Temptation looms large in love poetry and religious poetry, but over the centuries, poets have described and explored the topic of temptation from a variety of different perspectives, choosing some very unusual metaphors to illustrate the dangers – or the delights – of temptation. Here are some of our favourite poems about temptation.
William Shakespeare, ‘Two Loves I Have, of Comfort and Despair’.
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill …
A familiar trope, from cartoons as much as from literature: the idea of the ‘good angel’ and the ‘bad angel’. Whether it’s Family Guy or The Simpsons or Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (the last of which Shakespeare would have known), this depiction of good angel/bad angel fighting over the protagonist is found everywhere. But Shakespeare is less concerned with their influence over him than with the fate of his good angel, the Fair Youth.
John Milton, Paradise Lost.
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
Probably the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost (1667) was not Milton’s first attempt at an epic: as a teenager, Milton began writing an epic poem in Latin about the Gunpowder Plot; but in quintum novembris remained unfinished. Instead, his defining work would be this 12-book poem in blank verse about the Fall of Man, taking in Satan’s fall from Heaven, his founding of Pandemonium (the capital of Hell), and his subsequent temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
William Cowper, ‘Temptation’.
Dangers of ev’ry shape and name
Attend the follow’rs of the Lamb,
Who leave the world’s deceitful shore,
And leave it to return no more.
Tho’ tempest-toss’d and half a wreck,
My Saviour thro’ the floods I seek;
Let neither winds nor stormy main,
Force back my shatter’d bark again …
William Cowper is best-known as the co-author of the Olney Hymns, and ‘Temptation’ is one of the hymns Cowper wrote for that Buckinghamshire village in the late eighteenth century. The hymn uses one of Cowper’s favourite tropes – the idea of being caught in a storm at sea, and calling upon God, as pilot, to steer him to safety … and away from temptation.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘The Sifting of Peter’.
Satan desires us, great and small,
As wheat to sift us, and we all
Not one, however rich or great,
Is by his station or estate
Everyone, no matter how high-and-mighty they believe themselves to be, or how much they adopt the moral high ground, is tempted by something at some point in their lives. In order to illustrate this point, Longfellow draws upon the New Testament story of Christ desiring to ‘sift’ Peter like wheat, in order to test his faith – and fidelity to Jesus – by allowing Satan to tempt the apostle.
Emily Dickinson, ‘A Rat Surrendered Here’. This short Emily Dickinson poem is short enough to reproduce in full here:
A Rat surrendered here
A brief career of Cheer
And Fraud and Fear.
Of Ignominy’s due
Let all addicted to
The most obliging Trap
Its tendency to snap
Cannot resist —
Temptation is the Friend
In other words: as with Longfellow, everyone is tempted by something, and things lie in wait for us, like a trap tempting a rat with food before it snaps shut, destroying the rat. This is typical of Emily Dickinson, to take a vast, abstract, and universal concept like ‘temptation’ and to devise a specific, small-scale, but perfectly illustrative example of it in action.
Christina Rossetti, ‘Goblin Market’. Probably the most famous poem Rossetti wrote, Goblin Market is a long Victorian narrative poem about two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, and how Laura succumbs to temptation and tastes the fruit sold by the goblins of the poem’s title. What is ‘Goblin Market’ about? The fruit in the poem which the goblins sell has been interpreted in various ways: critics have long seen the eroticised description of the exotic fruit as symbolic of (sexual) temptation, with Laura as the fallen women who succumbs to masculine wiles and is ruined as a result (though she is, of course, happily married at the end of the poem).
Arthur Symons, ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’.
The Cross, the Cross is tainted! O most Just,
Be merciful, and save me from this snare.
The Tempter lures me as I bend in prayer
Before the sacred symbol of our trust.
Yea, that most Holy of Holies feeds my lust,
The body of thy Christ; for, unaware,
Even as I kneel and pray, lo, She is there,
The temptress, she the wanton; and she hath thrust
The bruisèd body off, and all her own,
Shameless, she stretches on the cross, arms wide,
Limbs pendent, in libidinous mockery.
She draws mine eyes to her – Ah, sin unknown!
She smiles, she triumphs; but the Crucified
Falls off into the darkness with a cry.
Symons (1865-1945) was one of the most remarkable English Symbolist poets, who absorbed the influence of French pioneers like Charles Baudelaire and helped to bring English verse away from Romanticism and towards modernism. Symons’s work is also characteristic of 1890s decadence, and here, the figure of the crucified Christ becomes a ‘temptress’ and ‘wanton’, a beautiful, seductive woman.
Edith Nesbit, ‘The Temptation’.
I will not steal, nor cheat you; take back the heart you lent me.
O God, whom I have outraged, now teach me how to pray,
That love come never again so near me to torment me,
Lest I be found less faithful than, by Thy grace, to-day.
Although E. Nesbit is better-remembered for her children’s novels including The Railway Children and Five Children and It, she was also a poet; in this poem, Nesbit writes about the temptation of love and her own unworthiness.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘Temptation’. ‘Look hyeah, whut ’s dis I ’s been sayin’? whut on urf ’s tuk holt o’ me? / Dat ole music come nigh runnin’ my ’uligion up a tree! / Cleah out wif dat dah ole fiddle, don’ you try dat trick agin; / Did n’t think I could be tempted, but you lak to made me sin!’ In this poem, written in the African American English vernacular he knew in late nineteenth-century America, Paul Laurence Dunbar writes about someone who has ‘got religion’ and spurns worldly pleasures such as music – but will they be tempted back by the rhythm?