Female Beauty

Edited by Jack Lynch

A selection of works from the British long eighteenth century describing beauty, especially female beauty.

To a Painted Lady

By Alexander Brome

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,
   Be honest and down-right;
VVhat Nature did to view expose,
   Don’t you keep out of sight.
The novice youth may chance admire, [5]
   Your dressings, paints and spells:
But we that are expert desire
   Your sex for somewhat else.


In your adored face and hair,
   What vertue could you find, [10]
If Women were, like Angels fair
   And every man were blind.
You need no time or pains to wast
   To set your beauties forth,
With oyles, and paint and druggs, that cost [15]
   More then the face is worth.


Nature her self, her own work does
   And hates all needless arts,
And all your artificial showes
   Disgrace your Nat’ral parts. [20]
You’re flesh and blood and so are we,
   Let flesh and blood alone,
To Love all compounds hateful be,
   Give me the pure or none.

Beauty in Eclipse

By Henry Lawes

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
To rising Suns, that wonder strike;
For if ’twere so, how could it be,
They could be thus eclips’d to me?

Tell me no more her Breasts do grow [5]
Like rising Hills of melting Snow;
For if ’twere so, how could they lye
So near the Sun-shine of her eye?

Tell me no more the restless Spheares
Compar’d to her voyce, fright our ears; [10]
For if ’twere so, how then could death
Dwell with such discord in her breath?

No, say her Eyes Portenders are
Of ruine, or some blazing starre,
Else would I feel from that fair fire [15]
Some heat to cherish my desire.

Say that her Breasts, though cold as Snow,
Are hard as Marble, when I wooe;
Else they would soften and relent
With sighs inflamed, from me sent. [20]

Say that although like to the Moon.
She heavenly fair, yet chang’d as soon;
Else she would constant once remain
Either to pity or disdain.

That so by one of them I might [25]
Be kept alive, or murther’d quite;
For ’tis no less cruell there to kill,
Where life doth but increase the ill.

On an Ethiopian Beauty, M.S.

By John Collop

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:
How fair are you whose face is black indeed?
See how in hoods and masks some faces hide,
As if asham’d the white should be espi’d.
View how a blacker veil o’respreads the skies, [5]
And a black scarf on earth’s rich bosome lies.
VVhen worth is dead, all do their blacks pur on,
As if they would revive the worth that’s gone.
Surely in black Divinity doth dwell;
By th’ black garb onely we Divines can tell. [10]
Devils ne’re take this shape, but shapes of light;
Devils which mankind hurt, appear in white,
VVhen Natures riches in one masse was hurl’d,
Thus black was th’ face of all the infant world.
VVhat th’ world calls fair is foolish, ’tis allow’d, [15]
That you who are so black, be justly proud.

Selections from Oroonoko

By Aphra Behn

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.

A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed

Jonathan Swift

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 
For whom no Shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a batter’d, strolling Toast; 2 
No drunken Rake 3  to pick her up, [5]
No Cellar where on Tick 4  to sup;
Returning at the Midnight Hour;
Four Stories climbing to her Bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legg’d Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair: [10]
Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse’s Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care, and first displays ’em, [15]
Then in a Play-Book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dextrously her Plumpers 5  draws,
That serve to fill her hollow Jaws.
Untwists a Wire; and from her Gums
A Set of Teeth completely comes. [20]
Pulls out the Rags contriv’d to prop
Her flabby Dugs 6  and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely Goddess
Unlaces next her Steel-Rib’d Bodice; 7 
Which by the Operator’s Skill, [25]
Press down the Lumps, the Hollows fill,
Up goes her Hand, and off she slips
The Bolsters that supply her Hips.
With gentlest Touch, she next explores
Her Shankers, Issues, running Sores, 8  [30]
Effects of many a sad Disaster;
And then to each applies a Plaister.
But must, before she goes to Bed,
Rub off the Dawbs of White and Red;
And smooth the Furrows in her Front, 9  [35]
With greasy Paper stuck upon’t.
She takes a Bolus 10  e’er she sleeps;
And then between two Blankets creeps.
With Pains of Love tormented lies;
Or if she chance to close her Eyes, [40]
Of Bridewell and the Compter dreams, 11 
And feels the Lash, and faintly screams;
Or, by a faithless Bully drawn,
At some Hedge-Tavern lies in Pawn;
Or to Jamaica seems transported, 12  [45]
Alone, and by no Planter courted; 13 
Or, near Fleet-Ditch’s oozy Brinks,
Surrounded with a Hundred Stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lye,
And snap some Cully 14  passing by; [50]
Or, struck with Fear, her Fancy 15  runs
On Watchmen, Constables and Duns, 16 
From whom she meets with frequent Rubs; 17 
But, never from Religious Clubs;
Whose Favour she is sure to find, [55]
Because she pays ’em all in Kind.

   Corinna wakes. A dreadful Sight!
Behold the Ruins of the Night!
A wicked Rat her Plaister stole,
Half eat, and dragg’d it to his Hole. [60]
The Crystal Eye, alas, was miss’t;
And Puss had on her Plumpers p—t.
A Pigeon pick’d her Issue-Peas; 18 
And Shock 19  her Tresses fill’d with Fleas.

