A selection of works from the British long eighteenth century describing beauty, especially female beauty.
From Songs and Other Poems (1661). Brome is a minor Restoration poet, known for supporting the Royalists through the Civil Wars. His fondness for imitating the Greek poet Anacreon earned him the nickname “the English Anacreon.”
“Painted” here means wearing cosmetics — most references to “painting” in reference to beauty in the period have this meeting. Most moralists considered cosmetics a failing in women, though the complaining did little to change the fashion for makeup.
Leave these deluding tricks and showes,
In your adored face and hair,
Nature her self, her own work does
From The Treasury of Musick (1669). Lawes is known as a composer, and wrote musical settings for many seventeenth-century poems.
Tell me no more her Eyes are like
Tell me no more her Breasts do grow 
Tell me no more the restless Spheares
No, say her Eyes Portenders are
Say that her Breasts, though cold as Snow,
Say that although like to the Moon.
That so by one of them I might 
From Poesis Rediviva (1655). Collop was a physician who published only this collection of poems. The title of the collection means “Poetry Revived.” The identity of “M.S.” is unknown, but the poem shows an interesting attempt for a white Englishman — raised to assume beauty is always white, the whiter the better — to consider the possibility of beauty in a black African woman. (“Ethiopian” could be used at the time for anyone from Africa.)
Black specks for beauty spots white faces need:
Oroonoko is now considered a major work; it tells the story of the capture of a black African prince, his forcible transportation to Surinam in South America, and the violent slave rebellion he led before being killed. As in Collop’s poem above, some of the most interesting passages are where Behn tries to describe non-European beauty.
I do not pretend, in giving you the History of this ROYAL SLAVE, to entertain my Reader with the Adventures of a feign’d Hero, whose Life and Fortunes Fancy may manage at the Poet’s Pleasure; nor in relating the Truth, design to adorn it with any Accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him: And it shall come simply into the World, recommended by its own proper Merits, and natural Intrigues; there being enough of Reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the Addition of Invention.
I was myself an Eye-witness to a great Part of what you will find here set down; and what I could not be Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself, who gave us the whole Transactions of his Youth: And I shall omit, for Brevity’s Sake, a thousand little Accidents of his Life, which, however pleasant to us, where History was scarce, and Adventures very rare, yet might prove tedious and heavy to my Reader, in a World where he finds Diversions for every Minute, new and strange. But we who were perfectly charm’d with the Character of this great Man, were curious to gather every Circumstance of his Life.
The Scene of the last Part of his Adventures lies in a Colony in America, called Surinam, in the West-Indies.
But before I give you the Story of this Gallant Slave, ’tis fit I tell you the Manner of bringing them to these new Colonies; those they make Use of there, not being Natives of the Place: for those we live with in perfect Amity, without daring to command ’em; but, on the contrary, caress ’em with all the brotherly and friendly Affection in the World; trading with them for their Fish, Venison, Buffaloes Skins, and little Rarities; as Marmosets, a sort of Monkey, as big as a Rat or Weasel, but of a marvellous and delicate Shape, having Face and Hands like a Human Creature; and Cousheries, a little Beast in the Form and Fashion of a Lion, as big as a Kitten, but so exactly made in all Parts like that Noble Beast, that it is it in Miniature: Then for little Paraketoes, great Parrots, Muckaws, and a thousand other Birds and Beasts of wonderful and surprizing Forms, Shapes, and Colours: For Skins of prodigious Snakes, of which there are some three-score Yards in Length; as is the Skin of one that may be seen at his Majesty’s Antiquary’s; where are also some rare Flies, of amazing Forms and Colours, presented to ’em by myself; some as big as my Fist, some less; and all of various Excellencies, such as Art cannot imitate. Then we trade for Feathers, which they order into all Shapes, make themselves little short Habits of ’em, and glorious Wreaths for their Heads, Necks, Arms and Legs, whose Tinctures are unconceivable. I had a Set of these presented to me, and I gave ’em to the King’s Theatre; it was the Dress of the Indian Queen, infinitely admir’d by Persons of Quality; and was inimitable. Besides these, a thousand little Knacks, and Rarities in Nature; and some of Art, as their Baskets, Weapons, Aprons, &c. We dealt with ’em with Beads of all Colours, Knives, Axes, Pins and Needles, which they us’d only as Tools to drill Holes with in their Ears, Noses and Lips, where they hang a great many little Things; as long Beads, Bits of Tin, Brass or Silver beat thin, and any