12 Famous Tragic/ Melodramatic Poems

The term melodrama refers to a dramatic work which exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions.  For this reason, melodramatic poetry tends to be especially beloved by teenagers and women in the throes of bad romantic relationships.  This is somewhat unfair, however, as most of the poems listed below are wholly satisfying as both stories and examples of verse.  Read them and see if you don't agree.

  1. The Wreck of the Hesperus, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  This thoroughly melodramatic narrative poem relates the story of a ship wrecked in a storm.  Alas, the skipper of the vessel is too proud to heed the warnings of the Crusty Old Sailor, who sagely advises him to "Put into yonder port/for I fear a hurricane."  Not only does the skipper laugh scornfully, but he decides to take his beautiful young daughter along as well.  (Hubris, anyone?)  Note to skipper: Everyone knows you ignore the advice of Crusty Old Sailors at your peril! 
  2. The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes.  You have to appreciate the way-over-the-top pathos of this tale of a lass awaiting the return of her dashing lover who, alas, also happens to be a ruthless highwayman with a price on his head.  (Some women just can't resist the bad boys, can they?)  Every time I read the poem I keep hoping that she's going to shout "Hey, the soldiers are coming to get you!" (or words to that effect) rather than killing herself.  But she never does. 
  3. Annabelle Lee, Edgar Allen Poe.  This deservedly famous poem is so romantic and tragic that has been known to reduce whole middle school classes to sniffling tears.  Supposedly a semi-autobiographic account of the untimely death of Poe's own young wife of tuberculosis, the story may draw you in, but it's the gorgeous language (that assonance! that consonance! that alliteration!) that will keep you reaching for the box of tissues.   
  4. O Captain! My Captain!, Walt Whitman. Yes, it's that poem from the movie Dead Poet's Society.  More to the point, it's a tribute to Abraham Lincoln penned shortly after his assassination, and it works as an eloquently affecting paeon or homage to anyone who you have admired or looked up to. I dare you to read it aloud and not get at least a little teary. 
  5. The Ballad of John Henry, author unknown.  Some say John Henry's a folktale, others argue that the legend stems from the feats of a real man, possibly a slave who worked laying down railroad track in the late 1800s.  Whatever the origin, the basic story is always the same, as is the outcome: John Henry challenges a steam drill to a contest, wins, but dies of exhaustion promptly afterwards, his life cut short by his superhuman effort.  One of a long, long lineage of literary ludditia (think Terminator I, II, III and/or IV) devoted to the contention that technology is soulless and evil. 
  6. Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink." Before it became a metaphor for pretty much everything, this was one of a great many affecting lines in this tale of ship doomed to slow death.  And in case you weren't paying attention earlier: always heed the advice of Crusty Old Sailors!
  7. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde.  Oscar Wilde took as his inspiration for this long, georgeously tragic ode the true story of a man who was hanged for the murder of his wife.  Many, many dazzling stanzas, the most famous of which is surely Wilde's haunting lament, repeated several times: "Yet each man kills the thing he loves,/By each let this be heard,/Some do it with a bitter look,/Some with a flattering word,/The coward does it with a kiss,/The brave man with a sword."
  8. Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Out flew the web and floated wide;/The mirror cracked from side to side;/'The curse has come upon me!' cried/The Lady of Shalott."  Making the eponymous Lady of Shallot neither the first nor the last maiden to be lured to her doom by the charms of that chivalric rogue, Sir Lancelot.  (Some men just can't keep it in their fauld, if you know what I mean ....)
  9. Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Lord Tennyson. If you like your tragedy served up with a side of valor, you can't do better than this ode to the disastrous charge of British cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War: "Theirs not to make reply;/Theirs not reason why;/Theirs but to do or die:/Into the valley of Death."  (It's the "into the valley of Death" part that chokes me up every time.)
  10. The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe.  On the other hand, if you like your tragedy served up with a side of creepy, Poe's The Raven is just the ticket, combining a dark and story night, the recent death of the narrator's true love, a perseverating raven, and a meter/rhyme scheme that would make a rap star swoon into one truly eerie tale.  Definitely don't read this one in the dark.
  11. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot.  Doesn't get much more tragic or melodramatic than this true tale of the sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior.  By all means read the lyrics, but you'll want to listen to the song that goes with the lyrics to fully appreciate the gleefully unapologetic pathos of the tale.

  12. Bonnie Barbara Allen, author unknown. And finally, the grand-daddy of them all, a ballad that for the past 300 years has reminded us to be careful what we say to the people we love, lest they are taken away from us before we have a chance to repent of the cruel things we say.  All the more tragic and melodramatic because it's true.

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