Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously we’ve offered short and sweet love poems, poems about unrequited love, poems for weddings, and even seduction poems. Now, it’s time to consider ‘desire’ in poetry in all its forms, from erotic and romantic desire to the theme of ‘wants’ and longings more broadly. Here are ten of the very best poems about desire of all kinds.
Edmund Spenser, ‘My Love Is Like to Ice, and I to Fire’. Taken from Edmund Spenser’s 1590s sonnet sequence Amoretti, this poem opens with a paradox: how come the poet’s fiery desire for his ice-cold beloved doesn’t thaw her coldness, but actually makes her even icier and more standoffish? Similarly, how come her coldness doesn’t cool his fire? Of course, Spenser, one of the greatest sonnet writers of the Elizabethan age, puts it far better than this:
My Love is like to ice, and I to fire:
How comes it then that this her cold so great
Is not dissolved through my so hot desire,
But harder grows the more I her entreat …
A wonderful meditation on the nature of romantic desire.
Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Who Will in Book of Fairest Nature Know’.
Who will in fairest book of Nature know
How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show …
Another poem by a great Elizabethan sonneteer: perhaps the greatest, even ahead of Shakespeare (to risk sacrilege for a moment). Written in the early 1580s, this poem forms part of Astrophil and Stella, the first long sonnet sequence written in English. Beauty is meant to lead us to virtue, according to Renaissance ideas of virtue, Sidney tells us. Anyone who wants to know where in nature you can observe beauty and virtue together should look at the woman named Stella, for the lines of her figure reveal what true virtue and decency are. But then, in the final line, we get a classic Sidney twist: into this Edenic world of beauty and virtue, Desire (personified, and suggesting lust and baser drives) is heard to cry out for satisfaction: ‘Give me some food.’ No matter how much we promise to be good, desire will always leave us wanting what we cannot have…
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 45.
The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide …
Since we mentioned Shakespeare above, it would be churlish not to include one of his great sonnets about desire. Here, the two classical elements air and fire stand in for thought and desire respectively, contending with each other for supremacy in the poet. In other words, long before R. Kelly, Shakespeare was saying that his mind’s telling him no, but his body’s telling him yes…
John Donne, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’.
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing …
This poem has been called the greatest verbal striptease in English verse. John Donne (1572-1631) encourages his lover to undress for him, in one of the most deeply erotic love poems (‘lust poems’?) in the English language, and one of the best poems about desire, because of the clever use of imagery and the masterly way that Donne rhetorically overturns received attitudes to love and desire.
William Cowper, ‘Submission’. After all those poems about bodily desires, how about something a bit more spiritual? William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote the lyrics to the Olney Hymns, for the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire (just north of the new town of Milton Keynes). In this hymn, Cowper asks the Lord to fulfil his greatest desire by cleansing him of all other desires except his desire to please God and His will:
O Lord, my best desire fulfil,
And help me to resign
Life, health, and comfort to Thy will,
And make Thy pleasure mine …
Emily Dickinson, ‘Who never wanted – maddest Joy’.
Within its reach, though yet ungrasped
Desire’s perfect Goal —
No nearer — lest the Actual —
Should disentrall thy soul …
In this short poem, Dickinson (1830-86) offers a cryptic take on the nature of desire and wanting.
A. E. Housman, ‘Others, I am not the first’.
More than I, if truth were told,
Have stood and sweated hot and cold,
And through their reins in ice and fire
Fear contended with desire.
Agued once like me were they,
But I like them shall win my way
Lastly to the bed of mould
Where there’s neither heat nor cold …
Long before George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones, as we’ve already seen, Edmund Spenser was writing about the conflict between ice and fire. A. E. Housman (1859-1936), too, wrote about ice and fire fighting it out within the individual, concluding that death is the one guaranteed release from this fight.
C. P. Cavafy, ‘Desires’. Cavafy (1863-1933) remains the most famous Greek poet of the modern age, and this short poem about desire likens unfulfilled desires to beautiful bodies of people who have died in their prime and been preserved forever young and beautiful in their tombs. Is it always best to seek to sate one’s desire? There is something delicious about desire unfulfilled.
Philip Larkin, ‘Wants’. Larkin (1922-85), one of the most popular English poets of the twentieth century, offers us a different take on ‘desire’ and ‘wants’ here, focusing on mankind’s innate ‘wish to be alone’ and ‘desire for oblivion’, which, to borrow from another of his poems, lie just under all we do.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Warming Her Pearls’. One of Carol Ann Duffy’s most frequently anthologised poems, ‘Warming Her Pearls’ is told from the perspective of a maid whose job is to look after her mistress, a wealthy lady. One of her duties is to warm her employer’s pearls before the lady of the house wears them, but the poem also touches upon forbidden love, the desire the maid feels for her mistress.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. 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.