Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the old adage has it. But what have poets down the ages had to say about absences of various kinds, whether the absence of a loved one, or other absence of human company? Below, we introduce ten of the very best poems about absence.
1. William Shakespeare, ‘How like a winter hath my absence been’.
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere …
To paraphrase this, Shakespeare’s 97th sonnet: ‘It may be summer, but since I’m away from you, my beloved, it feels like winter to me.’ This, in a sentence, is the meaning of Sonnet 97. Simple and straightforward, although some of the imagery (especially the talk of pregnancy and abundance) needs careful attention.
2. Anonymous, ‘That Time And Absence Proves Rather Helps Than Hurts To Loves’.
Absence, hear thou my protestation
Against thy strength,
Distance and length:
Do what thou canst for alteration,
For hearts of truest mettle
Absence doth join and Time doth settle …
This poem has often been attributed to John Donne, although we cannot be sure he was the author. Whether Donne or someone else wrote it, it’s a fine poem, in which the speaker addresses ‘Absence’ directly – or, to use the more technical rhetorical word, apostrophises Absence (meaning to address someone who is absent).
3. Mary Robinson, ‘Absence’.
When from the craggy mountain’s pathless steep,
Whose flinty brow hangs o’er the raging sea,
My wand’ring eye beholds the foamy deep,
I mark the restless surge – and think of THEE.
The curling waves, the passing breezes move,
Changing and treach’rous as the breath of LOVE;
The ‘sad similitude’ awakes my smart,
And thy dear image twines about my heart …
Robinson (1757-1800) was an English actress, poet, dramatist, and novelist; she was also one of the mistresses of a young King George IV. As ‘Absence’ demonstrates, she was clearly a talented poet, whose meditation on absence here seems to fit somewhere between the ordered Augustan poets of the mid-eighteenth century and the Romantics who came along at the end of the century.
4. Walter Savage Landor, ‘Absence’.
Here, ever since you went abroad,
If there be change no change I see:
I only walk our wonted road,
The road is only walk’d by me.
Yes; I forgot; a change there is –
Was it of that you bade me tell?
I catch at times, at times I miss
The sight, the tone, I know so well …
Another fine poem about absence, this time from the English poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864).
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘Absence disembodies – so does Death’.
This poem, which comprises a single quatrain reproduced in full above, is typical Emily Dickinson: enigmatic to the point of riddling. How does absence disembody, we might ask? Death literally does, because our bodies decompose when we die, and death hides individuals from the Earth by burying them in (or under) the earth. Despite the interpretive challenges the poem presents, it’s an intriguing idea that absence renders us, and others, disembodied – something that anyone who has sat through too many Zoom meetings online at home can probably attest to.
6. Charlotte Mew, ‘Absence’.
Sometimes I know the way
You walk, up over the bay;
It is a wind from that far sea
That blows the fragrance of your hair to me.
Or in this garden when the breeze
Touches my trees
To stir their dreaming shadows on the grass
I see you pass …
Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was a popular poet in her lifetime, and was admired by fellow poets Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy, among others; the latter helped to secure a Civil List pension for Mew in 1923. She is often associated with the Georgian poets, who were active in the second decade of the twentieth century and sought to modernise English poetry, albeit in a quieter and less radical way than their contemporaries, the imagists.
In ‘Absence’, Mew treats a theme we often find in her poetry: the loss or absence of a loved one.
7. Amy Lowell, ‘Absence’.
My cup is empty to-night,
Cold and dry are its sides,
Chilled by the wind from the open window.
Empty and void, it sparkles white in the moonlight.
The room is filled with the strange scent
Of wistaria blossoms.
They sway in the moon’s radiance
And tap against the wall.
But the cup of my heart is still,
And cold, and empty …
Lowell was a contemporary of Mew, but unlike Mew, she was an imagist. Her free-verse depiction of absence focuses on emptiness and voids on a cold night.
8. Claude McKay, ‘Absence’.
Your words dropped into my heart like pebbles into a pool,
Rippling around my breast and leaving it melting cool.
Your kisses fell sharp on my flesh like dawn-dews from the limb,
Of a fruit-filled lemon tree when the day is young and dim …
McKay (1889-1948) was a leading African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. In long lines, he discusses the absence of a loved one using immediately arresting imagery: the kisses falling like lemons from a tree is especially memorable.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Home Is So Sad’.
Larkin (1922-85) often wrote well about absences and empty spaces, such as in his poem ‘Absences’. But we’ve opted for another Larkin poem about absence here.
‘Home Is So Sad’ (written in 1958) explores the notion of ‘home’ when that home is left empty, when the ‘heart’ is removed from it, when it has lost what even makes it a ‘home’ (rather than mere bricks and mortar). The unspoken question seems to be: how can a home be a home when there’s no one around to make it so? But of course the answer, partly, is that the home retains sad memories of the people who once occupied it: it carries a reminder of its occupants, their pictures, the music they played on the piano, their taste in ornaments (‘That vase’).
We have analysed this poem here.
10. Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Absence’.
Like Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) was associated with the so-called ‘Movement’ of the 1950s in British poetry. And like Larkin, Jennings wrote directly and movingly about ordinary things, using traditional forms (she, too, refused to eschew rhyme). In ‘Absence’, we get a poem about visiting a familiar place but without the loved one who used to be there; everything is the same as before, but that only makes the absence of the addressee even more significant.