Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview

Beauty

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” [1609]) 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

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Thematic Guide to British Poetry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Anthologies of British Poetry and Abbreviations Used xi
  • Active and Contemplative Lives 1
  • Art, Imagination, and Inspiration 15
  • Beauty 31
  • Carpe Diem 43
  • Christmas Poems 47
  • Death 53
  • Death of the Young 65
  • Duty 77
  • Fame and Ambition 81
  • Family Relations 85
  • Freedom and Captivity 89
  • The Golden Mean 93
  • Immortality 97
  • Industrialism and the City 105
  • Innocence and Experience 111
  • Love 119
  • Marriage 141
  • Music 153
  • Nature and Country Life 159
  • Old Age 187
  • Patriotism 193
  • Politics and Human Rights 197
  • Pride and Vanity 205
  • Rebellion and Conformity 215
  • Regret, Consolation, and Melancholy 221
  • Religion 229
  • Sleep 243
  • Time and Change 251
  • War 257
  • Biographical Sketches 269
  • Further Reading 293
  • Index 295
  • About the Author 305
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