Suffering is a topic that features heavily in poetry: laments, elegies, love poems (especially poems about unrequited love), and some of the more introspective Romantic poems often touch upon human suffering and emotionally tough times and experiences.
Below, we select and introduce ten of the very best poems about suffering, from the Middle Ages to the present day.
1. 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.
2. Anna Lætitia Barbauld, ‘To the Poor’.
Child of distress, who meet’st the bitter scorn
Of fellow-men to happier prospects born,
Doomed Art and Nature’s various stores to see
Flow in full cups of joy—and not for thee;
Who seest the rich, to heaven and fate resigned,
Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind;
Whose bursting heart disdains unjust control,
Who feel’st oppression’s iron in thy soul,
Who dragg’st the load of faint and feeble years,
Whose bread is anguish, and whose water tears …
Anticipating the focus on the tough lives of the poor which we can find in later poetry by the Romantics, this poem by Barbauld (1743-1825), a proto-Romantic figure, urges the poor to take comfort in the fact that they will be the rich ones in Heaven, while facing their plight with equanimity. The Bible, after all, tells us that the ‘meek’ will inherit the earth, and Barbauld wants those who are downtrodden and living in misery to know that the Lord above is not like ‘the lords below’.
3. William Blake, ‘London’.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls …
Blake (1757-1827) was the first Romantic to address the hardship of people living in squalor and poverty in the capital, and in ‘London’ he focuses on the adversity many people face, and the ways in which such suffering is normalised (those ‘mind-forg’d manacles’).
The third stanza (included above) sees two institutions associated with wealth and grandeur – the Church and the Palace – invaded by the corrupt realities of Blake’s London: a world in which industrialisation leads to small children being exploited and maltreated through their employment as chimney-sweeps, and in which ‘hapless’ (i.e. unlucky) soldiers sent off to fight spill their blood for uncaring kings.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes’.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone …
With its arresting opening line (and few poets have managed to pen so many eye-catching and memorable opening lines as Dickinson), Emily Dickinson (1830-86) begins one of her most studied and powerful evocations of grief and suffering, and the ‘element of Blank’ (as she puts it in another of her poems about pain) that follows a painful event or experience.
The poem describes how moments of intense suffering or anguish are followed by stiff, paralysed periods of inactivity and numbness. It’s like the various stages of grief, where lack of feeling is as much a feature of the grieving process – inability to process the emotional trauma that one has undergone, perhaps – as deeply felt pain.
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘Hap’.
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: ‘Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!’
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed …
Suffering looms large in the poetry and fiction of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), and in ‘Hap’, he laments the fact that the misfortune he has endured and suffered throughout his life is not the result of some angry and capricious god: he could live with that, he says, since at least then he could attribute his bad luck to some higher power.
But no: Hardy could not believe in a god, benevolent or malevolent, and so has no choice but to conclude that the suffering he has endured is a result of blind chance rather than some grand divine plan.
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘Preludes’.
With its enigmatic to an ‘infinitely suffering thing’, this suite of four short lyrics about life in the modern city explores how modern life is, for so many people, a life of daily suffering and hardship. But Eliot’s poem, in its conclusion, appears to urge a stoic approach to whatever suffering we may witness or experience ourselves, telling us to wipe our hand across our mouth and laugh, perhaps at the absurdity and meaninglessness of our existence.
7. Langston Hughes, ‘Mother to Son’.
Langston Hughes (1901-67) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. Over the course of a varied career he was a novelist, playwright, social activist, and journalist, but it is for his poetry that Hughes is now best-remembered.
‘Mother to Son’ is one of Hughes’ best-known poems, and sees a mother addressing her son, telling him about how hard and challenging her life has been, and offering him some parental advice to him. Using the metaphor of the stairwell, the mother contrasts the life of the rich and comfortable (and white?) in America with the life of poorer African Americans at the time.
This poem from the English-born Auden (1907-73) famously begins with the words ‘About suffering’, arguing that the Dutch Old Masters – Renaissance painters such as Brueghel the Elder – were never wrong about suffering, and understood ‘its human position’.
Auden’s poem homes in on the suffering of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell and drowned in the sea. The expensive ship which must have witnessed Icarus’ demise sails calmly on in Brueghel’s painting, and Auden detects and unpleasant truth in this work of art: many bystanders to suffering witness but do nothing to alleviate the suffering of others.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘Deceptions’.
This 1950 poem marked a turning point in Larkin’s career, and was one of his first truly great mature poems. Inspired by Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and an account of a young girl who has been ‘ruined’, ‘Deceptions’ contains several memorable lines, including ‘suffering is exact’ and the description of the girl’s mind lying open ‘like a drawer of knives’.
10. Elisa Gabbert, ‘About Suffering’.
Elisa Gabbert, born in 1979, is a contemporary American poet and essayist. This poem might have taken its title from Auden’s opening lines mentioned above, although Gabbert’s poem is very different, focusing on the need to vocalise one’s suffering as a way of responding to and coping with it. What better note on which to end this selection of great poems about suffering?