The most well-known day to celebrate romantic love, Valentine’s Day, is upon us again, so it may be a bit contrarian to focus on poems about Love Lost. But let’s be realistic: sometimes–a lot of times–love goes wrong; and probably, no theme inspires more heartfelt verse than Love Lost.
When Love is Lost, how do people respond? First may come lament, the long, unfettered howl of the broken heart.
Next we might try to forget, deny, or just to cope somehow.
When forgetting seems impossible, we may do the opposite: linger on memories of Love Lost that we just can’t expunge.
Of course, there are beautiful, amazing poems for all of these phases. After lingering over a few of these poems, we might wonder: with all the misery that love can bring, would we just be better off without it? You won’t be surprised that there are excellent poems all about that too.
The pains of Love Lost have inspired so much lovely, wise, moving, and enduring poetry, I personally can’t wish to do away with all the pain. Let’s take a tour of a variety of poems focusing on Love Lost.
In the end, though love has caused plenty of pain to poets and non-poets alike, most of us can’t make up our mind to do without it. Ironically, that observation may be a truly appropriate Valentine’s Day sentiment.
Side note: if you want to read something a little more upbeat about love on Valentine’s Day, take a look at these two Valentine’s Day-appropriate posts:
To continue the tour of Poems Lamenting Love Lost just continue reading.
Love Newly Lost: Laments of the Broken Heart
So many lovely, if sad, poems express the misery of lost love, it’s hard to choose just a few. But for me, three poems always come to mind.
“Mariana” by Tennyson
For expression of outright lonely misery, take a brief trip back to the nineteenth century to read Tennyson’s “Mariana,” a poem describing a lonely pre-Raphaelite-esque young woman whose lover seems to have deserted her.
The epigraph of the poem (a line that no doubt inspired Tennyson to write it) comes from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure: “Mariana in the Moated Grange.” In Shakespeare’s play, Mariana is deserted by her lover, Angelo.
In Tennyson’s poem “Mariana,” he imagines the lovelorn maiden’s sad daily life in full-blown detail. In Tennyson’s version, Mariana wanders around her gloomy and deteriorating farmhouse (the “moated grange”) day after day, uttering a moving plaint at the end of every stanza. These lines appear in stanza 2:
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, “The night is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”
—“Mariana” by Tennyson
These lines encapsulate such gloom that you may be tempted to pass this poem by, wondering if the poem’s outsize emotion might not begin to touch on the ridiculous. In my view, it does not. The stunning sights and sounds described in the poem, the mold on the flowerpots, the clinking gate latch, the bats flitting, the “night fowl” crowing and the oxen lowing upon the dark fen, bring the scene into sharp realistic focus.
Then too, the melancholy repetition of lines “I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead!” help raise the impact of the maiden’s sadness to an operatic level.
Besides all that, like most of Tennyson’s poems, “Mariana” is so musical in the sound of its language and rhythms. Don’t miss this one—take a couple of minutes to read it and mourn with Mariana.
“They Flee from Me” by Sir Thomas Wyatt
If we go a bit further back to the Renaissance, we encounter the elegant sonnet by Wyatt, “They Flee From Me.” In this poem, Wyatt imagines his lost lovers as sweet small beasts, perhaps like deer or antelope. They once came tamely and gladly to feed at his hand, but now inexplicably flee from him as if they are wild things who know him no longer:
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
–“They Flee From Me” by Sir Thomas Wyatt
The speaker seems most wounded by a sense of desertion. His lover came willingly without any persuasion from him, but then, becoming bored, drops him suddenly, even pretending that it is he who wants to leave her. His own “gentleness” works against him, making it too easy for her just to drop him in favor of “newfangleness,” all the while pretending their split is his fault:
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
He remembers with pain how sweet their meetings used to be:
but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all that is vanished now, and the poet laments.
Wyatt was a courtier in Henry the VIII’s court and may have been romantically involved with Anne Boleyn. According to the Interesting Literature blog,
“‘They Flee from Me’ is one of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s best-known poems and is often reprinted in poetry anthologies. It’s almost a shorthand for the Tudor court and the way men and women would use others to gain an advantage or a position, only to discard them when they had served their purpose.”
If you want to know more about Wyatt, look at this bio here.
Hardy’s “A Broken Appointment”
Heading back to the nineteenth century again, this time to the end of the century, we come to a famous poem by Thomas Hardy depicting his feelings when his former lover breaks a last date they had together. Read the short “A Broken Appointment” here.
