Poetry of the Bard–His Shorter Poems

Last time, I discussed William Shakespeare’s narrative poems: Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. This time around, I will discuss his remaining poems,Poems written by William Shakespeare A Lover’s Complaint, The Phoenix and the Turtle, and the five of his poems that appeared in a collection entitled, The Passionate Pilgrim.

A Lover’s Complaint

This poem focuses on a young girl who was spurned by a young man that she loved. She sits upon a hill, throwing letters, jewelry, and other favors that he has given her, over the side of it. This is witnessed by the poem’s narrator:

From off a hill whose concave womb reworded                                                                                                                                                                             A plaintful story to a sistering vale,                                                                                                                                                                                   My spirits to attend this double voice accorded,                                                                                                                                           And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale;                                                                                                                                                         Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale,                                                                                                                                                                Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain,                                                                                                                                                   Storming her world with sorrow’s wind and rain.                                                                                                                               

Upon her head a platted hive of straw,                                                                                                                                                       Which fortified her visage from the sun,                                                                                                                                               Whereon the thought might think sometime it saw                                                                                                                                    The carcass of beauty spent and done:                                                                                                                                                          Time had not scythed all that youth begun,                                                                                                                                                   Nor youth all quit; but, spite of heaven’s fell rage,                                                                                                                                   Some beauty peep’d through lattice of sear’d age.

Here the narrator lists some of the things that the young girl is discarding:

Of folded schedules had she many a one,                                                                                                                                                                                     Which she perused, sigh’d, tore, and gave the flood;                                                                                                                                                                                Crack’d many a ring of posied god and bone                                                                                                                                                                                  Bidding them find their sepulchres in mud;                                                                                                                                                                                         Found yet moe letters sadly penn’d in blood,                                                                                                                                                                            With sleided silk feat and affectedly                                                                                                                                                                   Enswathed, and seal’d to curious secrecy.

Soon, an old shepherd tending to his flock nearby, sees her and sits beside the young girl, curious about her grief, and willing to lend a sympathetic ear:

A Lover's Complaint-1609

A Lover’s Complaint in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1609.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A reverend man that grazed his cattle nigh                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Sometime a blusterer, that the ruffle knew                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Of court, of city, and had let go by                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The swiftest hours, observed as they flew–                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Towards this afflicted fancy fastly drew,                                                                                                                                                                                                                       And, privileged by age, desires to know                                                                                                                                                            In brief the grounds and motives of her woe.

So slides he down upon his grained bat,                                                                                                                                                          And comely-distant sits he by her side;                                                                                                                                                       When he again desires her, being sat,                                                                                                                                                              Her grievance with his hearing to divide:                                                                                                                                                          If that from him there may be aught applied                                                                                                                                             Which may her suffering ecstasy assuage,                                                                                                                                                    ‘Tis promised in the charity of age.

The young girl begins telling the shepherd about the boy that she loved.  He had curly brown hair, enchanting eyes, and a handsome face. He had but an early growth of a beard, was courteous, and could ride a horse well:

‘His browny locks did hang in crooked curls;                                                                                                                                               And every light occasion of the wind                                                                                                                                                            Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls.                                                                                                                                                    What’s sweet to do, to do will aptly find:                                                                                                                                                     Each eye that saw him did enchant the mind,                                                                                                                                                For on his visage was in little drawn                                                                                                                                                            What largeness thinks in Paradise was sawn.

‘Small show of man was yet upon his chin;                                                                                                                                                    His phoenix down began but to appear                                                                                                                                                              Like unshorn velvet on that termless skin                                                                                                                                                      Whose bare out-bragg’d the web it seem’d to wear:                                                                                                                                           Yet show’d his visage by that cost more dear;                                                                                                                                               And nice affections wavering stood in doubt                                                                                                                                                    If best were as it was, or best without.

A Lover's Complaint Ill. John Bell, 1774 ed.

A Lover’s Complaint illustration by John Bell, in the 1774 edition of Shakespeare’s works.

He impressed both men and women, and many of the latter fantasized about being his mistress. This girl however, had always kept her distance. All too soon however, she too, gave in to his charms, even though she knew that he could not be trusted, that he was unfaithful, treacherous, and had many illegitimate children:

“So many have, that never touch’d his hand,
Sweetly supposed them mistress of his heart.
My woeful self, that did in freedom stand,
And was my own fee-simple, not in part,
What with his art in youth, and youth in art,
Threw my affections in his charmed power,
Reserved the stalk and gave him all my flower.

