10 Most Famous Poems by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. Though he is most renowned for his plays, Shakespeare’s poetry also remains to be popular. He wrote sonnets throughout his career for a private readership. He also wrote two long narrative poems, which were published in the 1590s, and a few other verses. Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets was first published in 1609. Almost all the sonnets follow the structure of three quatrains, or four-line stanzas, followed by a final couplet. The beginning of the third quatrain, at times, introduces an unexpected sharp thematic “turn”, the volta. The couplet usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme. This form is known as Shakespearean Sonnet, not because he was the first to use it, but because he became its most famous practitioner. Know more about the poetry of William Shakespeare through his 10 most famous poems including his renowned sonnets.

#10 The Rape of Lucrece

Published:1594

Excerpt:-

FROM the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.
Haply that name of 'chaste' unhappily set
This bateless edge on his keen appetite;
When Collatine unwisely did not let
To praise the clear unmatched red and white
Which triumph'd in that sky of his delight,
Where mortal stars, as bright as heaven's beauties,
With pure aspects did him peculiar duties.

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

Lucretia was an ancient Roman woman who was raped by the king’s son and committed suicide. The incident led to an anti-monarchist rebellion and thus played a part in the transition of ancient Rome from monarchy to a republic in late 6th century BC. The Rape of Lucrece is a 1,855 lines tragic narrative poem about the rape of Lucretia by the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, and the repercussion of the incident. It is extremely rich in poetic images, fancies and metaphors; and is one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most famous poems.


#9 The Phoenix and the Turtle

Published:1601

Poem:-

Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near.

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather'd king;
Keep the obsequy so strict.

Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.

And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak'st
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st,
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.

So they lov'd, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
'Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.

So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix' sight:
Either was the other's mine.

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;

That it cried, "How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain."

Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:

                 threnos

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos'd, in cinders lie.

Death is now the Phoenix' nest,
And the Turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

Synopsis:-

The Phoenix and the Turtle is an allegorical poem perhaps about the death of ideal love. Some critics see it as a poem about the relationship between truth and beauty. The poem describes a funeral arranged for the deceased Phoenix and Turtledove, who are symbols of perfection and of devoted love, respectively. It is one of the most obscure works ever written and there continues to be speculation about its meaning. It has been thought to allude to various things including the extinction of the Tudor monarchy; and the phoenix being Elizabeth I and the turtle-dove representing her lover, the second Earl of Essex.


#8 Sonnet 20

Alternate Title:A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Published:1609

Poem:-

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
      But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
      Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Synopsis:-

Sonnets 1 to 126 of Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets are addressed to an unnamed young man who is now referred to as “Fair Youth”; while the Sonnets 127 to 154 are known as the Dark Lady sequence as they are addressed to a woman who appears to be a brunette. Sonnet 20 presents the Fair Youth as “master-mistress” of the poet’s passion. The speaker proclaims that his beloved possesses a woman’s physical attractiveness and the form of a man. Moreover, he is more faithful and less fickle than women are. Sonnet 20 remains one of the most controversial poems of Shakespeare for several reasons including its sexual duality and its homoeroticism.



#7 Sonnet 1

Alternate Title:From fairest creatures we desire increase
Published:1609

Poem:-

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory;
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
   Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
   To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Synopsis:-

In the first quatrain of Sonnet 1, the speaker praises the beauty of his beloved and expresses his desire for his beloved to procreate. In the second quatrain, he scolds the young man for being too self-involved to consider procreation; while in the third, he warns his beloved that his beauty will fade. Shakespeare ends the sonnet with the couplet in which he says to his beloved to not deprive the world of his beauty. Sonnet 1 is important as it sets the tone for the entire collection and also the first mini-sequence of 17 poems, which are referred to as “procreation” sonnets as they each urge the young man to bear children.


#6 Sonnet 73

Alternate Title:That time of year thou mayst in me behold
Published:1609

Poem:-

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Synopsis:-

Sonnet 73 focuses on the theme of old age and its effect on human beings. Shakespeare uses a series of metaphors to characterize the nature of old age. In the first quatrain, he equates it to the fading of life like in late autumn; in the second quatrain, he likens it to the fading of light calling darkness “death’s second self”; and in the last quatrain, he compares it to the burning out of the fire. In the couplet, the speaker addresses his beloved, expresses gratitude for his adoration in spite of the physical deterioration of the speaker and tells him “To love that well which thou must leave ere long”. Sonnet 73 is regarded among Shakespeare’s most beautifully crafted poems and is one of the most famous of his 154 sonnets.



