April 20, 2023

#08-302: Four Long Poems by William Shakespeare

Illustration from A Lover's Complaint (Wikipedia)

Note: Think Shakespeare only wrote plays, and perhaps sonnets? Think again! He also wrote four longer (and fascinating) narrative poems.

Get Ready: Why do you think Shakespeare's plays remain far and away his most popular works today, totally eclipsing his sonnets and narrative poems?

Few people realize that in addition to his roughly 39 plays and 154 sonnets, William Shakespeare also wrote four long narrative poems.

The first two were published in 1593 and 1594, when the theaters in London were closed because of the bubonic plague.

Venus and Adonis is 1,194 lines, divided into 199 stanzas of 6 lines each. It tells how Venus, the goddess of love, falls in love with Adonis, a young man whose name even today is synonymous with masculine beauty.

But Adonis is not interested in love, or even women. All he wants is to hunt. Venus tricks him into giving her a kiss, and asks to meet the next day. No, he says, he must go hunting, but she warns him that he will be killed by a wild boar. When her prediction comes true, she declares that thenceforth love will always be mixed with fear and sadness.

The Rape of Lucrece has 1,855 lines divided into 265 stanzas of seven lines each.

In the poem, a Roman soldier named Collatine tells his fellow-soldier Tarquin about the faithfulness of his beautiful wife Lucrece. Tarquin travels to meet her and begs to sleep with her. If she refuses, he vows he will kill her and dishonor her by placing a dead slave in her arms. She refuses anyway, and at last he rapes her and sneaks guiltily away.

Lucrece writes to Collatine asking him to come home. When he arrives, she tells him what happened, but not who did it. When he presses her, she tells him--and immediately stabs herself fatally. Collatine, too, wants to die, but his friend convinces him to seek revenge, and at last Tarquin is banished from Rome.

The "turtle" in the title of The Phoenix and the Turtle is actually a bird, called today a turtle dove. It was published in 1601; its 67 lines comprise 13 stanzas of four lines each, and five stanzas of three lines.

The poem is a bit difficult to understand, but in essence, the two birds were lovers, and died together as the phoenix's fiery death consumed both himself and his lover, the humble turtle dove. The two seem to symbolize an ideal marriage of opposites--immortal and mortal, glorious and plain-looking, perfect and simple, and so on. It ends with a prayer for the deceased lovers. Some have considered it one of the first great metaphysical poems.

Lastly, in 1609, Shakespeare published A Lover's Complaint in 47 seven-line stanzas, totaling 329 lines. It tells of a young woman weeping by the side of a river, into which she throws vestiges of a love affair: torn-up letters, jewelry, and so on. An old man asks why she is crying, and she tells him of her mistreatment by a lover, but in the end admits that she would fall for him all over again.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. boar
  2. fatally
  3. immortal
  4. metaphysical
  5. mortal
  6. sonnets
  7. symbolize
  8. synonymous with
  9. thenceforth
  10. vestiges

  1. stand for; represent
  2. from then on
  3. able to die
  4. remnants; leftovers
  5. a wild pig
  6. able to live forever
  7. having the same meaning as
  8. to death
  9. 14-line poems
  10. spiritual

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for April 20, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. e; 2. h; 3. f; 4. j; 5. c; 6. i; 7. a; 8. g; 9. b; 10. d