Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Change is a topic that has fascinated poets for many centuries, whether it’s literal or physical metamorphosis (which the Roman poet Ovid wrote a whole epic poem about), a change in social attitudes, or the way lovers in a relationship change in their affections. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest poems about change of various kinds.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 123.
No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight …
One of the sonnets Shakespeare addressed to a young man, Sonnet 123 sees Shakespeare swearing to be faithful to the youth and to refuse to change with time, no matter how hard time (or Time) may try to make him.
John Donne, Elegy III.
Likeness glues love: Then if so thou do,
To make us like and love, must I change too?
More than thy hate, I hate it, rather let me
Allow her change, then change as oft as she …
In contrast to Shakespeare’s sonnet above, in this poem the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) argues for the merits of change or inconstancy in a lover, using a series of colourful examples taken from the realms of geography (more than one river is accepted into the sea) and farming, among others.
Robert Herrick, ‘Why Flowers Change Colour’. This short, pithy poem by the seventeenth-century Cavalier poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674; pictured right) is short enough to be quoted in full here:
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ‘Constancy’.
I cannot change, as others do,
Though you unjustly scorn;
Since that poor swain that sighs for you,
For you alone was born …
We remain in the seventeenth century for this poem, from the wild libertine poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-80). Rochester argues in favour of constancy, using pastoral names and tropes as was the vogue at the time. Unlike many of Rochester’s other poems (he was not afraid to use four-letter words in his verse!), this is a tender lyric in favour of fidelity.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Change upon Change’.
For if my face is turned too pale,
It was thine oath that first did fail, –
It was thy love proved false and frail, –
And why, since these be changed enow,
Should I change less than thou …
We get a double-whammy of change in this poem from the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61): ‘Change upon Change’ treats both the changes of the seasons and the (expected) change in the lover. If the world changes from one season to the next, she argues, why should people be any different? It’s difficult to tell whether Barrett Browning’s speaker accepts this inconstancy from her lover or whether she is simply acknowledging it as a fact and regretting its existence (or even sarcastically sighing that men are fickle).
George Meredith, Modern Love X.
But where began the change; and what’s my crime?
The wretch condemned, who has not been arraigned,
Chafes at his sentence. Shall I, unsustained,
Drag on Love’s nerveless body thro’ all time?
Another Victorian poem, this time from one of the most significant sonnet sequences of the Victorian period: Modern Love (1861), written by George Meredith (1828-1909) following the breakdown of his marriage. Meredith invented the 16-line extended sonnet for his sequence, used here to reflect on how Meredith woke up to find he had a very different attitude to his marriage than he previously did…
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Change’.
Changed? Yes, I will confess it – I have changed.
I do not love you in the old fond way.
I am your friend still – time has not estranged
One kindly feeling of that vanished day …
Sometimes our feelings change towards somebody, and we cannot say why. And it’s natural to blame a loved one for falling out of love with us; yet perhaps it wasn’t ‘meant to be’. As Wilcox – almost echoing Barrett Browning in her poem above – goes on to say: ‘The birds, the flowers, the foliage of the trees, / The stars which seem so fixed, and so sublime, / Vast continents, and the eternal seas, – / All these do change, with ever-changing time …’
Kathleen Raine, ‘Change’. Change is necessary, and is a part of life, as both Barrett Browning and Wheeler Wilcox acknowledge in their poems. Now, we get a twentieth-century take on the same topic, offered in more stark and unromantic terms: change is not only necessary and inevitable, but perhaps desirable, too.
James Richardson, ‘Metamorphosis’. James Richardson (born 1950) is a contemporary American poet, and in this short poem about his mother’s death, he brilliantly captures the surprise of seeing an old lady who resembles his mother in the supermarket checkout queue, just after his mother’s passing.
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. As with several other poems on this list, Armitage exploits the potential of a simple word – here, ‘change’ – to carry multiple connotations, suggesting not only loose money but also social change.
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.