Think poets are just stodgy writers who sit at their desks penning boring poems? Think again. Here are eleven poets who sometimes showed their bawdier sides.
1. T.S. Eliot
Eliot had a reputation for being a stodgy poet, but he’s one of the most well-known Modernists and responsible for some of the most widely read poems in the English language (The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock being two of his most famous, along with the ending of The Hollow Men, which was influenced by Dante and his Divine Comedy). But in his early years he wrote a series of scatological limericks including the racist caricature of a well-endowed ruler named “King Bolo.” One of the stanzas reads:
King Bolo’s Royal Body Guard Were called ‘The Jersey Lilies’— A bold and bestial set of blacks Undaunted by syphilis. They wore the national uniform Of a garland of verbenas And a pair of big black hairy balls And a big black hairy penis.
Another example of Eliot’s latent dirty verse is in his poem The Triumph of Bullsh*t. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the poem, which was not published during Eliot’s lifetime, as the first use of the word “bullsh*t.” It ends with the following stanza:
And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass Among the Theories scattered on the grass Take up my good intentions with the rest And then for Christ’s sake stick them up your ass.
2. John Donne
Donne is considered to be the most prominent member of the Metaphysical poets, a group of seventeenth century British lyricists who used complex metaphors called “conceits” in sonnets and poems about topics like love or religion. Though he became an Anglican priest in 1615 and was later appointed Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, he spent much of his early years as an educated womanizer. Maybe his early experiences helped him when writing these eloquently cheeky lines from To His Mistress Going to Bed:
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy, Until I labour, I in labour lie. The foe oft-times having the foe in sight, Is tired with standing though they never fight. Off with that girdle, like heaven’s come glistering, But a far fairer world encompassing. Unpin that ‘spangled’ breastplate which you wear, That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
By this these angels from an evil sprite, Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright. License my roving hands, and let them go Before, behind, between, above, below.
3. Robert Burns
This trailblazer of the Romantic Movement is also the national poet of Scotland, and is even known as “The Bard” in his native land (take that Shakespeare!). But Burns is probably best known by students as that poet who wrote in that weird Scots dialect you can’t really understand.
You may know that we sing the lyrics to his poem Auld Lang Syne every New Year’s Eve, and that his poem, Comin’ Thro’ the Rye, is the children’s song misinterpreted by Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—but you probably didn’t know it has a more explicit version.
The traditional verse of one of the stanzas is like this:
Gin a body meet a body Comin thro' the grain, Gin a body kiss a body, The thing's a body's ain. Comin’ thro’ the rye, etc.
While the dirty version of the same stanza reads like this:
Gin a body meet a body Comin’ thro’ the grain, Gin a body f**k a body, C**t’s a body’s ain. Comin’ thro’ the rye, etc.
In the dialect Burns uses, “gin” means “if” and “ain” means “own,” but those other words, well, they’ll just have to speak for themselves.
Known for his long narrative poem the Metamorphoses, Ovid is one of the best writers in all of Latin literature. His mastery of the elegiac couplet is unparalleled, and his writing greatly influenced everyone from J.M.W. Turner to Miguel de Cervantes. But who knew he was kind of a perv? Ovid's first completed book of poetry, Amores, is a poetic account of a love affair with a high-class lady named Corinna. Here is a selection from that book's In Summer’s Heat:
Then came Corinna in a long, loose gown, Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down, Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed, Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped. I snatched her gown, being thin the harm was small, Yet strived she to be covered therwithal, And, striving thus as one that would be chaste, Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last. Stark naked as she stood before mine eye, Not one wen in her body could I spy. What arms and shoulders did I touch and see? How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me? How smooth a belly under her waist saw I? How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh? To leave the rest, all liked me passing well; I clinged her naked body, down she fell. Judge you the rest. Being tired, she bade me kiss. Jove send me more such afternoons as this.
5. John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester
Despite being a courtier of King Charles II in the 17th century, John Wilmot was one of the most notorious rakes in British history. He spent some time in the Tower of London for plotting to kidnap a young countess who refused his hand in marriage, impersonated a gynecologist in order to examine young women without provoking their husbands’ suspicions, and produced poetic works of such depravity that they were all virtually banned during the Victorian era. Here are a couple of selections from his poem about a lovely little walk in the park called A Ramble in St. James’ Park:
Much wine had passed, with grave discourse Of who f**ks who, and who does worse (Such as you usually do hear From those that diet at the Bear), When I, who still take care to see Drunkenness relieved by lechery, Went out into St. James’ Park To cool my head and fire my heart. But though St. James has th’honour on ‘t, ‘Tis consecrate to pr**k and c**t. There, by most incestuous birth, Strange woods spring from the teeming earth.
And nightly now beneath their shade Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made. Unto this all-sin-sheltering grove Whores of the bulk and the alcove, Great ladies, chambermaids and drudges, The ragpicker, and heiress trudges. Carmen, divines, great lords, and tailors, Prentices, poets, pimps, and jailers, Footmen, fine fops, do here arrive, And here promiscuously swive.
