No matter how one defines it, it’s impossible to ignore the important role that beauty has played throughout time and throughout the arts.
Whether one is looking at visual or literary arts, it has been and still is, one of the major themes running throughout all genres of poetry and prose. The eight poems on this list represent some of the best poems on the topic, ranging from traditional odes to beauty to more critical analyses of what beauty is and should be.
Best Poems About Beauty
- 1 She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
- 2 Hymn to Intellectual Beauty by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- 3 Sonnet 54 by William Shakespeare
- 4 I Died for Beauty – but was scarce by Emily Dickinson
- 5 Still will I harvest beauty where it grows by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- 6 Essential Beauty by Philip Larkin
- 7 Endymion by John Keats
- 8 Beautiful by Carol Ann Duffy
‘She Walks in Beauty’ is one of Lord Byron’s most famous poems. It’s quite widely anthologized as a wonderful example of Romantic ideals. Byron idolizes a woman’s beauty throughout the lines of this piece. He uses figurative language to compare her to “starry skies” and other natural elements. While also comparing and contrasting her skin and hair, one light and one dark. She’s pure in a basic way that’s appealing to poets of all ages. Here are the first six lines of this famous poem:
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.
‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ is one of the only on this list that focuses at all on intellectual beauty, something that isn’t skin deep. He wrote this piece during the same period of time that his wife, Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein in 1816 at Lake Geneva. He speaks about the beauty of the spirit in addition to that of the mind and body. He describes the world of nature as something that masks and conceals the beauty within.
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?
‘Sonnet 54,’ also known as ‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,’ is a memorable poem that uses two similar, yet different, flowers to speak about the Fair Youth. One of these, a rose, is beautiful and filled with life and death. The other, a wildflower is known as a canker-bloom, has a temporary beauty, one that does not extend into death. The speaker sees the youth as more of a rose in that his beauty will live on, through the poet’s work, into another lifetime. Here are the first quatrains of ‘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.
‘I Died for Beauty – but was scarce’ is a lesser-known Emily Dickinson poem. In this piece, she speaks about truth and beauty by addressing the speaker’s own death. The male speaker died for Beauty, and when he was laid to rest, he found himself in a tomb with the truth. The two compare lives and deaths and realize that they are brethren. Here are the first four lines:
I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining Room –
‘Still will I harvest beauty where it grows’ is a lovely poem that speaks on the wide variety of types of beauty that can be found in the world and the speaker’s desire to seek it out and “harvest” it wherever she finds it. She might find it like mold, fungi, in a “ditch and bog,” or in “rust and oil.” If one does not take the time to look closely, they’re going to miss out on much of what the world has to offer in terms of beauty.
Still will I harvest beauty where it grows:
In coloured fungus and the spotted fog
Surprised on foods forgotten; in ditch and bog
Filmed brilliant with irregular rainbows
‘Essential Beauty’ is a thoughtful poem about reality and the beauty that’s presented to us within adverting images. It is one of several poems Larkin wrote on this topic and likely the most impactful for the majority of readers. Larkin spends the poem exploring the differences between the lives depicted in advertisements and those that real people live. Here are the first lines:
In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon […]
Endymion by John Keats
‘Endymion’ is a long poem and one of Keats’ most famous. It is dedicated to Thomas Chatterton and is based around the Greek myth of Endymion, the shepherd much loved by Selene, the moon goddess. The poem is separated into four books, totally more than four thousand lines. Although the poem was met with brutal criticism when it was published, it’s now considered one of the masterpieces of the 19th century. Here are the first five lines of the poem:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
‘Beautiful’ explores historically beautiful women throughout time. Their beauty is depicted through the male gaze or in the way that women see them. Duffy draws attention to how this way of understanding beauty has been dominant throughout time. Marilyn Monroe is the “dumb beauty” while other women fill other stereotypes. Here are a few lines from the piece:
She was born from an egg,
a daughter of the gods,
divinely fair, a pearl, drop-dead
gorgeous, beautiful, a peach