Although Shakespeare is primarily famous for his surviving plays, and then for his sonnets, Shakespeare was also an amateur poet who took time out from his job as playwright to write poems. Shakespeare produced a handful of narrative poems in the earlier part of his career but seems to have given up writing them in the later part.
Shakespeare is the most read, the most performed, the most quoted, and the best-selling English writer. We also regard him as the greatest English poet, but in his own time he would not have been thought of as a poet. The writers who wrote for the theatre were regarded as artisans – workers who made plays for entertainment, and known as playwrights in the same way as those who made wheels were known as wheelwrights or shipwrights, those who made ships.
The poets who were thought of as serious artists were men like Edmund Spencer, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sydney, mainly aristocratic and educated men, unlike the sons of bricklayers, cobblers and glovemakers, who churned out plays for profit. These poets were amateurs who did not make their living out of writing poems.
Our generation is so taken with Shakespeare’s plays, and to a slightly lesser extent, his sonnets, that we don’t pay a great deal of attention to his narrative poems, but, true to form, he wrote as wonderfully in that form as in the other two.
Narrative poems are poems that tell a story and Shakespeare’s narrative poems tell very gripping and dramatic stories, just as his plays do. Four of Shakespeare’s poems have survived. They are:
This poem by Shakespeare consists of seven-line stanzas. The narrator sees a young woman weeping at the edge of a river, into which she throws ripped-up letters, rings, and other tokens of love. A passing old man asks the reason for her sorrow, and she tells him about her lover, who pursued her, seduced her, and eventually abandoned her. She concludes her story by saying that she would fall for the young man all over again, in spite of his deceiving ways. Read the full poem, A Lover’s Complaint >>
Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis is based on passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The young Adonis is preparing to go hunting when Venus takes hold of him and makes as though to seduce him. She tries to persuade him to have sex with her but he doesn’t want to, saying that he is too young and that all he wants to do is hunt. She finally succeeds in getting him to kiss her and then he leaves her. Soon after that Adonis is killed in a hunting accident. Read the full poem, Venus and Adonis >>
This is a gripping story about rape. It’s a famous story, depicted in both Ovid’s Fasti and Livy’s History of Rome. Sextus Tarquinius, the son of Tarquin, the king of Rome, rapes Lucrece, wife of one of the king’s retainers, Collatinus. In the original story Lucrece committed suicide and the incident led to the banishment of the royal family and the founding of the Roman republic. Read the full poem, The Rape of Lucrece >>
The Phoenix and the Turtle is an obscure Shakespeare poem, and difficult to interpret. It’s an allegory about love. It describes a funeral arranged for a Phoenix and a Turtledove, who have both died. The funeral divides the bird community: some birds are invited but others excluded. The poem concludes with a prayer for the dead lovers. Read the full poem, The Phoenix and the Turtle >>
Shakespeare also contributed five poems to a collection of poems by several writers, The Passionate Pilgrim (1599)