Study Guide

Venus and Adonis

by William Shakespeare

Venus and Adonis Essay - Death by Rhetorical Trope: Poetry Metamorphosed in Venus and Adonis and the Sonnets

Death by Rhetorical Trope: Poetry Metamorphosed in Venus and Adonis and the Sonnets

Pauline Kiernan

Shakespeare's careful insistence that Venus and Adonis is 'the first heir of my invention' has been frequently explained away as the playwright's attempt to dismiss the worth of his dramatic achievements to date, fearful of offending the poem's dedicatee by a reference to his vulgar craft. According to this view, the narrative poems published in 1593 and 1594 become testimony to a quickly abandoned flirtation with literary, as distinct from dramatic, ambitions, and are taken to represent either a desire to begin a new career as a narrative poet or an enforced momentary departure from a lifelong commitment to dramatic art.1

The practical reason offered by most commentators that the poems were written in a period of enforced idleness when the theatres were closed, as a precaution against the plague, between August 1592 and the end of 1593 does not, of course, explain what kind of artistic motivations were occupying the writer's mind during their composition.2 There has, however, been a tendency for critics to suppose that financial considerations were primary determinants in the choice of form and subject and this has, perhaps, helped to prevent us from exploring fully their precise significances as a dramatist's responses to Renaissance concerns with literary imitation. F. T. Prince, for example, seems happy to conclude that if we accept that these poems were written to help compensate for losses incurred by the theatre shutdown, 'we have an explanation both of why the rising young dramatist turned to "narrative" verse, and of why he chose first such a subject as that of Venus and Adonis'.3 Shakespeare successfully gauged the taste of his readers by producing a risqué Ovidian romance he knew would be a best seller and, along with Marlowe, started the popular craze for erotic epyllion. All of which is probable, and embarrassing for those critics who have had trouble reconciling their image of the great artist happy to starve for his art with the idea of a commercial writer responding to market forces.4 The problem that arises from this kind of righteous sensitivity is that it muddles critical judgement. Commentators have sought to find ways of defending the poem by concentrating on the beauty of the language and verse as if this will somehow compensate for the unseemly reason it was written, only to find themselves feeling uncomfortable with its rhetorical excesses.

It has long been recognized, if not always approvingly, that Venus and Adonis possesses a high degree of self-conscious artistry and elaborate rhetoric. Richard Wilbur concedes that its 'main and steadiest sources of pleasure' are 'its elaborate inventiveness, its rhetorical dexterity, its technical éclat', and in the next sentence regrets that 'mostly one is reacting to an ostentatious poetic performance' of 'artful variety'. F. E. Halliday complains that the stanzas are 'rigid with rhetorical constructions and studded with compound and decorative epithets', and the diction 'studiously artificial and "poetical"'. Robert Ellrodt thinks that "Through the poem the artist seems at once hesitant about tone and too confident in the power of rhetoric.'5

Richard Lanham has provided a helpful corrective to such discomfort with the poem's rhetorical artifice, in arguing that Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece 'are poems about rhetorical identity and the strategies of rhetorical style'. Shakespeare, he says, 'often describes and exemplifies at the same time; he writes about the form he writes in.'6 I should like to pursue this point further and consider why the dramatist seems to have felt it important to conduct his interrogation of rhetorical poetics employing rhetorical strategies in a narrative form, and to prepare this written narrative poem for the press. Is there some further, and related significance in his choosing to foreground the literary and textual status of rhetorical poetry, and the medium of print to 'write about the form he writes in'?

Before we can begin to explore the ramifications of the dramatic consciousness working in a narrative, non-dramatic form, perhaps we need to look again at the problematic status of the statement that Venus and Adonis is the first heir of Shakespeare's invention, and try to work out a more satisfactory explanation than the 'dyer's hand' theory: the 'vulgar' playwright aspiring to coterie literary fame, which assumes a primary narrative impulse behind the poem at odds with an essentially dramatic creative urge.7 Both the narrative poems have tended to be placed in a marginalized position in relation to the main body of Shakespeare's work, but even when critics have argued that the poems possess pivotal importance in his development as a dramatist, they have usually been content to examine their relation to the plays in terms of technical experimentation.8

The statement begins to invite a quite different reading if we can ignore—for the moment—questions of chronology, of whether or not it means the poem is a first composition or a first published work, and start by trying to take it at face value.9 We would then have to ask different questions about this poem. Is it about origins? In what way does its author see it as being seminal? Is the dramatist announcing his intention, in this poem, to deliver an original self-created authority, uncontaminated by the seminal disorder of previous literary conceptions? If he regards it as the first heir of his invention, why does he choose an 'overhandled theme', and one, moreover, that has received an apparently definitive treatment by the classical poet with the greatest influence on the Renaissance, and which has itself engendered imitative texts? Spenser's treatment of the myth, for example, had been published as recently as 1590 when the first three books of The Faerie Queene appeared in print. If we now reinstate the importance of chronological considerations and assume, for our present purposes, that four history plays and three comedies precede the writing of Venus and Adonis, we may become yet more sceptical of taking the statement at any kind of literal level, but our refusal to do so is dependent upon a prior assumption that the author is aspiring to a specifically literary fame.10 Confronted with the statement's stubborn insistence that it is there, uncharacteristically carefully prepared for publication and bearing its author's signature, loudly proclaiming his debut in print, we would seem to have conclusive evidence that the poem represents a new ambition to achieve recognition as a literary poet who would not want to draw attention to his presumed ignominious status as a dramatist. But what if we attend to the artistic concerns which the poem itself examines? What I want to argue is that in Venus and Adonis Shakespeare is conducting a highly self-conscious exploration of the nature of poetic identity, and of his own role as a dramatist in literary history.

That Shakespeare chose the consummate practitioner of rhetorical poetics to be the source inspiration for what he himself describes as this seminal moment of his career has, I suggest, a significance beyond that which the poem's criticism traditionally acknowledges.11 That most imitators of Ovid in the Renaissance seem to have been primarily concerned with emulating the classical poet's wit and style and/or exploiting his amatory themes is borne out by criticism's use of the term 'Ovidian' (taking its cue from Francis Meres's famous comparison of Shakespeare and Ovid) as a convenient and loose definition of a poetic style to cover almost any example of mellifluous rhetoric and verbal wit, and often one, or more, or all of the following: self-conscious artistry, an ostentatious disregard for structural and formal narrative continuity, a particular tone of detachment, moral levity, psychological realism, titillating eroticism, and metamorphic transformation.12

But Shakespeare's narrative imitations of Ovid, I suggest, involve a complex set of responses, requiring a more carefully delineated definition of the term 'Ovidian', and less willingness to assume that his poems register the same kind of responses to the style and content of Ovid's work as the poems of his literary contemporaries do.13 The most significant Ovidian presence which underlies Venus and Adonis is acting in response to certain, specific implications which its artistic and thematic concerns offered to a dramatist who is exploring questions of aesthetic theory and the workings of literary imitation; in particular, the self-proclaimed originality and immortality of the Metamorphoses and the way in which the poem explores the problematic relations of insubstantial image and corporeal substance.

Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis begins, as it were, where Ovid's story ends. The classical writer's story ends with Venus turning the dead body of Adonis into a flower. Shakespeare's poem begins with Venus turning the living body of Adonis into a flower.

