‘Eternity’s a terrible thought’, as Tom Stoppard famously said. ‘I mean, where’s it all going to end?’ Poets have often dealt with the vast and limitless, the boundless and infinite – whether it’s the concept of the eternal (in time) or the idea of the infinite universe. Or, indeed, the idea of living forever. The ten poems we’ve gathered together below all address some aspect of the eternal or the infinite.
Robert Herrick, ‘Eternity’. This short poem from the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) is short enough to be quoted in full here. The idea that life gives way to death, and death gives way to the ‘infinity’ that follows death, is summed up in this lyric:
O years! and age! farewell:
Behold I go,
Where I do know
Infinity to dwell.
And these mine eyes shall see
All times, how they
Are lost i’ th’ sea
Of vast eternity: –
Where never moon shall sway
The stars; but she,
And night, shall be
Drown’d in one endless day.
Alexander Pope, ‘Eloisa to Abelard’. This poem by the neoclassical poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) earns its place on this list partly because of its most famous line, ‘The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.’ The section of the poem in question runs:
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
‘Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep …’
The poem as a whole, though, contains numerous references to the eternal. It’s a verse epistle (a letter told in heroic couplets) based on the medieval figures Héloïse d’Argenteui and her teacher, the French philosopher Peter Abelard, whom she secretly wedded.
William Blake, ‘Eternity’. This short poem by the Romantic visionary poet William Blake (1757-1827) is short enough to be quoted here in full:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
The poem can be said to encapsulate Blake’s central moral tenets of freedom and selflessness, especially concerning the natural world.
William Wordsworth, ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more …
Philip Larkin once recalled hearing this poem recited on BBC radio, and having to pull over to the side of the road, as his eyes had filled with tears. It remains a powerful poetic meditation on death, the loss of childhood innocence, and the way we tend to get further away from ourselves – our true roots and our beliefs – as we grow older.
John Clare, ‘An Invite to Eternity’. Like Blake and Wordsworth, Clare was a Romantic poet. This haunting poem draws on the natural world for its imagery, but it’s an unnerving address from a strange male speaker to a ‘sweet maid’. He seems to be beckoning her into death, that ‘one eternity’ in which they will both be joined:
The land of shadows wilt thou trace
And look – nor know each other’s face
The present mixed with reasons gone
And past, and present all as one
Say maiden can thy life be led
To join the living to the dead
Then trace thy footsteps on with me
We’re wed to one eternity …
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Tithonus’. Described by the poet and critic William Empson as ‘a poem in favour of the human practice of dying’ because the poem exposes the horrific reality of what it would be like to live forever, ‘Tithonus’ is based on the Greek myth of Tithonos who was in love with Aurora, goddess of the dawn. Aurora asked the gods to make Tithonus immortal, so they could be together forever, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth; thus Tithonus was destined to get older and older with each passing year, while his lover remained young and beautiful. Tennyson wrote the poem in 1833, shortly after the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, but didn’t publish it until 27 years later.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Forever – Is Composed of Nows’.
Forever – is composed of Nows –
’Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years …
So begins this poem from Dickinson, which sees eternity as a succession of moments, which always form the present. It’s as if Dickinson is answering Stoppard’s question from the top of this blog post, before he’d even asked it, with the response: ‘eternity will never end because it never starts – it’s a continual process made up of the here and now’.
Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Eternity’. In this poem about eternity, the precocious French poet of the nineteenth century likens eternity to the sea that had ‘fled away’ with the sun.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Whispers of Immortality’. One of Eliot’s quatrain poems, this one is effectively in two halves: the first half discusses the Jacobean playwright John Webster and his contemporary, the poet John Donne, and how both understood the mortality that lies just under the living do. The second half focuses on the allures of a woman, Grishkin, whose large ‘bust’ promises ‘pneumatic bliss’. This juxtaposition (arguably) serves to underline that Webster and Donne were right: our physical desires are purely motivated by our (often subliminal) knowledge that we will not live forever.
Sarah Howe, ‘Relativity’. Howe wrote this poem about scientific ideas – specifically relating to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and its impact on subsequent physics – and read it to Stephen Hawking, to whom the poem is dedicated. Although it doesn’t explicitly mention infinity, the scope of Howe’s poem is universal in the most literal sense of that word. It’s beautiful, moving, and shows that science continues to inspire some of the finest poetry.