By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poets have often written about unhappiness, as well as various types of disappointment. Below we’ve gathered together ten of the finest poems about disappointment – which, we hope, won’t be disappointing to read.
Aphra Behn, ‘The Disappointment’.
In the seventeenth century, a micro-genre of poem arose: the ‘imperfect enjoyment’ poem, named after the poem of thwarted sexual activity by sexy Libertine poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-80).
In ‘The Disappointment’, as the title suggests, the female poet and playwright Aphra Behn gives us the woman’s perspective: wooed and seduced by the male until she’s willing to give up her virtue, she then finds that she is to be disappointed because he is unable to perform…
William Shenstone, ‘A Pastoral Ballad IV: Disappointment’.
As the title of this eighteenth-century poem suggests, this is another pastoral poem – although it isn’t quite as explicit in dealing with the issue of sexual relationships as Behn’s! Here, a poor shepherd laments the fact that the woman he loves is unfaithful (‘faithless’): ‘She is faithless, and I am undone; / Ye that witness the woes I endure; / Let reason instruct you to shun / What it cannot instruct you to cure.’
Jane and Ann Taylor, ‘The Disappointment’.
We’ve listed both Taylor sisters as authors of this moral poem for younger readers about the disappointment the rain brings (a typical English problem) in ‘dampening’ one’s plans. Between them, they’re responsible for both a famous poem about mothers and the words for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. Here, disappointment is their topic: ‘These slight disappointments are sent to prepare / For what may hereafter befall; / For seasons of real disappointment and care, / Which commonly happen to all.’
Thomas Hardy, ‘A Broken Appointment’.
The unspoken word which ‘A Broken Appointment’ calls forth, if only as a curious absence, is ‘disappointment’. The appointment between Hardy’s speaker and the addressee – based on a woman Hardy knew named Florence Henniker – has been broken; as a result, Hardy’s speaker is disappointed, in a pun that lurks below the surface of the poem. ‘You did not come.’
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord’.
One of a number of very popular sonnets Hopkins wrote, this one earns its place in this list of the best poems about disappointment not least because of the wonderful use of language in the phrase, ‘birds build, but not I build’.
The poet’s sense of disappointment and frustration with life is brilliantly captured by his inability, here, even to build a simple, clear statement (it would have been very different had Hopkins written ‘birds build, but I don’t build’).
Laurence Binyon, ‘Disappointment’. Binyon is best-known for writing ‘For the Fallen’, with its famous line ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old’. Here, he offers a heartfelt expression of disappointment and a warning about achieving one’s dreams. Will they end up being all you thought they would be? ‘And were they but for this, those passionate schemes / Of joy, that I have nursed? indeed for this / That longings, day and night, have filled my dreams? / Now it has come, the hour of bliss, / How different it seems!’
Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘Disappointed’.
A man plants seeds to provide food for himself in his declining years. But the weather turns, and the man’s orchard is bare: ‘The old man stood in the rain, uncaring, / Viewing the place the storm had swept; / And then with a cry from his soul despairing, / He bowed him down to the earth and wept.’ But the poem ends on a note of perseverance and defiance. A fine poem from an early African American poet.
W. H. Auden, ‘Autumn Song’.
Another one of Auden’s ‘Twelve Songs’ (along with the more famous ‘Funeral Blues’ or ‘Stop all the clocks’), this is a fine lyric about the brevity of youth and life’s disappointments.
Philip Larkin, ‘Dockery and Son’.
Whether you use life – for instance, by getting married or having children – or waste it, it goes. Either way, for Larkin, disappointment lies in wait for us. In this poem, in which the speaker compares his own life with that of someone roughly the same age as him from university, we get one of the most powerful statements about life’s disappointments from the Laureate of Disappointment himself.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’.
This classic Heaney poem, published in his first published volume, the 1966 book Death of a Naturalist, is simultaneously about picking blackberries in August and, on another level, about a loss of youthful innocence and a growing awareness of disappointment as we grow up. It’s undoubtedly one of Heaney’s best-known poems, and remains widely studied in schools.