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!
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. From “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.
3. From “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
4. From “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.
[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. From “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.
[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. From “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.
9. From “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.
[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. From “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.
[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. From “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.
17. From “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.
[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. From “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.
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!