By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously we offered ten poems of hope. But what about a lack of hope or, as Thomas Hardy put it, ‘unhope’? What are the great poems of despair? Here are ten of the most despairing poems, which explore what it’s like to be at one’s lowest ebb, to hit rock bottom, to be well and truly in the doldrums …
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 144.
‘Two loves I have of comfort and despair, / Which like two spirits do suggest me still / The better angel is a man right fair, / The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.’
This sonnet sees Shakespeare comparing the Fair Youth with the Dark Lady, his two paramours from the bizarre love triangle depicted in the Sonnets. The Dark Lady is associated with despair, and wields a pernicious influence over the pure heart of the Fair Youth. One of several poems on this list to explore the link between (hopeless or complex) love and despair.
Abraham Cowley, ‘The Despair’.
Cowley (1618-67) was a poet associated with the metaphysical school of poets, who was more popular than Milton in his day. However, his poetry is not now widely read. This is a shame, for as ‘The Despair’ demonstrates, although he wasn’t in the same league as Milton he was nevertheless an accomplished poet: ‘Beneath this gloomy shade, / By Nature only for my sorrows made, / I’ll spend this voyce in crys, / In tears I’ll waste these eyes …’
Charlotte Smith, ‘Ode to Despair’.
‘Thou spectre of terrific mien, / Lord of the hopeless heart and hollow eye, / In whose fierce train each form is seen / That drives sick Reason to insanity!’ Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806), a pioneer of Romanticism in England who was born before Wordsworth or Coleridge, addresses Despair here, unusually seeing Despair as preferable to Hope, because while Hope can often let you down, Despair can be depended upon.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Despair’.
‘I have experienc’d / The worst, the World can wreak on me – the worst / That can make Life indifferent, yet disturb / With whisper’d Discontents the dying prayer’: written when he was in the depths of sorrow, when he and Wordsworth had fallen out, this poem is a heartfelt evocation of private sorrow, experienced when the poet was at his lowest ebb.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Despair’.
‘Then o’er this ruined soul let spirits of Hell, / In triumph, laughing wildly, mock its pain; / And though with direst pangs mine heart-strings swell, / I’ll echo back their deadly yells again, / Cursing the power that ne’er made aught in vain.’
Emily Dickinson, ‘The difference between Despair’.
‘The difference between Despair / And Fear – is like the One / Between the instant of a Wreck / And when the Wreck has been … ’ For Dickinson (1830-86), despair is numbing, and here she begins with the simile of the shipwreck: the panic which concentrates the mind during the moment that a ship goes down is then replaced by the utter sense of loss that follows, and is more long-lasting.
Thomas Hardy, ‘A Meeting with Despair’.
A gloomy poem, like so many of Hardy’s: he is, after all, the poet who opined that ‘all comedy is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it’. Here, Hardy actually comes face-to-face with despair, personified as a male entity seeking to break down Hardy’s growing sense of hope at seeing light break through the dark landscape.
A. E. Housman, ‘I promise nothing: friends will part’.
Perhaps rooted in Housman’s own unlucky love life – he fell in love with a fellow student, Moses Jackson, while at Oxford and remained steadfastly loyal to him for life, despite the fact that Jackson could not return his affection – this poem sees the speaker acknowledges that he cannot guarantee his love will last forever.
But he goes on to acknowledge that it probably will, because despair and love go hand in hand for the hapless lad: ‘But this unlucky love should last / When answered passions thin to air; / Eternal fate so deep has cast / Its sure foundation of despair.’
Pablo Neruda, ‘Song of Despair’.
One of the most common causes of deep despair is the loss or departure of a loved one, and this is the subject of this wonderful Pablo Neruda lament, written when his beloved has left him.
Anne Sexton, ‘Despair’.
Sexton (1928-74), who took her own life following a long battle with depression, wrote movingly and viscerally about despair, and nowhere more so than in this poem, which sees her confronting despair head-on (even by addressing it directly).
Discover more classic poetry with these poems about depression, 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).