By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Sorrow and sadness are common themes for poetry, so choosing just eleven of the very best poems about sadness is going to be tricky. In the selection that follows, we’ve tried to include a range of poems from a variety of poets, moving from the heartfelt and moving to the lighter and more stoic.
But whether the mood is one of overwhelming grief and sadness or a regret to which the poet or speaker is more resigned, whether the poem is an expression of deep sorrow or an acknowledgment of the universality of suffering, all eleven of the following poems tell us something important about what it is to be sad – and they say it beautifully.
1. Anonymous, ‘Fowls in the Frith’.
Foulës in the frith,
The fishës in the flod,
And I mon waxë wod;
Much sorwe I walkë with
For beste of bon and blod.
Let’s begin this selection of poems about sadness with a trio of medieval and early Renaissance lyrics contrasting the abundance of nature with the individual sorrow of the poet (or speaker).
This poem is so short we’re able to reproduce it in full above. Despite the Middle English spelling and language (‘waxë wod’ means ‘go mad’), the poem is direct and immediately speaks to us across some seven centuries, as the speaker looks at the birds in the wood and the fish in the water, and then turns inward to consider his own sadness or ‘sorwe’ (i.e., ‘sorrow’) that he carries around with him.
2. Thomas Hoccleve, ‘Complaint’.
After that hervest Inned had his sheves,
and that the broune season of myhelmess
was come and gan the trees robbe of ther leves
That grene had bene and in lusty fresshness,
and them in-to colowre of yelowness
hadd dyne and doune throwne vndar foote
that chaunge sank into myne herte roote …
Hoccleve (c. 1368-1423) is not as well known as his near-contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, nor even his nearer contemporary, Thomas Lydgate. But the opening to his ‘Complaint’ is perhaps the earliest example in medieval poetry of a poet expressing his suffering at the hands of ‘SAD’ or Seasonal Affective Disorder: once the harvest is over and dark autumn sets in, the poet confides ‘that chaunge sank into myne herte roote’. Anyone who has felt depressed during late autumn will find that they’re not alone:
3. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, ‘The Soote Season’.
The soote season, that bud and blome furth bringes,
With grene hath clad the hill and eke the vale:
The nightingale with fethers new she singes:
The turtle to her make hath tolde her tale …
This is one of the first sonnets written in English, but it’s not as well known as it perhaps should be. It’s about the coming of summer and the various ways in which a world previously in a sort of stasis or hibernation is now springing into life. (‘Soote’ in ‘Soote Season’ means ‘sweet’.)
However, despite this, the poet’s sorrow also springs into new life at this time. We usually associate autumn and winter with sorrow, but not the summer; yet, surprisingly, many people suffer from depression in the spring and early summer months as part of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
4. John Keats, ‘Ode on Melancholy’.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud …
One of Keats’s celebrated odes of 1819, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ offers the reader some advice on what to do when a bout of depression descends. Don’t seek to block out melancholy with drugs, he says: seek out beauty and admire it, because all beauty will soon wither and die.
Oddly, Keats reasons, this will cheer you up: it’s a reminder that everything passes, for one, but it also reminds us that our time on Earth is short, and we don’t have long to try to appreciate the brief beauties of the world.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘I Measure Every Grief I Meet’.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain …
This is not just a poem about one’s personal grief, but about the communal nature of sadness and our awareness of how – and why – others suffer their own private miseries too.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘In My Own Shire, If I Was Sad’.
In my own shire, if I was sad,
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart was sore,
Sorrowed for the son she bore …
One of the 63 poems that make up A. E. Housman’s most famous volume of poems, A Shropshire Lad (1896), the poem beginning ‘In My Own Shire, If I Was Sad’ is written in rhyming couplets and is about the change the ‘Shropshire lad’ feels when he moves from his rural home to the bustling metropolis of London.
Suddenly, he is surrounded by a sea of people, none of them cares for him – he is in a city of millions of souls, but has never felt more alone.
7. W. B. Yeats, ‘The Sad Shepherd’.
There was a man whom Sorrow named his friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend
From their pale thrones and comfort him, but they
Among themselves laugh on and sing alway:
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Cried out, Dim sea, hear my most piteous story!
So begins this poem from the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), about a shepherd suffering from a severe bout of sorrow and the lengths he goes to in order to alleviate his sadness.
8. Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘The Debt’.
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.
Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.
Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!
This poem from one of the first great African-American poets uses the economic metaphor of debt and interest to explore how a moment’s pleasure can accrue a lifetime’s ‘interest’ in suffering and sorrow.
9. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Ebb’.
I know what my heart is like
Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
Left there by the tide,
A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.
Some of Millay’s best-known poems are very short – see also ‘First Fig’ – and this is another one, albeit one with a less uplifting message. In just seven short lines, Millay unfolds a poignant simile for the experience of losing somebody whom one loves.
10. W. H. Auden, ‘Funeral Blues’.
Although it originally began life as a parody of a sad poem, sending up the overblown style of many public obituaries, Auden’s 1936 poem ‘Funeral Blues’, sometimes known as ‘Stop All the Clocks’ from its opening words, has become one of the most famous twentieth-century poems about sadness and grief.
11. Philip Larkin, ‘Home Is So Sad’.
Like Housman, Larkin (1922-85) often wrote about the ordinary misery of most people’s everyday lives – although he was also alive to the moments of joy and communion people experience (see ‘Coming’ or ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, for example).
In this short lyric, Larkin reflects upon the sadness of ‘home’, which ‘withers’ when those who lived there depart and leave the house ‘bereft’ of the people who make it what it is. It’s the attention to individual details here which makes the poem so poignant and memorable.