Love, Death, and Magic: 22 Gorgeous Victorian Poems

A friend of mine gave me one of those Faber & Faber Poetry Diaries for Christmas last year. Instead of putting my daily appointments in each slot, I decided to write out lines from my favourite poems instead. It’s been a wonderful experience – I’ve encountered many poems, and poets, I had no idea existed – and here I’ve brought together a selection of my favourite. I’m specifically focusing on Victorian poems, and I’ve divided them up into a number of categories.

In some cases, I’ve just put my favourite lines and linked to the entire work. I hope you enjoy! I’ve done my best to avoid the more famous Victorian poems, so hopefully you’ll discover a new love. With the time period in mind it must be noted that poets of colour were unfortunately very thin on the ground. Let us know in the comments if you know of any poems by diverse Victorian writers!

Enjoy these Victorian poems about love, death, magic, and more! poetry | victorian poetry | poems to read

Victorian Poems: Death

1. from “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams (1837–68)

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. 

[These are the most famous lines in the poem Williams was most known for in her short life. They’re frequently chosen as an epitaph by astronomers.]

2. “The Sands of Dee” by Charles Kingsley (1819–75)

‘O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee;’
The western wind was wild and dank with foam,
And all alone went she.

The western tide crept up along the sand,

And o’er and o’er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see.
The rolling mist came down and hid the land:
And never home came she.

‘Oh! is it weed, or fish, or floating hair,
A tress of golden hair,
A drownèd maiden’s hair
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
Among the stakes of Dee.’

They rowed her in across the rolling foam,
The cruel crawling foam,
The cruel hungry foam,
To her grave beside the sea:
But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home:
Across the sands of Dee.

3. “AN INVITE TO ETERNITY” BY JOHN CLARE (1793-1864)

Wilt thou go with me sweet maid
Say maiden wilt thou go with me
Through the valley depths of shade
Of night and dark obscurity
Where the path hath lost its way
Where the sun forgets the day
Where there’s nor life nor light to see
Sweet maiden wilt thou go with me

Where stones will turn to flooding streams,
Where plains will rise like ocean waves,
Where life will fade like visioned dreams
And mountains darken into caves.
Say maiden wilt thou go with me
Through this sad non-identity
Where parents live and are forgot
And sisters live and know us not

Say maiden wilt thou go with me
In this strange death of life to be
To live in death and be the same
Without this life, or home, or name
At once to be, and not to be
That was, and is not – yet to see
Things pass like shadows – and the sky
Above, below, around us lie

The land of shadows wilt thou trace
And look – nor know each other’s face
The present mixed with reasons gone
And past, and present all as one
Say maiden can thy life be led
To join the living to the dead
Then trace thy footsteps on with me
We’re wed to one eternity

4. “Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam” by Ernest Dowson (1867–1900)

(The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long —Horace)

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

[I adore Dowson’s poetry, so he pops up a lot in this article! I find his lines incredibly haunting. He’s written some of my favourite Victorian poems of all time.]

5. from “Carthusians” by Ernest Dowson

We fling up flowers and laugh, we laugh across the wine;
With wine we dull our souls and careful strains of art;
Our cups are polished skulls round which the roses twine:
None dares to look at Death who leers and lurks apart.

6. from “Wake: The Silver Dusk Returning” by A.E. Housman (1859–1936)

Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;
Breath’s a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough to sleep.

7. “When I Last Came to Ludlow” by A.E. Housman

When I came last to Ludlow
Amidst the moonlight pale,
Two friends kept step beside me,
Two honest lads and hale.

Now Dick lies long in the churchyard,
And Ned lies long in jail,
And I come home to Ludlow
Amidst the moonlight pale.

[Housman’s poems are in some ways very typically Victorian poems, with the constant references to death, but I find that he often manages to do it so his writing is melancholy rather than morbid.] 

Victorian Poems: Love

8. “The Memory” by Lord Dunsany (1878–1957)

I watch the doctors walking with the nurses to and fro
And I hear them softly talking in the garden where they go,
But I envy not their learning, nor their right of walking free,
For the emperor of Tartary has died for love of me.

I can see his face all golden beneath his night-black hair,
And the temples strange and olden in the gleaming eastern air,
Where he walked alone and sighing because I would not sail
To the lands where he was dying for a love of no avail.

He had seen my face by magic in a mirror that they make
For those rulers proud and tragic by their lotus-covered lake,
Where there hangs a pale-blue tiling on an alabaster wall.
And he loved my way of smiling, and loved nothing else at all.

There were peacocks there and peaches, and green monuments of jade,
Where macaws with sudden screeches made the little dogs afraid,
And the silver fountains sprinkled foreign flowers on the sward
As they rose and curved and tinkled for their listless yellow lord.

Ah well, he’s dead and rotten in his far magnolia grove,
But his love is unforgotten and I need no other love,
And with open eyes when sleeping, or closed eyes when awake,
I can see the fountains leaping by the borders of the lake.

They call it my delusion; they may call it what they will,
For the times are in confusion and are growing wilder still,
And there are no splendid memories in any face I see.
But an emperor of Tartary has died for love of me.

9. “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae” by Ernest Dowson

(I am not as I was under the reign of the good Cynara —Horace)

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to you, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long;
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

[This is my ALL-TIME FAVOURITE of the Victorian poems. If not for The Highwayman, it would be my all-time favourite poem full stop. It doesn’t hurt that my favourite book, Gone with the Wind, also took its title from here!]

