Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Regret is a major theme in much poetry, so below we offer ten of the very best poems about regret, remorse, and related emotions. These poems range from laments about the past, to regret for a particular incident.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’.
All this to love and rapture’s due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?
The ‘imperfect enjoyment’ poem, about a sexual encounter gone wrong and the regret that arises from it, was a mini-genre of poem in the seventeenth century, and here the rakish Earl of Rochester (1647-80) writes of the man’s regret and anger when he fails to perform in the bedroom …
Robert Burns, ‘To a Mouse’. The full title of this poem is ‘To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785’. That full title explains what the poem is about – and it was probably based on a real event, when Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest while ploughing a field:
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal …
Charlotte Brontë, ‘Regret’.
Long ago I wished to leave
‘The house where I was born;’
Long ago I used to grieve,
My home seemed so forlorn.
In other years, its silent rooms
Were filled with haunting fears;
Now, their very memory comes
O’ercharged with tender tears …
When we’re young, we can’t wait to grow up and leave home; but when we have to set about Adulting for real, we miss home and those simpler years, and the land that bore us, and regret not making the most of it when we had it. This tender poem is about such regrets.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Tears, Idle Tears’.
Dear as remember’d kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more …
This song from Tennyson’s long narrative work The Princess ends with reference to tears as ‘deep as love, / Deep as first love, and wild with all regret; / O Death in Life, the days that are no more!’
Emily Dickinson, ‘Remorse – is Memory – Awake –’.
Remorse – is Memory – awake –
Her Parties all astir –
A Presence of Departed Acts –
At window – and at Door …
A poem about remorse rather than regret, but the two are close enough for this short Emily Dickinson poem to earn a mention here.
Thomas Hardy, ‘Afterwards’.
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?
Many of us have probably wondered, at some point, what our posthumous reputation will be. What if we died tomorrow – what, then, would our legacy be? What would people remember or say about us? It’s a curious thing because it’s something that we can imagine, but that we will never experience. One cannot be present at one’s own funeral eulogy, and one can but speculate on what will be said ‘afterwards’.
A. E. Housman, ‘How Clear, How Lovely Bright’.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day …
Few poets have captured regret in more heartfelt terms than A. E. Housman (1859-1936) in this, the final stanza from a poem which takes the sunrise and sunset as symbols for the youth and promise of life when starting out contrasted with the remorse felt when one gets older.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Snake’.
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him …
‘And I have something to expiate: / A pettiness.’ One of Lawrence’s best-known poems, written in free verse, ‘Snake’ is about the poet’s regret over killing a snake which came to the water-trough to drink. Inspired by Lawrence’s time living on the island of Sicily, it’s a fine animal poem but, ultimately, a poem about regret.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘My Grandmother’. Regret is a powerful emotion, and one that Jennings (1926-2001) uses to great effect in this poem, about her grandmother who kept an antique shop. Why, the poet wonders, did she refuse to go out with her grandmother one day when she was a young girl? When her grandmother died, Jennings tells us sincerely, she felt no grief, only guilt for that time she refused to be with her grandmother. A moving and heartfelt poem that avoids being sentimental, as so often with Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry
Tony Harrison, ‘Illuminations: I’. One of many beautiful and moving sonnets Harrison wrote in the wake of his parents’ deaths, this poem sees Harrison reminiscing about a family holiday to Blackpool, where his father ordered his young son to stop playing arcade games and instead spend time walking along the promenade with his parents. Now he’s older and both his parents have died, Harrison regrets not appreciating the time he spent with them more – the final line is a heart-breaking twist on two familiar idioms, and fits quite well with Jennings’ poem above.
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.