“Yet did I not, as some my equals did,
Demand of him, nor being desired yielded;

Finding myself in honour so forbid,
With safest distance I mine honour shielded:
Experience for me many bulwarks builded
Of proofs new-bleeding, which remain’d the foil
Of this false jewel, and his amorous spoil.”

Yet this young man was able to woo her nonetheless. He asks her to have pity on him, and says that he never loved a woman as much as he loves her:

“And long upon these terms I held my city,
Till thus he gan besiege me: ‘Gentle maid,
Have of my suffering youth some feeling pity,
And be not of my holy vows afraid:
That’s to ye sworn to none was ever said;
For feasts of love I have been call’d unto,
Till now did ne’er invite, nor never woo.”

He offers to her, favors that he received from other women:

”Look here, what tributes wounded fancies sent me,
Of paled pearls and rubies red as blood;
Figuring that they their passions likewise lent me
Of grief and blushes, aptly understood
In bloodless white and the encrimson’d mood;
Effects of terror and dear modesty,
Encamp’d in hearts, but fighting outwardly.”

Next he tells her of a nun who, once she saw him, wished that she had never taken her vows and wanted to leave the cloister to be loved by him. He tearfully says that his heart aches because of the young girl’s resistance, and this is to further convince the girl of this young man’s faithfulness:

”My parts had power to charm a sacred nun,
Who, disciplined, ay, dieted in grace,
Believed her eyes when they to assail begun,
All vows and consecrations giving place:
O most potential love! vow, bond, nor space,
In thee hath neither sting, knot, nor confine,
For thou art all, and all things else are thine.

”When thou impressest, what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou wilt inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
Love’s arms are peace, ‘gainst rule, ‘gainst sense,
‘gainst shame,
And sweetens, in the suffering pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks, and fears.A Lover's Complaint book

”Now all these hearts that do on mine depend,
Feeling it break, with bleeding groans they pine;
And supplicant their sighs to you extend,
To leave the battery that you make ‘gainst mine,
Lending soft audience to my sweet design,
And credent soul to that strong-bonded oath
That shall prefer and undertake my troth.”

Because of his tears, and his words of passion, she gives herself to him, believing that he would be true to her. Instead, he broke her heart and left, just as he had with others before:

“For, lo, his passion, but an art of craft,
Even there resolved my reason into tears;
There my white stole of chastity I daff’d,
Shook off my sober guards and civil fears;
Appear to him, as he to me appears,
All melting; though our drops this difference bore,
His poison’d me, and mine did him restore.

“In him a plenitude of subtle matter,
Applied to cautels, all strange forms receives,
Of burning blushes, or of weeping water,
Or swooning paleness; and he takes and leaves,
In either’s aptness, as it best deceives,
To blush at speeches rank to weep at woes,
Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows.

She ends, saying that even though she regrets falling for him once, she would fall for him again. His infectious tears, his blushing, and words of love, could all betray her once more:

“Thus merely with the garment of a Grace
The naked and concealed fiend he cover’d;
That th’ unexperient gave the tempter place,
Which like a cherubin above them hover’d.
Who, young and simple, would not be so lover’d?
Ay me! I fell; and yet do question make
What I should do again for such a sake.

O, that infected moisture of his eye,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy lungs bestow’d,
O, all that borrow’d motion seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
And new pervert a reconciled maid!”

The Phoenix and the Turtle

The Phoenix and the Turtle

The Phoenix and the Turtle, first published in Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr, 1601.

This is an allegorical poem, and is much shorter than A Lover’s Complaint and the two narrative poems. It is about a phoenix and a turtledove who were in love with each other, and died engulfed in the phoenix’s flames. Other birds have come to the funeral, yet some birds are not allowed to attend.

This poem I will post in its entirety, and under each verse, I will describe what that verse means:

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.    
“The bird of loudest” is the nightingale, and he sits on the Arabian tree where he calls the two birds, (the phoenix and the turtledove), together.

But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.                                                                                                                                                                    
The “shrieking harbinger” is the owl, who was known to be an omen of death, and is therefore unwelcome at the funeral of the two dead birds.

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.
                                                                                                                                                                                 “Every fowl of tyrant wing” refers to birds of prey, who are also unwelcome. The exception to this is the eagle, who is allowed to come in, and stand guard as it were, to make sure the unwelcome birds stay out.

