Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously we offered up ten classic poems of disappointment, which understandably aren’t the most uplifting poems ever written. Now, let’s turn to hope: poets can often be hopeful, revelling in the possibility that tomorrow may bring brighter and better days. Here are ten of the best poems about hope and hopefulness.
1. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 67 from Astrophil and Stella.
Hope, art thou true, or dost thou flatter me?
Doth Stella now begin with piteous eye
The ruins of her conquest to espy:
Will she take time, before all wracked be?
So begins this underrated sonnet, from the first substantial sonnet sequence written in English, ‘Astrophil’ (i.e. Sir Philip Sidney) hopes that ‘Stella’ (i.e. Lady Penelope Rich) might take pity on him, and return the love he bears her. Anyone who has ever been in love (and that’s pretty much everyone, right?) must have felt something along the lines of what Sir Philip Sidney describes so brilliantly here, in a poem written over 400 years ago.
Sidney strikes at the heart of what it means to entertain such hope: even as he is commanding Hope to check again for more convincing ‘arguments’ or proof of Stella’s love for him, he doesn’t really need them. He’s happy to take it on faith and nurture such hope, because it pleases him to think she likes him, after all. Even if such a reading of Stella’s behaviour is wrong, like an ‘error’ in a scholar’s reading of a literary passage, he’ll happily go along with it.
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Work without Hope’.
All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing …
What is work without hope? Or hope without putting the work in? As Coleridge (1772-1834) writes here, ‘Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve, / And Hope without an object cannot live.’ Composed on 21 February 1825, this late Coleridge poem looks like a sonnet – it has 14 lines – but its rhyme scheme doesn’t resemble any recognisable sonnet form. A short poem, ‘Work without Hope’ is sometimes regarded as a sort of coda to Coleridge’s far more famous longer poem, ‘Dejection: An Ode’.
Working without something to strive or aim for produces no good results, and you can’t have hope in the first place without an object to fix your sights on. If you can find that object of desire, something to be aiming for, hope will follow – and then work.
3. John Clare, ‘The Instinct of Hope’.
E’en the small violet feels a future power
And waits each year renewing blooms to bring,
And surely man is no inferior flower
To die unworthy of a second spring?
As with Coleridge’s poem above, this poem has fourteen lines and so looks like it might be a sonnet, but its rhyme scheme is Clare’s own, and so it dashes our hopes (as it were) of finding a traditional sonnet. The subject, though, is a familiar one – cherishing hope that there is life beyond this world: ‘Is there another world for this frail dust / To warm with life and be itself again? / Something about me daily speaks there must, / And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?’
The poem begins with Clare’s own private or personal ‘nature’, that instinct of his which not only ‘nourish[es] hopes’ but also ‘speaks’ to him that there ‘must’ (a forceful word) be ‘another world’ beyond this one. Note the glimmer of ambiguity in the third line: ‘Something about me’ captures both ‘something outside of or around me, such as nature or God’ and ‘something about my own makeup or outlook’. It’s both inward and external at once.
4. John Keats, ‘To Hope’.
When by my solitary hearth I sit,
When no fair dreams before my ‘mind’s eye’ flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head …
Written in February 1815 when he was just nineteen years old, ‘To Hope’ is one of John Keats’s early poems. Although it is not as celebrated or as polished as his more mature work, the poem is worth sharing, as it is by one of the leading figures in second-generation English Romanticism (the other two major poets are Shelley and Byron).
When Despondency, Despair, and Disappointment assail the poet, he asks for Hope – which, like these other moods, is personified here with a capital letter – to come and brighten his outlook.
‘To Hope’ might be regarded as a trial run for Keats’s later, great odes of 1819, on the topics of Melancholy, Psyche, and other topics. Whenever Despondency, Disappointment, and Despair threaten to assail the poet, he calls upon Hope – personified here with a capital letter – to chase them away, like an angel chasing off demons. He likens this to morning ‘frightening’ away the night: bright hope sees off dark despair.
