Poems about regret yield a universal sigh that we all have at some point in our lives. It’s that feeling you get when you look back, maybe a little wiser now, and wish you had done things differently.
Regret is a subject that rivals love poems in their pervasiveness. They can remind you of choices you wish you hadn’t made or opportunities you let slip away. Regret in poems works by capturing the ache of hindsight, the what-ifs, and the could-have-beens.
It’s relatable because, well, who hasn’t felt that twinge of wishing for a do-over or a chance to mend the past? These poems are like mirrors, reflecting our own moments of longing and self-reflection, reminding us that regrets, big or small, are a part of the human experience. Here are a few examples of regret in famous poems.
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
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.
Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, One Art, addresses the inevitability of loss and the gradual acceptance of it, capturing the subtle ache of regret over time’s passing. Read the whole poem here.
Regret by Olivia Ward Bush-Banks
I said a thoughtless word one day,
A loved one heard and went away;
I cried: “Forgive me, I was blind;
I would not wound or be unkind.”
I waited long, but all in vain,
To win my loved one back again.
Too late, alas! to weep and pray,
Death came; my loved one passed away.
Then, what a bitter fate was mine;
No language could my grief define;
Tears of deep regret could not unsay
The thoughtless word I spoke that day.
The title of the poem is perfectly on the nose. Bush-Banks provides a concise poem about regret that is universally applicable. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time is the source of a lot of grief for millions of people.
Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
Hayden’s famous poem explores the regret of not appreciating parental love fully until later in life, capturing the remorse for unspoken gratitude. Read it with a detailed poem guide here.
I measure every Grief I Meet by Emily Dickinson
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –
Dickinson’s poem explores the various shades of sorrow and regret, portraying the nuanced emotions that accompany loss and missed opportunities. She also masterfully highlights the ways that grief and regret impact each of us in unique ways. Read the whole Dickinson poem here.
December 29 by Max Ritvo
I found myself unable to consume
the scallops after reflection—
their whole lives were
eating and suffocating.
This is much sadder than tortured people—
in extreme pain we leave our bodies
and look down to commit the pain
to memory like studious angels.
The waiter brought me two fortune cookies.
One future was traumatic enough.
I decided to open just one cookie—
the one on my right side.
It said in blue on a thin white strip,
You must learn to love yourself.
In this beautiful contemporary poem, Max Ritvo takes us on a narrative and introspective journey through the complexities of grief, regret and self-love. The specific details Ritvo provides brings the speaker to life, making him easier to empathize with. Read the whole poem here.
What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade by Brad Aaron Modlin
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home.
In this poignant poem, Modlin captures the essence of regret and doubt through the lens of childhood memories. The speaker recounts various moments and experiences that the absent student missed, highlighting the regret of not being present to witness those formative events. Listen to a great reading of the poem here.