Here are some of the finest poems of remembrance, or about remembrance, which can all be found in the wonderful anthology of remembrance poems, The Nation’s Favourite Poems of Remembrance
. Remembrance – whether it’s recalling or remembering a past loved one, or commemorating someone who has passed away – has always been a big theme in poetry, so choosing just ten poems proved a challenge. We hope you enjoy them.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 30. ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste’: so begins this famous sonnet, probably written in the 1590s, and focusing on ‘remembrance of things past’ (a title that has been applied to one English translation of Marcel Proust’s great masterpiece about memories). Shakespeare tells us that when he starts to think back over his life, he begins to feel down when he reflects how he has failed to achieve the things he wanted, and has wasted so much time. He weeps for his friends who are now dead, for unrequited love that has long since been banished from his mind; he also weeps for things which he can no longer look upon and enjoy. But if Shakespeare simply thinks for a short while about the man who is the addressee of the sonnet, then all of his sorrows are banished, and he is made happy again.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H. Perhaps no list of English poems about remembrance would be complete without something from this long Victorian poem, published in 1850, written in memory of Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in 1833. Tennyson vast elegy takes in many memories of Hallam; here, in an early canto from the longer poem we’ve linked to above, he revisits Hallam’s former home and reflects upon his loss.
Emily Brontë, ‘Remembrance’. ‘Remembrance’ is one of Emily Brontë’s best-known poems, and F. R. Leavis, not a critic who was ever easy to please, described it as ‘the finest poem in the nineteenth-century part of The Oxford Book of English Verse’. is an elegy addressed to someone the speaker of the poem loved dearly, who died some fifteen years ago. (We say ‘the speaker’ rather than ‘the poet’ because we know Brontë isn’t writing directly from personal experience, but instead speaking in the persona of the Gondal heroine.) The speaker is meant to be Rosina Alcona, mourning her husband Julius Brenzaida, who has been killed in war:
Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave? …
Thomas Hardy, ‘At Castle Boterel’. Leavis thought Brontë’s ‘Remembrance’ lacked the depth of feeling we find in Hardy’s best poems, and there’s plenty of emotion in ‘At Castle Boterel’, one of a series of poems Hardy wrote in 1912-13 following the death of his estranged first wife, Emma:
Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is—that we two passed …
Charlotte Mew, ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’. Mew (1869-1928) was a popular poet in her lifetime, and was admired by Thomas Hardy among others. ‘A Quoi Bon Dire’ was published in 1916; its French title translates as ‘what good is there to say?’ And what good is there to say about this short poem? We think it’s a beautiful short poem remembering a past romance:
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I …
Click on the link above to read this tender lyric poem in full.
Laurence Binyon, ‘Winter Sunrise’. The more obvious choice here would have been the single poem by Binyon (1869-1943; pictured right) that has endured in the popular consciousness: namely, his poem recited at Remembrance Sunday every year to mark the Armistice. But Binyon also wrote some other fine poems of remembrance in a more general sense, and the BBC anthology includes this touching and technically adroit poem about a beautiful memory that resurfaces one fine winter morning. The poem sounds like some of Louis MacNeice’s poetry, which isn’t as surprising as it first sounds: this poem was one of Binyon’s last, and was published in 1944, the year after his death.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Time Does Not Bring Relief’. This sonnet by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) challenges – as Millay’s poetry often does – the received wisdom that ‘time is a healer’. Not so, the poet argues: the slightest thing can bring back the pain.
D. J. Enright, ‘On the Death of a Child’. Enright (1920-2002) was a noted academic as well as a poet. In this poem, a funeral elegy for a child who has died, Enright contemplates with poignancy how the ‘greatest griefs’ find themselves ‘inside the smallest cage’ when a young child dies.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Into the Hour’. Jennings (1926-2001), one of the few female poets to be associated with the 1950s ‘Movement’ in English poetry (which also included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and the wonderful but underrated Jonathan Price), deserves a wider readership than she currently enjoys. In this poem, Jennings explores the moment when grief over the loss of a loved one gives way to ‘healing’ and the possibility of a new start, as a new love comes along, not to replace the old, but to complement it.
Tony Harrison, ‘Long Distance II’. Harrison (b. 1937) penned a series of moving extended 16-line sonnets about the deaths of his parents and his memories of them. Stephen Spender described these poems of remembrance as the sort of poems he’d been waiting his whole life to read, which is some accolade. In this poem, Harrison discusses how we often do things which recall loved ones we’ve lost: even though we know they’ve gone, we perform acts of remembrance to keep their memory alive.