Poetry of the Bard–His Narrative Works


William Shakespeare

Being a self-proclaimed “Shakespeare Nerd” I am not only interested in the Bard’s life and plays, but in his poetry as well.

Many people know of William Shakespeare’s plays, or specific lines from them, (i.e. “To be, or not to be”), even if they have not read many, or any, of his plays. Now for the nerds like myself, if you love Shakespeare as much as I do, then chances are that you know of his poems as well. But even so, there may be some who are not as familiar with Shakespeare’s poems as they are with his plays. So I’ve decided that I will discuss the poems here, in chronological order, as a two- or three-part blog. I will talk about his poems, describe what they are about, and where Shakespeare gained the inspiration for them.

In his life, Shakespeare wrote four poems and 154 Sonnets. This time, I will discuss his first poems, two narrative poems titled, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Poems written by William Shakespeare

Poems Written by William Shakespeare. Small octavo of the First Edition of Shakespeare’s Poems, 1640.

Venus and Adonis

In 1593, the theatres were all closed down due to the plague; this would happen a couple of times more later on. Yet during this first time, Shakespeare wrote his first narrative poem, and it was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, thusly:

To the Right Honourable

Henry Wriothesley

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, attributed to John de Critz, 1603.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.
Right Honourable,
I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the  world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden: Only, if your honour  seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I  have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I  shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still  so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart’s content:  which I wish may always answer your wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation.
Your honour’s in all duty,
William Shakespeare.

Venus and Adonis is 1,194 lines, and tells the story of Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire, who is pursued by the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus. Venus attempts to woo Adonis, and get him to fall in love with her, but he is only interested in hunting, and the more that Venus tries to win him, the less interested he becomes in her. This is established in the poem’s opening stanza:

Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face 
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn, 
Rose-cheek’d Adonis hied him to the chase; 
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn; 
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him, 
And like a bold-faced suitor ‘gins to woo him. 

Through the course of the poem, Venus continues to lust after Adonis, while he is only irritated and annoyed by her persistence:

Once more the engine of her thoughts began: 
“O fairest mover on this mortal round, 
Would thou wert as I am, and I a man, 
My heart all whole as thine, thy heart my wound; 
For one sweet look thy help I would assure thee, 
Though nothing but my body’s bane would cure thee!” 

“Give me my hand,” saith he, “why dost thou feel it?” 
“Give me my heart,” saith she, “and thou shalt have it: 
O, give it me, lest thy hard heart do steel it, 
And being steel’d, soft sighs can never grave it: 
Then love’s deep groans I never shall regard, 
Because Adonis’ heart hath made mine hard.” 

“For shame,” he cries, “let go, and let me go; 
My day’s delight is past, my horse is gone, 
And ’tis your fault I am bereft him so: 
I pray you hence, and leave me here alone; 
For all my mind, my thought, my busy care, 
Is how to get my palfrey from the mare.” 

This is after Adonis’s horse, seeing a mare, broke free of his bounds and went after her. Venus tries to convince Adonis, that he should do as his horse did:

Venus and Adonis-Quarto

Title page of the first quarto of Venus and Adonis, 1593.

Thus she replies: “Thy palfrey, as he should, 
Welcomes the warm approach of sweet desire: 
Affection is a coal that must be cool’d; 
Else, suffer’d, it will set the heart on fire: 
The sea hath bounds, but deep desire hath none;
Therefore no marvel though thy horse be gone.”

Adonis maintains his view on love:

“I know not love,” quoth he, “nor will not know it, 
Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it; 
Tis much to borrow, and I will not owe it; 
My love to love is love but to disgrace it; 
For I have heard it is a life in death, 
That laughs and weeps, and all but with a breath.”

He manages to free himself from Venus’s embrace, and goes after his horse, and the boar he was hunting beforehand. It comes to a tragic end however, when Venus finds Adonis killed by the boar instead:

As falcon to the lure, away she flies; 
The grass stoops not, she treads on it so light; 
And in her haste unfortunately spies 
The foul boar’s conquest on her fair delight; 
Which seen, her eyes, as murder’d with the view, 
Like stars ashamed of day, themselves withdrew.