In Ovid, Venus finds Adonis 'lying lifeless and weltering in his blood', and then tells his corpse that her grief shall have an 'enduring monument':

                'luctus monimenta manebunt
semper, Adoni, mei, repetitaque mortis imago
annua plangoris peraget sumulamina nostri;
at cruor in florem mutabitur.'
                                  (x. 725-8)

('My grief, Adonis, shall have an enduring monument, and each passing year in memory of your death shall give an imitation of my grief. But your blood shall be changed to a flower.')

She sprinkled the blood with sweet-scented nectar, and a flower of blood-red hue sprang up (732-5). The blood of Adonis is replaced by a symbol, an imitation (simulammo). In Shakespeare, Venus' first metaphor turns the flesh and blood of Adonis into a flower three times more beautiful than herself. This second stanza is packed with hyperbolic comparisons, her characteristic wooing mode throughout the poem. Shakespeare turns Ovid's happily compliant Adonis into a recalcitrant love object who refuses to mate with a poet who can offer only the praise of 'false compare' in 'straièd touches' of derivative rhetoric:

'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:'
                                       (7-10)

The succeeding stanzas begin to suggest why such 'couplement[s] of proud compare' must be resisted. She threatens to smother him with kisses, make his lips redsore, and drain them of their colour ('Making them red, and pale, with fresh variety'), so that a summer's day will seem but short: 'Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport' (21-4). 'Being' suggests that Adonis himself, as well as the day, will be 'wasted', spent, sapped of strength. Here, the narrator interrupts Venus to insist on the boy's organic corporeality and to mock the enervating effect of her metamorphic displacement which robs the human body of its energy and strength:

With this she seizeth on his sweating palm,
The precedent of pith and livelihood,
And trembling in her passion, calls it balm.
                                         (25-7)

Prince's gloss on 'pith and livelihood' reads: 'strength and energy. "Pith" means "marrow", the full development of which signifies maturity and hence strength.'14 What is being presented here is not the simple paradox of an immature, coldly chaste young virgin bearing what is traditionally thought of as the physical mark of sexual desire. The flesh that is sweating, which arouses Venus' desire and makes her flesh tremble with passion, prompts her to use a language which robs the object of her desire of the very organicism and physicality which has made it desirable, and which has set in motion an organic process in her own body. The biological movement of sweat coming through the pores of Adonis' flesh which, by definition, is subject to time and process and change, is arrested in a stopped momentum by the metaphor 'balm', and turned into a senseless, lifeless figure of speech.

It is a technique which is repeated throughout the poem. Two kinds of language are juxtaposed, placed in conflict with each other, to point up the contrast between a poetry which stresses corporeal substance and seeks to accommodate organic process, mutability, and time, so that the body may be summoned into something like an immediate physical presence; and a poetry which dematerializes flesh and blood and seeks to transcend time and change and therefore succeeds only in making the body absent, lost to the present. Here is the narrating voice again stressing the biological, dynamic process of Adonis' body to demonstrate how Venus' use of metaphor deprives fleshly existence of its vital principle:

Panting he lies and breatheth in her face,
She feedeth on the steam as on a prey,
And calls it heavenly moisture, air of grace.
                                         (62-4)

Venus' rhetoric disembodies the body she desires: a metaphor has taken Adonis' breath away. But when this heavenly goddess praises her own body to Adonis, it is the sensuous warmth and life of her flesh which her words emphasize:

Mine eyes are grey and bright and quick in
 turning.
My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow,
My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow
 burning.

  My smooth moist hand, were it with thy
   hand felt,
  Would in thy palm dissolve, or seem to
   melt.
                           (140-4; my italics)

Fluidity and change, organic process, physical growth and renewal, all that she has removed from Adonis' body in the metaphor 'air of grace' are here brought into a visual and sensual immediacy. Several stanzas later, she accuses Adonis of being a lifeless image:

'Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone,
Well-painted idol, image dull and dead,
Statue contenting but the eye alone,
Thing like a man, but of no woman bred!'
                                   (211-14)

But it is Venus who has turned Adonis' flesh and blood into a cold and senseless statue, she who has turned life into art. Ovid's story of Venus and Adonis is placed in a sequence in which an artist, prompted by a revulsion against the real bodies of women, creates a cold and senseless statue of his ideal woman's body. In the Metamorphoses, when Pygmalion becomes inflamed with desire for this semblance of a body, simulati corporis (x. 253), he prays to have a wife like his statue. And it is important to notice the precise use Ovid makes of his expressions of similitude and corporeal substance:

                  'si, di, dare cuncta potestis,
sit coniunx, opto,' non ausus 'eburnea virgo'
dicere, Pygmalion 'similis mea' dixit
  'eburnae.'
                                  (x. 274-6)

('If ye, O gods, can give all things, I pray to have as wife—' he did not dare add 'my ivory maid,' but said, 'one like my ivory maid.')

But Venus, Ovid says, knew what the prayer really meant, and brings the statue to life. When Pygmalion returned from the altar of the goddess, he sought once again the 'image of his maid' (simulacra suae petit ille puellae) and, bending over the couch, he kissed her:

                            visa tepere est;
admovet os iterum, manibus quoque pectora
 temptat:
temptatum mollescit ebur positoque rigore
subsidit digitis ceditque, ut Hymettia sole
cera remollescit tractataque pollice multas
flectitur in facies ipsoque fit utilis usu.

dum stupet et dubie gaudet fallique veretur,
rursus amans rursusque manu sua vota
  retractat.
corpus erat! saliunt temptatae pollice venae.
                                         (281-9)

(She seemed warm to his touch. Again he kissed her, and with his hands also he touched her breast. The ivory grew soft to his touch and its hardness vanishing, gave and yielded beneath his fingers, as Hymettian wax grows soft under the sun and, moulded by the thumb, is easily shaped to many forms and becomes usable through use itself. The lover stands amazed, rejoices still in doubt, fears he is mistaken, and tries his hopes again and yet again with his hand. Yes, it was real flesh! The veins were pulsing beneath his testing finger.)

In Shakespeare, Venus' hand touches the malleable cheek of Adonis and turns active, fleshly warmth into a passive, cold whiteness:

Now was she just before him as he sat,
And like a lowly lover down she kneels;
With one fair hand she heaveth up his hat,
Her other tender hand his fair cheek feels:
    His tend'rer cheek receives her soft
      hand's print,
    As apt as new-fall'n snow takes any dint.
                                      (349-54)

The simile of the last line jars, as it is intended to. It demonstrates the mimetic inadequacy of figurative similitude by giving a particularly lame and inappropriate example of such literary poetic expression (the use of 'apt' here wittily reinforces the point). It is an example of how Shakespeare in this poem makes an implied criticism of the way the poetic written word turns everything which has life, warmth, and movement in its immediate presence into an iconographical stasis, irretrievably lost to the present. Adonis' life, in Venus' hands, becomes a dead, literary image so that the only progeny he will be capable of begetting is sterile rhetorical tropes. For a stanza later not just the cheek, but Adonis' hand has become a metaphor, then his whole body. The supplicating Venus kneeling before him like a lowly lover is now overpowering him. Adonis himself becomes an inaccessible original, trapped inside a literary device:

Full gently now she takes him by the hand,
A lily prison'd in a gaol of snow,
Or ivory in an alabaster band:
So white a friend engirts so white a foe.
                                       (361-4)

A lily, or ivory—it does not matter which. Choose whatever tired trope comes to mind, and simply tack it on to the subject. A lily? That will do. The poem already has Venus turning Adonis into a cold, senseless statue: when her 'arms infold him like a band' he struggles to be gone, and she 'locks her lily fingers one in one', so that two lines later her linked arms become a 'circuit' of 'ivory pale' (225, 228, 230). Before that, she has described her encircling arms making Mars 'a prisoner in a red rose chain' (110). Adonis' cheek has just been turned into 'snow' so: 'A lily prison'd in a gaol of snow, / Or ivory in an alabaster band.'

