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.
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?’ In this 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.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Work without Hope’. 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.
John Clare, ‘The Instinct of Hope’. 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?’
John Keats, ‘To Hope’. ‘Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed, / And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!’ 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.
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.’ 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.
Emily Dickinson, ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’. 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: ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all – ’.
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! – / After to-day / There will away / This sense of sorrow. / Then let us borrow / Hope, for a gleaming / Soon will be streaming, / Dimmed by no gray – / No gray!’
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.’ 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.’
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.
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.