By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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, ranging from the Elizabethan era to the contemporary, and taking in, among other things, the relationship between Truth and Beauty, the link between beauty and desire, and the various kinds of beauty – from intellectual beauty to the beauty found in the natural world. We hope you enjoy these beautiful poems.
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’.
Nymph of the garden where all beauties be,
Beauties which do in excellency pass
His who till death looked in a watery glass,
Or hers whom nak’d the Trojan boy did see;
Sweet garden-nymph, which keeps the cherry-tree
Whose fruit doth far the Hesperian taste surpass,
Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not, alas,
From coming near those cherries banish me …
So begins this fine sonnet taken from the first long sonnet sequence written in English. The 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’.
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;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies …
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 opening lines (quoted above) make clear.
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 poem contains the lines:
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
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.’ We have analysed this complex (and possibly ironic) poem here.
Emily Dickinson, ‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce’.
I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining Room –
He questioned softly ‘Why I failed’?
‘For Beauty’, I replied …
So begins this 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’.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim …
So begins this poem, 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.
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).