Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Many poems deal with the visual: with things seen and observed. There are also some fine poems about sounds, and things we hear, whether it’s a voice, a footstep, or the sound of rain pattering upon a roof. But what about touch, arguably the most intimate and sensual of all of the senses? Poets have often written powerfully about touching, whether it’s the tender touch of a lover or the palpable and tangible world of nature. Here are six of the very best poems about touch and touching.
Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 9 from Astrophil and Stella.
The windows now, through which this heavenly guest
Looks o’er the world, and can find nothing such
Which dare claim from those lights the name of ‘best,’
Of touch they are, that without touch doth touch,
Which Cupid’s self, from Beauty’s mind did draw:
Of touch they are, and poor I am their straw …
Astrophil and Stella was the first long sonnet sequence written in the English language, in the early 1580s. In this sonnet, Sidney (1554-86), writing as Astrophil (‘star-lover’), praises the beauty of Stella (‘star’), the woman he loves but cannot have: he can, if you like, look but not touch.
Emily Dickinson, ‘He touched me, so I live to know’.
He touched me, so I live to know
That such a day, permitted so,
I groped upon his breast –
It was a boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful Sea
Puts minor streams to rest …
This passionate love poem, which like almost all of Dickinson’s poems was unpublished during her lifetime, sees a touch between two lovers as an almost religious experience, and is one of Dickinson’s most beautiful love poems.
Thomas Hardy, ‘Old Furniture’.
On the clock’s dull dial a foggy finger,
Moving to set the minutes right
With tentative touches that lift and linger
In the wont of a moth on a summer night,
Creeps to my sight …
The prolific poet and novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), in this underrated poem, considers old furniture that has been touched by many generations of hands…
H. D., ‘The Pool’. One of the finest poems of the short-lived imagist movement, ‘The Pool’ was written by Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) in 1915. On one level, the poem is easy to summarise: it’s about a rock pool and the poet’s encounter with something in the water, which she touches, making it quiver like a fish. However, should we take this haptic encounter at face value? In our analysis of this poem, we explore how there are three very different ways of reading it.
Philip Larkin, ‘When First We Faced, and Touching Showed’. Larkin isn’t known for his tender love poems, and usually there’s a degree of cynicism in his poetry, even in ‘love’ poems like ‘An Arundel Tomb’. But this late poem – about, appropriately enough, love late in life – is one of his most beautifully tender poems – and is a fine poem about touch.
Anne Sexton, ‘The Touch’. Touch can be erotic, of course, and in this poem, Sexton uses touch as a way of exploring the reawakened feelings of a woman once disconnected from the world, who has rediscovered the pleasures of touch through a new relationship with a lover. Given the erotic and sensual possibilities of touch, this poem is the ideal conclusion to our pick of the best poems about touching.
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.