So this is how rhetorical poetry gets written. Take a conceit from Spenser, a figure from Marlowe, a hyperbole from Lyly and Sidney, and the poem has begun. Turn hot, pulsating cheeks into a rose, compare them with the 'purple-coloured face' of the sun taking his leave of 'the weeping morn' (1-3).15 Metamorphose the beloved into the field's chief flower whose superior beauty casts a 'stain' on all others (8, 9).16 Say, as everyone else does, that the face is 'More white and red than doves or roses are' and there are your first two stanzas. But once you start you find you cannot stop. Make human sweat a 'balm' (27) and hot breath an 'air of grace' (64). Turn a blushing cheek into a 'crimson shame' and cold anger into something 'ashy pale' (76); tumescent female pudenda and pubic hair into 'Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough' (237).17 Make eyes 'two blue windows' up-heaved so that they may be compared to the sun at dawn (482-6).18 Play with an extended metaphor which makes lips red sealing-wax and a thousand kisses the price of a human heart (511-22). Turn all that is red, which you make not red, but something else such as 'ruby-colour'd portal' or 'red morn' instead of a mouth, into white. But make sure you do not simply say white. Flesh can be a dove, a lily, white sheets, alabaster, or snow. What it cannot be is … flesh.

Take the human body and turn it into something being written in a poem, and the poet's writing hand seems to find itself involuntarily steeped in rhetorical dyes:

The forward violet thus did I chide:
'Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy
  sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple
  pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion
 dwells
In my love's veins thou has too grossly dyed.'
The lily I condemnéd for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand—
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third nor red nor white, had stol'n of both,
And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath,
But for his theft in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker ate him up to death.

More flowers I noted, yet I none could
  see
But sweet or colour it had stol'n from
  thee.
                              (Sonnet 99)19

Here, the Friend is made an original, a kind of seminary of all created forms and their substances, as he is in Sonnets 98 and 53. As Sonnet 98 insists: the lily's white and the deep vermilion in the rose were 'but figures of delight, / Drawn after you, you pattern of all those' (9-12). But Shakespeare exploits this sonneteering convention to introduce the idea that when the Friend is absent, the original of the world's beauty is inaccessible. The odour and hue of all the flowers means it must be summer—'Yet seem'd it winter still' (13)—and the Poet has to make do with looking at poor imitations of the original: 'and, you away, / As with your shadow I with these did play' (13-14).

If we pause now to examine Sonnet 98 in relation to Sonnet 53, we may begin to detect how Ovid's preoccupation with the relations of image and substance, unreal and real, helps to shape Shakespeare's exploration into the mysterious workings of poetry's rhetorical dyeing process both in the Sonnets and in Venus and Adonis. We may also begin to discover some further significance in why the forward violet is so firmly castigated in Sonnet 99. Here is Sonnet 53 quoted in full:

What is your substance, whereof are you
 made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend:
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring and foison of the year,—
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessèd shape we know:
   In all external grace you have some part,
   But you like none, none you, for constant
     heart.

This seems to be peculiarly responsive to the exactness of Ovid's expressions of corporeal substance and false semblance, and their problematic relations to individual identity. In Ovid's story of Narcissus and Echo, Narcissus spem sine corpore amat, corpus putat esse, quod umbra est, falls in love with that which is imaginis umbra … nil habet ista sui (Met. iii. 417-35). He falls in love with that which is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. Ingram and Redpath's gloss on shadows in lines 2 and 4 of Sonnet 53 reads: 'Here … presumably not umbrae, in which colour, texture and detail are absent, but imagines, as the examples in lines 5ff show, though the phrase "on you tend" would more naturally apply to umbrae.'''20 But if the central idea of this sonnet is approached with Ovid's extremely precise sense of something doubly unreal in mind, we can see that it is because the Friend's substance, the 'colour, texture and detail' of his living body are absent in umbrae, and because all other beauty is but a bodiless semblance of the Friend's substance, that the word shadows is used. The shadows are bodiless, false illusions of the real thing, like the reflection in the pool upon which Narcissus gazes and which Ovid calls imaginis umbra and sine corpore.

Similarly, in answer to Ingram and Redpath's question about the use of the word shade at line 3—'Does the word here mean umbrae or imago, or neither with any precision? It is hard to say'—I would want to argue that each shade is both umbra and imago in the Ovidian sense of it being a likeness of a form in which the body is absent. We need to reassess criticism's traditional view that in this sonnet, Shakespeare is deliberately employing such vocabulary without precise connotation and comprehensiveness.21 When we examine just a few of the ways in which Ovid, throughout the Metamorphoses, exploits the words umbra, imago, and corpus to explore distinctions between that which has corporeality and is real, and that which is without bodily substance and is unreal, it becomes clear that Shakespeare's use of substance, shadow, and shade, far from being vague and undelineated, is both precise and paradoxical in the strictly Ovidian sense found in the Latin which describes Narcissus's falling in love with that which is imaginis umbra and Phaethon being puffed up with imagine falsi which has the precise connotation of something doubly unreal. Ovid's Venus, we remember, replaces the blood of Adonis with a simulammo, an imitation of her grief, an imago of his dead body. Pygmalion asks for a wife who is like his false semblance of a body (Met. iii. 434-5; i. 754; x. 253).

It is significant that in Sonnet 53 nature's organic renewal process and its fruitful progeny, 'the spring and foison of the year', are made but shadows of the Friend's beauty (9-11). As Ingram and Redpath point out, 'the antithesis is not between Spring and Autumn simply as seasons of the year, but between the active properties which characterise them, the concreteness of association being characteristically Shakespearean. The "spring" is freshness and vitality, as the "foison" is abundance of produce' (my italics).22

If the Friend's beauty is the source of nature's beauty and its powers of renewal and fecundity, it must not be allowed to fade until its life-giving essence is distilled by something that will ensure its perpetual presence and immortality. Nature cannot do this: though it is summer when the Friend is absent, 'Yet seem'd it winter still'. The flowers are merely reminders of what is absent, and the world has to make do with a semblance of the original: ' … and, you away, / As with your shadow I with these did play' (Sonnet 98, 13-14; my italics). Indeed, nature's flowers are castigated for being passive dissipators of the Friend's strength and vital energy, and the repeated insistence in Sonnet 99 that the conventions of poetic similitude and comparison are pointless because the Friend's beauty cannot be compared to anything but itself takes on a new and sinister significance.

In Sonnet 21 another Muse is described as 'Making a couplement of proud compare / With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems, / With April's firstborn flowers and all things rare' (5-7), and is accused of merely repeating what others have said before: 'And every fair with his fair doth rehearse' (4). But the other poet's praise becomes an act of double theft. He steals someone else's words and because such praise has already been bestowed on other subjects, it robs the subject of present praise of his individuality and true worth—something which Adonis seems particularly enraged by when he condemns Venus' 'device in love / That lends embracements unto every stranger' (789-90). This is why the Poet keeps insisting that his verse is 'so barren of new pride, / So far from variation or quick change', why he keeps 'invention in a noted weed' (Sonnet 76, 1-2, 6), and why the Friend must be 'most proud of that which I compile, / Whose influence is thine and born of thee' (Sonnet 78, 9-10).