This agreed-upon meeting was probably the last time he expected to see her, but she didn’t have the kindness or courtesy to show up:
You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb,—
As sad as it makes him not to see her one last time, the speaker says he is even sadder because this broken appointment reveals something negative about her character that he wishes he hadn’t discovered:
You love not me,
And love alone can lend you loyalty;
–I know and knew it. But, unto the store
Of human deeds divine in all but name,
Was it not worth a little hour or more
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
You love not me?
–“A Broken Appointment” by Hardy
The speaker has made up his mind to endure the loss of their relationship, but now must endure something worse: a diminished opinion of someone he once wholly admired.
Trying to Forget Lost Love, Or Even Just Cope
Once the suffering lover comes to terms with the fact that an affair is truly over, the bravest hearts just try to move on, or at least find some strategy to cope.
Certainly, this is a courageous and sensible course of action, but as many poems detail, that’s not always so easy to do.
Consider, for instance, this small pungent verse by Emily Dickinson, “Heart, We Will Forget Him”:
HEART, we will forget him!
You and I, to-night!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!
The speaker tells her heart to forget the loved one’s “warmth” while her brain is busy forgetting his “light.” Unfortunately, as she acknowledges, if the heart can’t forget fast enough, the brain will spring into action again with memory after memory of the wonderful qualities of her lost lover. Of course, as the poem wryly conveys, you can’t always forget so easily just because you will yourself to do it.
Controlling Festering Feelings: Kizer’s “Bitch”
In a more recent poem from 1984, “Bitch,” poet Carolyn Kizer gives us a vivid picture of the struggle to maintain a safe emotional distance from her former lover when she meets him again years later.
Upon their chance meeting, she realizes that she still harbors strong feelings toward him, both of anger and of love. She imagines these barely controllable emotions as an excitable dog insider her, barking and trying to get out at him:
Now, when he and I meet, after all these years,
I say to the bitch inside me, don’t start growling.
He isn’t a trespasser anymore,
Just an old acquaintance tipping his hat.
My voice says, “Nice to see you,”
As the bitch starts to bark hysterically.
When the man speaks some kind words to her,
The bitch changes her tone; she begins to whimper.
She wants to snuggle up to him, to cringe.
Down, girl! Keep your distance
Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain.
“Fine, I’m just fine,” I tell him.
She slobbers and grovels.
In the semi-humorous, semi-serious poem, the speaker goes on to reveal more about the nature of the couple’s old relationship and why they parted. As the poem proceeds, she manages to control her emotions and to interact appropriately, but has to recognized that her feelings about the past are not yet fully vanquished.
Denying That It Hurts Much: “One Art”
One coping strategy for pains of love lost is to try to assert that you’re fine, really, not much hurt: “I can handle this!” I’ve always been fond of Elizabeth Bishop’s understated villanelle “One Art,” a poem that uses quiet irony to depict the ultimate futility of this strategy in action.
In a villanelle, the poet ends a series of three-line stanzas with two alternating, repeating lines that morph in meaning and significance as the poem builds. In Bishop’s poem, she pairs the words “master” and “disaster” in these repeated lines to contrast what she says on the surface she is doing (successfully controlling her emotions) and what is actually happening under the surface: emotional disaster.
The speaker starts the poem ironically as if tutoring the reader in “the art of losing”:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
The first lesson is to “Lose something every day,” such as door keys, or an “hour badly spent,” to get accustomed to the idea that losing things doesn’t bring “disaster.”
The poem continues to build on the words “master” and “disaster,” ironically suggesting that mere loss alone, even large loss, is nothing to be destroyed by. But by the time we reach the last stanza, the poem turns personal, the speaker breaking down and admitting “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love” isn’t impossible to live with, “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
This last line always reads to me so powerfully, as if the admission can’t help surfacing from the cool ironic denials in all the lines before.
“Someday You’ll Be Sorry”: “When You Are Old”
When love is lost, it does feel a little better to think that someday lost lovers will regret their choices. That most musical of poets, William Butler Yeats, suffering for years from an unrequited love for famous Irish Revolutionary Maude Gonne, turns that sentiment into something larger and beautiful in the little verse “When You Are Old.”
In the poem, the speaker enjoins his loved one, “When you are old and grey and full of sleep, / . . . take down this book” (with his poem in it, presumably), and “dream” of how lovely she was in her youth, recalling the many who “loved your moments of glad grace, / And loved your beauty with love false or true.”
With the wisdom that comes with age, the speaker hopes she will recognize that “one man” (himself) loved not her physical beauty but “the pilgrim soul in you.” At that point perhaps she will regret, just a bit, that she denied his true-hearted love:
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
–“When You Are Old” by Yeats
The loveliness of Yeats’s poetry never fails to stun me. Here he turns lost love from a failed or foolish sentiment into a beautiful being, “Love,” who paces overhead on a mountain with his head in the stars.