Adonis being taken away from her so suddenly and violently, causes Venus to curse love, and anyone who ever loves someone else:

Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy: 
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend: 
It shall be waited on with jealousy, 
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end, 
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low, 
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe. 

It shall be fickle, false and full of fraud, 
Bud and be blasted in a breathing-while; 
The bottom poison, and the top o’erstraw’d 
With sweets that shall the truest sight beguile: 
The strongest body shall it make most weak, 
Strike the wise dumb and teach the fool to speak. 

Venus and Adonis by Titian

Venus and Adonis by Titian, 1554.

It shall be sparing and too full of riot, 
Teaching decrepit age to tread the measures; 
The staring ruffian shall it keep in quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures; 
It shall be raging-mad and silly-mild, 
Make the young old, the old become a child. 

It shall suspect where is no cause of fear; 
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust; 
It shall be merciful and too severe, 
And most deceiving when it seems most just; 
Perverse it shall be where it shows most toward, 
Put fear to valour, courage to the coward. 

It shall be cause of war and dire events, 
And set dissension ‘twixt the son and sire; 
Subject and servile to all discontents, 
As dry combustious matter is to fire: 
Sith in his prime Death doth my love destroy, 
They that love best their loves shall not enjoy.’ 

The mythology of Adonis, speaks of his rebirth as well, which is also featured in Shakespeare’s work:

By this, the boy that by her side lay kill’d 
Was melted like a vapour from her sight, 
And in his blood that on the ground lay spill’d, 
A purple flower sprung up, chequer’d with white, 
Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood 
Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood. 

Distraught, Venus plucks the flower and takes it with her as she flies away, planning to confine herself, and never be seen by the world again:

Thus weary of the world, away she hies, 
And yokes her silver doves; by whose swift aid 
Their mistress mounted through the empty skies 
In her light chariot quickly is convey’d; 
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen 
Means to immure herself and not be seen.

Ovid by Signorelli

Ovid by Luca Signorelli.

Shakespeare is said to have gleaned the inspiration for Venus and Adonis from the work of Publius Ovidius Naso a.k.a. Ovid.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 10,  tells the tale of Venus and Adonis, yet in a different way.

Ovid’s version not only says that Venus took Adonis as her first mortal lover, but that they were close consorts, and she accompanied him on his hunting expeditions. It ends the same way however. Venus warns him against hunting dangerous animals, and Adonis is killed by a boar.

The Rape of Lucrece

This play was written in 1594, one year after Venus and Adonis, and is 1,906 lines long. This too, was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton:

To the Right Honourable

Shakespeare's dedication to Southampton in Lucrece

Shakespeare’s dedication to Wriothesley in The Rape of Lucrece, 1594.

Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.
The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would show greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with all happiness.
Your lordship’s in all duty,
William Shakespeare.

In his dedication to the Earl in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare promised to write him a “graver labour”. He accomplished this with his second, and last, narrative poem. As the title implies, this poem is indeed “graver” and darker than Shakespeare’s first poem.

The poem begins with the Argument, which tells what the poem is about.

Set in ancient Rome, 509 BC to be exact, an army meets at the tent of Sextus Tarquinius, (Tarquin), and each man praises the virtues of his wife. Collatinus remarks on the chastity of his wife, Lucrece. Once he is back in Rome, Tarquin steals off to where Lucrece and Collatinus live, her husband not yet returned home:

From the besieged Ardea all in post, 
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire, 
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host, 
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire 
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire 
And girdle with embracing flames the waist 
Of Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste. 

Collatinus’s boasting about Lucrece has already driven Tarquin into desire, and once he sees her, he is captivated by her beauty. In fact, he feels that Collatinus has not praised Lucrece enough:

Now thinks he that her husband’s shallow tongue,–
The niggard prodigal that praised her so,– 
In that high task hath done her beauty wrong,
Which far exceeds his barren skill to show:
Therefore that praise which Collatine doth owe
Enchanted Tarquin answers with surmise,
In silent wonder of still-gazing eyes.

