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A Review of William Shakespeare’s Poems, Venus and Adonis, and A Lover’s Complaint

Shakespearean Poetry on Love, Comparison and Contrast

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Although Shakespeare is well known for his plays and sonnets, his other poetry is less popular, even though some of it is quite complex. Here two of his lesser known love poems are compared Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, and A Lover’s Complaint published in 1609.

Venus and Adonis (1593)

Summary

Inspired by a mythological tale found in Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the poem centers on the refusal of a beautiful youth, Adonis, to submit to the amorous advances of Venus. This, of course, is ironic, because Venus herself is the goddess of love. When Cupid accidentally marks Venus with one of his arrows, Venus’ infatuation with Adonis increases to the point where she can no longer control herself. Venus begins following Adonis, everywhere he goes, even out on his hunting trips, and eventually she even begins dressing like Diana (the goddess of the hunt) in order to woo Adonis. One day, just before Adonis leaves to go hunting, Venus warns him to not to hunt the dangerous animals, only the small, harmless ones. Of course, Adonis, thinking very highly of himself, ignores her warnings and takes a stab at a boar. Unfortunately, his spear doesn’t hit it well enough and the boar attacks Adonis with his tusks, injuring him badly. Venus hears Adonis’ cries of pain and hurries back to the forest, but by the time she arrives, it’s too late and Adonis is already dead. Venus becomes extremely sad, and gazes at Adonis’ bright red blood spilling on the ground. In honor of him, Venus turns his blood into a dazzling crimson flower.

Excerpts and Analysis

“EVEN as the sun with purple-coloured face

Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheeked Adonis hied him to the chase;

Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn;

Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,

And like a bold-faced suitor ‘gins to woo him.”

(Verses 1-6)

The poem begins with Shakespeare introducing Adonis as a young, handsome “rose-cheeked” youth, as he is known to have been the most attractive male in greek and roman mythology. Even in modern literature, there are many allusions to Adonis, such as in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman when Willy Loman refers to his sons as “Adonises.” The general theme of the poem is portrayed from the beginning, with the line “Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn.” Adonis has no interest, other than to hunt. Venus is introduced as “sickly” in love with him, and begins to attempt to pursue him.

Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast,

Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone,

Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste,

Till either gorge be stuffed or prey be gone;

Even so she kissed his brow, his cheek, his chin,

And where she ends she doth anew begin.

(Verses 55-60)

Adding to the theme of Adonis’ disinterest for love, Shakespeare uses the simile of an eagle to depict Venus’ attempts at wooing Adonis. He writes that just like a hungry eagle, Venus is ravening and wants only Adonis’ love. He emphasizes her unstoppable desire with his comparison.

Look how he can, she cannot choose but love;

And by her fair immortal hand she swears,

From his soft bosom never to remove,

Till he take truce with her contending tears,

Which long have rained, making her cheeks all wet;

And one sweet kiss shall pay this countless debt.

(Verses 79-84)

Adonis does not know what to make of Venus’ constant attempts and wooing him, as any facial expression he makes has no effect on Venus’ feelings for him(“look how he can…”). In these lines, Venus makes a promise to stay there (“from his soft bosom never to remove”), until Adonis comes to terms with the fact that she is crying. She tries to overcome his indifference towards her, but cannot, and seeing this, Adonis offers to redeem her tears for a kiss.

Upon this promise did he raise his chin,

Like a dive-dapper peering through a wave,

Who, being looked on, ducks as quickly in;

So offers he to give what she did crave;

But when her lips were ready for his pay,

He winks, and turns his lips another way.

(Verses 85-90)

Again, Shakespeare uses bird similes to explain the lovers’ behavior, this time comparing Adonis to a small water bird, who dives into the water to feed. Adonis pretends like he is going to kidd Venus, but instead winks, and moves his head away, with the speed of the small “dive-dapper.”

By this the love-sick queen began to sweat,

For where they lay the shadow had forsook them,

And Titan, tired in the mid-day heat,

With burning eye did hotly overlook them;

Wishing Adonis had his team to guide,

So he were like him and by Venus’ side.

(Verses 174-180)

Much later through the poem, it is midday, and Titan, the god who uses his chariot to pull the sun through the sky every day, is high above, looking down on Venus and Adonis. He is exhausted by his own heat which is coincidentally the issue for Venus: she is feeling intense love, which is her own attribute. Titan meanwhile, sees Adonis and wishes he were in his place. The placement of Titan in the poem serves the purpose of emphasizing the extent to which Venus falling for a man is particularly distinctive. Here, Venus, the goddess that all other gods usually chase, is being ignored by the one man that she actually desires.

