1/ Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s first narrative poem and first publication in general, is about the goddess seducing the beautiful man:
““Fondling,” she said, “since I have hemmed thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale;
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
“Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain.
Then be my deer since I am such a park;
No dog shall rouse thee though a thousand bark.””
If that doesn’t want to make you pick up the book, I don’t know what can.
2/ So how does Venus try to persuade Adonis?
““Torches are made to light, jewels to wear,
Dainties to taste, fresh beauty for the use,
Herbs for their smell, and sappy plants to bear.
Things growing to themselves are growth’s abuse.
Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty.
Thou wast begot; to get it is thy duty.
“Upon the earth’s increase why shouldst thou feed
Unless the earth with thy increase be fed?
By law of nature thou art bound to breed,
That shine may live when thou thyself art dead;
And so in spite of death thou doth survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive.”
This makes me think of the sonnets, mostly the procreation sonnets (1-17). Sadly the comparison doesn’t do Venus and Adonis a favour: the sonnets are much more sophisticated.
Just look at two examples:
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live rememb’red not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
The language, the style in the sonnets is much better.
3/ When Venus faints and “lies as she were slain”, Adonis, er, gives her CPR. Or kisses her, thinking she’s dead (are you a necrophile, mate?).
She wakes up. You know, like Sleeping Beauty.
“The night of sorrow now is turned to day:
Her two blue windows faintly she upheaveth,
Like the fair sun when in his fresh array
He cheers the morn and all the earth relieveth;
And as the bright sun glories the sky,
So is her face illumined with her eye.”
This goes on for a few more stanzas, but you get the idea: the story of Venus and Adonis may be unusual (a woman wooing and rejected by man), but the style is more conventional than in the sonnets. I should say that this narrative poem was published just a couple of years before Shakespeare was testing, bending, playing with the English language in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and his poetry was soaring in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet.
It is interesting, however, when Adonis tells Venus that her feeling for him is lust, not love:
““… Call it not love, for Love to heaven is fled
Since sweating Lust on earth usurped his name;
Under whose simple semblance he hath fed
Upon fresh beauty, blotting it with blame;
Which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves,
As caterpillars do the tender leaves.
[…] Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies…””
Shakespeare’s essentially a dramatic poet, so the poem is more interesting when we get Adonis’s voice—though only for a bit—the poem largely focuses on Venus’s perspective.
I can’t help wondering if Shakespeare was taking a deliberate dig at those who waxed poetic about love when they’re just horny.
4/ I like the passages of grief, when Venus thinks he’s dead, and when she finds him dead. I don’t like the narrator’s descriptions, like “crystal tide”, “silver rain”, “like a stormy day, now wind, now rain”, “pearls in glass”, and so on and so forth, but I like the expressions of grief from her mouth. Then we get the dramatic Shakespeare.
““Dost thou drink tears, that thou provok’st such weeping?
What may a heavy groan advantage thee?
Why hast thou cast into eternal sleeping
Those eyes that taught all other eyes to see?...””
“For he being dead, with him is beauty slain,
And, beauty dead, black chaos comes again.”
““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 colors fresh and trim,
But true sweet beauty lived and died with him…””
I also like it when Venus looks at Adonis’s body torn apart by a boar, and thinks “Had I been toothed like him, I must confess/ With kissing him I should have killed him first”. A bit corny, but still.
5/ If I have to pick a single line that is the most interesting in Venus and Adonis, I’d say “Before I know myself, seek not to know me” (from Adonis).