Are these English literature’s greatest poems about eyes and sight? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The poet sees many things which the rest of us miss, and we might even offer one definition of ‘poet’ as ‘someone who takes the unremarkable and everyday and shows its deeper meaning to us’. It’s only an approximation of what the poet does, although it’s applicable to many of the greatest writers of poetry down the ages. And some of the greatest poets in English literature have written about the importance and power of eyes, and what it means to have – or not have – the gift of sight. Here are five of the best ‘eye poems’.
Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 99 from Astrophil and Stella.
When far spent night persuades each mortal eye,
To whom nor art nor nature granteth light,
To lay his then mark-wanting shafts of sight,
Closed with their quivers, in sleep’s armoury;
With windows ope then most my mind doth lie,
Viewing the shape of darkness and delight,
Takes in that sad hue, which with the inward night
Of his mazed powers keeps perfect harmony …
Beginning ‘When far-spent night persuades each mortal eye’, this poem seems like a good pick to kick off our selection of the best eye-poems. Our eyes are like arrows, darting a look here and there; but what do we do at night when it’s dark? Sleep, of course. But not so for Sidney, or rather Astrophil: his eyes are wide open, like windows letting the darkness in – that external darkness which so neatly chimes with the ‘inward night’ of his mind, thanks to his hopeless love for Stella. Look out for the masterly use of ‘i’ sounds at the end of each line of this sonnet, suggesting the eye/night theme of the poem.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 46.
Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right …
So begins this sonnet, in which the Bard argues that his eyes and his heart are engaged in a fight to the death, over who should own the image of his beloved. The conclusion? That the poet’s eyes own his beloved’s outward visible appearance, while his heart has rights over what’s inside – the beloved’s inward heart, if you will.
Ben Jonson, ‘Song: To Celia’.
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine …
Beginning ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’, this is one of Ben Jonson’s most famous ‘song’ poems – probably the most famous. We wouldn’t recommend attempting to drink literally with your eyes, but Jonson’s extended drinking metaphor here brilliantly evokes the notion of two lovers being satisfied with each other’s beauty.
John Milton, ‘On His Blindness’.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account …
No list of classic poems about eyes would be complete without a poem that contemplates what it is like not to have your sight taken away, and it was an experience that one of England’s greatest poets, John Milton, knew only too well, having lost his sight in his forties (he became completely blind in the early 1650s, and dictated his masterpiece, Paradise Lost). Although losing his sight will rob Milton of being able to do many things, he comes to realise that he can still serve God and be of use if he ‘stand[s] and wait[s]’.
A. E. Housman, ‘Look not in my eyes, for fear’.
Look not in my eyes, for fear
Thy mirror true the sight I see,
And there you find your face too clear
And love it and be lost like me.
One the long nights through must lie
Spent in star-defeated sighs,
But why should you as well as I
Perish? gaze not in my eyes …
If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then be careful. A. E. Housman wrote beautifully about being in love, but love is seldom a happy thing in his poetry: it leads to misery, heartbreak, and death. Here, too, love spills over into self-love: the Shropshire Lad, Housman’s alter ego, tells his lover not to look in his eyes, because he has looked in his beloved’s eyes … and fallen in love with the reflection of himself he finds there, as Narcissus fell in love with his own image.
For more classic poetry, 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, and list the best books for the poetry student here). You might also enjoy these poems about hair, these seduction poems, and these poems about unrequited love.
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.