By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Many of us turn to poetry when we go through heartbreak, because tough times require a tough language, and poetry provides just that. Below, we introduce our pick of ten of the greatest poems about heartbreak from the sixteenth century to the present day.
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘They Flee from Me’.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change …
This poem, written in rhyme royal, is possibly autobiographical, and may refer to Wyatt’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. The women who used to seek Wyatt out for romantic trysts now shun him. Anyone who has once been popular and now finds themselves out of favour, suffering the heartbreak of romantic rejection, is likely to find that this poem strikes a chord – which is all the more remarkable since it was written almost half a millennium ago.
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 87.
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou knowst thy estimate.
The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate …
This is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest heartbreak poem. The poet and the Fair Youth appear to have been in a relationship of sorts, with the younger man reciprocating the Bard’s affections, but it’s clear Shakespeare feels that the Fair Youth is out of his league and doesn’t really love the poet the way he loves him. He senses heartbreak is coming, so decides to cut his losses.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Mariana’.
With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
So begins this early poem, published in 1830, which ‘arose to the music of Shakespeare’s words’ (according to Tennyson) – the words in question being taken from Measure for Measure, in which ‘the dejected Mariana’ dwells ‘at the moated grange’, having been forsaken by Angelo, who promised to marry her but then broke his promise.
The imagery of the poem is vivid and memorable, from the ‘mouse’ that ‘behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d’ or the ‘blue fly’ that ‘sung in the pane’. It is perhaps Tennyson’s first great success as a poet, written when he was only just into his twenties. The recurring refrain, ‘He cometh not’, and ‘He will not come’, highlights Mariana’s status as a victim of unrequited love.
4. Christina Rossetti, ‘A Pause for Thought’.
I looked for that which is not, nor can be,
And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth:
But years must pass before a hope of youth
Is resigned utterly.
I watched and waited with a steadfast will:
And though the object seemed to flee away
That I so longed for, ever day by day
I watched and waited still …
Although this poem begins bleakly with a picture of heartbreak and unrequited love, the speaker develops a hope that perhaps that love will one day be returned. Rossetti (1830-94) wrote a great deal of poetry, and often touched upon the subject of heartbreak of various kinds. This is one of her greatest meditations on this theme.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘You Left Me, Sweet, Two Legacies’.
You left me, sweet, two legacies –
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;
You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.
This short poem from the prolific Emily Dickinson (1830-86) offers, in its two stanzas, two contrasting views of love: the lover leaves behind a ‘legacy of love’ that would satisfy God himself, but this lover also leaves behind a pain so vast it is as large as the sea.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?’.
He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.
No list of heartbreak poems would be complete without something from the laureate of the broken heart, A. E. Housman (1859-1936), who never married because he harboured a decades-long love for another man, Moses Jackson. We could have chosen any number of Housman poems to include here, but we’ve opted for this short four-line poem, reproduced in full above.
7. W. B. Yeats, ‘Never Give All the Heart’.
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight …
As the title of this short Yeats poem makes clear, Yeats offers the would-be lover some advice: don’t dive headlong into love or infatuation, for your beloved won’t thank you for it. It’s best to keep a little passion back: ‘He that made this knows all the cost, / For he gave all his heart and lost.’
8. W. H. Auden, ‘Funeral Blues’.
This is a heartbreak poem about losing somebody and the devastating effect it can have on us. Although the poem is specifically a poem of mourning, its final two stanzas can be applied to any heartbreak involving losing someone or the end of a relationship, with lines such as ‘He was my north, my south, my east and west’.
We have analysed Auden’s poem in more detail in a separate post: curiously, it began as a parody of obituaries rather than a heartfelt poem of grief.
9. Stevie Smith, ‘Pad, Pad’.
One of our favourite poems by one of the twentieth century’s most eccentric poets. ‘Pad, Pad’ is spoken by someone whose lover sat down and told her he didn’t love her any more. The animal suggestion of ‘padding’ rather than walking, as well as the ‘tigerish crouch’ of the departed lover, are trademark Stevie Smith touches, and make this classic poem about unrequited love all the more affecting.
10. Philip Larkin, ‘Home Is So Sad’.
This short poem is about the sadness of homes when they are left deserted: homes which seem to be ‘bereft’ and to wither from the heartbreak of losing their inhabitants.
The poem was completed on New Year’s Eve 1958, while Philip Larkin was staying at his mother’s house in Loughborough during the Christmas holidays. Larkin was often inspired to write some of his most moving poems about home while visiting his mother, and this is one of his clearest poems written on this theme.