shining Trinket. The Beads they weave into Aprons about a Quarter of an Ell long, and of the same Breadth; working them very prettily in Flowers of several Colours; which Apron they wear just before ’em, as Adam and Eve did the Fig-leaves; the Men wearing a long Stripe of Linen, which they deal with us for. They thread these Beads also on long Cotton-threads, and make Girdles to tie their Aprons to, which come twenty times, or more, about the Waste, and then cross, like a Shoulder-belt, both Ways, and round their Necks, Arms and Legs. This Adornment, with their long black Hair, and the Face painted in little Specks or Flowers here and there, makes ’em a wonderful Figure to behold. Some of the Beauties, which indeed are finely shap’d, as almost all are, and who have pretty Features, are charming and novel; for they have all that is called Beauty, except the Colour, which is a reddish Yellow; or after a new Oiling, which they often use to themselves, they are of the Colour of a new Brick, but smooth, soft and sleek. They are extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touch’d. And tho’ they are all thus naked, if one lives for ever among ’em, there is not to be seen an indecent Action, or Glance: and being continually us’d to see one another so unadorn’d, so like our first Parents before the Fall, it seems as if they had no Wishes, there being nothing to heighten Curiosity: but all you can see, you see at once, and every Moment see; and where there is no Novelty, there can be no Curiosity. Not but I have seen a handsome young Indian, dying for Love of a very beautiful young Indian Maid; but all his Courtship was, to fold his Arms, pursue her with his Eyes, and Sighs were all his Language: While she, as if no such Lover were present, or rather as if she desired none such, carefully guarded her Eyes from beholding him; and never approach’d him, but she looked down with all the blushing Modesty I have seen in the most Severe and Cautious of our World. And these People represented to me an absolute Idea of the first State of Innocence, before Man knew how to sin: And ’tis most evident and plain, that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and virtuous Mistress. ’Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the World, than all the Inventions of Man: Religion would here but destroy that Tranquillity they possess by Ignorance; and Laws would but teach ’em to know Offences, of which now they have no Notion. They once made Mourning and Fasting for the Death of the English Governor, who had given his Hand to come on such a Day to ’em, and neither came nor sent; believing, when a Man’s Word was past, nothing but Death could or should prevent his keeping it: And when they saw he was not dead, they ask’d him what Name they had for a Man who promis’d a Thing he did not do? The Governor told them, Such a Man was a Lyar, which was a Word of Infamy to a Gentleman. Then one of ’em reply’d, Governor, you are a Lyar, and guilty of that Infamy. They have a native Justice, which knows no Fraud; and they understand no Vice, or Cunning, but when they are taught by the White Men. They have Plurality of Wives; which, when they grow old, serve those that succeed ’em, who are young, but with a Servitude easy and respected; and unless they take Slaves in War, they have no other Attendants.
Coramantien, a Country of Blacks so called, was one of those Places in which they found the most advantageous Trading for these Slaves, and thither most of our great Traders in that Merchandize traffick; for that Nation is very warlike and brave; and having a continual Campaign, being always in Hostility with one neighbouring Prince or other, they had the Fortune to take a great many Captives: for all they took in Battle were sold as Slaves; at least those common Men who could not ransom themselves. Of these Slaves so taken, the General only has all the Profit; and of these Generals our Captains and Masters of Ships buy all their Freights.
The King of Coramantien was of himself a Man of an hundred and odd Years old, and had no Son, tho’ he had many beautiful Black Wives: for most certainly there are Beauties that can charm of that Colour. In his younger Years he had had many gallant Men to his Sons, thirteen of whom died in Battle, conquering when they fell; and he had only left him for his Successor, one Grand-child, Son to one of these dead Victors, who, as soon as he could bear a Bow in his Hand, and a Quiver at his Back, was sent into the Field, to be train’d up by one of the oldest Generals to War; where, from his natural Inclination to Arms, and the Occasions given him, with the good Conduct of the old General, he became, at the Age of seventeen, one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars: so that he was ador’d as the Wonder of all that World, and the Darling of the Soldiers. Besides, he was adorn’d with a native Beauty, so transcending all those of his gloomy Race, that he struck an Awe and Reverence, even into those that knew not his Quality; as he did into me, who beheld him with Surprize and Wonder, when afterwards he arrived in our World.