Let the priest in surplice white
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
                                                                                                                                                                   Because of his white coat, the swan will be the priest. “Defunctive music” referring to the fact that swans cannot sing as other birds can, and he will speak the requiem.

And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak’st
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
                                                                                                                                                               The crow, already in mourning black, and believed to be able to take and give life, is also allowed inside.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phœnix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
                                                                                                                                                                         Love and truth died when the phoenix and the turtledove died.

So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
                                                                                                                                                                               Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.                                                                                                                                                                          They were two beings, but had only one soul. No division could come between them; the idea of numbers was meaningless to them.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.                                                                                                                                                                          
There was no distance nor space between their hearts.

So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phœnix’ sight;
Either was the other’s mine.
Between them did love shine bright; they belonged to each other.

 Property was thus appall’d,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was call’d.
                                                                                                                                                                         One of them being by themselves was not the same as being together. Their souls were merged with each other, and were not two separate souls.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded,
                                                                                                                                                                       Reason was confused by their union.

That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain”.
                                                                                                                                                                                  Reason could see that love has no reason, and reason has no love.

Whereupon it made this threne
To the phœnix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.
                                                                                                                                                                          And so, Reason made the following threne in memory of the phoenix and the turtledove, as a chorus to the ends of their lives.

The Phoenix and the Turtle audioThrenos

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d in cinders lie.
                                                                                                                                                                               Beauty–the phoenix, truth–the turtledove, along with rarity and grace, are now all burnt to ashes.

Death is now the phœnix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
                                                                                                                                                                                               In death, the phoenix and the turtledove are together forever.

Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
                                                                                                                                                                                    They did not have any children, but it was not because they were infertile, but because they were chaste.

Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
                                                                                                                                                                            Truth cannot exist, nor can beauty boast, because both are buried with the two birds.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
                                                                                                                                                                 Anyone who is either true or fair, particularly in love, should pray for the phoenix and the turtledove.

The Passionate Pilgrim

The Passionate Pilgrim-1599

Title page of The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599.

This was a collection of twenty poems, that were collected and published by William Jaggard, and the entire collection was  attributed to “W.  Shakespeare” on the title page. Further study however, could only prove five of the poems as being authentically written by the Bard.  Two of them are two of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. The other three are from his comedic play, Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The first poem in The Passionate Pilgrim is an early version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138. Even the authorship of this version of the sonnet has been in dispute, but it is more widely accepted as Shakespeare’s own. Especially as the last line mirrors a line from Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, the Moor of Venice. In his collection of Sonnets, number 138, is a part of his series of Sonnets about the Dark Lady:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her (though I know she lies)
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unskillful in the world’s false forgeries.
Thus, vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best,
I, simply, credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love, with love’s ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is young?
And wherefore say not I, that I am old?
O, love’s best habit’s in a soothing tongue,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love, with me,
Since that our faults in love thus smothered be. 

He believes his love when she says that she is true to him, even though he knows that she is lying. She thinks him too young to know that she is being false, but he is old enough to know. Even so, he lies with her, hoping that their faults will be smothered by love.

The second poem in The Passionate Pilgrim, is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144. Up until Sonnet 126, Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed to a young man. In Sonnet 127, the Dark Lady comes in. This Sonnet 144, portrays the conflicted relationship of the speaker, the Dark Lady, and the young man:

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Title page of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1609.

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend
Suspect I may, but not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The speaker talks of two loves he has, (the young man–“a man right fair”, and the Dark Lady–“a woman coloured ill”). He sees the young man as the good spirit, and the Dark Lady as the evil spirit; he is also convinced that the Dark Lady will attempt to steal the young man away from him. She will seduce him and turn him to evil as well. He cannot say whether or not his angel (the young man), will be turned into a devil, but as both the young man and the Dark Lady are away from him and yet friend to each other, he figures that one angel is in the other’s hell. He must live in doubt until the bad angel drives away the good one.

The remaining three poems in The Passionate Pilgrim that have Shakespeare as their original author, are from his comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost. In that play, the King of Navarre, and his three fellow scholars, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumain, all swear to study for three years, and during that time, they also swear not to see women, and not to love any either. So of course, this is when the Princess of France shows up with her three women, Rosaline, Maria, and Catherine. The King falls in love with the Princess, Berowne with Rosaline, Longaville with Maria, and Dumaine with Catherine. Yet because of the vows that the men made against women, the three men attempt to hide from each other, the fact that they are in love.