6. Jonathan Swift
The Irish writer of Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the greatest satirist ever. He is, after all, the man who mockingly suggested that the poor Irish population might ease their troubles by selling their children as food for upper class English ladies and gentlemen in A Modest Proposal. His poem The Lady’s Dressing-Room is also ingeniously hyperbolic, and tells of a man named Strephon who sneaks into his mistress Celia’s empty dressing room to fawn over his ideal image of her only to find himself repulsed by what he finds. Here are a couple of stanzas:
To stinking smoke it turns the flame, Poisoning the flesh from whence it came, And up exhales a greasy stench For which you cursed careless wench: So, things which must not be expressed When plumped into the reeking chest Send up an excremental smell To taint the parts from whence they fell: The petticoats and gown perfume And waft a stink around every room. Thus, finishing his grand survey, The swain, disgusted, slunk away, Repeating, in his amorous fits,Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia sh*ts.
7. W.H. Auden
The Funeral Blues writer’s influence was debated throughout his life among early twentieth century literary types in his native England, especially in the shadow of other poetic giants like T.S. Eliot. But the New York School of poets, including John Ashbery, later embraced him. In this section from his poem Babies in Their Mothers’ Arms, he writes about, ahem, "self-love":
With the Duchy of his mind: All his lifetime he will find Swollen knee or aching tooth Hostile to his quest for truth; Never will his pr**k belong To his world of right and wrong, Nor its values comprehend Who is foe and who is friend.
8. ee cummings
Cummings embraced various avant garde styles in his poetry, and would let Dada and surrealism influence his writing after he visited Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Like many of his poems, she being Brand foregoes many rules of English syntax, but its explicit car metaphors don’t leave much to the imagination. Here's a section:
(having thoroughly oiled the universal joint tested my gas felt of her radiator made sure her springs were O. K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her up,slipped the clutch (and then somehow got into reverse she kicked what the hell) next minute i was back in neutral tried and again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg. ing(my lev-er Right- oh and her gears being in A 1 shape passed from low through second-in-to-high like greasedlightning) just as we turned the corner of Divinity avenue i touched the accelerator and give her the juice,good
9. Seamus Heaney
Ask any literary type who the best living poet is, and Heaney’s name will inevitably be in the mix. The winner of countless literary awards, including the 1995 Nobel Prize, he was called “the most important Irish poet since Yeats” by former Poet Laureate Robert Lowell. But Heaney is also known to sometimes write suggestively cheeky poetry as well. His poem Victorian Guitar includes the epigraph “Inscribed ‘Belonged to Louisa Catherine Coe before her marriage to John Charles Smith, March 1852’,” and features the following stanzas:
Louisa Catherine Smith could not be light. Far more than a maiden name Was cancelled by him on the first night. I believe he cannot have known your touch Like this instrument – for clearly John Charles did not hold with fingering— Which is obviously a lady’s: The sound-box trim as a girl in stays, The neck right for the smallest span. Did you even keep track of it as a wife? Do you know the man who has it now Is giving it the time of its life?
10. John Berryman
The Poetry Foundation
Berryman won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his nebulous, semi-autobiographical collection of poems, 77 Dream Songs, which follows an unfortunate series of events in the life of a main character, who bears a resemblance to Berryman, named Henry. The ever-evolving poems are known for their unusual phrases and changes in perspective. Also, they’re sometimes dirty in an abstract way. Take, for example, Dream Song 4:
Filling her compact & delicious body with chicken páprika, she glanced at me twice. Fainting with interest, I hungered back and only the fact of her husband & four other people kept me from springing on her or falling at her little feet and crying 'You are the hottest one for years of night Henry's dazed eyes have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon (despairing) my spumoni.--Sir Bones: is stuffed, de world, wif feeding girls. -Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes downcast . . . The slob beside her feasts . . . What wonders is she sitting on, over there? The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars. Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry. -Mr. Bones: there is.
11. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine
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The absinthe-tinged love affair between Rimbaud and Verlaine is the stuff of literary legend. The 17-year-old Rimbaud wrote to the 27-year-old Verlaine—whose wife was pregnant at the time—and soon moved into their home in Paris in 1871. Shortly after, the two lovers fled to London and lived in relative squalor, spending days on end at the Reading Room in the British Museum because the pens and ink were free. Their relationship grew extremely bitter, and eventually came to an end after Verlaine was sentenced to prison for shooting Rimbaud and wounding him in the left wrist. Rimbaud would end up writing influential classics such as A Season in Hell before abandoning poetry altogether at 20. During their travels in London, the two collaborated on a sonnet called Lines on the Arsehole, a ribald tribute to, um, the anus. Verlaine contributed an octet and Rimbaud contributed a sestet. Here are some salacious sections from both poets.
Crumpled like a carnation, mauve and dim It breathes, cowering humbly in the moss Still wet with love which trickles down across The soft slope of white buttocks to its rim.
My mouth mates often with this breathing-hole. While matter goes and comes, my jealous soul Makes tawny tears there in its next of sighs
Sources: The Faber Book of Blue Verse, edited by John Whitworth; Inventions of the March Hare - Poems 1909-1917 by TS Eliot and edited by Christopher Ricks; Poets.org.