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Friendship in poetry - a reading list

How do we view friendship? And how have writers throughout the ages described that unconditional bond of trust in poems and literature? It's Poetry Week! And you guessed it; this year's theme is 'Friendship'. For this reading list, we went through our collections in search of the many ways friendship has been experienced, in different times and across borders. From the friendship between figures of classical antiquity and the stern and pure friendship of Ida Gerhardt, to a Russian drinking song and the farewell of a friend in 8th-century China.

These titles represent just a small selection of the many books of poetry and other literature that Leiden University Libraries (UBL) own that have something to do with friendship. You can borrow a book from the list by following the link under the title, but you should also search our Catalogue for a poet, collection or genre of poetry. There is so much beautiful poetry to discover, both in original form and in translation.

Is the best poem or book about poetry not on this list? Send us a suggestion via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

A. Bloom, Love and Friendship


Love and Friendship is based on the lives and writings of the ancient authors who influenced our modern times, while it laments the death of Eros today. Bloom seeks to restore long forgotten conceptions of the Greek god of desire by returning to philosophy and literature, offering insights from Montaigne and Shakespeare on friendship, a wonderful commentary on Rousseau's Emile, and a splendid essay on Plato's Symposium. Bloom aims for his readers, whom are all lovers and friends alike, to aspire to things higher than themselves and to seek out the best in others, as any friend should do.

Horatius, Odes and epodes (Translated by Nial Rudd)


Friendship plays a key role in the work of the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC). Above all, he cherished his friendship with Maecenas, his patron who endowed him both materially and emotionally. The close relationship between the two men is symbolized in the above segment of Horace's Odes, in which he states his intent to follow Maecenas even into death.

Ironically, it is a promise he managed to keep – since the biographer Suetonius records that the poet just 59 days after his dear amicus. Their friendship flourished during turbulent political times: the devastating Civil Wars which pitted Roman against Roman, culminating in the rise of the first emperor Augustus. It was in these decades of civil discord that Horace urged his amici repeatedly to refrain from martial violence and enjoy friendship in peace again. At the end of the conflict, during the all-deciding battle of Actium (September 2nd, 31 BC) against the illustrious but tragic love duo Antony and Cleopatra, he asked Maecenas

‘When will I, joyous in Caesar’s triumph/drink the Caecuban [wine] saved for festive/banquets with you inside your lofty home?’ (Epodes 9). 

Roman culture valued friendship highly, much like modern Western culture has long revered romantic relationships, with friends being considered two halves of the same soul (alter ego). Despite being his financial sponsor, Maecenas did genuinely reciprocate the affection shown towards him by his friend:

‘If that I do not love you, my own Horace, more than life itself, behold your comrade scraggier than a rag doll’.
(Suetonius, Vita Horati; translation J.C. Rolfe)

D. Roby & M.E. Laker, Spiritual Friendship (Author: Aelred of Rievaulx)


Aelred van Rievaulx was a 12th century English monk. He was raised in the court of the Scottish King David I and had good prospects for a fine secular career, but chose the monastery and became a Cistercian monk. His monastery Rievaulx was part of the monastic reform movement that originated in Cluny, France. In 1147 he became abbot and the first part of this book dates from that period.

For De Amicitia, Aelred was inspired by Cicero's dialogue on friendship Laelius. He follows Cicero on many points, but adapts the argument to his own time and to his monastic environment.

Cicero held such a high view of friendship that in all history he recognised only three or four pairs of true friends. Aelred sets the bar just as high, but states that in his time, that standard is met more often. Friendship was, according to him, something divine, which gave Christians an advantage over pagans such as Achilleus and Patroclos or Orestes and Pylades. Dying for another as the highest proof of friendship also occurs with Aelred. As proof, of course, he offered a passage from the gospel:

'Christ himself set a certain object for friendship: Greater love hath no man than he who lays down his life for his friends.' (John 15:13)

At other times, classical and Christian norms are less easy to reconcile. This is when Aelred comes to surprising conclusions. In his eyes, friendship is higher, much rarer and more exclusive than love. After all, faith teaches him to love everyone, even his enemies, but friendship is only reserved for like-minded souls.

Ida Gerhardt, Kosmos: gedichten


The word 'epicurism', derived from the name of the Athenian philosopher Epicurus (341 - 270 BC), usually refers to a self-indulgent attitude to life. Yet Epicurus's surviving letters sketch a completely different ideal, in which friendship, peace of mind and austerity predominate. The above poem by Ida Gerhart beautifully reflects that severity and purity. Gerhardt was reportedly not easy to get along with, but maintained a number of intense friendships, of which the one with her teacher Leopold (who translated Epicurus) was of great importance to her carreer as a poet. Gerhardt was also familiar with friendship in a club context, described in this poem. For example in the Christian-Socialist 'Workers' Community of the Woodbrookers', with the Soroptimists and, during the short time she studied in Leiden, with the Association of Female Students in Leiden (VVSL). The distichon that she wrote much later for the VVSL building at Rapenburg 65 can still be seen there. It breathes the same Epicurean atmosphere:

Hier was het: ons huis, onze staat. 
En ons werk. Dat onvervaard verder gaat.

Denis Davydov, Гусарский пир or Hussar's Feast


In a completely different vein, all but delicate and hushed, are the friendships that are celebrated in the poems of the Russian hussar and poet Denis Davydov (1784-1839). He earned glory as a partisan, fighting behind enemy lines against Napoleon's Grande Armée. His drinking songs sing the praises of military friendship full of liquor, tabacco and noise, like the above example Гусарский пир (Hussar's feast) in the Dutch translation of Kees Jiskoot.

This clip from the film Эскадрон гусар летучих (Squadron of flying hussars, 1980) Alexander Khochinsky sings a fragment of this poem, while actor Andrej Rostotsky, who plays Davydov, mimes the words.

Yu Li, Xianhao Yu, Li Taibai quan ji jiao zhu (第1版) 


The legendary 8th-century Chinese poet Li Bai traveled all over China. It is estimated that he lived from 701 to 762 during the Tang dynasty. After several unsuccessful attempts to gain positions at the Chinese court, Li Bai was finally appointed court poet to Lin, the sixteenth son of the then emperor, in the year 756. He did not hold this position for long either. The prince was charged with high treason and executed while Li Bai was imprisoned and later exiled. During his tragic life, Li Bai encountered many moments of parting, traveling alone or in company.
His poems betray a romantic and almost melangolic view of life. Themes include loneliness, the passing of time, nature, and of course friendship. All these are reflected in the above poem. We are taken to a moment of farewell, on the road, in nature. The tragedy of his life and his fondness for nature may also explain a popular story about his death. He is said to have drowned in the river after drinking a little bit too much wine when he tried to catch the moon's reflection.

English translation: E. Pound, The translations of Ezra Pound, (1963).

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Is a book missing from this list or would you like the UBL to add a book or collection of poetry to the collection? Please contact our subject references via Ask a Librarian.

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