The 'rival' poet in Sonnet 79 is accused of robbing the Friend in order to give back what the Friend already possesses: 'Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent, / He robs thee of, and pays it thee again … beauty doth he give, / And found it in thy cheek' (Sonnet 79, 7-8, 10-11; my italics). The 'true plain words' of the Poet are explicitly contrasted with the 'gross painting' of other poets:

          yet when they have devis'd
What strainèd touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou, truly fair, wert truly sympathiz'd
In true plain words by thy true-telling friend;
     And their gross painting might be better
      us'd
    Where cheeks need blood—in thee it is
      abus'd
                      (Sonnet 82, 9-14; my italics)

Such poets, then, are like the violet chided in Sonnet 99 who is 'forward', which suggests precocious, presumptuous, but also flowering before its time; forced, because fed on the blood and breath it has stolen from the fecund source of the world's organic growth. The violet has 'too grossly dyed' (5) the fresh blood flowing through the veins of the Friend's cheek, and what is being suggested here is that the violet causes the Friend's blood to 'die'—to stop flowing through the veins, with the same enervating effect of the rhetorical dyes in which the rival poets grossly paint the beauty of the Friend in Sonnet 82. Ingram and Redpath gloss 82's 'gross painting': 'In addition to the obvious sense of "laying it on thick" … there may also be a reference here to "larded" rhetoric. Cf. "Colours" = rhetorical figures.'23 This idea that rhetoric's gross painting stops the life flow of the human body is made explicit in Sonnet 83 which begins: 'I never saw that you did painting need, / And therefore to your fair no painting set' (1-2). There is more glory, the Poet says, in his silence, 'being dumb' (9-10), because when the 'rival' poets try to capture the vital presence of the Friend's beauty, their painting 'kills' it:

For I impair not beauty, being mute,
When others would give life and bring a tomb.
   There lives more life in one of your fair
     eyes
   Than both your poets can in praisedevise.
                          (11-14; my italics)

In Sonnet 99 all the flowers of nature are implicated in the life-destroying theft. 'The roses fearfully on thorns did stand', because conscious of their guilty thefts, but the pink rose is the most guilty because not showing shame like the red, nor despair like the white, it steals the Friend's breath as well as his colour ('And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath', 11). The pink rose is punished for robbing a living human organism of its life-force: 'But for his theft in pride of all his growth / A vengeful canker ate him up to death' (12-13), so that, in the words of Sonnet 54, nothing of the original vital essence can now be distilled.

It is significant that the Sonnet which claims that the Poet's verse will immortalize the Friend's truth and beauty associates the life-preserving effect of the verse with the sweet odour of the rose, whose essence may be preserved when the rose perishes, in contrast to the canker blooms which have no perfume, to make a distinction between that which has colour and an essence which can be made to live on after death, and that which has 'as deep a dye' (Sonnet 54, 5), but nothing that can be made to last once it has decayed. The verse of the 'rival' poets is like the canker bloom: 'But for their virtue only is their show / They live unwoo'd and unrespected fade—/ Die to themselves' (Sonnet 54, 9-11). The 'rival' poets of Sonnet 82 cannot make the Friend live after death: their rhetorical dyes 'kill' him while he still is alive. Their verse is like the pink rose which, in feeding on the Friend's flesh and blood, deprives him of the very thing which could ensure the survival and prepetuation of his vital essence (Sonnet 99). The verse of these other poets is like both the canker, the pale pink dog-rose, whose colour is a short-lived display and has no potentially enduring essence, and the canker-worm which eats up its blossoms (Sonnet 54). The 'rival' poets, then, eat up the Friend 'to death', like the vengeful canker-worm who eats up the pink rose 'to death', because the shameless pink rose had robbed the Friend of his colour and his breath (Sonnet 99). Being both canker and canker-worm, the other poets are responsible for the decay of their own verse.

This, then, is the price poets have to pay for turning flesh and blood into a rhetorical trope. This is why the Poet keeps defending the 'poverty' and 'silence' of his Muse, insisting that his 'argument all bare is of more worth / Than when it hath my added praise beside!' (Sonnet 103, 3-4). 'I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words … In polish'd form of wellrefinèd pen' (Sonnet 85, 5, 8). Throughout the Sonnets which ridicule the painted rhetoric of other poets, we find an almost obsessive concern with the idea of writing, pen, quill, pencil being repeatedly used to suggest that it is the colours of rhetoric written down which deserve the greatest condemnation.24 It is a 'modern quill' ('modern: "commonplace, trite, ordinary", as always in Shakespeare') which comes too short of the Friend's worth in Sonnet 83, where, as we have seen, the writers who 'would give life … bring a tomb'.25 Transcription thus becomes equated with death of the subject, with destroying life. The only way to summon that life into presence is to compare it to nothing else, since it exceeds the 'barren tender' (fruitless offering) of a poet's debt (Sonnet 83, 3-4), and simply say 'you are you':

Who is it that says most which can say more
Than this rich praise,—that you alone are you,
In whose confine immurèd is the store
Which should example where your equal
 grew?
                           (Sonnet 84, 1-4)

Ingram and Redpath think that the image in lines 3-4 here 'certainly seems to be biological rather than that of a treasury. The sense would be that the only stock from which one could learn under what conditions a person of the Friend's excellence could develop is to be found in the Friend himself.'26 The only way we can understand how the Friend developed his unique excellence is to attend only to what we see now: the biological physical presence of what he is. This is why we find, in Venus and Adonis, so many passages itemizing parts of the body in 'true plain words': why, for example, we find a conventional extended metaphor being paradoxically employed for a bare, literal description of the different parts of Adonis' face:

Even as an empty eagle, sharp by fast,
Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and
  bone,

Shaking her wings, devouring all in haste,
Till either gorge be stuff'd or prey be gone:
Even so she kiss'd his brow, his cheek,
  his chin,

And where she ends she doth anew begin.
                      (55-60; my italics)

When Venus feigns death, Adonis 'wrings her nose, he strikes her on the cheeks, / He bends her fingers, holds hex pulses hard, / He chafes her lips' (475-7; my italics). It is why, in the poem's description of the horse, each part of the animal's body is carefully delineated:

Round-hoof'd, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and
  long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril
  wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs, and
  passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender
  hide:
    Look what a horse should have he did not
      lack,
    Save a proud rider on so proud a back.
                                  (295-300)

Dowden, in his famous comment on this passage, spoke truer than he knew when he asked with heavy sarcasm: 'Is it poetry or a paragraph from an advertisement for a horse sale? It is part of Shakespeare's study of an animal and he does his work thoroughly.'27 Touchstone could have told him that the 'truest poetry (that which is most poetic) is the most feigning' (As You Like It, III. iii. 16). Such a reversal of the poetry of false compare is placed in the poem in order to demonstrate that the poet who can say a horse is a horse is a horse is the one who tells the truth. As the Poet of the Sonnets says: 'he that writes of you, if he can tell / That you are you, so dignifies his story' (Sonnet 84, 7-8), unlike Venus who, far from making Adonis 'the onlie begetter' of her poetry, succeeds only in saying that Adonis is everything but himself. She has no power to preserve Adonis' distilled self because like the pink rose in Sonnet 99 she feeds on his flesh and blood. It is the threat of the self being overwhelmed in a plethora of derivative rhetorical tropes that Adonis, in refusing union with Venus, is trying to resist. When she traps him within her 'circuit of ivory pale' so that he becomes 'a lily … / Or ivory in an alabaster band', the now inaccessible original essence that was Adonis has been turned into a literary figure borrowed from a prior literary text, so that Adonis is no longer Adonis as an ideal poetry would present him—a unique, original essence capable of being perpetually renewed like the rose essence which endures after the rose perishes, but the Hermaphroditus of Ovid's poem, trapped in Salmacis' enervating pool, flashing with gleaming body through the transparent flood, ut eburnea si quis / signa tegat claro vel candida lilia vitro (Met. iv. 354-5), 'as if one should encase ivory figures or white lilies in translucent glass'. Venus is like the rival poet who 'every fair with his fair doth rehearse'. She merely repeats what other poets have written and deprives Adonis of his individuality and vital presence.