And now Adonis, with a lazy spright,

And with a heavy, dark, disliking eye,

His louring brows o’erwhelming his fair sight,

Like misty vapours when they blot the sky,

Souring his cheeks cries ‘Fie, no more of love!

The sun doth burn my face: I must remove.’

‘Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone,

Well-painted idol, image dun and dead,

Statue contenting but the eye alone,

Thing like a man, but of no woman bred!

Thou art no man, though of a man’s complexion,

For men will kiss even by their own direction.”

(Verses 181-192)

Finally, Adonis breaks. He will take no more of Venus’ badgering. He tells Venus he must leave. Venus retaliates, comparing Adonis to a stone-cold picture, albeit being “well-painted,” he has no sense of emotion and is lifeless. She also says that he may look like a man, but he is not human at all, because of his lack of feelings for her. He uses the word “complexion” so refer to Adonis’ outward appearance, but says that even though he may look like a man, he is not, for men are naturally inclined towards desire, and he obviously is not.

‘Pity,’ she cries, ‘some favour, some remorse!’

Away he springs and hasteth to his horse.

(Verses 257-258)

Venus tells Adonis to show some kindness, but he ignores her, jumping onto his horse.

‘ Thou hadst been gone,’ quoth she, ‘ sweet boy, ere this,

But that thou toldst me thou wouldst hunt the boar.

O, be advised: thou knowst not what it is

With javelin’s point a churlish swine to gore,

Whose tushes never sheathed he whetteth still,

Like to a mortal butcher bent to kill

(Verses 614-618)

Much later on, Adonis returns and is talking to Venus again, when she warns him not to hunt the boar, for it is dangerous.

‘ And more than so, presenteth to mine eye

The picture of an angry chafing boar

Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie

An image like thyself, all stained with gore;

Whose blood upon the fresh flowers being shed

Doth make them droop with grief and hang the head.

‘ What should I do, seeing thee so indeed,

That tremble at th’ imagination?

The thought of it doth make my faint heart bleed,

And fear doth teach it divination:

I prophesy thy death, my living sorrow,

If thou encounter with the boar to-morrow.

Venus prophesizes Adonis’ death if he encounters the boar, and all that comes with it, including nature’s sadness at Adonis’ potential death, if he fights the boar and loses, as seen in the line “whose blood upon the fresh flowers being shed doth make them drop with grief and hang the head.”

‘ O Jove,’ quoth she, ‘ how much a fool was I

To be of such a weak and silly mind

To wail his death who lives, and must not die

Till mutual overthrow of mortal kind!

For he being dead, with him is Beauty slain,

And, Beauty dead, black Chaos comes again.

(Verses 1015-1020)

Much later on the in the poem, Adonis has left, and Venus is left by herself to contemplate whether he has listened to her or not. She previously believed that he would kills himself trying to hunt the boar, but now she tries to convince herself that she was silly to believe that he was dead. Him being dead, she explains, would mean the death of beauty itself, and from that, the rise of chaos.

And being opened, threw unwilling light

Upon the wide wound that the boar had trenched

In his soft flank; whose wonted lily-white

With purple tears that his wound wept was drenched:

No flower was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf or weed,

But stole his blood and seemed with him to bleed.

(Verses 1052-156)

Venus finally comes across Adonis’ body in a clearing in the forest. She gazes at the wound that the boar made on Adonis’ torso and at her surroundings, noting that there wasn’t a single piece of flora in sight, only his bright red blood on the ground.

‘ Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost!

What face remains alive that’s worth the viewing?

Whose tongue is music now? what canst thou boast

Of things long since, or any thing ensuing?

The flowers are sweet, their colours fresh and trim;

But true sweet beauty lived and died with him.

(Verses 1076-1080)

Venus cries out in sadness about how the world has lost a great treasure. She says to herself that no other face was worth viewing, or no other voice as sweet as his. She talks about how flowers are fresh and sweet, but true beauty died when he did.

And in his blood that on the ground lay spilled

A purple flower sprung up, chequered with white,

Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood

Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.

(Verses 1168-1170)

In these verses, Venus turns Adonis’ spilled blood into a flower, and Shakespeare compares the flower’s colors to Adonis’ pale cheeks.

Thus weary of the world, away she hies,

And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid

Their mistress, mounted, through the empty skies

In her light chariot quickly is conveyed,

Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen

Means to immure herself and not be seen.

(Verses 1190 – 1194)

Finally, in the last verses of the poem, Venus displays the ultimate sadness towards her unshared lover’s death. She flies off into the skies, hiding in Paphos where she wishes not to be seen in such a state of despair.

Themes

After reading the poem, two contrasting themes emerge immediately: One could see Adonis’ death as a pathetic outcome of his cold refusal of love, or on the other hand, Venus’ condamnation and despair at the end of the poem could be thought to condemn the primal instinct of love.

