Empathy Poems

Carpet-weavers, Morocco

by Carol Rumens

‘Carpet-weavers, Morocco’ is a challenging poem which explores issues such as child labour as well as examining the myriad origins of beauty.

Rumens encourages the reader to place themselves in the shoes of the children in the poem, even if the poem resists the obvious conclusions one might expect to draw from that experience.

The children are at the loom of another world.
Their braids are oiled and black, their dresses bright.
Their assorted heights would make a melodious chime.

Oh! Snatched Away in Beauty’s Bloom

by Lord Byron

‘Oh! Snatch’s Away in Beauty’s Bloom’ by Lord Byron is a beautiful poem about grief and the importance of expressing such emotions as a means of catharsis.

Byron's poem inspires a variety of powerful emotions, but none are as impactful as the level of empathy it manifests in the reader. It helps that the poem is written from the perspective of a speaker both in grief and seemingly defending the expression of it. The speaker's movingly wise understanding of their sorrow and its inability to change anything makes their pain all the more affecting, and it's hard not to sympathize.

Oh! snatched away in beauty’s bloom,

On thee shall press no ponderous tomb;

But on thy turf shall roses rear

Their leaves, the earliest of ' the year;

Go to Ahmedabad

by Sujata Bhatt

‘Go to Ahmedabad’ shows the psychological struggle of an immigrant dealing with disturbing past events and contemporary issues with newly developed views.

The poem evokes readers' empathy for the issues of the marginalized sections of society by presenting the agony and anguish caused by deprivation. The poet also tries to stimulate readers' empathy towards herself and her creative writing as she articulates her liminal position and paints an honest picture of her hometown.

Go walk the streets of Baroda,

go to Ahmedabad

and step around the cow dung

but don’t forget to look at the sky.

The Swan

by John Gould Fletcher

‘The Swan’ by John Gould Fletcher describes the movements of a swan within a body of water and a speaker’s desire to escape his life. 

The poem invites the reader to empathize with the bird and to see the world through its eyes. Through his use of sensory language and vivid imagery, Fletcher encourages us to feel a sense of connection and compassion toward the natural world and its inhabitants.

Under a wall of bronze,

Where beeches dip and trail

Their branches in the water;

With red-tipped head and wings—

Hymn to Aphrodite

by Sappho

The ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ by Sappho is an ancient lyric in which Sappho begs for Aphrodite’s help in managing her turbulent love life.

In the 'Hymn to Aphrodite,' Sappho seems tired, frustrated, depressed, and lonely, but her pleas to Aphrodite speak to the audience. Anyone who has experienced heartbreak will likely feel sad for Sappho as she attempts to enlist divine help in her love life, even if the poet also recognizes that almost every love affair ends in pain.

Beautiful-throned, immortal Aphrodite,

Daughter of Zeus, beguiler, I implore thee,

Weigh me not down with weariness and anguish

O thou most holy!


by Richard de Zoysa

The poem ‘Lepidoptera’ is a metaphorical representation of a mentally ill mind, likened to a broken butterfly wing. The poet is imploring society to support those with mental illness.

The poem conveys a sense of emotional attachment and empathy through the narrator's sense of powerlessness in the face of mental illness. The use of vivid imagery and metaphor highlights the devastating impact of mental illness on a person's life, underscoring the importance of compassion and understanding for those who suffer from mental health issues.

On broken butterfly wing,

your crippled mind fluttered into my schoolroom. Failed. And died.

I couldn’t do a thing to stir its organs

of poor maimed sense to life again.

The Hermit

by Alan Paton

‘The Hermit’ by Alan Paton suggests that it is impossible to find peace by locking out the pain, hunger, and emotions of others. Justice and peace are only possible through human connection and compromise.

While both the "poor souls" of the disadvantage and the hermit in this poem both get negative treatment, it's easy to empathize with both of them. The victims of injustice who beg outside the hermit's door are just like the hermit, who has fallen victim to the same political system in a very different way. Without compromise and compassion, both are trapped in a cycle of stubbornness and injustice.

I have barred the doors

Of the place where I bide,

I am old and afraid

Of the world outside.

Forest of Europe

by Derek Walcott

‘Forest of Europe’ dissects the burden writers have, and their duty to the public to write the truth.

Walcott empathizes with other writers worldwide, for in his mind, they all bear the same burden, which is to tell the public the truths they see in society. Since Walcott himself writes a lot on history and culture, he must feel a great deal of understanding for this concept.

The last leaves fell like notes from a piano

and left their ovals echoing in the ear;

with gawky music stands, the winter forest

Up in the Wind

by Edward Thomas

‘Up in the Wind’ captures a public house history with the nature surrounding it, and how it impacts others.

