William Shakespeare, ‘A Woman’s Face, with Nature’s Own Hand Painted’. Sonnet 20 by William Shakespeare is one of the more famous early poems, after Sonnet 18, from his sonnet sequence – and undoubtedly the best of his sonnets about a man’s face (actually, make that one of the best poems about a man’s face in all of English literature). Its opening line, ‘A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted’, immediately establishes the sonnet’s theme: Shakespeare is discussing the effeminate beauty of the Fair Youth, the male addressee of these early sonnets, and addressing his own conflicted desire for the young man.
Charles Lamb, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’. A poem about nostalgia and the loss of old friends and loved ones, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’ is a moving account of the passing of time: ‘I have had playmates, I have had companions, / In my days of childhood, in my joyful school-days, / All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.’
Robert Browning, ‘A Face’. ‘If one could have that little head of hers / Painted upon a background of pale gold, / Such as the Tuscan’s early art prefers!’ Robert Browning (1812-89) made the dramatic monologue his own, and here he speaks in the character of an artist seeking to capture the beauty of a female face. Is the speaker seeking to depict the woman’s beauty or manipulate and control it?
Emily Dickinson, ‘A Charm invests a Face’. The debate about the veiling of women continues, but in the nineteenth century the prolific American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) expressed the sentiment that a face ‘imperfectly beheld’, because it is partly concealed behind a veil, carries an air of mystery and therefore ‘Charm’.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Masked Face’. ‘I found me in a great surging space, / At either end a door, / And I said: “What is this giddying place, / With no firm-fixéd floor, / That I knew not of before?” / “It is Life,” said a mask-clad face.’ In this short narrative poem, the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) presents a troubling scene, in which he is transported to a strange space which a masked figure announces is ‘Life’ itself. This highly symbolic poem about the meaning of life – which appears to offer a variation on the sentiment of ‘I didn’t ask to be born’ – is cryptic and mysterious, with the masked face refusing to offer Hardy any clear answers…
Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Face to Face’. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was known as the Bard of Bengal and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. In ‘Face to Face’, Tagore offers a religious tribute to the ‘Lord of my life’, standing before him face to face every day and promising to be humble before him.
Kahlil Gibran, ‘Faces’. Gibran (1883-1931) is thought to be one of the three biggest-selling poets in the world, alongside William Shakespeare and Lao-Tze. His success rests principally on his long poetic work The Prophet, but here, in ‘Faces’, he ponders the idea that the face can be the site of contradictions: one face can have ‘a thousand countenances’, and many of us can be ‘two-faced’, to use the old expression. How easy is it to look at someone’s face and ‘behold the reality beneath’?
T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’. A different take on the ‘Man in the Moon’ myth here, updated for a modern readership – and arguably the first modernist poem written in English. Hulme (1883-1917) likens the ‘ruddy moon’ to a ‘red-faced farmer’, and in doing so, invites us to see the moon as altogether more down to earth, and less romantic, than poetry usually presents it.
Sara Teasdale, ‘Faces’. Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American poet who wrote about a great deal of subjects – and here, she ponders the faces she meets in the crowded city: ‘Faces that I lose so soon / And have never found before, / Do you know how much you tell / In the meeting of our eyes, / How ashamed I am, and sad / To have pierced your poor disguise?’
Sylvia Plath, ‘Face Lift’. One of the earliest poems to address the now well-known practice of cosmetic surgery, ‘Face Lift’ is spoken by an ageing woman trying to regain her youthful face, undergoing plastic surgery without her friends being aware that she’s having it done. But does the surgery succeed in making her ‘grow backward’ and truly regain her youthful looks?