Beauty has always been a favorite topic for poets, who are perhaps akin to artists in being particularly sensitive to what pleases the mind and the senses, whether it be a beautiful landscape or a beautiful woman. Many poets would consider that in writing poetry they are seeking beauty in language and form. But what is beauty? An interesting discussion of this question can be found in James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), in which the hero, Stephen Dedalus, explains that Saint Thomas Aquinas's definition of beauty requires three qualities: wholeness (the recognition of the separateness of the object), harmony (the recognition of the relationship of its parts), and radiance (the recognition of its “whatness”). According to Joyce, through Dedalus, art is beautiful when it arrests the mind, and he refers to Percy Bysshe Shelley's likening of the poet's mind to a fading coal in the moment of the apprehension of beauty. Dedalus also considers the appreciation of female beauty, another favorite topic for poets.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato was the first writer to attempt a definition of beauty. Plato theorized that the objects in the world around us were merely shadows of a real essence, or form, that existed in an ideal, unchanging world. The most important of these forms was beauty, which for Plato was also goodness. Beautiful things in our world are merely the shadows of that ideal beauty. Many English poets were intrigued by Plato's theory of forms and based their poems about beauty upon it. In his sonnets, for example, Shakespeare upsets Plato's theory in order to flatter his beautiful male subject, arguing in Sonnet 53 ("What is your substance, whereof are you made” ) that the young man is the substance, or form, of beauty, of which all other beautiful people (such as Adonis and Helen of Troy) are merely the shadows.
The Romantic poets writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century