Anxiety can affect us in different ways, so it should come as little surprise that poets have represented, expressed, and depicted anxiety and anxious states in a myriad fashions. In the following pick of the best poems about suffering from anxiety, we find modernists using the dramatic monologue form to give voice to the outsider’s fear of social interaction and political poets writing about anxiety over the future.
1. Walt Whitman, ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’.
As I ebb’d with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk’d where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems,
Was seiz’d by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe …
Whitman’s expansive verse – influenced by the Biblical Psalms of King David – is perfectly suited to this sprawling, energetic poem about self-doubt and some kind of mid-life crisis (the poem appeared in Whitman’s expanded 1860 version of his Leaves of Grass).
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘We Grow Accustomed to the Dark’.
We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When Light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye –
A Moment – We Uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect …
The first line of this poem also provides the poem with its main theme: the way our eyes adjust to the darkness, just as our minds adapt to the bleakness of life and contemplation of the ‘night’ that is death. The poem is, then, a meditation on the anxieties we have to face regarding our own mortality, and how these fears can break out again even though most of the time we have learned to suppress or ignore them.
3. W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity …
This poem was written in 1919, shortly after the end of the First World War and at a time when Yeats’s own home country of Ireland was in the grip of a struggle for independence. This poem, one of his greatest, captures the anxieties surrounding this moment of political change with some memorable and cryptic imagery, not least that ‘rough beast’ which ‘slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’.
4. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Anxiety’.
The hoar-frost crumbles in the sun,
The crisping steam of a train
Melts in the air, while two black birds
Sweep past the window again.
Along the vacant road, a red
Bicycle approaches; I wait
In a thaw of anxiety, for the boy
To leap down at our gate.
He has passed us by; but is it
Relief that starts in my breast?
Or a deeper bruise of knowing that still
She has no rest.
This short poem by Lawrence (1885-1930) – reproduced in full above – poses some curious questions for the reader (who is the ‘She’ in that final line?) but it neatly conveys the anxiety of waiting for news, especially news of somebody’s death.
5. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
Eliot (1888-1923) wrote so well about feelings of anxiety and social awkwardness, especially in his early poems, that we’ve included two poems from him in this list.
This first one, written in 1910 when Eliot was still a student in his early twenties, reflects the ‘difficulties with girls’ (or boys?) which many young men often feel. Prufrock seems to be troubled by an ‘overwhelming question’ so anxiety-inducing that he cannot even bring himself to ask it. Eliot skilfully uses the dramatic monologue form to tease out the anxieties and preoccupations of the titular Prufrock.
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘Preludes III’.
Another poem written when Eliot was still in his early twenties, the four-part ‘Preludes’ offers a series of snapshots of city life. In this third section, Eliot adopts the rarer second-person approach (‘You tossed a blanket …’) to describe the feeling of anxious worry we often feel when we wake early in the morning and cannot get back to sleep …
7. W. H. Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’.
Much poetry of the 1930s reflects a broader social and political anxiety about a coming conflict, and the poetry of W. H. Auden (1907-73) is a case in point. In this poem, written on the day Germany declared war on Poland, Auden speaks for many people who were left feeling ‘uncertain and afraid’ as events in Europe escalated.
8. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Little Exercise’.
Bishop (1911-79) is one of the giants of twentieth-century American poetry whose posthumous reputation continues to grow and strengthen. This poem about anxiety conveys Bishop’s genius for simile, from the opening image of the storm moving across the sky like a dog ‘looking for a place to sleep in’. The poem is about the ways in which some people are deeply affected by ‘storms’ (both literal and metaphorical) while others appear to be able to carry on, unperturbed.
9. Jean Valentine, ‘Sanctuary’.
Valentine (1934-2020) was an American poet who was the New York State Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010. This poem sees Valentine’s speaker addressing an unidentified ‘you’ whom she doesn’t know how to talk to, and proceeds to conjure a series of powerful images for anxiety, including a crowded room (taking us back to Prufrock?).
10. Miriam Goodman, ‘Anxiety of Ten o’Clock’.
Goodman (1938-2008) was a Jewish American poet whose work deserves to be better known. In this poem, whose title recalls Wallace Stevens’ famous ‘Disillusionment of Ten o’Clock’, Goodman expertly constructs a poem around a series of imperative commands, before turning to the second person ‘you’ – recalling Eliot’s poem above.