Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Hope has often been a subject of poetry, as our pick of classic hopeful poems demonstrates. But sometimes the future seems filled less with hope than with fear. What have poets said about fear, about uncertainty for the future, and about being afraid? Below, we introduce ten of our favourite poems about fear and fearfulness.
1. Anonymous, ‘Ech day me comëth tydinges thre’.
This poem, which is believed to date from the thirteenth century, is a lament telling of the poet’s three worst fears and worries: that he must die; that he doesn’t know when this will happen; and that he doesn’t know where he will go after death. At just six lines, the poem is short enough to be quoted in full here:
Ech day me comëth tydinges thre,
For wel swithë sore ben he:
The on is that Ich shal hennë,
That other that Ich not whennë,
The thriddë is my mestë carë,
That Ich not whider Ich shal farë.
2. William Shakespeare, ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’.
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages …
Let’s continue this list of classic fear poems with a song from a lesser-known Shakespeare play, the late ‘romance’ or ‘problem play’, Cymbeline, set in ancient Britain. The song is a funeral song (with a twist – see our analysis of the poem in the link above), in which the singers entreat the dead person not to fear the troubles and ravages of life any more: they are safe from such things in the grave.
3. John Keats, ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be’.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain …
John Keats (1795-1821) was much possessed by fear: fear that he would die young before he had a chance to make the most of his poetic talents. He was half-right to entertain such fears: he died aged just 25, from tuberculosis, though not before he had composed some of the most astounding poems of the Romantic movement.
Here, in this sonnet, Keats writes about his fear of dying young, his potential unrealised. He writes about what he does whenever he is overcome by the solemn reflection that he may die before he has achieved anything of lasting value. The poet’s mind is depicted as awash with ideas and thoughts, a ‘teeming brain’, and Keats is like a farmer having to harvest the fruits of his fertile imagination.
Keats isn’t at that stage yet. His poetry, he feels, hasn’t yielded any real fruit – or ‘grain’, to borrow his own metaphor. The books of poetry Keats is writing don’t yet hold the ‘charactery’ – the text, in other words – of his greatest or most ‘rich’ work.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘A Darting Fear’. Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was a prolific poet, writing a huge number of short poems. This is one of the very shortest: a single quatrain, reproduced in full here:
A darting fear—a pomp—a tear—
A waking on a morn
To find that what one waked for,
Inhales the different dawn.
5. Rudyard Kipling, ‘How Fear Came’.
Kipling, of course, gave us the Just So Stories, which explain in witty and creative ways how certain things came to be the way they are: how the leopard got its sports, how the camel got its hump, and so on.
Here, in a poem that was collected in The Second Jungle Book in 1895, Kipling (1865-1936) turns to the jungle to explain how fear came into the world:
The stream is shrunk – the pool is dry,
And we be comrades, thou and I;
With fevered jowl and dusty flank
Each jostling each along the bank;
And, by one drouthy fear made still,
Forgoing thought of quest or kill …
6. Sara Teasdale, ‘Fear’.
Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American lyric poet whose work is often overlooked in discussions of twentieth-century American poetry. Yet at its best, Teasdale’s work has a lyricism and beauty which can rival that of many poets of her time, even if her work is not as innovative or revolutionary as that of, say, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, or William Carlos Williams.
In ‘Fear’, Teasdale captures the feeling of ‘cold black fear’ that grips us sometimes and won’t let go:
I am afraid, oh I am so afraid!
The cold black fear is clutching me to-night
As long ago when they would take the light
And leave the little child who would have prayed,
Frozen and sleepless at the thought of death …
7. William Empson, ‘Success’.
‘I have mislaid the torment and the fear’, begins this villanelle from the twentieth-century poet who helped to make villanelles fashionable again. (We’ve selected some classic English villanelles here.)
However, Empson plays around with the typical form of the villanelle here, using his two recurring refrains to describe the experience or ‘success’ of shaking off fear, which the poet likens to coming round from a drug. Written in around 1937 and published in 1940, it’s one of Empson’s last great poems.
8. W. H. Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’.
Written upon the outbreak of the Second World War, this poem by the great Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) is one of his greatest poems about that universal human emotion: fear. Auden writes as he hears the news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, ‘uncertain and afraid’ for what the future will bring.
Although the poem begins in fear and uncertainty, it ends on a note of quiet hope as Auden realises what his role must be in the coming years.
We have analysed this poem here.
9. Elizabeth Jennings, ‘A Fear’.
Usually we only include poems in these lists if those poems are available online somewhere (or, if not online already, are out of copyright and can be shared by us).
However, we’ve made an exception here. This poem from the wonderful poet Elizabeth Jennings is not available online, is about carrying ‘an old fear / A child could never speak about’. Jennings’ The Collected Poems are well worth getting hold of: she writes in traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but her poetry carries an emotional force which remains.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’.
We’re all going to fear something at some point in our lives – perhaps many things. This is a powerful poem about overcoming fear and not allowing it to master you, a declaration of self-belief and the importance of facing one’s fears. Angelou lists a number of things, from barking dogs to grotesque fairy tales in the Mother Goose tradition, but comes back to her mantra: ‘Life doesn’t frighten me at all’. A rousing note on which to conclude our pick of the best poems about fears of various kinds.
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.