#5 Venus and Adonis

Published:1593

Excerpt:-

Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
     Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
     Rose-cheek’d Adonis tried him to the chase;
     Hunting he lov’d, but love he laugh’d to scorn;      
       Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
       And like a bold-fac’d 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.    
 
     ‘Vouchsafe, thou wonder, to alight thy steed,
     And rein his proud head to the saddle-bow;
     If thou wilt deign this favour, for thy meed
     A thousand honey secrets shalt thou know:    
     Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses;
     And being set, I’ll smother thee with kisses:
 
     ‘And yet not cloy thy lips with loath’d satiety,
     But rather famish them amid their plenty,    
     Making them red and pale with fresh variety;
     Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty:
       A summer’s day will seem an hour but short,
       Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport.’

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

Probably Shakespeare’s first publication, this poem narrates the story in Greek mythology of Venus, the Goddess of Love, and Adonis, an extremely handsome young man. Enamored by Adonis, Venus tries to seduce him though Adonis is only interested in hunting. She faints when he scornfully rejects her and fearing he has killed her, Adonis kisses Venus. She recovers and they kiss again. The next day Adonis goes out for boar hunting even though Venus has had a vision of him being killed by a boar. The vision comes true and Venus is devastated. Due to what happened to her, from then on, when ever humans will love, there will always be suspicion, fear, and sadness. Among Shakespeare’s most renowned works, Venus and Adonis contains discourses on the nature of love and brilliantly described observations of nature.


#4 Sonnet 29

Alternate Title:When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
Published:1609

Poem:-

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Synopsis:-

In the octave of Sonnet 29, the speaker is depressed due to social ostracism (“my outcast state”) and personal misfortune (“curse my fate”). He also gives vent to his jealousy of those that are “rich in hope” and “with friends possess’d”. The sestet of the sonnet begins with “Yet” and takes a brighter tone as the speaker feels better upon thinking of his beloved. It ends with the couplet, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings; That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” Sonnet 29 breaks away from traditional sonnets due to its different structure and because the speaker, due to his lack of self-worth, is unable to present a solution in the sestet.



#3 Sonnet 130

Alternate Title:My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Published:1609

Poem:-

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.

Synopsis:-

Sonnet 130 satirizes the concept of ideal beauty that was a convention of literature and art during the time. It compares the poet’s mistress to a number of natural beauties; each time making a point that the beauty of his mistress in obviously inadequate for such comparisons. In the last couplet of the poem, Shakespeare states that still his beloved is as special as any beauty for whom such fanciful comparisons are made by artists. He writes, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare; As any she belied with false compare”. Sonnet 130 is renowned for mocking flowery courtly sonnets.


#2 Sonnet 116

Alternate Title:Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Published:1609

Poem:-

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
    I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Synopsis:-

This often-quoted sonnet provides the definition of ideal love. In the first quatrain, the speaker says that love is not changeable; in the second he says that it is fixed like the north star is to sailors; in the third he says that it not a “Time’s fool”, that it does not change with time; and in the couplet he attests to the certainty of his definition of love by saying, “If this be error and upon me proved; I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Sonnet 116 is regarded among the finest in Shakespeare’s entire sequence of 154 sonnets and it is one of the most famous poems written on love.


#1 Sonnet 18

Alternate Title:Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Published:1609

Poem:-

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Synopsis:-

Shakespeare starts Sonnet 18 with a flattering question to the beloved: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” He goes on to list some negative aspects of summer to establish that his beloved is better. In the last part of the poem, he states that the beauty of his beloved will never fade as he will make it eternal though the words of this poem which will remind the world of him “so long as men can breathe or eyes can see”. Sonnet 18 is the most famous poem written by William Shakespeare and among the most renowned sonnets ever written.



15 thoughts on “10 Most Famous Poems by William Shakespeare”

  1. They’re loving, there were a compelling desire in his poems.
    Also, Shakespeare was a greatest and well- skilled writter around the world.

    Reply

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