Read to discover

Poems that make grown men cry

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. The title made me pick up the book. And it was revealing. It brings together poems which have made writers cry.

Auden the tear-jerker
Auden the tear-jerker

So we have Salman Rushdie confessing he is moved to tears by the last lines of WH Auden’s famous poem, In Memory of WB Yeats.

Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong and the James Bond sequel Devil May Care, names Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, adding: “I read this poem at my daughter’s christening.”

The former Times and Sunday Times editor Harold Evans says he could not hold back his tears when he read Wordsworth’s Character of the Happy Warrior at his predecessor, Sir Denis Hamilton’s funeral service.

The writer Melvyn Bragg mentions Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX. “I have never been able to read this sonnet without stumbling and then stopping. It is the final couplet that finishes me off,” he says.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows.

“Those (lines) I can never meet without tears,” says Bragg. Shakespeare addressed the sonnet to a friend who was living, but it reminds him of a friend who has died, he adds.

The Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney mentions Thomas Hardy. “I can’t honestly say I break down when I read The Voice,” he says, “but when I get to the last four lines the tear ducts do congest a bit. ”

The Voice
By Thomas Hardy

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

 Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

The historian Simon Schama says: “Tears come to me reading Auden’s Lullaby to a lover already asleep…”

The opening lines are hauntingly beautiful.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

(Read the poem here)

Other writers have similar confessions to make in this book, which includes the poems that moved them.

Anthony and Ben Holden, who edited the book, say they got the idea after the literary critic Frank Kermode was moved to tears while reading a poem by Philip Larkin.

That was when they started asking other writers to name the poems which moved them – and this collection is the result, subtitled 100 Men on the Words that Move Them: an anthology ranging from Shakespeare to Billy Collins.

“Houseman and Hardy have emerged as two of the most tear-provoking poets in this collection,” say the editors. “With three poems each, they are equalled by Phllip Larkin and bested only by WH Auden, with five.”

Some of my favourites appear in this collection, including Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats and If I Could Tell You, Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX, and Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.

I discovered new poems, too, that moved me.

Out of Work
By Kenneth H Ashley

Alone at the shut of the day was I,
With a star or two in a frost-cleared sky,
And the byre smell in the air.

I’d tramped the length and breadth of the fen,
But never a farmer wanted men;
Naught doing anywhere.

A great calm moon rose back of the mill,
And I told myself it was God’s will
Who went hungry and who went fed,

I tried to whistle; I tried to be brave,
But the new ploughed fields smelt dank as the grave;
And I wished I were dead.

And I particularly liked this one.

Love after Love
By Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Tom Hiddleston, whom I have never read, says in this book why he likes it. He writes:

Most of us are motivated deep down by a sense if insufficiency, a need to be better, stronger, faster; to work harder; to be more committed, more kind, more self-sufficient, more successful. We are driven by a sense that we are not, as we are, “enough”.
But this short poem by Derek Walcott is like a declaration of unconditional love. It’s like the embrace of an old friend. We are each of us whole, perfectly imperfect, enough. “Feast on your life” feels like permission, as though Walcott is calling time on all the madness, the mayhem, the insecurity, the neruoses, the drama, and with a big, broad, kind smile, he brings us to an awareness of the present moment, calm and peaceful, and to a feeling of gratitude for everything that we have. I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.

(See also Selected Poems)


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