poems it contains were described as ‘lyrics of love and life’. Tagore begins this poem with the reminder: ‘None lives for ever, brother, and nothing lasts for long. Keep that in mind and rejoice.’
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘To My Brother’. In November 1915, Sassoon’s younger brother Hamo was killed during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, and in response, Sassoon wrote this touching poem about his brother’s death and Siegfried’s relationship with his sibling. More reminiscent of Rupert Brooke’s war poetry than Sassoon’s later, more angry and disillusioned writing, ‘To My Brother’ ends with Sassoon seeing his brother’s head clad in laurels (a symbol of victory) as he, Siegfried, prepares defiantly to go on fighting.
Robert Service, ‘Little Brother’. In this poem, the British-Canadian poet Robert William Service (1874-1958) warns his little brother about the dangers that abound in the world, thanks to mankind’s habit of waging wars: ‘Brother, you were born too late; / Human life is but a breath…’
Andrew Forster, ‘Brothers’. The most recent poem on this list, ‘Brothers’ is spoken by a man looking back on his childhood relationship with his younger brother. The male speaker regrets the fact that he tended to regard his brother – three years his junior – as annoying (he was ‘saddled with’ looking after his brother for an afternoon while the speaker hangs out with a friend), rather than taking the time and trouble to forge a meaningful fraternal relationship with his younger brother, who looks up to him. An unrhymed sonnet with some occasional pararhyme, ‘Brothers’ appeared in Forster’s debut collection Fear of Thunder in 2007.
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.
Thank you for the suggestions. My favourite brother-poem is a sonnet by Ugo Foscolo, On the death of my brother, Giovanni. I don’t know what English translation I could suggest.