Lucrece suspects nothing of Tarquin and he hides his intentions for the moment, instead telling Lucrece of wondrous deeds achieved by her husband:

He stories to her ears her husband’s fame,
Won in the fields of fruitful Italy;
And decks with praises Collatine’s high name,
Made glorious by his manly chivalry 
With bruised arms and wreaths of victory:
Her joy with heaved-up hand she doth express,
And, wordless, so greets heaven for his success.

He goes to bed soon after this, but cannot sleep. He can only think of Lucrece, and debates with himself, whether he should act on his intentions or not:

As one of which doth Tarquin lie revolving
The sundry dangers of his will’s obtaining;
Yet ever to obtain his will resolving, 
Though weak-built hopes persuade him to abstaining:
Despair to gain doth traffic oft for gaining;
And when great treasure is the meed proposed,
Though death be adjunct, there’s no death supposed.

He deliberates with himself on the lasting effect this will have on him, if he gives in, and tries to think of ways to justify his lust, and his willingness to act upon it:

“Yea, though I die, the scandal will survive, 
And be an eye-sore in my golden coat;
Some loathsome dash the herald will contrive,
To cipher me how fondly I did dote;
That my posterity, shamed with the note
Shall curse my bones, and hold it for no sin
To wish that I their father had not bin.

“What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy? 
For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?
Or what fond beggar, but to touch the crown,
Would with the sceptre straight be strucken down?”

Lucrece title page

Title page of the sixth edition of The Rape of Lucrece.

Collatinus is his friend, so he cannot take his wife for purposes of revenge. He could beg Lucrece for her love, but she is so loving to her husband, that Tarquin knows she would never swear her love for him:

“Had Collatinus kill’d my son or sire,
Or lain in ambush to betray my life,
Or were he not my dear friend, this desire 
Might have excuse to work upon his wife,
As in revenge or quittal of such strife:
But as he is my kinsman, my dear friend,
The shame and fault finds no excuse nor end.

“Shameful it is; ay, if the fact be known: 
Hateful it is; there is no hate in loving:
I’ll beg her love; but she is own:
The worst is but denial and reproving:
My will is strong, past reason’s weak removing.
Who fears a sentence or an old man’s saw 
Shall by a painted cloth be kept in awe.”

The longer he thinks on it, the stronger his lust for Lucrece grows, and he heads for her bedroom.

He is resolute; determined. Even the several locks on her chamber door, and the wind threatening to blow out his torch will not stay him. He considers praying for success, but realizes that the powers that be frown upon the act that he is about to commit. He enters her room, and gazes at her sleeping there:

Her hair, like golden threads, play’d with her breath;
O modest wantons! wanton modesty!
Showing life’s triumph in the map of death,
And death’s dim look in life’s mortality:
Each in her sleep themselves so beautify, 
As if between them twain there were no strife,
But that life lived in death, and death in life.

Her breasts, like ivory globes circled with blue,
A pair of maiden worlds unconquered,
Save of their lord no bearing yoke they knew, 
And him by oath they truly honoured.
These worlds in Tarquin new ambition bred;                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Who, like a foul usurper, went about                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 From this fair throne to heave the owner out.

He cannot resist his temptation or his beating heart:

His drumming heart cheers up his burning eye,
His eye commends the leading to his hand;
His hand, as proud of such a dignity,
Smoking with pride, march’d on to make his stand
On her bare breast, the heart of all her land; 
Whose ranks of blue veins, as his hand did scale,
Left there round turrets destitute and pale.

Lucrece wakes up, alarmed and frightened. He tells her what he means to do and says that it’s her fault because she is so beautiful, and that for the sake of her husband and children, she should yield to him. He explains that he debated with himself whether or not he should do this. If she resists, Tarquin says he will kill her and one of her slaves, and swear that he found them in bed together:

“Lucrece,” quoth he, “this night I must enjoy thee:
If thou deny, then force must work my way,
For in thy bed I purpose to destroy thee: 
That done, some worthless slave of thine I’ll slay,
To kill thine honour with thy life’s decay;
And in thy dead arms do I mean to place him,
Swearing I slew him, seeing thee embrace him.”

