By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
One of the things we often turn to poetry for is its power to move us with the written word alone. Just reading the right words, put into the right order on a sheet of paper, can produce tears in someone who never met the person who wrote those words and who possibly lives many centuries after the poet.
Of course, any list of ‘most moving and affecting poems’ is always going to be subjective, but we’ve tried to pick poems which combine emotive topics with emotional power in the following selection. Which poems move and affect you?
1. Katherine Philips, ‘Epitaph’.
What on Earth deserves our trust?
Youth and Beauty both are dust.
Long we gathering are with pain,
What one moment calls again.
Seven years childless marriage past,
A Son, a son is born at last:
So exactly limb’d and fair,
Full of good Spirits, Meen, and Air,
As a long life promised,
Yet, in less than six weeks dead …
Philips (1632-64) wrote this short poem as an elegy for her son, ‘H. P.’, who died just six weeks after he was born. The joyous exultation with which the birth had been greeted – ‘A son, a son is born at last’ – turns to tragedy with the boy’s death, in this moving elegy by an underrated seventeenth-century female poet.
2. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Dark House’ from In Memoriam.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
So ends this early canto from a much longer poem: In Memoriam A. H. H., one of the great poems of the Victorian era.
This long elegy in 130 ‘cantos’ is a sort of verse diary charting Tennyson’s grief over the sudden death of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in 1833. In this early section of the poem, Tennyson revisits the childhood home of Hallam on Wimpole Street in London; the final stanza (quoted above) is especially powerful for the desolation of that simple ‘He is not here’.
3. Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray …
In this poem, written when Rossetti was still a teenager, the speaker requests that the addressee of the poem remember her after she has died. (The addressee is presumably her lover, since they had ‘plann’d’ a ‘future’ together.)
But what gives the poem a twist is the concluding thought that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her if it makes that person sad. It is this second part of the poem’s ‘argument’ that saves it from spilling over into mawkish sentimentality.
4. Thomas Hardy, ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’.
As a prisoner, flight debarred,
Exercising in a yard,
Still retain I, troubled, shaken,
Mean estate, by him forsaken;
And this home, which scarcely took
Impress from his little look,
By his faring to the Dim
Grows all eloquent of him.
Housemate, I can think you still
Bounding to the window-sill,
Over which I vaguely see
Your small mound beneath the tree,
Showing in the autumn shade
That you moulder where you played.
Elegies for beloved pets can often move us greatly, and this poem – whilst not as famous as Hardy’s celebrated ‘Poems of 1912-13’ written after the death of his first wife, Emma – is, for our money, one of the greatest elegies for an animal ever written. You can read the poem in full by following the link above.
5. A. E. Housman, ‘Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying’.
Possess, as I possessed a season,
The countries I resign,
Where over elmy plains the highway
Would mount the hills and shine,
And full of shade the pillared forest
Would murmur and be mine …
This is one of the most famous poems from A. E. Housman’s second volume of poetry, Last Poems (1922). Housman reflects on his relationship with nature, before concluding that, although nature does not care or even know about him, he feels a close bond with it. The noted evolutionary biologist (and atheist, like Housman), Richard Dawkins, has described how this poem moves him to tears.
6. Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell …
No other English poet of the First World War can move readers to tears quite like Wilfred Owen, who himself stated that his aim was to reflect ‘the pity of war’. Fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality, and this poem may be the most moving of all of Owen’s poems.
The poem is narrated by a soldier who dies in battle and finds himself in Hell. There he meets a man whom he identifies as a ‘strange friend’, in a masterly oxymoron. This other man tells the narrator that they both nurtured similar hopes and dreams, but they have both now died, unable to tell the living how piteous and hopeless war really is.
This other soldier then reveals to the narrator that he is the enemy soldier whom the narrator killed in battle yesterday. He tells the narrator that they should sleep now and forget the past: such forgiveness and acceptance make this poem especially moving.
7. W. H. Auden, ‘The Fall of Rome’.
‘Write me a poem that will make me cry,’ Cyril Connolly challenged Auden in 1940. ‘The Fall of Rome’ was the result, a poem which responds to the chaos at the end of the Second World War by looking back to the fall of the Roman Empire some 1,500 years earlier. The final stanza has been admired by many people, including another great poet, Seamus Heaney.
We have analysed this poem in a separate post.
8. Tony Harrison, ‘Continuous’.
Stephen Spender once said that Harrison’s poems written about the deaths of his parents were the kinds of poem he had waited all of his life to read, and Harrison reminds us in this Meredithian sonnet of 16 lines that the death of a parent can move us as we remember earlier times spent with them.
Here, it’s the memory of childhood visits to the cinema with his father in the 1940s, where they bonded over their shared love of James Cagney films. The closing lines are mesmerisingly good.
9. Seamus Heaney, ‘Mid-Term Break’.
As demonstrated by Philips’ poem which began this selection of moving poems, elegies written about the death of young children are often moving because the subject-matter is so upsetting.
But it nevertheless takes a poet of real skill to recreate that feeling of blank and senseless loss within the reader, and Heaney, in this early tour de force, does so with masterly description that never spills into sentimentality, as he writes about the death of his young brother, who was killed when a car hit him in 1953. That final line, devastatingly and desolatingly set aside from the other stanzas, is especially powerful.
10. Michael Donaghy, ‘Black Ice and Rain’.
Donaghy (1954-2004) has never received the readership he deserves, although within the poetry world he has his champions (fellow poet Don Paterson’s book Smith is a brilliant introduction to Donaghy’s metaphysical wit and ability to write engagingly but also profoundly about all aspects of life).
This is a long poem, but well worth taking five minutes to read (or hear read aloud here). Taking the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by a man who gets talking to a girl at a party while they both hide away from the other guests, it takes in everything from religious belief to postmodern irony to personal tragedy; it will move even the most hard-hearted reader.