By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Love is obviously a key subject in much classic poetry. But what are the best sensual love poems ever written: those poems which carry an erotic frisson which speaks of desire as well as devotion?
Below, we select and introduce some of the very best sensual love poems which are more than just conventional love poems. They are erotic poems, too, in the true sense of that word: suggesting erotic love, with ‘suggesting’ being the key word. There’s no explicit detail here, but instead the right words invoking the steamy and sensual experience of being in love, and lovemaking itself.
1. Sappho, Fragment 105.
Sappho lived not that long after the great ancient Greek poet is thought to have composed his Iliad and Odyssey. But whereas Homer dealt in epics, Sappho’s mode was the lyric – so named because her poems were composed to be sung and accompanied by music played on the lyre (she’s even been credited with inventing the plectrum).
Although only fragments of her work have survived, Sappho’s work has left its mark on the language, with the words ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian’ deriving from her love poetry, which was addressed to another woman (she lived on the island of Lesbos, hence ‘Lesbian’). In this short fragment, we get a flavour of Sappho’s passionate lyricism.
2. Catullus, ‘Sparrow, O, Lesbia’s Sweet Bird’.
After Sappho, there was Catullus, the sensual love lyricist writing in the days of the Roman Empire. But Catullus, a male poet, writes to his female love interest, a woman named Lesbia (in a nod to Sappho?), in more blunt and direct terms.
Here, he wishes he could pet his love’s pet sparrow, stroking it where she had stroked it before, and thus forging a kind of connection with her through the bird.
3. John Donne, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be …
‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ has been called the greatest verbal striptease in English verse. In this poem, John Donne (1572-1631) encourages his lover to undress for him, in one of the most deeply erotic love poems (‘lust poems’?) in the English language.
Donne’s poem undoes, or at the very least develops, the usual idea of courtly love by confronting the fact that the courtly love poet, in praising the beautiful woman, ultimately wants to go to bed with her (though often he can’t and never will get the chance).
Donne’s poem argues that the unattainable woman shouldn’t be unattainable: all that flattery of her looks and beauty is because the poet really wants to sleep with her.
4. Thomas Carew, ‘A Rapture’.
Now in more subtle wreaths I will entwine
My sinewy thighs, my legs and arms with thine;
Thou like a sea of milk shalt lie display’d,
Whilst I the smooth calm ocean invade
With such a tempest, as when Jove of old
Fell down on Danaë in a storm of gold …
One of Donne’s best followers is not widely read any more, but he’s worth seeking out. Carew (1595-1640; his surname is pronounced ‘Carey’) offers a passionate and persuasive overture to his lady in this long, sensuous piece.
5. Robert Herrick, ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free
O how that glittering taketh me …
Herrick (1591-1674) was another leading Cavalier poet of the mid-seventeenth century. A number of his poems are about a woman named Julia, and this one is perhaps the most erotic and sensual of them all.
One of the great things about this brief six-line lyric is that the power dynamic is ambiguous. A poem that seems to be about objectifying women is also a poem in which the woman has control over the helpless male: he is in her thrall, thanks to her shimmering nightgown.
6. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’.
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me …
In Tennyson, one of the finest studies of the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (a critical biography), the great critic Christopher Ricks calls this sensual lyric a ‘poem whose manner and movement had no predecessor in English poetry’; for Ricks, the poem ‘takes the darkest feelings and finds that they can be sources of light and delight.’
Ricks also notes the contradictory nature of the speaker’s urge: that her beloved ‘waken’ with her, but waken into what? Into a dreamy and dreamlike state of pleasure and satisfaction.
7. Amy Lowell, ‘Venus Transiens’.
Was Botticelli’s vision
Fairer than mine;
And were the painted rosebuds
He tossed his lady
Of better worth
Than the words I blow about you
To cover your too great loveliness
As with a gauze
Of misted silver?
Lowell (1874-1925) was the latter-day leader of the short-lived imagist movement, which was active around the time of the First World War. She took over from Ezra Pound when he grew bored with imagism and went on to co-found Vorticism.
In this poem, Venus – the goddess of love – is given daringly sensual treatment by the lesbian poet.
8. H. D., ‘Oread’.
Although this brief imagist lyric doesn’t, at first glance, seem to be all that erotic – it’s about the pine trees of the mountains, and (possibly) the sea – upon rereading the poem, it becomes apparent that Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), known by her pen name H. D., is using this mountainous scene to address human desire.
The mountain nymph, the ‘Oread’ of the poem’s title, calls to the pine trees (or is it the literal sea?) to cover her mountains, in an act of sensual abandon that is both commanding (she’s giving the orders) and passive or submissive. We discuss this poem in more detail here.
9. ee cummings, ‘may i feel said he’.
The American poet Edward Estlin Cummings, who published as e. e. cummings (1894-1962), wrote some of the most sensual poetry of the last century, and ‘may i feel said he’ is one of his most playful poems.
It describes the to-and-fro between a man and a woman engaged in a fling (the man’s wife is mentioned, so the female speaker here must be his mistress).
10. Audre Lorde, ‘Recreation’.
Lorde (1934-92) was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ This poem’s title is a pun (both ‘recreation’ as fun and ‘re-creation’ as making something new again), as, one suspects, is the first line, ‘Coming together’.
As with many of the poems on this list, Lorde’s is a poem about same-sex desire and love.