She pleads with him, but his ears are deaf to her prayers. She reminds him that he is a knight, and a gentleman who must set examples for others. She speaks of his close friendship to her husband, and the hospitality that she has shown him. She continues to implore him, but Tarquin  cannot ignore the lustful desire within him. He puts out the light and takes her, muffling her cries with her bedclothes:

This said, he sets his foot upon the light,
For light and lust are deadly enemies: 
Shame folded up in blind concealing night,
When most unseen, then most doth tyrannize.
The wolf hath seized his prey, the poor lamb cries;
Till with her own white fleece her voice controll’d
Entombs her outcry in her lips’ sweet fold:

Lucrezia e Tarquinio by Luca Giordano

Lucrezia e Tarquinio, (Lucretia and Tarquin), Luca Giordano.

For with the nightly linen that she wears
He pens her piteous clamours in her head;
Cooling his hot face in the chastest tears
That ever modest eyes with sorrow shed.
O, that prone lust should stain so pure a bed! 
The spots whereof could weeping purify,
Her tears should drop on them perpetually.

But she hath lost a dearer thing than life,
And he hath won what he would lose again:
This forced league doth force a further strife; 
This momentary joy breeds months of pain;
This hot desire converts to cold disdain:
Pure Chastity is rifled of her store,
And Lust, the thief, far poorer than before.

Once the act is done, Tarquin leaves, now bearing a guilty mind, and fearful of what he has committed:

Even in this thought through the dark night he stealeth, 
A captive victor that hath lost in gain;
Bearing away the wound that nothing healeth,
The scar that will, despite of cure, remain;
Leaving his spoil perplex’d in greater pain.
She bears the load of lust he left behind, 
And he the burden of a guilty mind.

Lucrece considers sparing her husband this dishonor by killing herself. She curses Oppurtunity for allowing this to happen, and she asks Time to kill her. She wants to put a curse on Sextus. Suicide seems to be the only option for her, but she will wait until she can tell her husband what has happened. Lucrece sends for her maid, who sympathizes with Lucrece, but knows not why her lady weeps. She asks her maid to bring her quill, ink, and paper.  Here, the author/narrator offers an apology to relieve Lucrece of her guilt. She cannot be to blame for what happened to her, as she was taken ‘by force’:

For men have marble, women waxen, minds,
And therefore are they form’d as marble will;
The weak oppress’d, the impression of strange kinds
Is form’d in them by force, by fraud, or skill:
Then call them not the authors of their ill,
No more than wax shall be accounted evil
Wherein is stamp’d the semblance of a devil.

Lucrece then sends a letter to her husband, urging him to come home as soon as possible, but not yet telling him what happened. Meanwhile, she considers a tapestry on the wall that depicts the fall of Troy, which was also prompted by a rape:

At last she calls to mind where hangs a piece
Of skilful painting, made for Priam’s Troy:
Before the which is drawn the power of Greece. 
For Helen’s rape the city to destroy,
Threatening cloud-kissing Ilion with annoy;
Which the conceited painter drew so proud,
As heaven, it seem’d, to kiss the turrets bow’d.

Lucrece’s husband returns, along with her father, and Lucius Junius Brutus. She tells them what happened to her:

“Then be this all the task it hath to say
Dear husband, in the interest of thy bed 
A stranger came, and on that pillow lay
Where thou was wont to rest thy weary head;
And what wrong else may be imagined
By foul enforcement might be done to me,
From that, alas, thy Lucrece is not free.

“For in the dreadful dead of dark midnight,
With shining falchion in my chamber came
A creeping creature, with a flaming light,
And softly cried ‘Awake, thou Roman dame,
And entertain my love; else lasting shame 
On thee and thine this night I will inflict,
If thou my love’s desire do contradict.”

Lucrece asks the men to kill her attacker, and they agree to do so. She then asks how this stain can be wiped from her, and the men all reply, that her mind being untainted, clears her body of that dishonor. She then names Tarquin as her rapist, and stabs herself:

The suicide of Lucretia by Jorg Breu the Elder

The Suicide of Lucretia by Jörg Breu the Elder.

