For Wilfred Owen, ‘the poetry is in the pity’. Many poets, from war poets like Owen to poets writing about social and political issues, pity and sympathy have formed an important part of the poet’s emotional makeup. Here, we gather some of the greatest poems about sympathy, pity, compassion, and related emotions – we hope you enjoy them.
William Wordsworth, ‘Alice Fell, or Poverty’. Wordsworth (1770-1850) often wrote about the plight of the poor, as did other leading Romantic poets such as Percy Shelley. In ‘Alice Fell’, Wordsworth tells the story of a little orphan, ‘fatherless and motherless’, whom the speaker of the poem meets on the road to Durham. He shows her an act of compassion which lifts her spirits and helps her to forget, at least for a while, her grief at being poor and without a family.
John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘Divine Compassion’.
Is it a dream? Is heaven so high
That pity cannot breathe its air?
Its happy eyes forever dry,
Its holy lips without a prayer!
My God! my God! if thither led
By Thy free grace unmerited,
No crown nor palm be mine, but let me keep
A heart that still can feel, and eyes that still can weep.
Here, the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier considers one of the central questions of religious belief: can divine compassion exist when so much suffering is allowed to exist down here on Earth?
Henry David Thoreau, ‘Sympathy’.
Thoreau wrote this poem on the theme of sympathy when he was only 21 years old; he recorded it in his journal in 1839. Whether the ‘gentle boy’ was someone in particular, and if so, whether it was a neighbour or even a younger version of Thoreau himself, critics have long wondered; either way, the poem can be read as a meditation on the importance of having sympathy for another human being, and the links that bind each of us to those around us.
Emily Brontë, ‘Sympathy’.
There should be no despair for you
While nightly stars are burning;
While evening pours its silent dew,
And sunshine gilds the morning.
There should be no despair—though tears
May flow down like a river:
Are not the best beloved of years
Around your heart for ever?
So begins this poem by the author of Wuthering Heights. It was first published in the volume Emily co-wrote with her sisters, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), which famously sold just two copies upon publication. Since then, poems such as this have become considerably more popular with readers, for catching the strain of Victorian romanticism so poignantly and skilfully.
Emily Dickinson, ‘If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking’. ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain’, declares Emily Dickinson in this short poem about being compassionate and caring for others’ welfare. The poem is quoted in full here:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Emma Lazarus, ‘Sympathy’. Lazarus (1848-87) was an American poet best-known for her poem about the Statue of Liberty; but she was far from a one-poem poet. Like that poem, it’s a sonnet, or rather a variation on a sonnet; we quote it in full here.
Therefore I dare reveal my private woe,
The secret blots of my imperfect heart,
Nor strive to shrink or swell mine own desert,
Nor beautify nor hide. For this I know,
That even as I am, thou also art.
Thou past heroic forms unmoved shalt go,
To pause and bide with me, to whisper low:
‘Not I alone am weak, not I apart
Must suffer, struggle, conquer day by day.
Here is my very cross by strangers borne,
Here is my bosom-sin wherefrom I pray
Hourly deliverance – this my rose, my thorn.
This woman my soul’s need can understand,
Stretching o’er silent gulfs her sister hand.’
Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘Sympathy’.
The final stanza of this poem by an important African-American poet gave Maya Angelou a phrase which she subsequently made more popular, but the whole of Dunbar’s poem about sympathy is worth reading:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
Robert William Service, ‘Compassion’.
Service (1874-1958) was a British-Canadian poet, who penned this simple but generous-hearted poem about the importance of giving, compassion – kindness. ‘For God knows it is good to give; / We may not have so long to live, / So if we can, / Let’s do each day a kindly deed, / And stretch a hand to those in need, / Bird, beast or man.’
Simon Armitage, ‘Give’.
This is a remarkably simple poem, spoken by a homeless person sleeping in a doorway and asking for some compassion from a stranger. Armitage – the new UK Poet Laureate – exploits the potential of a simple word – here, ‘change’ – to carry multiple connotations, suggesting not only loose money but also social change.
Warsan Shire, ‘Home’.
We bring this pick of the best poems about sympathy up to date with this poem from the contemporary British poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Kenya, to Somali parents, in 1988.
Here, Shire writes an impassioned poem about the reasons why refugees are forced to leave their homes in search of new ones: as the opening lines have it, nobody leaves home unless ‘home’ is the mouth of a shark. A powerful note on which to end this selection of great poems about having sympathy and compassion for others.