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).
The Most Beautiful Forms of Poetry: Haiku, ZaniLa Rhyme, Magic 9, Rondel Prime, and Stave Stanza.What are some poetic words about beauty? ›
- Beauty is not caused. ...
- A thing of beauty is a joy forever. ...
- If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads. ...
- Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. ...
- Beauty is power; a smile is its sword. ...
- Nature's beauty is a gift that cultivates appreciation and gratitude.
The Most Beautiful Forms of Poetry: Haiku, ZaniLa Rhyme, Magic 9, Rondel Prime, and Stave Stanza.What is the most beautiful short poem ever written? ›
- The best short poems to commit to memory, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle.
- Anonymous, 'Fowls in the Frith'. ...
- John Donne, 'A Burnt Ship'. ...
- George MacDonald, 'The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs'. ...
- Robert Frost, 'Fire and Ice'. ...
- Edward Thomas, 'Thaw'. ...
- T. E. Hulme, 'Autumn'.
a decastich, a poem in 10 lines. syllabic, 1-2-3-4-5-5-4-3-2-1 syllables per line. rhymed, rhyme scheme AbcxddxcbA. composed with the 1st word repeated as the last word.What is the best quote for beauty? ›
"You are beautiful because of the light you carry inside you. You are beautiful because you say you are, and you hold yourself that way." "And in her smile, I see something more beautiful than the stars." "What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully.What are three words to describe beautiful? ›
Some common synonyms of beautiful are comely, fair, handsome, lovely, and pretty.What kind of poetry is a thing of beauty? ›
"A Thing of Beauty" is one of Keats' most famous poems, an example of his Romantic style. In the poem, Keats celebrates the beauty and power of nature, and he suggests that beauty can bring joy and solace to our lives.What is a magic 9 poem? ›
Like the tricube, the magic 9 is a newer form and relatively unknown. In fact, I couldn't find a creator of the form, though it appears to have been inspired by a poet misspelling the word "abracadabra." This 9-line poem doesn't have any rules as far as meter or subject matter--just a rhyme scheme: abacadaba.What is a perfect poem? ›
Strong, accurate, interesting words, well-placed, make the reader feel the writer's emotion and intentions. Choosing the right words—for their meaning, their connotations, their sounds, even the look of them, makes a poem memorable. The words become guides to the feelings that lie between the lines.
The Epic of Gilgamesh started out as a series of Sumerian poems and tales dating back to 2100 B.C., but the most complete version was written around the 12th century B.C. by the Babylonians.What are some 12 line poems? ›
- The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson.
- Loss and Gain by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
- Trees by Joyce Kilmer.
- Little Things by Anonymous.
- The Scarecrow by Annie Stone.
- O Brown Eyes by Ruby Archer.
- A Recipe For a Day by Amos R. Wells.
- Conscience and Remorse by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
- William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow” ...
- T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” ...
- Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” ...
- Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool” ...
- Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” ...
- Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death –” ...
- Langston Hughes, “Harlem”
A quatrain in poetry is a series of four-lines that make one verse of a poem, known as a stanza.What are 13 lines in a poem called? ›
Rondels are 13 lines total and generally follow an ABBA ABAB ABBAA rhyme scheme.What is a famous poem with 5 lines? ›
Limericks usually stand alone as a five-line poem and often contain bawdy or humorous subject matter. Nineteenth-century English poet Edward Lear, whose works include the famous limerick “There Was Once an Old Man with a Beard,” popularized this form.What is the poetic tone of a thing of beauty? ›
The tone of this poem is very loving, peaceful, and optimistic. Keats sets the tone for the poem when in the second line he says, “lovliness increases.” These words just create a gentle yet vivid image in the reader's mind. Dictionary.com defines the word “lovely” as “charmingly or exquisitely beautiful.”What are words for beauty? ›
Pulchritudinous (and pulchritude) come from the Latin pulcher (which means “beautiful”), the same source for a number of uncommon words in English, such as pulchrify (“to beautify”), pulchritudeness (a synonym of pulchritude), and pulchrous ("fair or beautiful”).What are the 8 things of beauty mentioned in the poem? ›
Some of them are: the sun, the moon, old and young trees, daffodil flowers, small streams with clear water, mass of ferns and the blooming musk-roses. All of them are things of beauty. They are a constant source of joy and pleasure. Was this answer helpful?