Pain can take many forms: it might be acute physical pain, or emotional pain (heartache, for instance, or what Hamlet calls ‘the pangs of despised love’), or a more psychological form of hurting. Poets, never ones to shy away from the grief and torment that love and other things can provoke, have often written powerfully about pain of all kinds, so below we introduce ten of the best poems about hurt and pain.
1. William Dunbar, ‘On His Heid-Ake’.
My heid did yak yester nicht,
This day to mak that I na micht.
So sair the magryme dois me menyie,
Perseing my brow as ony ganyie,
That scant I luik may on the licht.
Let’s begin in the late Middle Ages, with this wonderful short poem from the Scottish poet William Dunbar – about the pain of suffering from a headache. In the poem, Dunbar explains why he cannot write poetry today (‘This day to mak that I na micht’): because of the pain of the ‘magryme’ or migraine.
2. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Lament My Loss, My Labour, and My Pain’.
Lament my loss, my labour, and my pain,
All ye that hear my woeful plaint and cry.
If ever man might once your heart constrain
To pity words of right, it should be I
That since the time that youth in me did reign
My pleasant years to bondage did apply,
Which, as it was, I purpose to declare
Whereby my friends hereafter may be ware …
This poem from the Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) is not as well-known as some of his other poems, such as ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ and ‘They Flee from Me’, but it is similarly shot through with pain.
3. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 132.
Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me,
Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain,
Have put on black and loving mourners be,
Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain …
This is one of the later sonnets in Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 poems, and is addressed to the Dark Lady with whom the Bard appears to be involved in a bizarre love triangle (with the Fair Youth, the recipient of the earlier sonnets, involved with both Shakespeare and the Dark Lady).
The pain and torment of a messy and complex love live is the subject of this sonnet: Shakespeare feels as though he is undergoing a bereavement, and the Dark Lady’s eyes pity him, even while she is the one causing him this pain …
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘Pain Has an Element of Blank’.
Pain — has an Element of Blank —
It cannot recollect
When it begun — or if there were
A time when it was not …
When we are ill or in pain it is very difficult to remember a time when we weren’t ill or in pain. The visceral power of physical pain – but this might also be extended to psychological pain as well – prevents us from imagining or envisioning a time without it, whether in the past or the future. This is a short paraphrase of the meaning of ‘Pain has an Element of Blank’, a typically memorable poem from the prolific Emily Dickinson (1830-86).
5. A. E. Housman, ‘The World Goes None the Lamer’.
The world goes none the lamer
For ought that I can see,
Because this cursed trouble
Has struck my days and me.
The stars of heaven are steady,
The founded hills remain,
Though I to earth and darkness
Return in blood and pain …
Housman (1859-1936) often writes about the pain of unrequited love, and in many ways his slim body of poetry is a catalogue of the various pains an ordinary man might feel as he navigates his way through life: feeling unloved, not feeling wanted by the world, longing for glory and never finding it. This poem distills some of these aspects of Housman’s oeuvre.
6. Mina Loy, ‘Parturition’.
‘I am the centre / Of a circle of pain …’: as we’ve written elsewhere, Loy (1882-1966) was probably the finest Futurist poet writing in English, and her modernist style bears the influence of many continental thinkers and artists, including the Italian Futurists who championed speed and modernity over tradition and the establishment.
But Loy’s style is entirely her own, and in this free verse poem she takes an almost scientific view of pregnancy, even giving her poem a title taken from the world of medicine. At the same time, there’s something utterly personal and, at times, autobiographical about the experience – especially the pain – of being pregnant and giving birth, as those opening lines make clear.
7. Kahlil Gibran, ‘On Pain’.
‘And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain. And he said: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.’ So begins this poem from the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), which is actually a section from his longer 1923 poem The Prophet, one of the biggest-selling poetry books in the world. Accurate worldwide sales figures for the book are not known, but it has sold in the tens of millions, in over 50 languages.
In this section, Gibran’s prophet talks of the necessity of pain, as a way of knowing ourselves. He also points out that most of our pain is ‘self-chosen’: there is something in human beings that makes us seek out heartache and suffering, adding to the unavoidable pains we must also undergo.
8. William Empson, ‘This Last Pain’.
In a review of Empson’s first collection, Poems, in 1935, George Every singled out this poem as probably Empson’s ‘important contribution’ to English poetry. Empson’s slim output of poetry – he published just two collections, both before he turned 35 – is dense, knotty, complex, and metaphysical, taking in an extraordinary range of subjects from astronomy to entomology, among many others.
As Empson himself later said, explaining the meaning behind this difficult poem, it’s about how the mind can imagine states which it cannot attain, and that we can keep ourselves happy by pretending to ourselves that we can attain them, even though we know we can’t.
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘I Thought That I Could Not Be Hurt’.
The poetry of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) is, unsurprisingly, shot through with powerful images of pain, both psychological and physical (she underwent electric-shock treatment for her mental health problems in the 1950s). But this poem, written in 1946 when she was a precocious teenager – just fourteen years old – shows how early she had begun to explore the hurt in her own life. There are shades of Emily Dickinson here – it would only be more than a decade later that Plath would develop her distinctive style.
10. David Budbill, ‘A Poem about Pain’.
David Budbill (1940-2016) was an American poet and playwright, who, in this powerful short poem, addresses the illness that killed him: Parkinson’s disease. Opening with the words, ‘I can feel myself slipping away’, the poem is about how all-consuming such pain can be, so that nothing else in the world matters.