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
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.
When they had sworn to this advised doom,
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence;
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin’s foul offence:
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin’s everlasting banishment.
#9 The Phoenix and the Turtle
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.
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
#8 Sonnet 20
Alternate Title: A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
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.
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;
#7 Sonnet 1
Alternate Title: From fairest creatures we desire increase
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.
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:
#6 Sonnet 73
Alternate Title: That time of year thou mayst in me behold
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.
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.
#5 Venus and Adonis
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.
It shall be cause of war and dire events,
And set dissension ‘twixt the son and sire;
Subject and servile to all discontents,
As dry combustious matter is to fire:
Sith in his prime Death doth my love destroy,
They that love best their loves shall not enjoy
#4 Sonnet 29
Alternate Title: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
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.
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,
#3 Sonnet 130
Alternate Title: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
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.
I have seen roses damask’d, 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.
#2 Sonnet 116
Alternate Title: Let me not to the marriage of true minds
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.
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.
#1 Sonnet 18
Alternate Title: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
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.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st 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.