Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest playwright of the Western canon. But had he not written a single play and all that remained of his legacy were his poems, he would have still been one of the most remarkable English writers of all time. Indeed, his skill as a poet is unmistakably evident in his plays, which are predominantly written in verse and make use of Shakespeare’s signature poetic language to tell the stories of his characters. Because of the fame and significance of his plays, it can be easy to overlook his influence on the world of poetry. He made famous The English Sonnet structure he wrote in: A fourteen-line sonnet written in iambic pentameter that consists of three quatrains, and ends in a rhyming couplet. We now call this sonnet style the Shakespearean Sonnet.
Published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609, Shakespeare’s Sonnets includes 154 of the sonnets Shakespeare wrote in his lifetime. That is, of course, not taking into account the sonnets he wrote within his plays. Shakespeare also wrote long narrative poems. Two from his early years: Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were dedicated to his patron, the Earl of Southhampton. Others include The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of twenty poems that the publisher attributed entirely to Shakespeare, although only five can be definitively traced back to him; The Phoenix and the Turtle, a previously untitled poem from a collection called Love’s Martyr; and A Lover’s Complaint, a poem just over 300 lines about the seduction of a young man. Many of Shakespeare’s poems focused on the themes of love, lust, and seduction, as well as beauty, mortality, and time.
Let’s take a closer look at six of Shakespeare’s most famous poems: three sonnets, and three long narrative poems.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Sonnet 18 is perhaps the most well-known sonnet and is one of many that Shakespeare (or, the narrator) addresses to a young man. This sonnet is first and foremost a testament to the beauty, both external and within, of this young man figure, and uses rhetorical and metaphorical language to compare him to the beautiful and the natural. In fact, according to the narrator, the young man is more beautiful than a summer’s day because sometimes a summer’s day is windy, or too hot, or the sun can sometimes be hidden, and, in any case, it will eventually fade away. But the young man’s beauty is eternal and will not be altered even by the powers of nature and death. Why? Because the poet, the narrator, is immortalising him in these lines, and in this poem. Which is a bittersweet idea to consider. As we read this poem, many hundreds of years after it was written, that young man (and any beauty that he may have had) are, in fact, long gone from this earth, and in a sense, death has won. At the same time, we are reading and considering and often speculating about this figure many hundreds of years after he is gone, so Shakespeare has indeed immortalised him in these lines. What begins as a poem that praises the beauty of an individual, eventually becomes a poem that praises poetry itself; it puts the written word above all else, even nature, as something eternal and everlasting.
Here is Sonnet 18 read and analysed by the brilliant Patrick Stewart:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
This may also be one of the most recognisable of Shakespeare’s sonnets because for a while it was fashionable for people to use this poem at their weddings. On a surface level, you certainly see why; the poem’s narrator seems to be advocating for the constancy of love and it’s ability to stand the test of time. It advocates for Love as a more powerful force than Time, and boldly claims in the rhyming couplet that if any of what has been said is wrong, then this poet has never written or loved (and clearly the poet has written, because we’re reading it right now). But this sonnet is full of wordplay such as this, and the manipulation of language through a technique called polyptoton, where a word’s root form and its variations are used side by side: alter, alters, and alteration, and remover and remove, for example. It seems somewhat facetious and cheeky for the narrator to spend the sonnet discussing the constancy of love, whilst simultaneously shifting and changing the words used to describe it. It’s also an interesting sonnet to consider as a companion to Sonnet 115 which talks about love’s ability to grow and shift and change. My favourite thing about this sonnet is what it reveals to us about the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s work. Clearly the words ‘love’ and ‘remove’ once rhymed; as is the case with ‘come’ and ‘doom’, and finally ‘proved’ and ‘loved’.
At 1:26, David and Ben Crystal talk about what we can learn about the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare from Sonnet 116, and give a reading of the sonnet in OP:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Whilst the order of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a point of contention amongst critics and scholars, we can say with reasonable certainty that this sonnet, Sonnet 130, is part of a set of sonnets that were addressed to “the Dark Lady”. There is a lot of conjecture around whether this figure, regularly referred to by Shakespeare, was “dark” in any physical sense, be that complexion, or hair colour, or if it’s the way that she behaves that makes her metaphorically “dark”; in Sonnet 131 Shakespeare writes “In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds”, for example. Regardless, Sonnet 130 is concerned with the physical appearance of a mistress figure. At first glance, the poem seems to be insulting the physical attributes of the mistress figure by twisting conventional comparisons of women to beautiful things in nature: the sun, coral, snow, roses, music etc. At the sonnet’s poetic turn, however, the narrator says that in spite of these seeming faults or deficiencies, that his mistress is as unique a beauty as any of those who have been falsely represented in the writings of other poets. This can be read as an earnest representation of a figure the narrator loves, or as a narrator who is ashamed of the woman he loves, or even as a send-up (a parody) of the over 300 sonnets Pertrach wrote a figure named Laura. I like to read it as a call for the humanisation of those we love, rather than an exaggeration of their physical attributes.
