Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we offered some ‘sorry’ poems: poems about saying sorry or being sorry. Now, it’s the turn of that related human quality: as well as being sorry and seeking forgiveness, we can grant forgiveness to others. So it’s hardly surprising that poets have seen fit to celebrate forgiveness in its various forms – Christian, personal, familial – as in these great poems.
John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘Forgiveness’.
My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!
Life is short, and we’ll all soon be dead, and there’s no scope for forgiveness in the grave. In this poem, the nineteenth-century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier expresses this sentiment, with his own sudden capacity to forgive and forget greatly increased when he has his brush with mortality…
Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H. Written over the course of sixteen years, between 1833 and 1849, In Memoriam A. H. H. was published in 1850, the year Tennyson became UK Poet Laureate. Over the course of 133 cantos, Tennyson explores and records the grief he felt in response to the sudden death of his close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, as well as the guilty feelings occasioned by outliving his friend (at one point he echoes Hamlet, describing himself as ‘a guilty thing’). The poem begins by asking the Lord’s forgiveness for the intense grief Tennyson felt for his friend:
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.
George MacDonald, ‘Forgiveness’. MacDonald (1824-1905) was a kind of Victorian C. S. Lewis, writing fantasy novels inflected with Christian morality, such as Lilith and The Princess and the Goblin among others. Indeed, MacDonald would be an important influence on Lewis; but he was also a poet, who penned possibly the shortest poem in the English language as well as this fine poem about God’s forgiveness, which is reproduced in full here:
God gives his child upon his slate a sum –
To find eternity in hours and years;
With both sides covered, back the child doth come,
His dim eyes swollen with shed and unshed tears;
God smiles, wipes clean the upper side and nether,
And says, ‘Now, dear, we’ll do the sum together!’
W. B. Yeats, ‘The Lover Asks Forgiveness Because of His Many Moods’. Yeats (1865-1939) wrote a great deal about love and war, especially the events in Ireland’s turbulent history that he lived through in the early twentieth century. But here, forgiveness is his focus, though it’s the speaker of the poem requesting forgiveness rather than granting it in this case…
If this importunate heart trouble your peace
With words lighter than air,
Or hopes that in mere hoping flicker and cease;
Crumple the rose in your hair;
And cover your lips with odorous twilight and say,
‘O Hearts of wind-blown flame!
O Winds, older than changing of night and day,
That murmuring and longing came
From marble cities loud with tabors of old
In dove-grey faery lands;
From battle-banners, fold upon purple fold,
Queens wrought with glimmering hands;
That saw young Niamh hover with love-lorn face
Above the wandering tide;
And lingered in the hidden desolate place
Where the last Phoenix died,
And wrapped the flames above his holy head;
And still murmur and long:
O piteous Hearts, changing till change be dead
In a tumultuous song’:
And cover the pale blossoms of your breast
With your dim heavy hair,
And trouble with a sigh for all things longing for rest
The odorous twilight there.
AE (George William Russell), ‘Forgiveness’. If two lines sum up this poem from ‘AE’ (as he preferred to be known), it is these: ‘My soul was black as night to me; / To her I was a wounded thing.’ Forgiveness is next to godliness or at least saintliness for this forgiving female figure in this charming poem. The full poem is reproduced below:
At dusk the window panes grew grey;
The wet world vanished in the gloom;
The dim and silver end of day
Scarce glimmered through the little room.
And all my sins were told; I said
Such things to her who knew not sin—
The sharp ache throbbing in my head,
The fever running high within.
I touched with pain her purity;
Sin’s darker sense I could not bring:
My soul was black as night to me;
To her I was a wounded thing.
I needed love no words could say;
She drew me softly nigh her chair,
My head upon her knees to lay,
With cool hands that caressed my hair.
She sat with hands as if to bless,
And looked with grave, ethereal eyes;
Ensouled by ancient Quietness,
A gentle priestess of the Wise.
William Carlos Williams, ‘This Is Just to Say’. Perhaps the most famous ‘please forgive me’ note in the whole of Anglophone poetry, 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, requests forgiveness for this plummy transgression but seems ultimately unrepentant.
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.
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.