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Which poems make grown men cry?

About the author

Rebecca Laurence is the deputy editor of BBC Culture.

A tear falls from a man's eye

(Thinkstock)

A new anthology selects the poems guaranteed to move men to tears. BBC Culture presents an edited selection of some of the verses highlighted in the collection.

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is compiled by Anthony and Ben Holden, a father-and-son team who stitched together contributions from nearly 100 prominent men from the worlds of entertainment, the arts, academia and the media. Contributors including Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Franzen, Mike Leigh, Nick Cave and Ian McEwan have nominated the verses that never fail to make them well up. WH Auden came out as the most tear-jerking poet, with Thomas Hardy, AE Housman and Philip Larkin in joint second.

The anthology is produced in collaboration with Amnesty International. This month, Amnesty’s director, Kate Allen, along with the Holdens, will host an event in London at which some of the book’s famous participants will read aloud and explain the lines that move them.

After Great Pain by Emily Dickinson was chosen by the actor Douglas Kennedy, who says: “Dickinson not only speaks volumes about the shadowland of despair that is the price of being given the gift of life, but also reminds us of one of the central truths with which we all grapple: to live is to harbor so many profound losses.”

After Great Pain (c. 1864)

After great pain a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious like Tombs;
The stiff Heart questions –
was it He that bore And Yesterday – or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought,
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow –
First Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go.

The Solder, by Rupert Brooke is the choice of the actor Hugh Bonneville, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Lord Grantham in television’s Downton Abbey. He says: “it’s not the notion of death with honor or pride in mother­land that moves me, it’s the simple phrase “laughter, learnt of friends” that gets me every time. An image of happiness shared, in a land at peace.”

 The Soldier (1914)

If I should die, think only this of me:
   That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
   In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
   Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
   Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
     A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
     Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
     In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The Welsh-born novelist Ken Follett chose Thomas Hardy’s During Wind and Rain. He said: “I read this as a schoolboy, and even then I was overwhelmed by its melancholy. Half a century of rereading has shown me how clever it is… every stanza is a sucker punch. In the last two lines of each the rhythm falters, and decay and death are evoked until the end, when we realize that the poet is standing in a rain-wet graveyard, look­ing at the tombstones, and everyone in that happy family is now dead.”

During Wind and Rain (1917)

They sing their dearest songs –
     He, she, all of them—yea,
     Treble and tenor and bass,
          And one to play;
     With the candles mooning each face. . . .
          Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

     They clear the creeping moss––
     Elders and juniors—aye,
     Making the pathways neat          
          And the garden gay;
     And they build a shady seat. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

     They are blithely breakfasting all –
     Men and maidens – yea,
     Under the summer tree,
          With a glimpse of the bay,
     While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
          Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

     They change to a high new house,
     He, she, all of them—aye,
     Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
     And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs. 

The Voice by Thomas Hardy was chosen by the late poet Seamus Heaney who said: “The poem is one of several Thomas Hardy wrote immediately after the death of his first wife in late November 1912, hence the poignancy of his dating it December 1912. What renders the music of the poem so moving is the drag in the voice, as if there were sinkers on many of the lines. But in the final stanza, in that landscape of falling leaves, wind and thorn, and the woman calling, there is a banshee note that haunts ’long after it is heard no more’.”

The Voice (1912)

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
Traveling 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 actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry chose Walt Whitman’s Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances. He said:It’s Uncle Walt at his most perfect, I think. The strangely jerky parenthetical hiccups in the middle all build into an ending that never fails to choke me.”

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances (1860)

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only, May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters, The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms,
May-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known;
(How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con­found me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, And might prove (as of course they would) naught of what they appear, or naught anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;

To me, these and the like of these are curiously answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry is published by Simon and Schuster.

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