Traditional approaches to understanding the theme of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis have generally focused on the piece’s moral elements, and Shakespeare’s approach to understanding the elements of desire. One of the main themes of the poem also seems to be cautionary, warning of the dangers of extreme love. The poem does this by making apparent the stark contrast between virtuous love, and lust through Adonis’ death. These two seemingly opposed ethical concepts of love are Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of the two in the poem emphasizes each’s complexity and the fine line between them. For example, Adonis can personify the ethical choice between duty and lust. By rejecting Venus’ advancements, Adonis makes a choice in favor of responsibility.

Another theme is that of the intensity of female desires. Despite conservative objections to the poem’s glorification of sensuality, it was immensely popular, and this theme can be seen in some of Shakespeare’s other works, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare examines the slightly absurd way that women’s desires are often portrayed. Opposers to this theme’s legitimacy often argue that in the original mythology, Venus was scratched by Cupid’s arrow, thus partially removing Venus’ fault for her desires.

A Lover’s Complaint (1609)

Summary

As the title suggests, this poem is a complaint poem, a style which was popularized in the medieval and Renaissance time periods. The authors of these types of poems often narrated stories of unrequited love, personal woes, injustice in society, poverty, or other social issues.

The events of the poem take place in rural England, where the narrator of the poem observes a woman as she complains about a man who seduced her and then left her. The narrator hears the woman’s cries from a far hill and listens in. The woman cries into a handkerchief, and although she is past her youth, the narrator notices that she still retains her beauty. The narrator watches as the woman’s cries attract a “reverend man” who is nearby grazing cattle. The man seats himself next to her and asks what wrong, and offers his aid in the situation. The narrator continues listening as the woman complains to an old man, about a young, handsome man with a sharp tongue, who uses women for his own lusty purposes.

The poem is in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababbcc.

Excerpts and Analysis

From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded

A plaintful story from a sistering vale,

My spirits to attend this double voice accorded,

And down I laid to list the sad-tun’d 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.

(1st Stanza)

The tale begins with the narrator sitting on a hill with a cave-like formation, so that he can hear everything that happens in the vicinity very clearly, because it echoes off the concave mountainside. From a nearby “sistering” valley, he hears the echo of the voice of a maiden and decides to lay down and listen. He identifies where the sound is coming from, and spies the sad woman.

A thousand favours from a maund she drew

Of amber, crystal, and of beaded jet,

Which one by one she in a river threw,

Upon whose weeping margent she was set;

Like usury, applying wet to wet,

Or monarch’s hands that let not bounty fall

Where want cries some, but where excess begs all.

(6th Stanza)

As the narrator watches, she takes lavish gifts from her basket and throws them one by one into the river. “Applying wet to wet,” refers to the woman’s tears falling into the river.

These often bath’d she in her fluxive eyes,

And often kiss’d, and often ’gan to tear;

Cried “O false blood! thou register of lies,

What unapproved witness dost thou bear;

Ink would have seem’d more black and damned here.”

This said, in top of rage the lines she rents,

Big discontent so breaking their contents.

(8th Stanza)

The woman sits, pouring over the many love letters from the man who hurt her, which she cries over, bathing them in tears from her “fluxive eyes.” She is suddenly filled with rage and begins yelling at the letters, calling them false and “unapproved,” or unproven (the man had not proven his love for her). She cries that the ink should have been blacker in order to match the man’s offenses against her. In her unhappiness, she finally realizes the falseness of the letters’ contents.

‘Father,’ she says, ‘though in me you behold

The injury of many a blasting hour,

Let it not tell your judgment I am old;

Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power:

I might as yet have been a spreading flower,

Fresh to myself, if I had self-applied

Love to myself and to no love beside.

(Stanza 11)

The narrator watches as the old man approaches her carefully and she begins to tell him her story. She says that though he may observe that she has had her hopes dashed, she is not old. She explains how it isn’t age that has had it’s effect on her, but the sorrow of the situation she has found herself in that has had it’s effect on her. She compares herself to a flower, saying that she could be fresh and youthful, and living only for herself, not worrying of issues of love.

‘His qualities were beauteous as his form,

For maiden-tongu’d he was, and thereof free;

Yet, if men mov’d him, was he such a storm

As oft ’twixt May and April is to see,

When winds breathe sweet, untidy though they be.

His rudeness so with his authoriz’d youth

Did livery falseness in a pride of truth.

(Stanza 15)

The maiden is now describing the personality of the man who wooed her. She describes him almost lovingly, saying that his personal qualities were almost as beautiful as he was. He was soft-spoken, as described by the words “maiden-tongued.” But he could also be manly and rageful if he was provoked, “if men mov’d him, was he such a storm.” The messiness of his boyish charm wooed her and his immature, childish personality was humanely, so much so that it masked his false intentions.

