The heart’s desire is full of sleep,
For men who have their will
Have gained a good they cannot keep,
And must go down the hill
Not questioning the seas and skies,
Not questioning the years;
For life itself has closed their eyes,
And life has stopped their ears.
But some, true emperors of desire,
True heirs to all regret,
Strangers and pilgrims, still enquire
For what they never get;
For what they know is not on earth
They seek until they find;
The children hopeful in their mirth,
The old but part resigned.
And though they cannot see love’s face
They tread his former track;
They know him by his empty place,
They know him by their lack.
I seek the company of such,
I wear that worn attire;
For I am one who has had much,
But not the heart’s desire.
About this poem
Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.
Helena Nelson on 'The Heart's Desire is Full of Sleep':
I've just been reading Don Paterson's latest book of aphorisms, The Blind Eye. Here's one I like:
"What have the poets lost now they no longer have their mnemonics? The respect they used to arrogate to themselves through the specific threat: Would you like me to put something in your head that you can't get out again?"
Ruth Pitter's poem 'The Heart's Desire is Full of Sleep' (first included in Still by Choice, 1966) put itself into my head when I first read it and has been bouncing about there ever since. Pitter is intensely memorable. She can get lines into your head against your will. This I take to be the mnemonic 'threat' to which Paterson wryly refers. When I meet unhappy or regretful people, the words that always come to me are "For I am one who has had much, / But not the heart's desire." On sad days, I even think these words about myself.
The words were also autobiographically true. In an unpublished conversation with Thomas McKean, remembering her youth from the detachment of her nineties, Ruth Pitter said, "One sometimes got very fond of people, you know. I was in love many times, but I never found my one true love. Oh dear."
I've been thinking about her 'heart's desire' poem for decades, half-understanding it, never quite fully grasping it. I love a poem I trust but don't fully understand. That opening line, for example: "The heart's desire is full of sleep"—what can that mean? It is eerily strange. I associate the "sleep" with death, either literally or metaphorically. But we don't normally connect the heart's desire with that. Unless, of course, it's in a context where death comes first and paradise swiftly follows.
Ruth Pitter had a strong Christian faith. In the second part of the poem where she personifies love—"And though they cannot see love's face / They tread his former track"—I feel sure she has Christ in mind.
But I'm not a Christian, and I don't think the poem is just about that either, although I do think it's an element. The concluding two lines, the ones that stick most doggedly, are about a very personal lack of fulfilment: "I am one who has had much, / But not the heart's desire."
And now that takes me back to the start of the poem where attainment of desire seems not all that great a thing really. Having your eyes and ears "stopped"—who would want that? "Not questioning the years"—doesn't that sound like a rather undesirable state? I think Pitter is suggesting (even though she aches as she suggests it) that her lack of fulfilment is what has kept her searching and questioning—even, perhaps, that this is the impulse behind her poems.
The term "emperor of desire" sounds like an accolade to me. "True heirs to all regret" is a marvellous line too—an heir inherits riches—and the word 'true' belongs in every sense to what is going on here. And how marvellous that is: to create a sense of poignant loss in the midst of beauty. The sounds of the words sigh in melody—just listen to the way the breath exhales in skies, years, eyes, ears, desire, heirs, enquire …
Ruth Pitter said "a real poem, however simple its immediate content, begins and ends in mystery." Poetry that is searching out its own meaning, poetry that worms its way into your head so that you, too, have to search out its meaning—that's what I love. And I love this poem.
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