The conception of Love as something precious, even though failed, makes having loved someone, even though unsuccessful, more noble and less to be regretted than it might first seem.
Giving Up the Fight to Cope: “My Love is a Fever”
Ah, Shakespeare. What poetic power do you not manifest? What emotion have you not explored and rendered in elegant, elaborate, ironic, intelligent lines?
Pardon the effusion– I just found myself newly astounded by Shakespeare’s prowess when, looking for poems to include in this un-Valentine’s Day round-up, I came upon this powerful sonnet I did not recall reading before: Sonnet 147, “My Love is as a fever, longing still.”
All the other poems I have included in this section describe different ways of trying to cope with lost love.
In this poem, the speaker, on the contrary, just gives up.
The speaker admits that indulging in thoughts of the lost loved one is bad for him, and only prolongs the misery. Yet he is helpless to stop it. He compares his obsessional thinking to an illness:
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
His “reason” should be the physician for this illness, helping him overcome these out-of-control emotions, but “Angry that his prescriptions are not kept, / [Reason] Hath left me.” Now “My thoughts . . . as madmen’s are,” because he continues to long unreasonably for someone who is unworthy:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
–Sonnet 147 by Shakespeare
Someone with so much self-awareness will no doubt recover from this “fever” and see his reason return, ultimately gaining some distance from this mistaken love. But perhaps therapists would tell us that expressing emotions of agony are better than trying to suppress them too fast. Nothing expresses powerful emotion better than poetry, especially Shakespeare’s.
Is Love Worth It?
With all the pain that love can bring, as detailed by these and many other poems, and endless Facebook and Twitter and Instagram posts besides, what good is love, anyway?
Wouldn’t it be better just to guard one’s heart and avoid emotional entanglements altogether?
People have been wondering that for centuries, as we can easily illustrate with just one tiny fragment of a poem that dates all the way back to 630 (or so) BC. Sappho was an ancient Greek poet born around 600 B.C. about which little is known, though her poems about love are very well-known and to this day valued for their power.
This fragment, “With his venom,” neatly encapsulates Sappho’s overall take on Love:
With his venom
of limbs, Love
strikes me down
Sappho certainly doesn’t present Love as a good thing; instead, it is like a poisonous serpent that strikes her without warning and renders her helpless. At least she can say Love is “bittersweet.”
Could It Just All Be Undone?: “palindrome”
When love lost brings pain, it is certainly appealing to imagine that it never happened at all, as people tried to do in the 2004 film written by Charlie Kaufman, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Contemporary Chicago poet Nate Marshall plays with that idea in “palindrome,” in which he imagines slowly spiraling back in time to undo, one by one, each event that brought him and his lost love together.
Starting with seeing a social media profile of his loved one’s life years after they parted, he imagines un-doing every event all the way back to when they first met and shared ice cream when they were only six years old:
maybe we can go back to then. I unlearn
her name, the way it is spelled the same
–“palindrome” by Nate Marshall
But the poem suggests that you can’t really undo what happened even if you wish to. A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads exactly the same forward and backward (“Madam, I’m Adam”).
You can try to go backward, to imagine a lost love was not significant to your life at all. But in the end the love palindrome, read backward, is just waiting to be read forward again.
So We Can’t Escape? But Maybe We Don’t Really Want To
As this little poetic tour, if not our own lives, will tell us, Love is often a pain. Yet, not only is Love hard to escape; perhaps, in the end, we don’t really want to.
That famous liberated woman poet of the 1920’s and 30’s, Edna St. Vincent Millay, often wrote about love with disdain. Many poems claim her right to free love, and equally her right to end or to deny any relationship at her own choosing. However, in her famous Sonnet XXX, she coolly and ironically decides that perhaps she would not choose, after all, to do without love.
The sonnet begins by asserting that love is not essential to life:
“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain. . . .”
The poem’s speaker tells her lover that, perhaps if pushed to extremity by some intolerable pain,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
–“Love is Not All” by St. Vincent Millay
No more do I think that humans would, or should, do altogether without love, all the pain of Love Lost notwithstanding.
If we end there, perhaps we’re not making such an Un-Valentine’s Day assertion after all.
Whether your own love life is going up or down this Valentine’s Day, I hope you’ll take some time to savor some of these beautiful, thought-provoking works about Lost Love. Whatever you are feeling, some good poetry will make it feel a little better, as Reading Great Literature always does.
Mariana painting by Marie Stillman, 1867-9. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
Elizabeth Bishop, 1964. Brazilian National Archives [Public domain].
Shakespeare portrait. John Taylor. [Public domain.]
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.