Poets are often concerned with beauty and the beautiful. But what are the best poems about beauty? In this post, we’ve suggested ten of the finest poems about the beautiful.
Edmund Spenser, ‘The sovereign beauty which I do admire’. We begin this pick of classic poems about beauty and all things beautiful with some Elizabethan sonnets – this one taken from Amoretti, written by Edmund Spenser, the author of The Faerie Queene. Spenser wrote a number of longer poems about ‘heavenly beauty’, but this shorter poem is our choice here: ‘The sovereign beauty which I do admire, / Witness the world how worthy to be praised: / The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fire / In my frail spirit, by her from baseness raised…’
Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Nymph of the garden where all beauties be’. Taken from the first long sonnet sequence written in English, this poem sees ‘Astrophil’ admiring the beauty of ‘Stella’ – and, specifically, the beauty of her lips, which he likens to cherries in a garden. For the poet, Stella is more beautiful than Narcissus, who was so attractive he fell in love with his own beauty when gazing upon it in the ‘watery glass’ of the stream, and more beautiful than the Roman goddess Venus, whom the Trojan prince, Paris, saw naked. This poem supposedly had its roots in Sidney’s own unrequited love for the beautiful Penelope Rich, who was married to another man.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 54. ‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem, / By that sweet ornament which truth doth give! / The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem / For that sweet odour which doth in it live.’ Over two centuries before John Keats (see below), Shakespeare was arguing that there is a strong link between truth and beauty. This may not be the most famous sonnet the Bard ever wrote, but it’s one of the best poetic meditations on the meaning of beauty.
Lord Byron, ‘She Walks in Beauty’. Perhaps Byron’s best-loved and most widely anthologised lyric poem, ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is quoted in Dead Poets Society as an attempt to seduce a young woman, and it epitomises the Romantic poem idolising (and idealising) a woman’s beauty, as the first lines make clear: ‘She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes …’
Percy Shelley, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’. So far, we’ve been concerned more with physical beauty than the beauty of the mind, but Byron’s fellow Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), wrote this paean to intellectual beauty in 1816 during the same holiday at Lake Geneva that produced Frankenstein (written, of course, by Percy’s wife, Mary Shelley). The original copy of the poem was lost when Leigh Hunt, to whom Shelley sent the finished poem, mislaid it; Shelley had to rewrite it! The poem sees Shelley conversing with a mysterious figure, the Spirit of Beauty, which would make man immortal if it remained with him forever – but sadly, Beauty comes and goes…
John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Inspired by the scenes depicted on an ancient Greek urn, this is one of Keats’s best odes. However, original readers didn’t think so: in 1820 it was met with a lukewarm reception. Since then, though, its reputation as one of Keats’s most polished poems has become established – including the famous final two lines, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Emily Dickinson, ‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce’. In this short poem, Dickinson takes up the Keatsian double-act of Truth and Beauty mentioned above, using the speaker’s death to convey the poem’s central idea. He tells us that he (and we can deduce that the speaker is a ‘he’ from the poem’s later references to ‘Brethren’ and ‘Kinsmen’) died for Beauty, and when he was laid in the tomb it was to find that someone else newly dead – who had died for Truth – has been placed in the neighbouring room. This neighbour asks the poem’s speaker why he ‘failed’, and the speaker answers that it was for Beauty. The neighbour says that he died for Truth, and that the two of them are ‘Brethren’: kindred spirits.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Pied Beauty’. This poem is a celebration of ‘pied’ things and the beauty of pied things: that is, things that are made up of two different colours, often containing black and white or dark colours with light colours. These ‘dappled things’ exist thanks to God, says Hopkins: they all reflect his creation. Whether it’s the ‘stipple’ (or freckled markings) on trout swimming in the water, or the wings of finches, or the contrast of colours (such as the black-and-white of clouds) in the sky, these depictions of ‘couple-colour’ in the world of nature are to be celebrated.
Philip Larkin, ‘Essential Beauty’. For Philip Larkin, beauty was best viewed under a critique, and this is perhaps his best poem about the gap between the ‘beautiful’ images advertisements present us with – which are too good to be true – and the reality of most of our lives. If beauty and truth were synonymous for Keats, for Larkin they are sworn enemies…
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Beautiful’. We conclude this list of beautiful poems about beauty with one by the current UK Poet Laureate, aptly titled ‘Beautiful’. The poem discusses famous female figures from history and how their beauty has always been depicted via the male gaze, so Helen of Troy is ‘the girl next door’ and Marilyn Monroe a ‘dumb beauty’. Worth reading alongside the earliest poems on this list, written by male poets idealising female beauty.