   The Nymph, tho’ in this mangled Plight, [65]
Must ev’ry Morn her Limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her Arts
To recollect the scatter’d Parts?
Or shew the Anguish, Toil, and Pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again? [70]
The bashful Muse will never bear
In such a Scene to interfere.
Corinna in the Morning dizen’d, 20 
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.


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).

On Beauty with Ill Qualities

By Thomas Warton

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
A beauteous Face and ugly Mind;
In vain the faultless Features strike,
When Soul and Body are unlike;
Pity, those snowy Breasts should hide, [5]
Deceit, and Avarice, and Pride.


So in rich Jars from China brought,
With glowing Colours gayly wrought,
Oft-times the subtle Spider dwells,
With secret Venom bloated swells, [10]
Weaves all his fatal Nets within,
As unsuspected, as unseen.

A Defence of Women Painting:
The Thought from Dr. Donne

By Samuel Derrick

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,
That what’s unseemly’s hateful to the sight,
Marcus, I pray, the gentle maiden spare,
Who tries, by art, more lovely to appear:
Condemn her not, if to improve her waist, [5]
You find her straitly by the stays embrac’d;
If she the hand of gentle Crispin prove,
The fault of halting nature to remove;
If Greenough’s tincture whiten o’er her teeth,
Or to perfume she owes her sweeter breath: [10]
To please thy eye, she adds to ev’ry grace,
And with vermilion blooms her tempting face;
There Cupid sits, thron’d in the orb of sight
Unseen, secure in all the glare of light;
Thence he exulting flings the fatal dart, [15]
Unerring still to wound the lover’s heart:
Thence do we pluck the soul-inspiring kiss,
The grateful prelude of ecstatic bliss;
The kiss to sympathy the bosom warms,
And ev’ry faculty to love alarms. [20]

Why should the use of paint be disallow’d?
Beauty’s but colour properly bestow’d;
And when for this the female you contemn,
’Tis not the art — the knowledge you condemn.

Hence, Marcus, learn that ignorance is best, [25]
Knowledge is irksome, while the fool is bless’d;
Beneath a Hudson’s, or a Wilson’s hand,
Should the lov’d Charlotte rise at your command,
Th’ enliven’d canvass glow with ev’ry grace,
Seen in her form, and smiling in her face, [30]
No pleasure would your nicer taste receive,
Because ’tis Art that bids the picture live?

Do’st thou admire yon blazing orb on high,
Yon twinkling stars that gild the evening sky?
Yes! yes! their vivid colours charm your eye: [35]
Yet search, and ’tis illusion all, you’ll find,
’Tis fancy only has these colours join’d;
And if your Charlotte paints, of this be sure,
Her actions too she well can varnish o’er;
A trick you little ween’d — nor knew before. [40]

Let delicacy then the maiden spare,
Who tries, by art, more lovely to appear.

Song, Addressed to the Ladies

By Paul Whitehead

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,
   Who trip in this frolicsome round,
Prithee tell me from whence this indecency springs,
   The sexes at once to confound?
What means the Cock’d Hat, and the masculine air, [5]
   With each motion design’d to perplex?
Bright eyes were intended to languish, not stare,
   And softness the test of your sex,
     Dear Girls,
    And softness the test of your sex. [10]


The girl, who on beauty depends for support,
   May call ev’ry art to her aid;
The Bosom display’d, and the Petticoat short,
   Are samples she gives of her trade:
But you, on whom Fortune indulgently smiles, [15]
   And whom Pride has preserv’d from the snare,
Should slily attack us with coyness and wiles,
   Not with open and insolent air,
     Brave Girls,
    Not with, &c. [20]


The Venus, whose statue delights all mankind,
   Shrinks modestly back from the view,
And kindly shou’d seem by the artist design’d
   To serve as a model for you:
Then learn with her beauties to copy her air, [25]
   Nor venture too much to reveal;
Our fancies will paint what you cover with care,
   And double each charm you conceal,
     Sweet Girls,
    And double, &c. [30]


The blushes of Morn, and the mildness of May,
   Are charms which no art can procure:
Oh! be but yourselves, and our homage we’ll pay,
   And your empire is solid and sure:
But if, Amazon-like, you attack your Gallants, [35]
   And put us in fear of our lives,
You may do very well for Sisters and Aunts,
   But, believe me, you’ll never be Wives,
     Poor Girls,
    Believe me, &c. [40]

Female Beauty

By William Kendall

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,
Sweeter far than opening flowers,
Fond seducers! would ye know
Whence your soft allurements flow?
Elves alone by nature led, [5]
Elves your morn of beauty spread!

We your tender cheeks to flush,
Thrice refine the rose’s blush;
For your veins’ delicious blue,
Steep a violet leaf in dew; [10]
For your skins’ resplendent white,
Steal a ray of lunar light;
For the glances of your eyes,
Snatch a sunbeam from the skies!

Thus in life’s enchanting bloom [15]
Fairies every grace illume:
Fairies hail your morn of youth,
Tranquil hour of artless truth —
Pleased when mortal charms dispense
Lovely looks of innocence! [20]

But when passion’s eager rage
Sheds th’ untimely blight of age;
When delusive art appears,
Faithless accents, feigning tears —
All your blest protectors fly! [25]
All your beauties fade and die!