Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 3. Venus and Adonis

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IX. Shakespeare: Poems

§ 3. Venus and Adonis

The author could hardly have chosen a happier sub-title for Venus and Adonis than “first heire of [his] invention.” It is exactly what a child of youth should be, in merit and defect alike; though, as is always the case with the state of youth when it is gracious, the merits require no allowance, and the defects are amply provided with excuse. In general class and form, it belongs to a very large group of Elizabethan poetry, in which the combined influence of the classics, of Italian and, to a less degree, of recent French, literature are evident. For the particular vehicle, Shakespeare chose the sixain of decasyllabic lines riming ababcc which had been used by Spenser for the opening poem of The Shepheards Calender. This, like its congeners the rime royal and (in its commonest form) the octave, admits of that couplet, or “gemell,” at the end which, as we know directly from Drayton and indirectly from the subsequent history of English prosody, was exercising an increasing fascination on poets. It is, perhaps, the least effective of the three, and it certainly lends itself least of all to the telling of a continuous story. But Shakespeare’s object was less to tell a story than to draw a series of beautiful and voluptuous pictures in mellifluous, if slightly “conceited,” verse; and, for this, the stanza was well enough suited. As for the voluptuousness, it stands in need of very little comment either in the way of blame or in the way of excuse. The subject suggested it; the time permitted if it did not positively demand it; and there is evidence that it was not unlikely to give content to the reader to whom it was dedicated. If it were worth while it would be easy to show, by comparison of treatments of similar situations, that Shakespeare has displayed his peculiar power of “disinfecting” themes of this kind even thus early. “He who takes it makes it” is nowhere truer than of such offence as there may be in Venus and Adonis.

Its beauties, on the other hand, are intrinsic and extraordinary. Much good verse—after the appearance of “the new poet” (Spenser) thirteen, and that of his masterpiece three, years earlier—was being written in this last decade of the sixteenth century. As was pointed out in the summary of prosody from Chaucer to Spenser, the conditions of rhythm, in accordance with the current pronunciation of English, had been at length thoroughly mastered. But, in Spenser himself, there are few things superior—in Drayton and Daniel and Sidney there are few things equal—at this time, to such lines as

  • Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty,
  • or as
  • Leading him prisoner in a red-rose chain,
  • or the passages which have been wisely pounced upon by musicians, “Bid me discourse,” and “Lo! here the gentle lark,” with many others. To pass from mere melody of line and passage to colour and form of description, narrative, address and the like: the pictures of the hare and of the horse and of the boar, the final debate of the pair before Adonis wrenches himself away, the morning quest—these are all what may be called masterpieces of the novitiate, promising masterpieces of the mastership very soon. If some are slightly borrowed, that is nothing. It is usual in their kind; and the borrowing is almost lost in the use made of what is borrowed. Naturally, this use does not, as yet, include much novelty of condition, either in point of character, or of what the Greeks called dianoia—general cast of sentiment and thought. It is a stock theme, dressed up with a delightful and largely novel variety of verse and phrase, of description and dialogue. But it is more charmingly done than any poet of the time, except Spenser himself, could have done it; and there is a certain vividness—a presence of flesh and blood and an absence of shadow and dream—which hardly the strongest partisans of Spenser, if they are wise as well as strong, would choose, or would in fact wish, to predicate of him.