But Shakespeare's use of Ovid here is characteristically more complex than even this. Adonis, in Venus' entrapping and paralysing embrace, becomes Ovid's Hermaphroditus to provide a paradigm for the poet confronted by a seductive enervating other which threatens to overwhelm, enfeeble, and emasculate his fertile powers of invention:

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all-too-precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain
 inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they
 grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonishèd:
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast,—
I was not sick of any fear from thence:
    But when your countenance fill'd up his
      line,
    Then lack'd I matter; that enfeebl'd mine.
                                           (Sonnet 86)

The Poet's verse, ripe for birth, dies unborn, is forever buried in the womb where it was conceived. Why? The Poet takes eight of the sonnet's ten remaining lines to say what has not aborted this embryo. But we find that the false starts and changes of direction in this sonnet lead us to believe that it is the other poet's verse which killed the Poet's embryonic thoughts. We do not know as we read lines 5 and 6 that the answer to the questions in lines 1 to 6 will be 'No'. We are made to imagine the Poet's verse dying before it is born, buried by the verse of another poet which is itself an imitative text ('his spirit, by spirits taught to write') and this remains in our minds even after line 7's refutation 'No, neither he', because 'compeers by night' in that line has the effect of reinforcing the image of the spirits in line 5. The other poet, aided by compeers, other books or their authors, and/or a coterie of literary associates has astonished, paralysed, his verse into silence.28 Trope begets trope, literary text begets literary text. Line 12 obliterates all that has preceded it, so that the concluding couplet can reveal what has really struck him dead. But the couplet does not fully contradict all that has been said before. The Friend's countenance 'fill'd up his line' takes us back to 'the proud full sail of his great verse' in the opening line, and we imagine the Friend's countenance swelling the sails of the other poet's verse. 'Then lack'd I matter' faintly recalls, by contrast, 'his spirit, by spirits taught to write', and the Friend's countenance is something being written in a poem which itself is swelled with the written words of other poets. By the time the Poet comes to write his verse, there is no substance of the Friend left for him to write about. The line which would have been able to bring 'all-too-precious you' into being cannot now be born.

That is why Shakespeare's Venus must be punished, why Adonis resists her enfeebling rhetoric, is determined not to be crushed in the huge expanse of her bosom ('Fie, fie, fie … you crush me; let me go', 611), which is the rhetorical excess of other poets and their books, the surfeit of literary texts which 'fill up' the space where new poetic creation should take place. Venus is denied any part in Adonis' metamorphosis because she has been made to function as a poet whose 'gross painting' turns life into art, by robbing flesh and blood, as the forward violet and pink rose steal the colour and odour of the Friend's beauty. Her verse cannot bring fleshly existence into an eternal present. She cannot renew him because all along her rhetoric has turned its object into a literary figurative device, as Adonis well knows: 'I hate not love, but your device in love' (789); and she must make way for the dramatist who alone can reverse the flesh-and-blood-into-symbol process of such sterile rhetoric. Venus' kisses will destroy time itself, 'A summer's day will seem an hour but short, / Being wasted' (23-4). But it is time itself that Adonis needs if he is to reach maturity with his fertility intact. Venus repeatedly tries to persuade him that it is his duty to procreate and fructify the world when it is her persuasion, her rhetoric itself, which is threatening to emasculate his potential fecundity. The sterile fate which she prophesies will befall him if he does not mate with her, is precisely what will happen to him if he does:

'What is thy body but a swallowing grave,
Seeming to bury that posterity,
Which by the rights of time thou needs must
 have,
If thou destroy them not in dark obscurity?

So in thyself thyself art made away.'
                                     (757-63)

But, as her subsequent list of conceits testifies once again, it is Venus' self-propagating proliferation of figurative devices that has 'made' Adonis 'away'. Adonis resists what by this stage of the poem have become heavily ironic entreaties to 'Be prodigal' in 'despite of fruitless chastity' (755, 751), because copulation with her will prove a fruitless union. It is her rhetoric, which, as Adonis points out, is merely a sterile imitation of another poet's words, that must be rejected if he is to produce a fertile language of his own. Venus warns him that his body and all the life that it is capable of reproducing will be buried in a grave of his body's own making, which is '"Foul cank'ring rust the hidden treasure frets, But gold that's put to use more gold begets'" (767-8). Adonis recognizes Venus' last metaphor as deriving from another text. She has turned him into Marlowe's Hero and once again, he is tossed on to the vast stock-pile of literary convention to be buried in what is his real swallowing grave: '"Nay then," quoth Adon, "you will fall again / Into your idle over-handled theme'" (769-70).29 We might note in passing how this allusion to the interchangeability of Renaissance poetic texts is associated with the idea of 'foul cank'ring' which 'frets', eats away, 'hidden treasure', in the way that the pink rose of Sonnet 99 is eaten away by the canker.

The Adonis who keeps disappearing under the weight of Venus' rhetorical glut is allowed to re-emerge to utter an impassioned critique of her kind of poetry, and by one revealing word, explains why the reader of Shakespeare's poem is so easily seduced by it—such poetry is bewitching. Adonis must not allow the goddess's words to enter his ear, fearing contamination:

'If love have lent you twenty thousand
  tongues,
And every tongue more moving than your
  own,
Bewitching like the wanton mermaid's songs,
Yet from my heart the tempting tune is blown:
    For know, my heart stands armed in mine
      ear,
    And will not let a false sound enter
     there;'
                                      (775-80)

He knows that the 'false sounds' of Venus' poetry will not be true to him, because they are used on everyone else:

'I hate not love, but your device in love
That lends embracements unto every stranger.
    You do it for increase.'
                                     (789-91)

Breeding with Venus promises only an infinite proliferation of the eloquent 'figures' beloved by the Renaissance rhetoricians: the increase they meant by the term copia.30 If, at this point in the poem, readers begin to find Adonis' expressions of earnest refusal reaching their most poetically dull, perhaps it is because we are being admonished, too. If we find ourselves thinking that Venus is entertaining, and Adonis too often a 'killjoy', then the goddess has succeeded in bewitching us. We have been made to experience for ourselves the irresistible allure of rhetoric's flattering colours. We are preferring painted rhetoric to true plain words: Adonis' distinction between love and lust is a plea for poetic chastity which can produce a perpetually renewing truth with the power to bring forth new life after the surfeit of rhetorical images has gorged itself to death.

'Love's gentle spring doth always fresh
  remain,
Lust's winter comes ere summer half be done;
    Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies;
    Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.'