This great and just Character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme Curiosity to see him, especially when I knew he spoke French and English, and that I could talk with him. But tho’ I had heard so much of him, I was as greatly surprized when I saw him, as if I had heard nothing of him; so beyond all Report I found him. He came into the Room, and addressed himself to me, and some other Women, with the best Grace in the World. He was pretty tall, but of a Shape the most exact that can be fancy’d: The most famous Statuary could not form the Figure of a Man more admirably turn’d from Head to Foot. His Face was not of that brown rusty Black which most of that Nation are, but a perfect Ebony, or polished Jet. His Eyes were the most aweful that could be seen, and very piercing; the White of ’em being like Snow, as were his Teeth. His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: His Mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one Grace wanting, that bears the Standard of true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the Aids of Art, which was by pulling it out with a Quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular Care. Nor did the Perfections of his Mind come short of those of his Person; for his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject: and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civiliz’d in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most illustrious Courts.
Jonathan Swift was one of the most successful satirical poets of the early eighteenth century. This poem on “Corinna,” a “ beautiful nymph,” is a powerfully repulsive satire on conceptions of beauty and ugliness.
Corinna, Pride of Drury-Lane, 1
Corinna wakes. A dreadful
The Nymph, tho’ in this mangled
1. Drury Lane, like Covent Garden below, was a fashionable area of London, but often frequented by prostitutes.
2. Toast, “A celebrated woman whose health is often drunk” (Johnson).
3. Rake, “A loose, disorderly, vicious, wild, gay, thoughtless fellow; a man addicted to pleasure” (Johnson).
4. Tick, “credit.”
5. Plumper, “Something worn in the mouth to swell out the cheeks” (Johnson).
6. Dug, “A pap; a nipple; a teat: spoken of beasts, or in malice or contempt of human beings" (Johnson).
7. Bodice, “Stays; a waistcoat quilted with whalebone, worn by women” (Johnson).
8. Shankers, Issues, and running Sores, presumably from venereal disease. Shankers, “chancres.”
9. Front, “forehead.”
10. Bolus, “A form of medicine in which the ingredients are made up into a soft mass, larger than pills, to be swallowed at once” (Johnson).
11. Bridewell, a woman’s prison. Compter, prisons controlled by sheriffs.
12. Transported can suggest either that she goes to Jamaica in her imagination, or that she has been sent to work in the New World as punishment for a crime.
13. “—Et longam incomitata videtur/Ire viam—” (Swift’s note): “She seemed to be going on a long journey alone” (from Virgil’s Aeneid, 4.467–68).
14. Cully, “A man deceived or imposed upon; as, by sharpers or a strumpet” (Johnson).
15. Fancy, “Imagination; the power by which the mind forms to itself images and representations of things, persons, or scenes of being” (Johnson).
16. Dun, “A clamorous, importunate, troublesome creditor” (Johnson).
17. Rub, “Collision; hindrance; obstruction” (Johnson).
18. Issue-peas, pieces of ivy root rolled up and inserted into open wounds to keep them running.
19. Shock, a common name for a lapdog (as in Belinda’s lapdog in Pope’s Rape of the Lock).
20. Dizen, “To dress; to deck; to rig out. A low word” (Johnson).
From Poems on Several Occasions (1748). Warton was, like his brother Joseph, an important critic, and served first as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, then as Poet Laureate, both very prestigious titles. His poetry isn’t much read today outside specialist circles, though The Pleasures of Melancholy was famous in its time.
Mistaken Nature here has join’d
So in rich Jars from China brought,
From A Collection of Original Poems (1755). Derrick was an Irish poet based in London. He benefited from the friendship of some powerful literary friends, though he had more than his share literary enemies as well. Here again, “painting” refers to the use of cosmetics. “Dr. Donne” is John Donne, the Metaphysical poet of the seventeenth century, whose “Paradox 2” is “That Women Ought to Paint Themselves.”
Since you confess that beauty’s your delight,
Why should the use of paint be disallow’d?
Hence, Marcus, learn that ignorance is best, 
Do’st thou admire yon blazing orb on high,
Let delicacy then the maiden spare,
From The Poems and Miscellaneous Compositions (1777). Whitehead was a member of the notorious “monks of Medmenham Abbey,” better known as the Hellfire Club, a group of rich men who gathered to engage in scandalous behavior. He wrote a number of satires; three years after he died in 1774, his works were gathered together in a collected edition.
Ye Belles, and ye Flirts, and ye pert little Things,
The girl, who on beauty depends for support,
The Venus, whose statue delights all mankind,
The blushes of Morn, and the mildness of May,
From Poems (1793). Very little is known about Kendall, other than that he was publishing between 1791 and 1816. This poem comes from a collection published in Exeter, in southwest England.
Virgins! mild as vernal showers,
We your tender cheeks to flush,
Thus in life’s enchanting bloom 
But when passion’s eager rage