What are the sexiest poems in English literature? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Love’ and ‘poetry’ go together naturally, but what about sex and poetry? In this post, we’ve tasked ourselves with compiling ten of the most erotic seduction poems in all of English(-language) literature. We hope you enjoy these sexy poems…
Anonymous, ‘Whan the turuf is thy tour’. We begin, perhaps unpromisingly, on a morbid note with this brief medieval lyric. This medieval poem is a memento mori lyric reminding the listener or reader that s/he will die. The title, ‘Whan the turuf is thy tour’, translates into modern English as ‘when the turf is your tower’. Yet the sentiment expressed in the poem is clearly seductive: when the grass lies over you, your skin and white throat shall (‘Shullen’) be good for worms. What use then are all the world’s pleasures? We’re guessing this was an early seduction lyric addressed to a woman (‘thy whitë throtë’): the poet is basically trying to persuade the woman to go to bed with him, before her beauty fades and both she and her would-be lover are in the ground.
John Donne, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’. Donne wrote several great poems of seduction, so unusually for a list of best poems, we’ve allowed him two poems on this list. Also titled ‘Elegy XIX’, ‘To His Mistris Going to Bed’ (as it was originally spelt) is another seduction poem, in which a naked Donne undresses his mistress verbally, one item of clothing at a time. Donne concludes ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ by leading by example: ‘Look, to show you how it’s done, I’ll take off my clothes first. See? And why would you need to have more covering than a man?’
Robert Herrick, ‘Delight in Disorder’. Clothes worn in a state of dishevelment have a certain charm – indeed, more so than when they are simply worn in a state of perfect precision: that is the basic ‘argument’ of this short classic Herrick poem. So a cuff worn round the wrist that lets ribbons flow out from it in confusion, and a stray ‘wave’ or ripple in a petticoat, and a shoelace that is tied in a haphazard fashion: these all ‘bewitch’ the poet, or pique his attention, more powerfully than clothes worn in a more straight-laced and conventional manner.
Richard Lovelace, ‘Song to Amarantha, That She Would Dishevel Her Hair’. Lovelace (1617-57) was, along with Herrick, one of the greatest of the 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.’
Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’. As well as being one of the greatest carpe diem poems in all of English literature, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is also a celebrated example of the seduction lyric. Marvell is attempting to woo his mistress, to persuade her to go to bed with him, by pointing out that the grave beckons and they’ll be in it sooner than she realises. Marvell probably wrote this poem just after the English Civil War, when tens of thousands of British men lost their lives, so one can understand his urgency.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. This is perhaps Whitman’s best-known poem, and also featured in the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. It does what its title (added later) announces, with Whitman writing about his own body and its various components – but concluding that these are also part of his soul, since soul and body are one. Whitman praises the female body and its ability to inspire erotic thoughts. The male body, Whitman argues, is similar to the female body.
Amy Lowell, ‘Aubade’. This short poem by one of American literature’s greatest Imagists is wonderfully erotic but also touching in its directness: ‘As I would free the white almond from the green husk / So I would strip your trappings off, / Beloved…’
William Carlos Williams, ‘Arrival’. This brief erotic lyric by one of American poetry’s great proponents of the Imagist method is about a man undressing a woman, but look at the way Williams describes this simple act. The fact that the man ‘finds himself’ doing such a thing, as if he is acting not entirely of his own free will or against the odds, adds to this short poem’s power to arouse our curiosity (and our arousal?).
H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), ‘Oread’. Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who published under the initials H. D., was once described as ‘the perfect Imagist’, and embodied the key tenets and manifesto of the short-lived Imagist movement in poetry. An Oread is a nymph of the mountains and valleys, and in this short masterpiece by H. D. the Oread is the speaker of the poem, romantically (erotically?) inviting the sea to ‘whirl up’ and wash over the mountains and rocks.
E. E. Cummings, ‘Lady, I Will Touch You with My Mind’. Cummings (we’ll not stoop so low as to make play with the sexual potential of his surname – although perhaps we just have) wrote some of the greatest erotic poems of the entire twentieth century, all composed in his distinctive style. This is our pick of his superb erotic poems – a short and wonderfully sensual poem.
For more classic poetry, see these very short romantic poems, these poems about seizing the day, and these short poems by women. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
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: Les Oréades by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), via Wikimedia Commons.