By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Missing someone can take many forms: we might miss an absent loved one, or miss someone we’re close to but who will never love us; we can miss someone we loved and lost to someone else, or someone we loved and mourned when they passed away. The following poems are by turns romantic, elegiac, and moving, expressing as they do the emotions we feel when we miss that special someone.
1. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 106.
O absent presence, Stella is not here;
False flattering hope, that with so fair a face
Bare me in hand, that in this orphan place
Stella, I say my Stella, should appear.
What say’st thou now? Where is that dainty cheer
Thou told’st mine eyes should help their famished case?
But thou art gone, now that self-felt disgrace
Doth make me most to wish thy comfort near …
Sidney (1554-86) was one of the wittiest and most technically accomplished Elizabethan poets, and among his other notable achievements he wrote the first long sonnet sequence in the English language. The above poem is Sonnet 106 from that sequence, Astrophil and Stella, in which Astrophil (i.e., Sidney) laments the unrequited love he harbours for Stella (i.e., Lady Penelope Rich, who had recently married Lord Robert Rich).
In this poem, we get a powerful depiction of the power an absent loved one has over us in that opening oxymoron: ‘O absent presence’ (for the absent person is with us in our thoughts wherever we go).
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 33.
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now …
Often interpreted as a poem inspired by a (perceived or real) slight from the Fair Youth, the blond-haired nobleman who is thought to have been the muse for many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘Full many a glorious morning have I seen’ (as Sonnet 33 begins) is perhaps one of the most moving poems Shakespeare ever wrote about missing somebody whom one has lost.
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 …
This poem from the English poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) is not just about missing someone, but about losing and forgetting someone who has gone away to live in another country and how the poet, left behind, now does things alone which he once did with that loved one.
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘Thoughts of Phena, at News of Her Death’.
Not a line of her writing have I,
Not a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
I may picture her there;
And in vain do I urge my unsight
To conceive my lost prize
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light
And with laughter her eyes …
This poem was written about the death of Hardy’s distant cousin – and possible lover – Tryphena Sparks (‘Phena’), who had been one of Hardy’s close companions in his youth. Nothing seems to have inspired Hardy to write great poetry so much as the death of a woman he was once close to but had grown estranged from: in this case, he misses not only having Phena around but also the signs and keepsakes of her life which he missed the chance to acquire while she was still alive.
However, this poem makes a virtue of an apparent regret: that he does not have any physical memento by which to remember Phena now that she has died.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘The Half-Moon Westers Low, My Love’.
The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.
I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.
Housman (1859-1936) may as well be called the Laureate of the Broken Heart. In this short poem – reproduced in full above – the poem’s speaker addresses his beloved at night while she (or ‘he’: Housman had a lifelong love for Moses Jackson, whom he met at Oxford) lies miles away from him.
But there is a suggestion that the poet ‘misses’ this person in the deeper, more tragic sense: ‘so sound you sleep’ implies that the addressee has died.
7. 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.
This poem is about missing a loved one and having that person in your thoughts while they are absent.
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. Pablo Neruda, ‘Love’.
Although we may miss someone whom we remember a great deal, we can sometimes forget – unwillingly – the love and touch of someone we held dear to us. This poem from the Chilean author of sensual love poetry, Pablo Neruda (1904-73), is touching and true: ‘I have forgotten your face, I no longer / Remember your hands’, he tells his lost beloved.
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Words, Wide Night’.
A short poem, this, to conclude our selection of poems about missing someone. This poem takes one of Carol Ann Duffy’s most important themes: how to use language to express our feelings to another (see ‘Text’ and ‘Syntax’ for two other prominent examples). If you’ve ever lain awake at night and longed to address an absent lover (or would-be lover), this poem will surely strike a chord.