The Best Poems about Tolerance and Acceptance

Tolerance is an important topic in literature, because to tolerate something also involves an acknowledgment that there is a potential objection to the thing being tolerated. Nobody ‘tolerates’ winning a million pounds on the lottery, but we talk of ‘tolerating’ the loud music coming from a neighbour’s house when they’re having a barbecue, with ‘tolerating’ here meaning ‘putting up with’ something.

Acceptance is not exactly synonymous with tolerance, but similarly involves countenancing if not actively welcoming something or someone. Both tolerance and acceptance are, therefore, virtues which should be cultivated since they involve accepting that other people may be very different from us but we still intend to get along with them. The following poems reflect certain aspects of ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ to a greater or lesser degree.

William Shakespeare, from Sir Thomas More.

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation …

This is an excerpt from a longer speech from a play, but as it’s in iambic pentameter, we’d say it qualifies as a poem. And it’s certainly about tolerance and the importance of treating others with compassion.

The only manuscript thought to be in Shakespeare’s hand – the only manuscript of anything we can call ‘literature’, any way (signatures aside) – is a page from this play, whose authorship is uncertain (although it has been edited and published as part of the terrific Arden Shakespeare series.

It’s thought that Shakespeare perhaps contributed a scene or two, possibly rewriting an existing play-text. And, fittingly for our purposes here, the page (possibly) in Shakespeare’s handwriting is about the plight of refugees in Tudor London during the reign of King Henry VIII.

William Blake, ‘The Little Black Boy’.

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light …

Blake (1757-1827) often wrote about injustice and prejudice, and this is one of his most powerful poems addressing the issue of racial prejudice (and slavery, which was still legal in the British Empire at the time) and a plea for tolerance and acceptance of those who appear to be ‘different’.

The poem is spoken by the African boy who acknowledges that his skin is black whereas a white English child’s is white. However, he points out that his soul is white too: i.e., as spotless and pure as a white boy’s.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Forbearance’.

Gently I took that which ungently came,
And without scorn forgave: – Do thou the same.
A wrong done to thee think a cat’s-eye spark
Thou wouldst not see, were not thine own heart dark.
Thine own keen sense of wrong that thirsts for sin,
Fear that – the spark self-kindled from within,
Which blown upon will blind thee with its glare,
Or smother’d stifle thee with noisome air …

Another word which is closely synonymous with ‘tolerance’ is forbearance: the subject of this poem from the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Forgiveness is closely related to both: a point which Coleridge’s poem makes in crisp, almost epigrammatic statements.

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 …

How does our own suffering compare with that of another human being? In this poem from the prolific nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), we have private grief compared with the grief suffered by others. The poem can be read as a plea to remember that others suffer and bear grief, and that we should bear with them as they do so.

Thomas Hardy, ‘Tolerance’.

‘It is a foolish thing,’ said I,
‘To bear with such, and pass it by;
Yet so I do, I know not why!’


And at each clash I would surmise
That if I had acted otherwise
I might have saved me many sighs.

But now the only happiness
In looking back that I possess —
Whose lack would leave me comfortless —

Is to remember I refrained
From masteries I might have gained,
And for my tolerance was disdained;

For see, a tomb. And if it were
I had bent and broke, I should not dare
To linger in the shadows there.

‘Tolerance’ is not one of the most famous poems of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), but it was instrumental in helping him feel his way towards the set of masterpieces known as the ‘Poems of 1912-13’, which he wrote in the wake of the death of his first wife, Emma. Written in 1912 not long after Emma’s death, the poem is about Hardy’s attempts to tolerate or endure Emma’s more frustrating personality traits.

Robert Frost, ‘Acceptance’.

This is a nature poem from the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), and is about the poet’s attitude towards the natural world. In this sonnet, Frost imagine nature’s own acceptance of the passing of day into night, with the poem’s sestet, or concluding six lines, homing in on the ‘voice’ of a bird as it comes to terms with the loss of the sunlight.

Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’.

‘I, Too’ is a 1924 poem by the American poet Langston Hughes (1901-67), a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance who was nicknamed ‘the Bard of Harlem’. In part a response to Walt Whitman, ‘I, Too’ sees Hughes asserting that he, and other black American voices like his, also ‘sing’ of America and are America, too, even though American society treats black people differently.

It’s often categorised as a protest poem. But it is also a poem of celebration, and a poem urging tolerance and acceptance. Indeed, Hughes demands that he will be able to sit at the table and nobody will question it.

Denise Levertov, ‘Goodbye to Tolerance’.

This poem was written in 1973 while Levertov was actively protesting the Vietnam War and the United States’ involvement in it. The poem is a criticism of those poets who could use their voices to protest, but refuse to do so, or to support any other kind of political action. This is a poem about rejecting a certain kind of tolerance – tolerance of atrocity – when it is morally wrong to be ‘tolerant’.

Warsan Shire, ‘Home’.

We bring this pick of the best poems about tolerance up to date with this poem from the contemporary British poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Kenya, to Somali parents, in 1988.

Here, Shire writes an impassioned poem about the reasons why refugees are forced to leave their homes in search of new ones: as the opening lines have it, nobody leaves home unless ‘home’ is the mouth of a shark. A powerful note on which to end this selection of great poems about the plight of refugees – and alas, all too relevant in our own times.

Comments are closed.