By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In the early 1580s, Sir Philip Sidney wrote An Apology for Poetry; he was using the word ‘apology’ in its older sense of ‘defence’ or ‘argument for’, but there are a number of classic poems which take apologies, and saying sorry, as their (loose) theme. Here are ten of the very best ‘sorry’ poems, whether they find the poet saying sorry for doing something, or expressing sorrow over something regrettable or unfortunate.
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, and how sorry he feels for having done so: ‘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.
This poem is about the sorrow of growing up. 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 come to realise how much 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 being sorry for not making the most of those younger, more innocent times.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I’m Sorry for the Dead – Today’.
There are some days when the world feels so full of life and movement and joy that we might stop to consider how sorry we are that those who have died aren’t around to enjoy it too. This is the sentiment of this Emily Dickinson poem – as so often with her poetry, death is never far from us. We reproduce the poem in full here:
I’m sorry for the Dead—Today—
It’s such congenial times
Old Neighbors have at fences—
It’s time o’ year for Hay.
And Broad—Sunburned Acquaintance
Discourse between the Toil—
And laugh, a homely species
That makes the Fences smile—
It seems so straight to lie away
From all of the noise of Fields—
The Busy Carts—the fragrant Cocks—
The Mower’s Metre—Steals—
A Trouble lest they’re homesick—
Those Farmers—and their Wives—
Set separate from the Farming—
And all the Neighbors’ lives—
A Wonder if the Sepulchre
Don’t feel a lonesome way—
When Men—and Boys—and Carts—and June,
Go down the Fields to ‘Hay’—
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Sorry’.
There is much in life that makes me sorry as I journey
Down life’s way.
And I seem to see more pathos in poor human
Lives each day.
I’m sorry for the strong brave men, who shield the weak from harm,
But who, in their own troubled hours find no
Here, Wilcox lists some of the things we might have cause to feel sorry for, or to pity. At some points, she seems almost to have predicted today’s ‘cancel culture’ with couplets such as ‘I’m sorry for the victors who have reached success, to stand / As targets for the arrows shot by envious failure’s hand’ and ‘I’m sorry for the souls who build their own fame’s funeral pyre, / Derided by the scornful throng like ice deriding fire.’
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.
Memorably used as the epigraph for the final Colin Dexter novel featuring Inspector Morse, The Remorseful Day, this poem – or the final stanza – was quoted by John Thaw as Morse in the television adaptation of the novel.
As the critic Sir Christopher Ricks once observed before questioning such a judgement, Housman’s own poetry might be reductively and somewhat cruelly summed up by the adolescent sentiment, ‘One day I’ll be dead, and then you’ll be sorry’. But there is more to the sorrow in Housman’s poetry than this.
William Carlos Williams, ‘This Is Just to Say’.
Perhaps the most famous ‘I’m sorry’ note in the whole of Anglophone poetry (we say ‘Anglophone’ rather than ‘English’ because Williams’s poetry fits most squarely in the American tradition), this short piece of free verse sees the speaker apologising for eating the plums in the icebox which the note’s recipient was probably saving to enjoy later.
However, the mischievous note on which the poem ends, with the speaker admitting how tasty the plums were, seems to be rubbing the poor plumless person’s nose in it somewhat. A case of ‘sorry, not sorry’?
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Self-Pity’.
This is one of the shortest poems D. H. Lawrence ever wrote, but it’s worth sharing here (with a few brief words of analysis) because, unlike Sons and Lovers or a poem like ‘Snake’ (which is also about being sorry for something), it is not as well-known among his oeuvre.
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
‘Self-Pity’ is what D. H. Lawrence himself described as a ‘pansy’: like the flower, this poem is a pensée, a little thought, not meant to be anything grander or more sustained. The lines quoted above are not an excerpt from the longer poem, but represent the full thing – although if you follow the link provided you can learn more about Lawrence’s ‘sorry’ little poem.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Oh, Oh, You Will Be Sorry’.
As well as poems which see poets saying how sorry they are and apologising profusely and sincerely for something (or less sincerely, as with Williams’s poem above), ‘sorry’ poems might also include those poems which warn others that they will end up being sorry for their actions.
Such is the case with this feisty Millay poem, in which she objects to her partner thinking that the book she is reading is too clever for her (because she’s a woman, we assume).
R. S. Thomas, ‘Sorry’.
In this poem, the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) forgives his parents for his life, his upbringing in a ‘drab town’ in Wales, and the mental effects this had on him, inhibiting him. Although physically he was strong and never went hungry, he felt psychologically stifled by his surroundings.
But it was not his parents’ fault – so is he saying he’s sorry for the sad and helpless situation, that he accepts they were sorry for his life, or even that he is sorry for feeling the way he does towards them? The poem hovers somewhere between all three.
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 poignantly conveys his sense of sorrow over not appreciating his time with his parents more.