Although scientists now consider the list of senses to be much longer than the proverbial five – things such as balance and thermoception are often counted as ‘senses’ now too – it’s true that we still talk of ‘the five senses’: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. If you want to explore more ‘sensory poems’, we’ve offered poems about seeing here, poems about hearing and sound here, and poems about touch here; below, we offer ten of our favourite poems about the various senses.
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.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’. This poem sees Whitman celebrating the various ‘carols’ or songs he hears his fellow Americans singing as they go about the work: the mechanics, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the deckhand, the shoemaker, the hatter, the wood-cutter, the ploughboy, the mother, the ‘young wife at work’, the seamstress or washerwoman. These various workers are offered to us in turn in a way that rhapsodises but doesn’t quite romanticise: Whitman’s exuberant free verse is full of joy and energy, but he doesn’t sentimentalise these trades. Whitman begins:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work …
Emily Dickinson, ‘Best Things dwell out of Sight’. What if the best things are out of sight, hidden away, and so cannot be apprehended by the sense of sight? This is what this short poem by the master of miniature detail, Emily Dickinson, so brilliantly captures. It’s quoted here in full:
Best Things dwell out of Sight
The Pearl—the Just—Our Thought.
Most shun the Public Air
Legitimate, and Rare—
The Capsule of the Wind
The Capsule of the Mind
Exhibit here, as doth a Burr—
Germ’s Germ be where?
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Voice’. This is one of the most celebrated of Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’ which Hardy wrote following the death of his first, estranged wife Emma. Emma’s death caused Hardy to revisit their life together, especially the early years of their marriage in the 1870s. This poem sees Hardy recalling Emma’s voice, wistfully wishing to see her again as she was when they first knew each other. It begins:
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
See the link above to read the full poem.
Marjorie Pickthall, ‘Vision’. Vision, of course, can be a religious as well as a purely sensory matter, and this poem nicely captures this double sense of vision. Pickthall (1883-1922) was Canadian, although she was born in London. She was regarded by some as the greatest Canadian poet of her generation. ‘Vision’ is an explicitly religious poem, in which the speaker experiences a divine vision of a knightly Christ:
He makes the air so keen and strange,
The stars so fiercely bright;
The rocks of time, the tides of change,
Are nothing in his sight.
William Carlos Williams, ‘Smell!’ Of the five main senses, smell has perhaps been given short shrift by poets; but not by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), one of the greatest American modernist poets. In this poem, Williams addresses his nose – nay, berates it for allowing him to smell unlovely odours like rotting flowers. Although it’s easy to shut down the sense of sight with our eyelids, our noses and ears need help from our hands to shut out the senses of smell and hearing…
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.
Dorothy Parker, ‘Sight’. Although she’s best-known for her caustic wit and her one-liners, the American writer Dorothy Parker wrote poetry with a darker side, often dealing in issues relating to death and self-extinction. Here, she links these dark thoughts with the insomniac’s sinister vision of the night turning into dawn.
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.
Maya Angelou, ‘The Health-Food Diner’. Let’s conclude this pick of sensory poems with a poem about another underrepresented sense: taste. Angelou (1928-2014) is best-known as a poet and as the author of the memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but she was also once a fry cook, and published several books of recipes. In ‘The Health-Food Diner’, Angelou lists the nutritious vegetables the diner offers, before declaring that what she really needs is a steak. The poem brilliantly evokes the taste of steak, pork chops, and other meaty dishes, in mouth-watering fashion.