10. from “Great Things” by Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)

Love is, yea, a great thing, 
A great thing to me, 
When, having drawn across the lawn
In darkness silently,
A figure flits like one-a-wing
Out from the nearest tree:
O love is, yes, a great thing,
A great thing to me!

11. from “Chimaera” by Rosamund Marriot Watson (1860–1911)

The spring sun shows me your shadow,
The spring wind bears me your breath,
You are mine for a passing moment,
But I am yours to the death.

12. from “Stella Maris” by Arthur Symons(1865–1945)

What shall it profit me to know
Your heart holds many a Romeo?
Why should I grieve, though I forget
How many another Juliet?
Let us be glad to have forgot
That roses fade, and loves are not,
As dreams, immortal, though they seem
Almost as real as a dream.
It is for this I see you rise,
A wraith, with starlight in your eyes,
Where calm hours weave, for such a mood
Solitude out of solitude;
For this, for this, you come to me
Out of the night, out of the sea.

13. from “Cousin Kate” by Christina Rossetti (1830–94)

O Lady Kate, my cousin Kate,
You grow more fair than I:
He saw you at your father’s gate,
Chose you, and cast me by.
He watched your steps along the lane,
Your sport among the rye;
He lifted you from mean estate
To sit with him on high.

14. from “The Counsels of O’Riordan, The Rann Maker” by T.D. O’Bolger

The luck of God is in two strangers meeting,
But the gates of Hell are in the city street
For him whose soul is not in his own keeping
And love a silver string upon his feet.

My heart is the seed of time, my veins are star-dust,
My spirit is the axle of God’s dream.

[I was unable to find a single shred of information about this poet, such as their gender or birth year, but I found these beautiful lines in an anthology of Victorian poems.]

15. “Sonnet 43” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

[Yes, this is one of the most famous Victorian poems, but I’ve included it anyway because it’s also one of the most beautiful!]

 

Victorian Poems: Magic

16.”The Night is Darkening Round Me” by Emily Brontë (1818–48)

The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.

Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.

17. “The Fairy Child” by Lord Dunsany

From the low white walls and the church’s steeple,
From our little fields under grass or grain,
I’m gone away to the fairy people
I shall not come to the town again.

You may see a girl with my face and tresses,
You may see one come to my mother’s door
Who may speak my words and may wear my dresses.
She will not be I, for I come no more.

I am gone, gone far, with the fairies roaming,
You may ask of me where the herons are
In the open marsh when the snipe are homing,
Or when no moon lights nor a single star.
On stormy nights when the streams are foaming
And a hint may come of my haunts afar,
With the reeds my floor and my roof the gloaming,
But I come no more to Ballynar.

Ask Father Ryan to read no verses
To call me back, for I am this day
From blessings far, and beyond curses.
No heaven shines where we ride away.

At speed unthought of in all your stables,
With the gods of old and the sons of Finn,
With the queens that reigned in the olden fables
And kings that won what a sword can win.
You may hear us streaming above your gables
On nights as still as a planet’s spin;
But never stir from your chairs and tables
To call my name. I shall not come in.

For I am gone to the fairy people.
Make the most of that other child
Who prays with you by the village steeple
I am gone away to the woods and wild.

I am gone away to the open spaces,
And whither riding no man may tell;
But I shall look upon all your faces
No more in Heaven or Earth or Hell.

[Isn’t this one amazing? It reminds me of Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, and it’s everything I imagine a faerie poem to be!]

18. “The Warnings” by Alice Furlong (1866–1946)

I was milking in the meadow when I heard the Banshee keening:
Little birds were in the nest, lambs were on the lea,
Upon the brow o’ the Fairy-hill a round gold moon was leaning—
She parted from the esker as the Banshee keened for me.

I was weaving by the door-post, when I heard the Death-watch beating:
And I signed the Cross upon me, and I spoke the Name of Three.
High and fair, through cloud and air, a silver moon was fleeting—
But the night began to darken as the Death-watch beat for me.

I was sleepless on my pillow when I heard the Dead man calling,
The Dead man that lies drowned at the bottom of the sea.
Down in the West, in wind and mist, a dim white moon was falling—
Now must I rise and go to him, the Dead who calls on me.

19. from “The Stolen Child” by W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

20. from “The Fairy Lover” by Moireen Fox

They tell me I am cursed and I will lose my soul,
(O red wind shrieking o’er the thorn-grown dún!)
But he is my love and I go to him to-night,
Who rides when the thorn glistens white beneath the moon.

He will call my name and lift me to his breast,
(Blow soft O wind ’neath the stars of the south!)
I care not for heaven and I fear not hell
If I have but the kisses of his proud red mouth.

[Another discovery from the Victorian poems anthology, unfortunately without any information on the poet’s life.]

21. from “The Love-Talker” by Ethna Carbery (1894–1902)

I met the Love-Talker one eve in the glen,
He was handsomer than any of our handsome young men,
His eyes were blacker than the sloe, his voice sweeter far
Than the crooning of old Kevin’s pipes beyond in Coolnagar.

I was bound for the milking with a heart fair and free —
My grief! my grief! that bitter hour drained the life from me;
I thought him human lover, though his lips on mine were cold,
And the breath of death blew keen on me within his hold.

I know not what way he came, no shadow fell behind,
But all the sighing rushes swayed beneath a faery wind
The thrush ceased its singing, a mist crept about,
We two clung together—with the world shut out.

22. from “The Fairies” by William Allingham (1824–89)

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag-leaves,
Watching till she wake.

What are your favourite Victorian poems? For more in this vein, check out these 58 love poems!

 

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