In this week’s Dispatches indigenous The an enig Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the definition and beginning of a popular proverb

‘Better to have loved and also lost than never to have loved at all.’ It’s come to be a proverb, and also proverbs are, usually, authorless.

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Actually, that’s no really true. Back ‘a stitch over time saves nine’ or ‘if you desire to sup through the Devil, you’d much better have a long spoon’ room attributed come that most prolific that authors, ‘Anon.’, plenty of other proverbial pearl of wisdom do have a clear and recognisable author. ‘Procrastination is the thief the time’ us owe come Edward Young, the eighteenth-century writer of the lengthy meditative city Night Thoughts. And also ‘Love conquers all’ appeared in the functions of the roman poet, Virgil.

And ‘better to have actually loved and lost than never ever to have actually loved in ~ all’ is one of those proverbs which definitely have an writer we can allude to. In this case, maybe surprisingly, us only need to go back to the mid-nineteenth century to discover its origins. Because that this quotation to be penned by the most famed English poet of the victor era, Alfred, lord Tennyson (1809-92).


One of Tennyson’s most ambitious poems, and also one the his most celebrated, is a long elegy he composed for the fatality of a girlfriend he knew indigenous his college student days in ~ Cambridge. In Memoriam A. H. H. is divided into 133 cantos – much shorter lyric poems – which, collectively, consist of one lengthy elegy for Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly the a mind haemorrhage in 1833, aged just 22.

Tennyson, himself only in his at an early stage twenties as soon as Hallam died, to be inconsolable: his grief for his near friend inspired a number of poems Tennyson wrote, particularly in the 1830s, yet the many ambitious the these was In Memoriam, which he functioned on for sixteen years in between 1833 and 1849. The was released in 1850, the year Tennyson became UK Poet Laureate complying with the fatality of Wordsworth.


Every elegy is a balance of personal grief and also public mourning, and In Memoriam reveals the complicated interrelationship between the two more plainly than many elegies. Transparent the poem, we view Tennyson evaluating some personal memory – a visit come Hallam’s childhood home, or something his friend when said to him – and also then functioning outwards from the to offer some universally applicable truth about death, grief, and love.

Yes, love. For it’s clear that Tennyson love Hallam dearly – whether simply as a nearby friend, or together something more, has been the subject of speculation ever before since. Yet love is clearly an crucial theme that In Memoriam.


And it’s in Canto XXVII that In Memoriam that we discover the native ‘’tis far better to have actually loved and lost than never ever to have loved in ~ all’:

I envy no in any type of moodsThe captive void that noble rage,The linnet born within the cage,That never knew the summer woods:


I envy not the beast that takesHis licence in the field of time,Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,To who a conscience never wakes;

Nor, what may count itself as blest,The love that never ever plighted trothBut stagnates in the weeds that sloth;Nor any type of want-begotten rest.


I organize it true, whate’er befall;I feeling it, when I sorrow most:’Tis better to have loved and lostThan never ever to have loved at all.

So although love someone and losing lock is heart-breaking, never having actually known love is worse.


But favor so numerous proverbs, over there is a counterpoint to together a sentiment: what you never had, you never miss’. The example usually given is blindness: someone who has never recognized what the is to have sight cannot miss the gift of vision, at the very least not in the method we usually know ‘missing’ something. Couple of people would more than likely unequivocally expropriate the wisdom that a proverb that said ‘’tis better to have seen and also lost your vision than never ever to have seen at all’. Together a declare would, at the an extremely least, be questionable.

Other proverbs often have a counter-proverb i beg your pardon cuts across the wisdom castle supposedly impart: ‘look before you leap’ advises caution, while ‘he who hesitates is lost’ counsels hasty action as the most effective course. So what around ‘’tis much better to have actually loved and lost than never ever to have loved in ~ all’?


This seems to be different since of our conception the ‘love’: as something we give to another, something that goes beyond ourselves, something the enriches our resides but likewise our personalities, having had to put someone rather ahead that ourselves, or at least (arguably, in the instance of true love) top top a par through ourselves.

The spirit that has never known love is smaller, a slighter and also meaner thing than one which has actually loved, even if the object of the love has since been taken indigenous us. In other words, i think Tennyson’s words nothing just deal with the nice memories that having actually loved administer us with: they speak to a depth truth around love, and loving another, and the services it imparts come our experience of life, and our expertise of ourselves.


The idea the ‘loving and also losing’ is found elsewhere in Tennyson’s lengthy poem. Indeed, In Memoriam opens with a reference to having ‘loved and lost’. Canto ns reads:

I organized it truth, v him who singsTo one clear harp in divers tones,That men may rise on stepping-stonesOf their dead selves to greater things.

But who shall so forecast the yearsAnd find in lose a get to match?Or with a hand thro’ time to catchThe distant interest the tears?

Let love clasp grief lest both it is in drown’d.Let darkness save her raven gloss:Ah, sweeter to it is in drunk v loss,To dance v Death, come beat the ground,

Than the the victor hours should scornThe long result of love, and boast,‘Behold the man that loved and lost,But all he was is overworn.’

This canto frames and also introduces the poem that will certainly follow, and shows the love and grief are closely intertwined emotions: us grieve those whom we loved, and also whom we have lost. But this opened canto also shows Tennyson’s desire and determination come use his suffer of having actually loved and lost come create an excellent art that will speak to various other lovers and also friends who will grieve the losses of those lock loved.

Viewed this way, ‘’Tis much better to have loved and also lost / Than never to have actually loved in ~ all’ may also stand in as a two-line summary for the city as a whole: Tennyson does indeed emerge, in ~ the end of his lengthy examination that his own loss, a far better man who have the right to celebrate Hallam’s memory and the brief time he knew him prior to Hallam’s untimely death.

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Curiously, although Tennyson to be the an initial to use the precise wording the the emotion as it is now known (‘’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’), the idea behind the quotation, as is so often the case with a an excellent proverb, is older. In his 1700 play The method of the World, wilhelm Congreve has actually a character assert, ‘Say what girlfriend will, ’tis much better to it is in left than never to have actually loved.’ and also Mary Wollstonecraft, in she 1792 book A Vindication the the civil liberties of Woman, wrote, ‘It is far better to be often deceived than never ever to trust; to be disappointed in love, than never to love.’ (Thanks to Daedalus Rex in the comments below for illustration my attention to the Wollstonecraft.)

Oliver Tearle is the author of The an enig Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey with Curiosities that History

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, accessible now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a lengthy poem about the occasions of 2020.