Here is a link to the incomparable Alan Rickman reading Sonnet 130:
Read: Best Shakespeare Sonnets
Shakespeare’s Long Form Poetry
Venus and Adonis
Venus and Adonis is a twelve hundred line (1194 lines to be exact) poem that William Shakespeare wrote, and importantly, published himself in 1593. This is interesting because Shakespeare didn’t have a hand in publishing any of his plays, and as a result, most weren’t even published during his lifetime. Venus and Adonis was possibly his most popular and most famous work while he was alive. It is inspired by a myth by Ovid, about Venus, the Goddess of love, and her attempts to seduce Adonis. The poem tells of how Adonis is uninterested in her and is instead only interested in hunting. Eventually, while hunting, he is killed by a boar and transforms into a flower. In this tale of the pursuit of unrequited love, the role of woman and man is reversed; works of literature had previously mostly explored stories where men were the ones in pursuit, and women the ones being pursued. In the poem, Venus argues her case through discourse, and Adonis responds by making differentiation between love and lust. Being a God, Venus is far larger and more powerful than he is, which results in moments of silliness and almost comedy as she flings him from his horse and attempts to wrap her arms around him. The poem was frequently printed and quoted during Shakespeare’s lifetime and lives on as an interesting exploration of sexuality, consent, and desire.
The Rape of Lucrece
Published the next year, in 1594, The Rape of Lucrece is a much heavier, and darker, exploration of love and desire. In writing this narrative poem, much like with Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare draws on historical events, and writings of other authors. In writing The Rape of Lucrece the work The History of Rome, by the Roman historian, Livy, and Fasti by the Roman poet, Ovid, are key source material. The Rape of Lucrece is written in iambic pentameter, and in the rhyme royal format: seven-line stanzas of an ababbcc rhyming scheme. In the poem, Collantine brags to a group of men about the chastity and beauty of his wife, Lucrece. He is so successful in this boasting, that Tarquin, driven by lust, decides to visit Lucrece and see this beauty for himself. Lucrece is too trusting and innocent, and greets Tarquin warmly, letting him stay the night at the Collantine’s home. In the middle of the night, he rapes her, asking her first to acquiesce, which she refuses to do. The next day, she calls her father Lucretius, and her husband, Collantine, to tell them what happened. She is so ashamed, and feels so deeply the guilt of what happened, despite being completely innocent, that she takes her own life. It’s an interesting poem to consider in our present time; as we are still grappling with issues like the objectification of women, victim-shaming, and sexual violence, this poem strikes me as both ancient and disappointingly current.
The Phoenix and the Turtle
The Phoenix and the Turtle is another of Shakespeare’s longer format poems, but one of his more obscure works. It was originally published in 1601, without a title, but as part of an anthology called ‘Love’s Martyr’. The anthology is thought to have been designed to commemorate the end of the Tudor Monarchy and as a celebration of the Jacobean succession. This allegorical poem is largely open to interpretation and, as a result, many theories have arisen over the years regarding the potential historical figures the Phoenix and the Turtle Dove could potentially have represented. The poem is about the Phoenix and his faithful lover, the Turtle Dove. It is written in two parts: the first thirteen stanzas contain four lines each and are written in trochaic tetrameter, creating a formal, grand rhythm. Following is the threnody; an ode, or speech of lamentation, specifically for the dead. This second section follows the same meter, but these final five stanzas have three lines each, providing a gentler pulse. In the poem, the birds unite in pure love, and die with one another in a fire. The poem explores the lamentation/celebration of ideal love, and its relationship to death and eternity.
Because of the way many of us are introduced to Shakespeare in school, it’s easy to think of Shakespeare as a playwright and forget about Shakespeare, the poet. Even if you’re not particularly interested in poetry, delving a little deeper into Shakespeare’s poetic work will help you to understand him better as a writer. And seeing as his plays are so full of poetry, and his idiosyncratic poetic voice, it will also help you become a better performer of Shakespeare. Have a read for yourself, and see what you excavate from these rich and fascinating texts.
Did I miss one of your favourite Shakespeare poems? Let me know in the comment section below.