On this list, readers will find 12 poems that explore various types of anxiety and other feelings that might be associated with it, like loneliness and alienation.
The featured poets take different approaches to what anxiety means in their own lives, but readers will likely find more than one piece on this list that they relate to.
Poems About Anxiety
- 1 Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- 2 As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life by Walt Whitman
- 3 The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
- 4 Long, too Long America by Walt Whitman
- 5 Good Bones by Maggie Smith
- 6 Little Exercise by Elizabeth Bishop
- 7 There’s a certain Slant of light by Emily Dickinson
- 8 The Colonel by Carolyn Forché
- 9 Lines Written Near San Francisco by Louis Simpson
- 10 In this short life that only lasts an hour by Emily Dickinson
- 11 What Kind of Times Are These by Adrienne Rich
- 12 Hamatreya by Ralph Waldo Emerson
‘Renascence’ is one of Millay’s best and most widely read poems. It is written in the first person and describes the relationship between the speaker and humanity, as well as the broader natural world. She’s overwhelmed by nature, human suffering, and the deaths of others.
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
This piece uses ocean imagery to investigate the meaning of life. Throughout the poem, the speaker goes into a quest to understand a side of himself that he can’t access. The speaker says that he hasn’t been able to express this deeper, less egotistical side of himself, and there’s a lot he doesn’t understand about himself.
As I ebb’d with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk’d where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
‘The Second Coming’ is filled with Christian images that come from a religious idea of what the end of the world will be like. This was inspired by the end of the First World War. After the end of the war, the world was torn, and many could not return to the lives and beliefs they’d held before it began.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
‘Long, too Long America’ is one of the shorter poems on this list. Whitman addresses America and the difference between learning from “joys and prosperity” and “cries of anguish.”
Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish,
In ‘Good Bones,’ the speaker goes through some of the things she keeps from her children. Like the fact that life is short and that she’s shortened her life in ways she’s also not going to tell them about. The world, she goes on to say, is “at least half terrible.” The poem ends on a beautiful note. The poet’s speaker suggests that “you” could “make this place beautiful.”
[…]Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Little Exercise by Elizabeth Bishop
‘Little Exercise’ is another poem that’s filled with evocative images. Readers are confronted with the company to “Think of” various scenes. These include boulevards with broken sidewalks and fistfuls of limp fish-skeletons. The poem ends with this stanza:
Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a row-boat
tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge;
think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed.
This piece was published in 1890 and touches on themes of nature, God, and alienation. The latter is something, in addition to loneliness and solitude, that often comes up in Dickinson’s poetry. These emotional states can often be the source of a great deal of anxiety. The “Slant of light” in the poem oppresses the speaker’s voice from trying to put into words how she feels.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
‘The Colonel’ is an unusual poem about the poet’s supposed dinner with “the colonel,” the leader of El Salvador, who inflicted terror on his people in the 1970s. The poem exposed the horrors occurring, whiten the country to a wider audience. In the piece, the speaker creates an anxious environment as the colonel gets angrier and angrier. Here are some lines from the end of the poem:
[…] He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
‘Lines Written Near San Francisco’ is a complex and image-filled poem in which the speaker alludes to experiences, other poets, and places that come together to form a picture of uncertainty.
I wake and feel the city trembling.
Yes, there is something unsettled in the air
And the earth is uncertain.
In this short life that only lasts an hour by Emily Dickinson
In this very short poem, the speaker expresses the fact that there’s only so much, or little, that’s in her power to accomplish or change. This is something that’s often at the heart of anxious feelings, that there’s nothing one can do to change their situation. Here are the two lines of the poem:
In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power
Adrienne Rich describes anxiety in ‘What Kind of Times Are These.’ It’s a futile task, as the person she’s listening to doesn’t care or understand what she’s saying. She uses a forest to represent anxiety but often cuts her emotion off, not wanting to intimidate or scare off the person she’s talking to. Here are a few lines of the poem that convey to the reader how difficult explaining anxiety is:
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
Hamatreya by Ralph Waldo Emerson
‘Hamatreya’ is a narrative poem that speaks on death, nature, and futility in the face of life’s struggle. The poem follows several characters, one of whom is Earth, while describing the hard work the people engage in to keep themselves alive. Although the poem brings to light feelings of anxiety, it does end on a hopeful note.
Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;