Classic poems about long flowing locks and keepsakes selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poets and hair: now that would make for an interesting literary study. There’s Lord Byron, of course, who, when he received requests from admiring young women for a lock of his hair, would send them some hair snipped from his dog. But many poets (Byron included) have written poems in praise of hair, or about the beauty of hair. Here are ten of the best poems on a hairy theme.
Gwerful Mechain, Cywydd y Cedor (‘Ode to Pubic Hair’). We begin our rundown of the greatest hair poems in fifteenth-century Wales: Gwerful Mechain was a Welsh-language poet who, after the eighteenth-century Ann Griffiths, is probably the most famous female poet to have written in the Welsh language. In this poem, as the blog Rejected Princesses summarises it, ‘she criticizes men for praising the other parts of a woman’s body, but not the genitalia. She declares herself “of great noble stock,” urges poets to “let songs about the quim circulate,” and ends by saying “lovely bush, God save it.”’ What more incentive do you need to read on?
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 68. Sometimes known as Shakespeare’s ‘wig sonnet’, this poem has been described by the poet Don Paterson in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets as ‘a tirade against wigs, by a baldie’, who goes on to note, ‘as much as some commentators would prefer it were otherwise, this is mainly a poem about wigs.’ In this sonnet, Shakespeare praises the Fair Youth’s beauty – and his fair hair – for its authenticity, harking back to a time before dead people’s hair was snipped off and plonked on the bald heads of the living.
Richard Lovelace, ‘Song to Amarantha, That She Would Dishevel Her Hair’. Lovelace (1617-57) was one of the best Cavalier poets, who flourished during the mid-seventeenth century during the English Civil War. This seduction poem, like the poetry of Robert Herrick, suggests sexual excitement with its talk of dishevelment and disorder – here, the dishevelling is centred on the hair. It’s probably best known for the penultimate stanza: ‘Here we’ll strip and cool our fire / In cream below, in milk-baths higher: / And when all wells are drawn dry, / I’ll drink a tear out of thine eye.’
William Cowper, ‘Apology to Delia, for Desiring a Lock of Her Hair’. The title of this poem gives a pretty clear idea of what it’s about, so we’ll offer no further spoilers here. Cowper (1731-1800) is best-known for his collaboration with John Newton on the Olney Hymns in Buckinghamshire and for his religious poem ‘The Castaway’, but this poem shows that he could also write pastoral love poetry too (of a sort).
Sir Walter Scott, ‘To a Lock of Hair’. ‘Thy hue, dear pledge, is pure and bright / As in that well-remember’d night / When first thy mystic braid was wove, / And first my Agnes whisper’d love.’ But Agnes is no more; and the speaker of this poem can only clutch his departed lover’s lock of hair to his chest and mourn what might have been…
John Keats, ‘Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair’. Another poem about a lock of hair, although this time John Keats follows Wordsworth’s lead in eulogising Milton. Written in 1818, this poem isn’t well-known – it’s hard to find a copy online – so we’ve reproduced it in full below:
Chief of organic Numbers!
Old Scholar of the Spheres!
Thy spirit never slumbers,
But rolls about our ears
For ever and for ever.
O, what a mad endeavour
Who, to thy sacred and ennobled hearse,
Would offer a burnt sacrifice of verse
How heavenward thou soundedst
Live Temple of sweet noise;
And discord unconfoundedst:
Giving delight new joys,
And Pleasure nobler pinions
O where are thy Dominions!
Lend thine ear
To a young delian oath aye, by thy soul,
By all that from thy mortal Lips did roll;
And by the Kernel of thine earthly Love,
Beauty, in things on earth and things above,
When every childish fashion
Has vanish’d from my rhyme
Will I grey-gone in passion
Give to an after-time
Hymning and harmony
Of thee, and of thy Words and of thy Life:
But vain is now the bruning and the strife
Pangs are in vain until I grow high-rife
With Old Philosophy
And mad with glimpses at futurity!
For many years my offerings must be hush’d:
When I do speak I’ll think upon this hour,
Because I feel my forehead hot and flush’d,
Even at the simplest vassal of thy Power,
A Lock of thy bright hair!
Sudden it came,
And I was startled when I heard thy name
Coupled so unaware
Yet, at the moment, temperate was my blood:
Methought I had beheld it from the flood.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘I never gave a lock of hair away’. This sonnet is taken from Barrett Browning’s sonnet sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) – ‘from the Portuguese’ not because they were translated from that language (they were original poems) but because ‘Portuguese’ was Robert Browning’s pet name for his wife. This poem, Sonnet 18 from the sequence, concerns Barrett Browning’s love for Robert, and begins: ‘I never gave a lock of hair away / To a man, Dearest, except this to thee’.
Charles Baudelaire, ‘Her Hair’. A love poem with a difference, ‘Her Hair’ opens (in the English translation) with the exultant line, ‘O fleece, that down the neck waves to the nape!’ What follows is a celebration of the hair of the poet’s mistress, which is objectified in sensual terms.
W. B. Yeats, ‘For Anne Gregory’. The speaker of this poem tells Anne that she is doomed to be loved for her yellow hair rather than for her charming personality or overall beauty: her hair is a sort of curse. Anne finds this prospect so terrible that she threatens to dye her hair, so it doesn’t possess its yellow allure any more.
Philip Larkin, ‘Waiting for Breakfast, While She Brushed Her Hair’. This is an early Larkin poem, written in the 1940s while he was in his mid-twenties and developing his own voice (having been heavily influenced by Yeats and Auden in his early twenties). And the poem is, in a sense, about poetry – or rather, about the tension, as Larkin seems to see it, between love and art. Can one live with the poetic muse and be in a romantically satisfying relationship? The female companion brushing her hair in the background of the poem ‘tips the balance to love’, but Larkin knows that such romantic fulfilment may spell the death of his creativity…
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, via Wikimedia Commons.