While there is no empathy for fellow men or women in this poem, there is a great deal of empathy for nature. The girl in the poem feels connected with nature, and since the building of this tavern has hurt nature, she can feel the anguish. Therefore, she lashes out on nature's behalf.

I could wring the old thing's neck that put it there!

A public-house! it may be public for birds,

Squirrels and suchlike, ghosts of charcoal-burners


by Walt Whitman

‘Mannahatta’ by Walt Whitman is a stunning poem that marvels over a city deeply admired by the poet, encompassing all the wondrous elements of its populace.

Empathy is often found in many of Whitman's poems. In this one, it appears as it usually does in the form of a cataloged series of descriptions of the variety of life found within the city. The speaker idolizes and adores all the people that are encountered therein and expresses nothing but gratitude for their hard work and existence.

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,

Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,

I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,

She Had Some Horses

by Joy Harjo

‘She Had Some Horses’ by Joy Harjo illustrates the plurality of differences among people.

The poem develops a feeling of empathy towards some of the different types of horses presented, encouraging the reader to see past labels of identity towards their character and experiences.

She had some horses.

She had horses who were bodies of sand.

She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.

She had horses who were skins of ocean water.

The Badger

by John Clare

‘The Badger’ by John Clare is a narrative poem that portrays the cruelty and danger that animals face in the natural world.

This is a poem that evokes a strong sense of empathy towards the badger. Clare's vivid descriptions of the badger's movements and behavior help readers connect with the animal on an emotional level.

When midnight comes a host of dogs and men

Go out and track the badger to his den,

And put a sack within the hole, and lie

Till the old grunting badger passes by.

The Fish

by Elizabeth Bishop

‘The Fish’ by Elizabeth Bishop is considered to be one of her best poems. In it, readers can find some clues about her personal life.

This poem displays empathy towards the fish as the speaker admires its beauty and strength, and ultimately decides to release it rather than kill it. The poem can be seen as a meditation on the value of empathy and compassion in our relationship with the natural world.

I caught a tremendous fish

and held him beside the boat

half out of water, with my hook

fast in a corner of his mouth.

He didn't fight.

The Flock

by Derek Walcott

‘The Flock’ is a poem that meditates on the cyclical nature of time and the passage of the seasons. Through vivid imagery and a somber tone, the poet reflects on the inevitability of winter’s end, the unchanging nature of the world, and his own place within this cycle of time.

This poem evokes a sense of empathy as it explores the themes of change, migration, and the passage of time, reflecting on the experiences of adapting and evolving in response to changing circumstances.

The grip of winter tightening, its thinned

volleys of blue-wing teal and mallard fly

from the longbows of reeds bent by the wind,

arrows of yearning for our different sky.

California Dreaming

by Charles Wright

‘California Dreaming’ by Charles Wright, written in 1983, is a poem about Wright’s departure from Laguna Beach, CA, where he lived for six years. In ‘California Dreaming,’ the poet-speaker describes how Californians are similar to another evolution of people from the East.

'California Dreaming' is an emotional lyric poem that reveals the poet's feelings of homesickness. As the poet describes his perceptions to invoke empathy in the audience, it is easy to see why he is so uncomfortable in California. He misses the places he knows best - a place like home. California, to him, is far too unlike his home to feel right.

We are not born yet, and everything’s crystal under our feet.

We are not brethren, we are not underlings.

We are another nation,

Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper

by Martín Espada

‘Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper’ contrasts two forms of labor and encourages the reader to consider the relationship between them.

The narrator appears to empathize with their younger self and others who worked in similar environments. Perhaps the benefit of hindsight allows them to realize that their conditions were not always safe and should have been improved.

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours

at a printing plant

that manufactured legal pads:

Who Said It Was Simple

by Audre Lorde

‘Who Said It Was Simple’ by Audre Lorde is a powerful poem about the inequalities in various civil rights movements during the poet’s lifetime.

The poet acknowledges the pain and grief caused by the oppression of Black men and women, as well as the loss of freedom and equality. This should evoke feelings of empathy in the reader.

There are so many roots to the tree of anger

that sometimes the branches shatter

before they bear.

O snail

by Kobayashi Issa

‘O snail’ by Kobayashi Issa is a well-known poem that celebrates nature while also inspiring readers to take their time to overcome great obstacles. 

This poem demonstrates the poet's deep empathy for all living beings. In 'O snail,' he encourages readers to view the world from the snail's perspective, cultivating a sense of understanding and compassion for creatures that may often go unnoticed or undervalued.

O snail,

climb Mt. Fuji,

but slowly, slowly

Autumn moonlight

by Matsuo Bashō

‘Autumn moonlight’ by Matsuo Bashō is a traditional haiku that’s beautiful written about the seasons. This translation was done by Robert Hass.