 Here with a sigh, as if her heart would break,                           
She throws forth Tarquin’s name; “He, he,” she says,
But more than “he” her poor tongue could not speak;
Till after many accents and delays,
Untimely breathings, sick and short assays,
She utters this, “He, he, fair lords, ’tis he,
That guides this hand to give this wound to me.”

Even here she sheathed in her harmless breast
A harmful knife, that thence her soul unsheathed:
That blow did that it from the deep unrest
Of that polluted prison where it breathed:
Her contrite sighs unto the clouds bequeath’d
Her winged sprite, and through her wounds doth fly
Life’s lasting date from cancell’d destiny.

The men are astonished at what has just taken place before them. Her father is most distraught:

“Daughter, dear daughter,” old Lucretius cries,
“That life was mine which thou hast here deprived.
If in the child the father’s image lies,
Where shall I live now Lucrece is unlived?
Thou wast not to this end from me derived.
If children predecease progenitors,
We are their offspring, and they none of ours.” 

And then Lucrece’s husband, Collatine, comes out of shock, and weeps for her as well:

By this, starts Collatine as from a dream,
And bids Lucretius give his sorrow place;
And then in key-cold Lucrece’ bleeding stream
He falls, and bathes the pale fear in his face,
And counterfeits to die with her a space;
Till manly shame bids him possess his breath
And live to be revenged on her death.

Both, Lucrece’s father and her husband, contend for who grieves for her the most. Then Brutus reminds them of the revenge they vowed on Tarquin, and raises them to action:

“Why, Collatine, is woe the cure for woe?
Do wounds help wounds, or grief help grievous deeds?
Is it revenge to give thyself a blow
For his foul act by whom thy fair wife bleeds?
Such childish humour from weak minds proceeds:
Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
To slay herself, that should have slain her foe.”

The three men then agree to avenge the death of Lucrece, and banish the Tarquin’s from rule. After which, they bear Lucrece’s body through Rome, to show the consequences of Tarquin’s offense, and  force the Tarquins’ exile. Thus ending the reign of Kings in Rome, and beginning the Roman Republic:

This said, he struck his hand upon his breast,
And kiss’d the fatal knife, to end his vow;
And to his protestation urged the rest,
Who, wondering at him, did his words allow:
Then jointly to the ground their knees they bow;
And that deep vow, which Brutus made before,
He doth again repeat, and that they swore.

When they had sworn to this advised doom,
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence;
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin’s foul offence:
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin’s everlasting banishment.

In great detail, Shakespeare explores the impact that the rape has on Lucrece, from the time Tarquin departs, and up until her suicide. He also reflects on the guilt, shame, and fear that Tarquin feels after committing this horrid act.



Like Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s inspiration for Lucrece, also came in part, from Ovid through his work entitled Fasti; a six-book Latin poem.  Every year on February 24th, the Romans would celebrate Regifugium or Fugalia (“King’s Flight”). There are different opinions about what this day truly commemorated, but according to Ovid, it celebrated the flight of the last king of Rome, Tarquin.   February (Book Two of the six), ends with Ovid describing the “flight of the King”, (the king being Tarquin, fleeing after committing the rape).

Shakespeare’s Lucrece is also based on Livy’s History of Rome.  Livy, (Titus Livius Patavinus), was a Roman historian. He published the first five books of history between 27 and 25 BC. And then continued to work on Roman history for the remainder of his life, publishing each new book as demand for them populated. The first one ends with Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus being elected as consuls in Rome.

Both of these poems are worth reading; I only highlighted some of the verses of each poem here. Mostly the ones that I thought explained the basic premise of the poems. But if you are so inclined, I heartily suggest that anyone who is interested, pick up a copy of Shakespeare’s poems and read them in their entirety. The way that they were meant to be read and enjoyed when William Shakespeare first wrote them for Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.

Next time: Shakespeare’s remaining poems: A Lover’s Complaint, The Phoenix and the Turtle, and the three of Shakespeare’s poems that appear in the collection entitled The Passionate Pilgrim.