'More I could tell, but more I dare not say:
The text is old, the orator too green.
Therefore in sadness, now I will away;
My face is full of shame, my heart of teen,
   Mine ears that to your wanton talk
     attended,
   Do burn themselves, for having so
     offended.'
                                  (801-10)

In trying to express the difference between a poetry which is bred by a union with the rhetorical past which is doomed to perish, and a poetry which is self-created and uncontaminated by such rhetoric and which will, therefore, 'always fresh remain', Venus and Adonis seems to be going beyond a pointing to the inadequacy of rhetorical strategies to reproduce an object, to consider what means a poet might use to ensure that his invention possesses its own powers of self-renewal. Adonis demands to be allowed to ripen in his own good time:

'Who plucks the bud before one leaf put
  forth?
If springing things be any jot diminish'd,
They wither in their prime, prove nothing
  worth.'
                                     (416-18)

'If the first heir of my invention prove deformed,' William Shakespeare writes in the poem's dedication, 'I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest.' The truly dangerous threat which Venus poses is that of the proud full sail of the 'rival' poet in Sonnet 86 which buries the ripe thoughts in the Poet's brain 'Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew'. Adonis is identified as both poet and poem. He is the poet's embryonic poem 'springing', growing, in the creative womb which Venus is threatening to 'diminish' by stunting its growth. But he is also the poet trying to protect the embryonic heir of his invention from anything that might cause it to be deformed at birth. Venus' rhetoric, like the 'gross painting' of the 'rival' poets in the Sonnets, who 'would give life' but 'bring a tomb', robs him of the biological, organic processes needed for the creation of new life. Her 'tedious' song that outwore the night because spent with 'idle sounds resembling parasites, / Like shrill-tongu'd tapsters answering every call, / Soothing the humour of fantastic wits' (841, 848-50), is merely second-hand rhetoric, stolen from other literary texts, and used indiscriminately to lavish praise on everyone.31 Her 'compeers by night' have given her aid, taught her to write her 'idle over-handled theme' in the 'strainèd touches rhetoric can lend' 'unto every stranger'.32 The neighbouring caves 'Make verbal repetition of her moans; / Passion on passion deeply is redoubled.' Twenty times she cries '"Woe, woe," / And twenty echoes twenty times cry so' (831-4). The night resounds with a cacophony of shrill parasitic sounds and becomes a nightmare vision of poetry's incestuous interchangeability. Union with Venus would produce only one more parasitic echo of other poets' words, and merely add to the seminal contaminated mess of previous literary conceptions.

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil'd,
Which labouring for invention bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
                             (Sonnet 59, 1-4)

The image of pregnancy and birth has remarkably close affinities with the way Shakespeare describes Venus and Adonis in the dedication to Henry Wriothesley, and perhaps we can now suggest why. We might begin by noting that Sonnet 59 opens with a conditional If to suggest that novelty is not a certain impossibility. But if repetition is all that a poet can hope for, how are our brains beguiled when they labour for invention, the first process of rhetoric defined in the Renaissance as 'the finding out of apt matter … a searching out of things true or things likely; the which may reasonably set forth a matter'.33 Shakespeare uses 'beguile' elsewhere to mean: (1) to deprive or rob of; (2) to cheat, disappoint (hopes); (3) to divert attention in some pleasant way from (anything disagreeable); to while away (time); and (4) to disguise.34 In this sonnet, the primary sense is of disappointed hopes, being cheated or deluded, but perhaps there is also a suggestion of the brain being robbed of something and of sense 3, whiling away time, which, incidentally, is a Shakespearian neologism, and could therefore be a subtle refutation of the idea that there is nothing new, reinforcing the conditional 'If. In Venus and Adonis, as we have seen, the goddess tells the youth that her kisses will make the summer's day but short, 'Being wasted by such time-beguiling sport', which the poem presents as a threat, something that will rob Adonis of his vital strength and energy.

The image in Sonnet 59 of labouring to carry out the first of rhetoric's five processes, inventio, becomes, as we reach bear, an image of pregnancy, and imaginative creation is now the dominating sense of invention, so that at amiss we are holding in our minds the idea of an embryo growing in some way imperfectly inside the womb. At line 4 the sense of the pain of a heavily pregnant womb is doubled by the word second but then we are confronted with the mental exertion of trying to grasp the sense of 'The second burthen of a former child' (my italics). Ingram and Redpath think that without the word 'amiss' the sense would be perfectly clear: '"If everything is merely a repetition of what has happened before; how our brains are deluded, when they toil and labour to give birth to new matter, and only bring forth what has been created before!"' They go on to ask: 'But what is the sense of the word "amiss", modifying "bear"? If we took it to mean "wrongly", then "bear amiss" might suggest an abortion, which clearly does not fit the sense, since if there is an exact repetition, either the new birth is not an abortion or the old one was also.'35

But what if we imagine the embryo being deformed as it develops in the womb because there is not enough space there for its body to be perfectly formed? 'If springing things be one jot diminish'd,' Adonis says, 'They wither in their prime, prove nothing worth.' Is the 'former child' the heir of some other poet's invention, squashing the embryo, restricting and stunting its growth, so that what is being carried in the womb is an unwelcome extra weight, a second burden which should not be there? What is being borne 'amiss', wrongly, is this second burden which itself was once a child. The sense would then be: 'If everything is a repetition of all that has been before, how are our brains deluded, when they try to originate new matter, and find that their thoughts are being stifled by the oppressive weight of all that has been created before. Our brains, being filled up with what has already been reproduced by others, are deprived of the means of creating anything that is:

Perhaps what is being suggested in this quatrain is the idea of a poet trying to create a new and original poetry in biological process by making that which is is, and not lost to the present, but who is confronted by the seminal mass of literary imitation where nothing new can be born because that which is hath been before. The Poet tries to bring something into being for the first time, but before it can get born it is crushed under the weight of previous creations. The Poet then has to carry a double weight in the creative womb: his own embryonic thoughts, and the second burden, another poet's poem which was once a child being borne in another womb. When it is time for the new child to be born it has been deformed, like the Poet's verse in Sonnet 86—enfeebled and paralysed.

When Adonis finally manages to break from Venus' paralysing embrace, he runs 'homeward through the dark laund' (813). Laund is an open space of unfilled ground in a wood, land that has not yet been cultivated for the raising of crops—virgin ground where new seeds can be sown uncontaminated by previous crops. There, in the 'pitchy night', Adonis is safe from this predatory wooer. The night did 'Fold in the object that did feed her sight' (821-2). Now it is Venus' turn to be paralysed:

Whereat amaz'd, as one that unaware
Hath dropp'd a precious jewel in the flood,
Or 'stonish'd as night-wand'rers often are,
Their light blown out in some mistrustful
  wood:
   Even so confounded in the dark she lay,
   Having lost the fair discovery of her way.
                                      (823-8)

In the words of Sonnet 86, the proud full sail of Venus' great verse, bound for the prize of all-too-precious Adonis, is astonished. She has never been capable of saying to him 'You alone are you', but has kept turning him into a precious jewel—decorporealized inert matter. But the poem now reverses the effect of those 'glutton-like' kisses insatiably feeding on his flesh and blood to 'draw his lips' rich treasure dry' (548, 552), when she finds Adonis' blood on the boar and is made to confront the stark physicality of a 'frothy mouth bepainted all with red, / Like milk and blood mingled both together' (901-2). Venus had turned the living flesh and blood of Adonis into an image 'dead and dull' when she steeped him in rhetoric's colours to make him 'too grossly dyed'. We remember how the sweat on Adonis' palm made her body tremble with passion, the biological process of his body setting in motion an organic change in her own, and how her metaphor 'balm' stopped time, process, and change and turned organic substance into a senseless figure of speech. Now she must be made to suffer the sight of the truly gross dye of real blood, and her 'gross painting' poetic techniques must be replaced by a poetic language which can accommodate time, process, and change. The narrating voice takes over to demonstrate how poetry can be made to reinstate the body in all its sensuous and organic power. The language which tells us that the blood which Venus sees makes her body tremble with fear becomes an active moving process summoning the goddess's fear into a physical presence: 'A second fear through all her sinews spread' (903).

