By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve offered ten of the best extremely short poems by women, as well as ten classic sonnets by female poets. But what are the best poems about being a woman, and about womanhood – those written by both male and female poets?
Here are some suggestions. Rather than stick to more recent and contemporary poets, we’ve ranged far and wide down the centuries to find the ultimate timeless poetic statements about womanhood. For a good anthology of poems for women, we recommend Poems That Make Grown Women Cry.
1. William Shakespeare, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head …
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we begin, controversially, with a poem written by a man about his mistress – and, to boot, a poem that has often been read as misogynistic.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare downplays the physical attributes of the ‘Dark Lady’ who shares his bed – but in a deliberate rhetoric move,to reject the false conventions of much love poetry. He concludes by arguing that he thinks the woman he loves is ‘as rare / As any [woman] belied with false compare’, i.e. any woman whose objective beauty has been overpraised by a male poet.
How we respond to the poem will probably come as much from our own convictions on these issues as it will from the poem itself. Do we think that by merely rejecting such hyperbole, Shakespeare is doing down his mistress? ‘Nothing like the sun’ may sound rather churlish and strong (‘Oh, don’t be silly, her eyes are nowhere near as marvellous as the sun!’), but then it doesn’t necessarily mean that her eyes are positively hideous to behold …
2. Ben Jonson, ‘In the Person of Womankind’.
Here we have another poem by a man, but this time, Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson assumes the voice of womankind.
Indeed, the poem is partly about men’s inability to portray women well: men’s songs about women depict women as having false virtues, rather than emphasising and praising the ones that actually exist:
Men, if you love us, play no more
The fools or tyrants with your friends,
To make us still sing o’er and o’er
Our own false praises, for your ends:
We have both wits and fancies too,
And, if we must, let’s sing of you …
3. William Wordsworth, ‘Perfect Woman’.
She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.
So begins this poem, in which the great Romantic poem William Wordsworth (1770-1850) offers an altogether more laudatory description of a beautiful woman’s appearance than Shakespeare did in his above sonnet, couched in Romantic (and romantic) terms: ‘A Spirit, yet a Woman too!’
Sometimes known by its first line, ‘She was a phantom of delight’, this is a poem William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote in 1804 about his wife, Mary Hutchinson.
The poem is a classic example of uxorious poetry – poetry written about the love for a wife. ‘Perfect Woman’ is a romantic poem (written in praise of the poet’s wife) but also a Romantic poem, with a capital ‘R’: the poem is written by one of the leading first-generation poets of English Romanticism.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that’.
No pick of classic poems by women poets about womanhood – which looked back to poets of ages past – would be complete without something from the prolific Emily Dickinson (1830-86):
I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that –
That other state –
I’m Czar – I’m ‘Woman’ now –
It’s safer so –
Dickinson, famously, never married – but here, in this poem, Dickinson adopts the voice of a wife as a way of musing upon the place of the wife in society, especially as the poor woman is ‘eclipsed’ by her husband.
5. Anonymous, ‘On a Tired Housewife’.
This has become a popular comic poem, but its origins appear to have been in tragedy: the unknown charwoman who wrote it in 1905 effectively penned it as her suicide note, citing extreme fatigue as her reason for ending it all.
The poem begins:
Here lies a poor woman who was always tired,
She lived in a house where help wasn’t hired:
Her last words on earth were: ‘Dear friends, I am going
To where there’s no cooking, or washing, or sewing,
For everything there is exact to my wishes,
For where they don’t eat there’s no washing of dishes …’
(Follow the link above to read the full, longer poem.)
Writing in a letter to Lady Robert Cecil about the poem, Virginia Woolf said that the jury at the coroner’s inquest found the charwoman to have been mad, ‘which proves once more what it is to be a poet in these days’.
If the title of this poem is unfamiliar to you, the last line may ring some bells: shouldering the emotional and domestic labour may leave many women longing for the relative comfort of oblivion. Is this really a comic poem or a poem about the tragedy of a woman’s lot just over a century ago?
6. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’.
This poem, first published in 1932, is a sonnet, and is notable for its frank expression of female desire: a Petrarchan sonnet (originally, and traditionally, an especially male form) that turns the male idea of courtly love on its head, which describes the woman’s physical attraction to somebody, rather than an intellectual connection with them.
7. Dorothy Parker, ‘On Being a Woman’.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is rightly celebrated as one of the wittiest women (though we might as well just as one of the wittiest people) ever to have drawn breath.
Her poetry, too, is shot through with wit, but also wisdom – as here, in ‘On Being a Woman’, in which the poet laments the fact that she is bored when her lover is around, but as soon as he goes away she longs to be with him again…
8. Maya Angelou, ‘Woman Work’.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was not just a poet, of course: she was an influential civil rights campaigner in the United States, and her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is a classic of the genre.
The recipient of over 50 honorary degrees, Angelou is undoubtedly the most famous female African American poet of the late twentieth century, and in ‘Woman Work’, she outlines the domestic and emotional labour that many women undertake every day: ‘I’ve got the children to tend / The clothes to mend…’
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘Mushrooms’.
In this poem, Plath (1932-63), who remains one of the most popular and widely-studied female poets of the last hundred years, uses mushrooms as a metaphor for the meek and overlooked in society, seeing the mushrooms’ growth as an analogy for women’s rising confidence in the fight to be noticed and treated equally: ‘Our kind multiplies: / We shall by morning / Inherit the earth.’
10. Warsan Shire, ‘For Women Who Are “Difficult” to Love’.
Shire (b. 1988) is one of the most popular female poets writing today. Born to Somali parents in Kenya, Shire lives in the UK and writes about the plight of refugees as well as the realities of being a woman in the twenty-first century. In 2016, her poetry featured prominently in Beyonce’s film Lemonade.
This poem addresses those women who have been described as ‘difficult’, praising their individualism and likening them to wild horses who refuse to be tamed, choosing instead to remain free.
For more poetry suggestions, we recommend our pick of the best poetry anthologies on the market.
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.