The image of the worm digging into the chestnut in 'Autumn moonlight' encourages the reader to put themselves in the worm's place, suggesting a sense of empathy for all living things. Matsuo Bashō's poetry often touches on the theme of empathy, encouraging the reader to cultivate a sense of compassion and understanding for others.

Autumn moonlight--

a worm digs silently

into the chestnut.

I Give You Thanks My God

by Bernard Dadié 

‘I Give You Thanks My God’ by Bernard Dadié describes the nature of blackness and the speaker’s gratitude for the strength to carry the world. 

Empathy is an important part of this piece. It's seen through the poet's understanding of other people's experiences and how he takes those dark and often depressing experiences and remakes them in a more optimistic light.

I give you thanks my God for having created me black

For having made of me

The total of all sorrows,

and set upon my head

The light of a candle

by Yosa Buson

‘The light of a candle’ by Yosa Buson captures a moment of beauty and symbolism in the everyday act of lighting a candle.

The transfer of the flame from one candle to another can also be seen as a symbol of empathy and connection between people as we share our light with others. The poet seems to possess an understanding of the world (and how things change as time passes) that is conveyed in the lines of this piece.

The light of a candle

is transferred to another candle—

spring twilight.

Taking Leave of a Friend

by Li Bai

Li Bai’s ‘Taking Leave of a Friend’ uses different literary techniques to convey the themes of transience, nature, longing, and friendship.

This poem evokes the emotion of empathy through its poignant portrayal of separation and loss. The speaker's farewell to their friend and the imagery of the drifting water grass and waving hands create a sense of shared experience with readers who have also experienced the pain of parting with a loved one.

Blue mountains lie beyond the north wall;

Round the city's eastern side flows the white water.

Here we part, friend, once forever.

You go ten thousand miles, drifting away

The Captive Dove

by Anne Brontë

‘The Captive Dove’ by Anne Brontë is a powerful example of her verse that reminds readers that all living things desire freedom.

The poet's speaker empathizes with the dove's suffering and encourages the reader to do the same. The use of language emphasizes the creature's emotions, ensuring that readers are able to connect to its life.
Poor restless dove, I pity thee; And when I hear thy plaintive moan, I mourn for thy captivity, And in thy woes forget mine own.  

You Can Have It

by Philip Levine

‘You Can Have It’ is a poem about a man’s loss of enthusiasm towards life and his desire to regain the things and people that made it more colorful. The poem conveys this message through the persona’s narrative, set in Detroit in the year 1948.

Levine, reflecting on the years working with his brother, says he recalled other men who had brothers like him. It is subtle, but that thought reveals empathy in Levine. He not only thinks about his condition but other people's conditions as well. This emotion, however, is not emphasized in the poem.

My brother comes home from work

and climbs the stairs to our room.

I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop

one by one. You can have it, he says.

I, the Poet

by Leonard Gorski

‘I, the Poet’ by Leonard Gorski is a thought-provoking and multi-layered free-verse poem that explores themes of identity, mortality, and the search for meaning in an often confusing and uncertain world. 

Through the use of vivid imagery and powerful language, the poem invites the reader to empathize with the struggles and uncertainties of the human experience and to seek connection and understanding with others.

I, the poet, wandering and amazed

Nailed by unhappiness to the wall

By age and poverty,

On which floor of stupidity or ignorance I dwell?

Twenty-One Love Poems XIII

by Adrienne Rich

‘Twenty-One Love Poems XIII’ by Adrienne Rich is a poem about same-sex relationships and how couples in them experience a new, uncharted love. 

Readers should walk away from this poem feeling empathy for the speaker and her companion who bravely step beyond the charted paths through life and find love together.

The rules break like a thermometer,

quicksilver spills across the charted systems,

we’re out in a country that has no language


by Hone Tuwhare

‘Monologue’ by Hone Tuwhare is a contemporary poem about the difficulties workers face when looking for a job and how temporary those jobs can be. 

When the speaker sees people walking into the factory, he tries to help them the best he can, demonstrating empathy. He knows what it's like to struggle for work and is therefore always going to be kind to those who are in a similar situation.

I like working near a door. I like to have my work-bench 

          close by, with a locker handy.

3 November 1984

by Sujata Bhatt

In ‘3 November 1984,’ Indian-English poet Sujata Bhatt shows how history plays a vital role in the process of writing poetry, and their interconnectedness.

A Different History

by Sujata Bhatt

‘A Different History’ by Sujata Bhatt is not a raging piece of protest, rather it teaches how to revisit one’s cultural past in a curious, sensible way.

A Picture of Otto

by Ted Hughes

‘A Picture of Otto’ by Ted Hughes is addressed to Sylvia Plath’s father, Otto. It contains Hughes’ disagreements about how he and Otto were depicted in Plath’s work.

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