Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poets often concern themselves with abstract notions such as love and desire, but what about something as physical and tangible as the human body? Many poets have sung its praises over the centuries, pondering the link between the body and the soul, admiring the beauty of the human form, or reflecting upon the changes that a human body undergoes. Here are ten of the very best poems about the body, and bodies.
1. John Donne, ‘The Ecstasy’. A truly ‘ecstatic’ experience is always, to some extent, an out-of-body experience. Donne’s poem, then, is about the separation of the body and soul, which is immediately odd, since elsewhere his poetry explores the idea that the soul and the body are, in fact, one:
But O alas, so long, so far,
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though they are not we; we are
The intelligences, they the spheres.
We owe them thanks, because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses’ force to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.
On man heaven’s influence works not so,
But that it first imprints the air;
So soul into the soul may flow,
Though it to body first repair …
2. Anne Bradstreet, ‘Upon Some Distemper of Body’.
Bradstreet (1612-72) was the first poet in America, male or female, to have a book of poems published. She’d sailed out to Massachusetts in the late 1620s with her husband, and they had built a life for themselves there. But early colonial life in the New World was hard, and bodily afflictions and illnesses abounded. Many of Bradstreet’s poems reflect this, with this poem about ‘some distemper of body’ being one of the best:
In anguish of my heart replete with woes,
And wasting pains, which best my body knows,
In tossing slumbers on my wakeful bed,
Bedrenched with tears that flowed from mournful head,
Till nature had exhausted all her store,
Then eyes lay dry, disabled to weep more;
And looking up unto his throne on high,
Who sendeth help to those in misery;
He chased away those clouds and let me see
My anchor cast i’ th’ vale with safety.
He eased my soul of woe, my flesh of pain,
And brought me to the shore from troubled main.
3. Andrew Marvell, ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’.
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest …
So asks the Body in this dialogue-poem from one of the seventeenth century’s greatest English metaphysical poets.
4. Heinrich Heine, ‘I Love This White and Slender Body’.
The German poet Heine (1797-1856) wrote this short love poem about the beauty of the human body. The last line is tinged with bitterness and sadness, with the poet revealing his fear that this ‘body’ he loves will betray him.
5. 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 (a volume he later updated and revised). 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.
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘I am afraid to own a Body’.
I am afraid to own a Body –
I am afraid to own a Soul –
Profound – precarious Property –
Possession, not optional …
So announces the prolific Emily Dickinson (1830-86) in this short poem. Many poems on this list explore the complementary relationship between the body and soul, and this short lyric is no different – to live, one must (Dickinson says) possess both a physical body and an immortal soul.
7. C. P. Cavafy, ‘Body, Remember’.
It’s not often a poet addresses their own body, but this is what Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933), the most famous Greek poet since Homer, does in this poem, calling upon his body to remember how much it was loved …
8. Rupert Brooke, ‘Thoughts on the Shape of the Human Body’.
This early poem from around 1911 predates Brooke’s more famous work, but is a curious meditation on the human body and our natural desires. The poem shows his interest in the human form:
How can we find? how can we rest? how can
We, being gods, win joy, or peace, being man?
We, the gaunt zanies of a witless Fate,
Who love the unloving and lover hate,
Forget the moment ere the moment slips,
Kiss with blind lips that seek beyond the lips,
Who want, and know not what we want, and cry
With crooked mouths for Heaven, and throw it by.
Love’s for completeness! No perfection grows
‘Twixt leg, and arm, elbow, and ear, and nose,
And joint, and socket; but unsatisfied
Sprawling desires, shapeless, perverse, denied …
9. E. E. Cummings, ‘I Like My Body When It Is with Your’.
E. E. Cummings (or should that be ‘e. e. cummings’?) was one of the greatest writers of erotic poetry in the twentieth century, and this is a tender and powerful poem about the human body. As Cummings (sorry, cummings) puts it, admiring a human body is not just about what it is but how the owner of that body uses it: its hows.
10. Margaret Atwood, ‘Flying Inside Your Own Body’.
How happy are we in our own skin? How comfortable are we in the only body we are ever going to have? The author of The Handmaid’s Tale has also written poetry, and in this poem, Atwood contrasts how we are able to ‘fly’ within our own bodies and be happy … but only when dreaming. When we wake, bitter reality returns.
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.