A thousand spleens bear her a thousand ways,
She treads the path that she untreads again;
Her more than haste is mated with delays
Like the proceedings of a drunken brain.
                                     (907-10)

It has the power to move nature's beasts into an immediate present. Here is the narrator's true, plain words describing the animals Venus encounters:

   And here she meets another sadly
       scowling,
   To whom she speaks, and he replies with
       howling.
When he hath ceas'd his ill-resounding noise,
Another flap-mouth'd mourner, black and
 grim,
Against the welkin volleys out his voice;
Another and another answer him,
   Clapping their proud tails to the ground
     below,
   Shaking their scratch'd ears, bleeding as
     they go.
                                       (917-24)

Venus finds terrible omens in 'these sad signs', and is prompted to 'exclaim on death' (925-30). She 'chides' death:

Grim-grinning ghost, earth's worm, what dost
 thou mean,
To stifle beauty and to steal his breath?
   Who when he liv'd, his bream and beauty set
   Gloss on the rose, smell to the violet.
                                  (933-6; my italics)

But it is Venus who stifled Adonis' beauty and stole his breath when he lived, just as the forward violet and the pink rose, chided in Sonnet 99, robbed the Friend of his beauty and breath.

When Venus finds Adonis dead, the eyes which had fed on his living flesh and blood are unable to bear the sight of the substance her kind of rhetoric has turned into lilies and roses, doves and ruby-coloured portals, red sealing-wax and snow:

          her eyes as murder'd with the view,
    Like stars asham'd of day, themselves
      withdrew.
Or as the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there all smother'd up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again:
   So at this bloody view her eyes are fled
   Into the deep dark cabins of her head.
                                     (1031-8)

The punishment for turning the human body into a literary stylistic trick must be a prolonged torture. When she opens her eyes again the cruel light shows the wound in shocking and vivid immediacy. Rhetoric's colours are now made to reinstate corporeal substance to stress what Venus' eyes must be opened to:

And being open'd threw unwilling light
Upon the wide wound that the boar had
 trench'd
In his soft flank, whose wonted lily-white

With purple tears that his wound wept, was
 drench'd.
   No flower was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf
     or weed,
   But stole his blood and seem'd with him
     to bleed.
                                   (1051-6)

Venus' eyes are so dazzled, her sight 'makes the wound seem three …' and 'makes more gashes, where no breach should be. / His face seems twain, each several limb is doubled' (1064-7). And at once, Venus starts to use language which brings the uniqueness and individuality of Adonis to life, to capture the freshness and vitality she had taken from him when he was alive. 'The flowers are sweet, their colours fresh and trim, / But true sweet beauty liv'd and died with him' (1079-80). When Adonis lived, 'sun and sharp air / Lurk'd like two thieves to rob him of his fair' (1085-6). All of nature, she says, responded to his presence. The sun and wind would compete for the privilege of drying his tears, the lion would walk behind a hedge so that he could see Adonis without frightening him. Adonis' song tamed tigers. To hear him speak, wolves would leave their prey.

In Ovid, it is Venus who transforms Adonis into a flower, but Shakespeare's Adonis, having the power of the primordial poet, Orpheus, to make the birds and the beasts and the trees move, can effect his own metamorphosis:

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, checker'd with
  white,
   Resembling well his pale cheeks and the
     blood

   Which in round drops upon their
    whiteness stood.
                      (1165-70; my italics)36

This purple flower will not be 'too grossly dyed'. Its colour and odour have not been stolen from the blood and breath of another. The false rhetorical exercise of comparing Adonis to a flower, with which Venus opened the poem, to produce a sterile, lifeless image, that could beget only barren verse, has undergone an exact reversal. Adonis has refused to be compared to anything else, an insistence paralleled by the Poet of the Sonnets, who spurns couplements of 'proud compare' (Sonnet 21, 5) in repeated refusals to compare his subject with anything else and in reiterated injunctions that everything else must be compared to his subject. The blood with which Venus has smeared her cheeks is no metaphor, but the congealed substance that once flowed through the veins of Adonis' body (she 'stains her face with his congealed blood', 1122), and which is now flowing as nourishing green sap through the stalk of the flower. Comparing the flower to Adonis' flesh and blood is no rhetorical exercise. The 'new-sprung' flower has grown to vigorous strength from an original seed sown in an open space of untilled ground, fed by its own vital body fluid. If it is picked, the self-renewing power which has created it can produce another.

She bows her head, the new-sprung flower to
  smell,
Comparing it to her Adonis' breath,
And says within her bosom it shall dwell,
Since he himself is reft from her by death.
    She crops the stalk, and in the breach
      appears
    Green-dropping sap, which she compares
      to tears.

'Poor flower,' quoth she, 'this was thy father's
  guise,—
Sweet issue of a more sweet-smelling sire,—
For every little grief to wet his eyes;
To grow unto himself was his desire,
    And so 'tis thine; but know, it is as good
    To wither in my breast as in his blood.'
                         (1171-82; my italics)

Venus may place the self-created heir of Adonis in her bosom where it will wither, but its vital essence has been distilled. Her sterile rhetoric has been metamorphosed into an organic language that can bring everything into new life. She hies home to Paphos, where she 'Means to immure herself and not be seen', taking the flower with her—but leaving Shakespeare's poem behind.

Notes

1 e.g. F. T. Prince in his introd. to the Arden edn. writes: 'Shakespeare's own description of the poem offers an apparent difficulty, since he had already begun to make his name as a playwright; but Lord Southampton would not have been flattered, and might even have been annoyed, by a reference to the vulgar dramatic successes of the young writer: such works were not considered to fall into the category of literature' (The Poems, e d. F. T. Prince (London, 1960; repr. 1982), p. xxvi). All quotations from Venus and Adonis are from this edn. All quotations from other Shakespeare works are from the Arden edns., gen. eds. H. F. Brooks, H. Jenkins, and B. Morris, unless otherwise stated. G. Bullough writes: 'The style, so much richer and more glowing than that of the earliest Histories and comedies, suggests either a new literary discipleship or some recent enrichment of personal experience, perhaps both. … Shakespeare seems to be making a bid for court approval by writing in the lavish manner of the urbaner classicists who took Ovid for a model' (G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London and New York, 1977), i. 161).

2 The Oxford Shakespeare editors suggest that Shakespeare 'probably' wrote Venus and Adonis at this time, 'perhaps seeing a need for an alternative career' (The Complete Works, e d. S. Wells and G. Taylor (Oxford, 1986), 253).

3The Poems, ed. Prince, p. xxvi. Marlowe's fragment Hero and Leander was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1593, the same year Venus and Adonis was published, although Hero was not published until June 1598. We do not know which influenced which. Lodge's Scillaes Metamorphosis was published in 1589 and can claim to be the first English epyllion, but Hero and Venus seem to have been responsible for the outburst of Ovidian epyllia in the years 1593-8. Since the influence of Marlowe on these is clearly apparent, it is generally assumed that Hero was known almost from the date of entry. See M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London, 1951), 57, 226.

4 Note the unspoken assumption that concerns with artistic development and financial gain are mutually exclusive motivations in Prince's statement: 'Despite the presentation of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece as the works of a conscious artist, Shakespeare probably sat down to write them in the hope that they would bring him some immediate practical reward' (The Poems, ed. Prince, p. xxvi).