‘So on the tip of his subduing tongue,

All kinds of arguments and question deep,

All replication prompt, and reason strong,

For his advantage still did wake and sleep:

To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep,

He had the dialect and different skill,

Catching all passions in his craft of will:

(Stanza 18)

She continues to describe his speaking style, and how it charmed her. He asks her philosophical questions and questions everything in life, his responses are deep and seemingly well thought out. When she asks her questions, he answer rapidly and the reasoning behind them is logical. He had the skills of language, which is what wooed her in particular.

‘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.

(Stanza 26)

After the woman finishes complaining for a while, the old man has some time to impart his wisdom upon her: He tells her the story from a man’s perspective. He says that he has been called to love before, even without inviting it. He has made past errors of the blood (physical acts), which do not correlate with love or the mind.

‘O father! what a hell of witchcraft lies

In the small orb of one particular tear,

But with the inundation of the eyes,

What rocky heart to water will not wear?

What breast so cold that is not warmed here?

O cleft effect! cold modesty, hot wrath,

Both fire from hence and chill extincture hath.

(Stanza 42)

Complaining again to the reverend, she speaks her own thoughts. She wonders what magic rests in a tear that enables it to wear down, even a rocky stone heart. She compares this to the boy’s tears and crafty passion, which robbed from her all reasoning and subsequently her chastity.

‘Thus merely with the garment of a Grace

The naked and concealed fiend he cover’d;

That the 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.

(Stanza 46)

The boy concealed his intentions with an outer appearance of grace. The woman wonders, who wouldn’t surrender to such charisma? She questions herself, asking how far she would go to have the same feelings that he left in her the first time around.

‘O! that infected moisture of his eye,

O! that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d,

O! that forc’d thunder from his heart did fly,

O! that sad breath his spongy lungs bestow’d,

O! all that borrow’d motion seeming ow’d,

Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,

And new pervert a reconciled maid.’

(Stanza 47)

In the 47th, and final stanza, the woman laments: his infectious tears, his passionate cheeks, the beating of his heart and his sad, longing looks – all this affected his passion for her. The poem ends with her acknowledging that she would gladly do it all again, and succumb to his wants, should the opportunity present itself.

Themes

The complaint of a woman wronged by a man isn’t a new theme to the arts, as it has been represented countless times in song, poem or even visual representation.

One of the other main themes is that love can blind a person beyond reason. Initially, we see that the maiden is a chaste and good young lady, and she knew that the young man was a fickle seducer, but yet at the same time, she was blinded by love and it robbed her of her ability to think logically. The woman tells the story of how she was an innocent and chaste young girl, not to be easily swayed by red-blooded men. The young man who wooed her had a reputation for being a notorious womanizer, and the young maiden realized this from the start, but still pressed on. Eventually, his charms seduced her.

Another theme is the cruelty of love, how a young naive woman was dumped by a cruel man. Sometimes people can have very little concern for others’ feelings. According to the poem, we are unsure as to whether the man really ever loved the maiden. This realization also leads to the next theme.

Men have extremely fickle hearts, often more so than women. Some of the poem’s lines portray the man in a bad light, particularly towards the end of the poem, making his sound indifferent to the maiden. In one point in the poem, the woman realizes how the man’s false tears tricked her into falling in love with him, but her real ears gave the young man strength and boosted his ego. “…though our drops this difference bore, His poison’d me, and mine did him restore.” The use of the word “poison,” gives the man’s motives an evil edge, and yet the young maiden still describes him as flawless and with perfect qualities.

Compare and Contrast: Venus and Adonis & A Lover’s Complaint

In both Venus and Adonis and A Lover’s Complaint, Shakespeare tackles the issue of female sexuality and it’s social representation. Venus, unlike the young woman from A Lover’s Complaint, is a frankly sexual woman, and Shakespeare seems to use this to judge this female heroine negatively. Venus’ assumption of the role of “wooer’ is treated curiously, as are the various tricks she uses while trying to persuade Adonis to kiss her. In various times throughout the poem, Venus’ attempts are described as ominous. For example, she is described as a “vulture” feeding “gluttonously” on the young, obviously uninterested man. The words that Venus herself uses present female sexuality as being monstrous and menacing, able to completely take over all logic. When the goddess discovers Adonis’ dead body, she even compares the damage done to it to the damage that would have been done by her kisses, “With kissing him I should have killed him first.” (lines 1117-1118). Another obvious difference between the two works is the lack of female seduction language included in A Lover’s Complaint, which is actively developed in Venus and Adonis.

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