5. Emily Brontë, ‘Hope’.
Hope was but a timid friend;
She sat without the grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend,
Even as selfish-hearted men.
She was cruel in her fear;
Through the bars one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there,
And she turned her face away!
Like a false guard, false watch keeping,
Still, in strife, she whispered peace;
She would sing while I was weeping;
If I listened, she would cease …
In this poem, the author of Wuthering Heights, like Keats above, personifies Hope, but here she is a false friend, who only seems to be interested in being with the poet if her ‘fate’ is a good one. Unlike Keats’s poem, then, Emily Brontë reflects the idea that hope is so hard to find when we are at our lowest ebb, and this is precisely when we most need it.
The image of the ‘den’ – not quite a prison, although with its bars or grates it’s certainly meant to resemble one – suggests mental confinement (or even someone who has chosen to lock themselves away) as much as physical imprisonment for some crime or transgression. Shut away from the world, perhaps because unable to face the world without hope, Emily Brontë’s speaker is at her lowest ebb, and Hope – a poor friend – fails to provide her with the comfort or solace she needs.
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all …
As with many of her poems, Emily Dickinson takes an abstract feeling or idea and likens it to something physical, visible, and tangible. So hope becomes a singing bird. Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it.
In other words, hope does not communicate by ‘speaking’ to us in a conventional sense: it is a feeling that we get, not always a rational one, that cheers us even in dark times of despair. Indeed, hope is sweetest of all when the ‘Gale’ is busy raging: during turbulent or troubled times, hope is there for us.
7. Thomas Hardy, ‘Song of Hope’.
Hardy (1840-1928) is not known for his hopeful poems. Indeed, he famously coined the word ‘unhope’ in his despairing poem ‘In Tenebris’ to reflect his lack of this feeling. Yet here, in this songlike poem, Hardy looks to a brighter tomorrow than today has proved to be:
O sweet To-morrow! –
There will away
This sense of sorrow.
Then let us borrow
Hope, for a gleaming
Soon will be streaming,
Dimmed by no gray –
While the winds wing us
Sighs from The Gone,
Nearer to dawn
Minute-beats bring us;
When there will sing us
Larks of a glory
Waiting our story
Further anon –
‘Song of Hope’ lives up to its title: one can imagine a crowd of men in an alehouse in rural Dorset shaking their tankards to it, like something straight out of one of Hardy’s novels. The use of repeated rhymes in each stanza reinforces the lyric quality, and the short lines give it an upbeat, jaunty feel, in keeping with its subject.
8. A. E. Housman, ‘Spring Morning’.
Star and coronal and bell
April underfoot renews,
And the hope of man as well
Flowers among the morning dews.
Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter’s pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.
Easily the gentle air
Wafts the turning season on;
Things to comfort them are there,
Though ’tis true the best are gone …
Spring is a time of hope and new beginnings, and Housman – not exactly the most optimistic of poets – here offers a tender plea that this link between springtime and hope will be honoured. Because ‘lovers should be loved again.’
It’s a perfectly crafted poem, with the sting in the final two lines neatly judged, held off amidst the hope of a more upbeat ending, until the arrival of that deadly ‘Though’ puts paid to such hopes. ‘Spring Morning’ keeps in balance the sense of promise and new hope which both springtime and the dawning of a new day bring: although as we grow older our sense of boundless optimism becomes a little less unbounded, there are pleasures enough remaining to make it worth our while to go on making the best we can of living.
9. Carl Sandburg, ‘Hope is a Tattered Flag’.
Published in Sandburg’s 1936 collection The People, which features poems all about America, ‘Hope is a Tattered Flag’ takes up Emily Dickinson’s idea of trying to find the perfect metaphor for hope (‘Hope is …’), with Sandburg offering not one but many possible images which sum up America.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’.
This wonderfully self-assertive poem about picking yourself up and striving to achieve, even in the face of adversity, was used for an advertising campaign by the UNCF in the US, but its message of selfhood and determination – and hope that one can succeed – is a message that should be heard by all.
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.