BOOK REVIEW: The Narrative Poems by William Shakespeare

The Narrative Poems (The Pelican Shakespeare)The Narrative Poems by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While William Shakespeare is overwhelmingly known as a playwright who also wrote a collection of sonnets, back in his day some of his poetic stories were quite well-received. This volume collects the five narrative poems that Shakespeare is believed to have authored (or partially authored.)

Venus and Adonis: This is one of the two long-form narrative poems of Shakespeare. It tells the tale of the goddess Venus’s obsession with Adonis, her many attempts to woo the hunky lad, and the tragedy that befalls him, breaking her heart. It’s written in six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter with a quatrain of alternating line rhymes and an end couplet of a third rhyme.

The Rape of Lucrece: This is the other long narrative poem of Shakespeare. Lucrece’s husband, Collatine, is off on campaign and brags about how perfect is his wife, Lucrece. The “gentleman” he is telling this to is Tarquin, and the high-praise of Lucrece sets the seed of obsession in Tarquin’s mind. When he then finds himself in Collatine’s neighborhood (with Collatine still off to war,) he pays Lucrece a visit and is invited to stay over. That night he breaks into her bedchambers and – after threatening to kill her and a random male servant whose corpse he’ll shove into bed with her – Tarquin rapes her. After mulling over her options, Lucrece calls for Collatine’s return and after getting the promise of Collantine and his fellow soldiers to have revenge for her, she tells them who raped her immediately before ending her own life by dagger.

It’s written in the rhyme royal seven-line stanzas of iambic pentameter made famous by Chaucer.

The Phoenix and the Turtle: This is a very different poem from the others. In terms of format, it abandons iambic pentameter in favor of shorter, punchier lines. Stylistically, it’s a bit more obscure and allegorical than most Shakespearean poetry.

The gist of the tale is the description of a funeral for the perfect couple. [I guess that an important thing to know is that “Turtle” is used as short for turtledove, and so it’s not a tale of bestial interspecies lovin’.] Besides the lines being shorter, the entire poem is short and sweet, ending with a philosophical lament about truth and beauty.

The Passionate Pilgrim: While we’re back to iambic pentameter (and mostly sonnets) this work is a departure other ways. First, rather than being a narrative poem proper, this is really a love poetry collection. Second, while the collection consists of twenty poems, Shakespeare is believed to have only written five of them (I, II, III, V, and XVI.) Of those, the first four are sonnets, and the last is an eighteen-line poem. Third, this is not new or exclusive material. The first two sonnets came to be included in the 154-sonnet collection of Shakespeare (138 and 144,) and the other verse is from “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

A Lover’s Complaint: The weeping of a maiden attracts the attention of a passerby, who she tells her tale of woe, having been wooed by a young man who got his milk and high-tailed it before he was forced to buy the cow. Besides being a woman’s tale of woe, it also shares with “The Rape of Lucrece” the fact that it is written in rhyme royal. It’s much shorter than “The Rape of Lucrece.”

I would highly recommend poetry readers dig into these lesser know Shakespearean works.


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