5 R. Wilbur, 'The Narrative Poems: Introduction', in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. A. Harbage (New York, rev. edn., 1969; repr. 1977), 1403; F. E. Halliday, The Poetry of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1954; repr. 1964), 62; R. Ellrodt, 'Shakespeare the Non-Dramatic Poet', in S. Wells (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies (Cambridge, 1986), 45.

6 R. Lanham, 'The Ovidian Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis and Lucrece', in his Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven and London, 1976), 82.

7 Traditional editorial glosses on the meaning of Sonnet 111 (following Shelley's, that Shakespeare is complaining of the ignominy of writing for the public stage) have encouraged the plausibility of this view.

8 In an essay on Venus and Adonis, N. Lindheim has sought 'to place a seemingly marginal or curious specimen of [Shakespeare's] work in fruitful relation to the canon' for purposes different from my own. Lindheim argues that the poem is Shakespeare's 'earliest poetic or dramatic exploration of the nature of love', and that it shows 'the poet's very early attempts to manage considerable tonal complexity … [which] is not conspicuous in the stage works that probably precede Venus and Adonis' (my italics) (N. Lindheim, 'The Shakespearean Venus and Adonis ', Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), 190-203, at pp. 190, 191).

9 E. K. Chambers quotes Sidney Lee's theory that there is 'reason to believe that the first draft lay in the author's desk through four or five summers and underwent some retouching before it emerged from the press in its final shape', in order to counter it with his own suggestion that it 'need mean no more than that it was his first published work' (E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare (Oxford, 1930), i. 545).

10Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three; Richard III; The Taming of the Shrew; The Comedy of Errors; The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Dating of the early plays is, of course, problematic. For the purpose of this present study I wish merely to support the supposition that Shakespeare is already an experienced playwright at the time of his writing Venus and Adonis, and to 'place' the poem within a period of imaginative genesis to which these early plays belong.

11 The poem explicitly draws on three stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses: 'Venus and Adonis' (Met. x. 519-59; 705-39); 'Salmacis and Hermaphroditus' (Met. iv. 285-388); and 'Narcissus and Echo' (Met. iii. 339-510). The epigraph is taken from Ovid's Amores I. xv. 35-6. All quotations from Ovid's works are from the Loeb Classical Library. Metamorphoses, trans. F. J. Miller, rev. G. P. Goold (Cambridge, Mass., vol. i, 3rd edn. repr. 1984; vol. ii, 2nd edn. repr. 1984).

12 'As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to Hue in Pythagoras: so the sweete wittie soule of Ouid Hues in mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his priuate friends, &c.' (Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury (London, 1598), 281-2).

13 e.g. C. Martindale states that the 'extreme literariness' of Ovid's work was seen as a virtue 'to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans' (C. Martindale (ed.), Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1988), 14).

14The Poems, ed. Prince, 5.

15 'Now when the rosy fingered morning faire / Weary of aged Tithones saffron bed, / Had spred her purple robe through deawy aire' (Spenser, FQ I. ii. 7); 'Rose-cheek'd Adonis' (Marlowe, Hero and Leander, i. 93).

16 Prince's gloss on stain (The Poems, 4) cites Pooler quoting Lyly: 'My Daphne's beauty Staines all faces' (Works, ed. Bond, iii. 142); and Sidney's 'sun-stayning excellencie' (The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia, ed. A. Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1912), 7).

17 Discussing Spenser's Garden of Adonis in The Faerie Queene, J. Nohrnberg notes the well-known physical allegories of Adonis which characterize him as a 'genital field', and the traditional mons veneris 'with its uncut foliage and enclosing grove [which] stands for the female pudenda' (J. Nohrnberg, The Analogy of 'The Faerie Queene' (Princeton, 1976), 526).

18 As Shakespeare wrote elsewhere: 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun' (Sonnet 130).

19 The present study follows the 1609 Q order of the Sonnets.

20Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. W. G. Ingram and T. Redpath (London, 1964), 122. All quotations from the Sonnets are from this edn.

21 See Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Ingram and Redpath, 122.

22 Ibid.

23Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Ingram and Redpath, 188-9.

24 See esp. Sonnets 78, 79, 83, 85, 101. The 'rival' poets of Sonnet 85 write 'In polish'd form of wellrefinèd pen', in contrast to the Poet who is silent: 'Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.' The mistrust of polished written poetry evident in these sonnets suggests that what appears to be merely the conventional 'modesty' of a poet in Shakespeare's dedication in Venus and Adonis—'I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lord-ship' (my italics)—is more an ironic claim to the poet's truthfulness rather than prompted by a fear of offending the dedicatee because the poem's author is a 'vulgar' playwright. That the lines are 'unpolished' is, then, a virtue. Speaking in effect, Shakespeare is implicitly criticizing the polished form of the wellrefined pens of other poets whose work Henry Wriothesley would have been used to reading.

25 The gloss on modern is that of Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Ingram and Redpath, 190.

26Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Ingram and Redpath, 192.

27 Quoted in The Poems, ed. Prince, 19.

28 The gloss on compeers is that of Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Ingram and Redpath, 197.

29 Prince's gloss reads: 'Venus is recurring to commonplace arguments for enjoying beauty, her "idle overhandled theme". Her last metaphor had been used in Hero and Leander, I. 232-6' (The Poems, ed. Prince, 44).

30 Falstaff and Hal will exceed the limits of Erasmian copia with a comparative hyperbole contest in a hilarious send-up of the rhetoricians' ideal text:

Prince. I'll be no longer guilty of this sin. This sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horse-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,—

Falstaff. 'Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's-tongue, you bull's-pizzle, you stockfish—O for breath to utter what is like thee!—you tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck!

Prince. Well, breathe awhile, and then to it again, and when thou hast tired thyself in base comparisons, hear me speak but this.

(1HIV, II. iv. 237-47; my italics)

31 Ellrodt provides an interesting example of criticism's failure to respond to the presence of Shakespearian irony in matters theoretical: 'One would like to think the poet mocked the Elizabethan partiality to copia when he compared the "tedious" lament of Venus to "copious stories" that "End without audience and are never done". Vain wish, since wordiness grew worse in Lucrece!' (Ellrodt, 'Shakespeare the Non-Dramatic Poet', 45-6).

32 Sonnet 86, 7; Ven. 770; Sonnet 82, 10; Ven. 790.

33 Quoted in Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Ingram and Redpath, 90.

34 C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary (Oxford, 2nd edn., repr. 1980), 15.

35Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Ingram and Redpath, 138.

36 Bradbrook notes that 'Though a goddess, Venus has no supernatural powers … She is not responsible for his metamorphosis into a hyacinth: it seems to be spontaneous. Shakespeare abandoned the supernatural: his gods are identified with Nature, physically one with it, enmeshed in its toils even more firmly than Marlowe's.' She goes on to say that Venus's 'inappropriate conceits' are an attempt to convey her grief by 'fantastic elaborations. Yet the horror of the blank glazed stare of the corpse is physically realised' (my italics) (Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, 62-3). J. Pitcher argues that in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare makes his own poetry 'breed inwardly' so that the red and white trope 'breeds out of itself a riot of colours, comparisons, and metaphors, and eventually, in climactic moments, it meets with the real: red and white are literally on the boar's mouth' ('Tudor Literature (1484-1603)', in P. Rogers (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature (Oxford, 1987), 101).

Source: "Death by Rhetorical Trope: Poetry Metamorphosed in Venus and Adonis and the Sonnets," in Review of English Studies, Vol. XLVI, No. 184, November, 1995, pp. 475-501.