Monday, 19 December 2016

Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare.

Venus and Adonis is a poem by William Shakespeare first published in 1593 (about the same year as the first performance of Titus Andronicus), making it quite possibly his first actual publication. It was largely inspired by Ovid's retelling of the myth in Metamorphoses (8 A.D.): in Book X Orpheus sings of how when Venus was accidentally scratched by Cupid's arrow she saw and fell in love with Adonis, and when he dies, killed by a boar whilst out hunting, she turns him into an Anemone. Venus and Adonis are also featured in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Book III Canto VI, 1590).

Shakespeare's poem begins,
Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face
Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase;
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh'd to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-faced suitor 'gins to woo him.
'Thrice-fairer than myself,' thus she began,
'The field's chief flower, sweet above compare,
Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,
More white and red than doves or roses are;
Nature that made thee, with herself at strife,
Saith that the world hath ending with thy life...
He goes on to describe how Venus longs to kiss him but Adonis is more interesting in hunting than he is in love. And so she attempts to seduce him when he is prevented from going hunting, asking him to kiss her, then trying to make him jealous by mentioning other gods who have wooed her, then appealing to his rational side, explaining that it is natural to breed:
... By law of nature thou art bound to breed,
That thine may live when thou thyself art dead;
And so, in spite of death, thou dost survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive.' 
Eventually however they do kiss passionately:
'Now let me say 'Good night,' and so say you;
If you will say so, you shall have a kiss.'
'Good night,' quoth she, and, ere he says 'Adieu,'
The honey fee of parting tender'd is:
Her arms do lend his neck a sweet embrace;
Incorporate then they seem; face grows to face.
Till, breathless, he disjoin'd, and backward drew
The heavenly moisture, that sweet coral mouth,
Whose precious taste her thirsty lips well knew,
Whereon they surfeit, yet complain on drouth:
He with her plenty press'd, she faint with dearth
Their lips together glued, fall to the earth.
Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey,
And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth;
Her lips are conquerors, his lips obey,
Paying what ransom the insulter willeth;
Whose vulture thought doth pitch the price so high,
That she will draw his lips' rich treasure dry:
And having felt the sweetness of the spoil,
With blindfold fury she begins to forage;
Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,
And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage,
Planting oblivion, beating reason back,
Forgetting shame's pure blush and honour's wrack.
Yet, despite their passion, Adonis still wishes to hunt the next day rather than see her, and here she prophesying his death: "I prophesy thy death, my living sorrow, / If thou encounter with the boar to-morrow." Nevertheless he goes, much to her heartbreak, and the next day he does indeed die. True to Ovid's tale, he is transformed into a flower:
By this, the boy that by her side lay kill’d
Was melted like a vapour from her sight,
And in his blood that on the ground lay spill’d,
A purple flower sprung up, chequer’d with white;
Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood
Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.
The poem concludes,
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 convey'd;
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
Means to immure herself and not be seen. 
Venus and Adonis is indeed a beautiful poem, and I've looked forward to it since reading Ovid's version of the myth. It belongs to the class of Marlowe's Hero and Leander (published after his death in 1598), an erotic retelling of Greek myth. It's certainly my favourite of Shakespeare's poems.

And that was my 51st Deal Me In title. All that remains is The Strange Elizabethans by Virginia Woolf and, rather than post on that essay alone I'm actually going to say a few words on the book in which it was published - The Common Reader, which I read last month. Furthermore, I'll be doing the post tomorrow rather than next week so I can mark off all my 2016 Deal Me In titles before the 2017 challenge is announced!

Venus and Adonis by Titian (1555-60).


  1. Congratulations! Once more you've managed the whole 52 weeks! I have over-committed myself for the beginning of 2017 once again, so I can't see that I'll be as successful, but again, as long as it pushes me to read writing I wouldn't otherwise, I'll try to be happy. Looking forward to reading about The Common Reader!

    1. Thank you! I'll have to check out your challenges :) I've pretty much 'gathered' mine, but there's one I'm still considering. I *know* I haven't got the time but I still sort of want to do it... Always the way!

    2. Okay, don't be mysterious. Which one is that? ;-)

    3. Brona's Lord of the Rings :)

  2. the two Common Reader volumes are among my favorite literary essays; browsing through the "library" i often grab one and get absorbed for a while... V&A resonates quite well, carrying intimations and hints through memories of similar works in the classical ages...

    1. Common Reader's my favourite as well :) And yes, V&A's a good one, and you've put that beautifully :)


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