The following three sonnets in the The Passionate Pilgrim are letters written by the men for the women that they love. This first is Longaville’s letter to Maria:

Love's Labour's Lost title page-1598

Title page of the first quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1598.

Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye,
‘Gainst whom the world could not hold argument,
Persuade my heart to this false perjury?
Vows for thee broke deserve not punishment.
A woman I forswore; but I will prove,
Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee:
My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love;
Thy grace being gained cures all disgrace in me.
My vow was breath, and breath a vapour is;
Then thou, fair sun, that on this earth doth shine,
Exhale this vapour vow; in thee it is:
If broken, then it is no fault of mine.
If by me broke, what fool is not so wise
To break an oath, to win a paradise?

Here, Longaville is attempting to justify his love for Maria, by saying that he swore not to see women, but that she is a goddess, so therefore he is not forsworn in loving her. His vow was earthly, and she is of heaven. His vow was only breath, and breath is only a vapor. She is the sun who shines on the earth and dissolves that vapor.  So if his vow is broken, it is not broken by him. But even if it is broken by him, who would be so foolish, that they would not break their oath to gain paradise?

The next one is Berowne’s poem to Rosaline:

If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?
O, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed:
Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll constant prove;
Those thoughts, to me like oaks, to thee like osiers bowed.
Study his bias leaves, and makes his book thine eyes,
Where all those pleasures live that art can comprehend.
If knowledge be the mark, to know thee shall suffice;
Well learned is that tongue that well can thee commend;
All ignorant that soul that sees thee without wonder;
Which is to me some praise, that I thy parts admire:
Thy eye Jove’s lightning seems, thy voice his dreadful thunder,
Which (not to anger bent) is music and sweet fire.
Celestial as thou art, O, do not love that wrong,
To sing heLove's Labour's Lost-Folgeraven’s praise with such an earthly tongue.

Berowne is saying that if love makes him forsworn than how can he swear his love for Rosaline; faith could never hold a vow made to beauty. He will be forsworn to himself, yet be constant and true to her. These thoughts are like oaks on a tree to him, like a willow to her, both that can easily bend and possibly be broken. He sees in her eyes a book of all of life’s pleasures. If knowledge be all, then it is enough to know her. Intelligent is the person who can speak of her with praise, and ignorant is the person who looks at her, and does not wonder about her beauty. This is praises himself as well, since he so admires her, (and is therefore intelligent). Her eye is like Jove, and her voice is like Jove’s thunder, which sounds like music and sweet fire. She is celestial, and he does love wrong, to praise she who is heavenly, with earthly words.

The last of the poems by Shakespeare in The Passionate Pilgrim, is Dumaine’s sonnet to Catherine:

On a day (alack the day)
Love, whose month was ever May,
Spied a blossom passing fair,
Playing in the wanton air.
Through the velvet leaves the wind
All unseen, gan passage find;
That the lover (sick to death)
Wished himself the heaven’s breath.
“Air,” quoth he, “thy cheeks may blow;
Air, would I might triumph so.
But (alas) my hand hath sworn
Ne’er to pluck thee from thy thorn:
Vow (alack) for youth unmeet;
Youth, so apt to pluck a sweet.
Thou for whom Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiope were;                                                                                                                                                                                  And deny himself for Jove,
Turning mortal for thy love.” 

On a day in May, which is the month of love, is when Dumaine saw Catherine–“a blossom passing fair”. Through leaves, wind can pass unseen and find passage, and thus a lovesick man might wish himself to be nothing but air, so that he can pass by unseen as well. But he has sworn his vow. It was a vow for unseemly youth, and he is that youth who is likely to fall in love–“pluck a sweet”–even though he swore that he would not love. For Catherine, would Jove, (the supreme god in Roman mythology), himself swear love. And would Jove then deny Juno, (Jove’s wife), and choose to become  mortal for Catherine’s love.  The interjection, “alack”, is used to express sorrow, grief, or regret.

Love's Labour's Lost-Branagh

A scene from Kenneth Branagh’s musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2000.

A Lover’s Complaint is only summarized here, but it, as wells as The Phoenix and the Turtle,  are meant of course, to be read in their entirety. And I would encourage anyone who is interested, to find the full text of these poems, (either in books or online), and read them through. And also for his longer, narrative poems, that I covered in my previous post, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. And while you’re at it, you may just want to take a look at Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets as well.

Enjoy the upcoming weekend everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving!