Our National Poet on National Poetry Day

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So today is National Poetry Day. I’m not sure what that signifies: presumably that we should remind ourselves of what poetry means, or has meant, to us. Is it true that for many, perhaps most people, poetry is something that belongs to their youth, their early, romantic days? Love poems by Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, maybe Tennyson, Browning, conceivably Donne, Marvell, Milton, perhaps Hardy, Betjeman, Hughes, Gunn, Heaney and so on? And do we go on reading poetry in later years rather than perhaps history, biography, text books of one sort or another? If not, should we feel guilty about it?

I don’t know. But of course Shakespearians love poetry, whether in dramatic or non-dramatic form. If we look outside the plays we think most obviously of the sonnets. Even they are often associated most of all with adolescent passion. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day….?’ ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds….’ and so on. Fine, but if we really want to know what Shakespeare thought about love we should look outside his plays, to the sonnets of course, but not only to those that are most frequently anthologized but also those that are most explicitly concerned with sex as well as the more idealized aspects of love. Most of these are among those printed in the later part of the collection. Look for instance at Sonnet 151, which is surely one of the most sexually explicit poems in English.

And anyone interested in Shakespeare should look too at the narrative poems. They are among the most unjustifiably neglected areas of his work. Venus and Adonis is a delightful, sexual comedy of love, telling the story of the goddess Venus’s unsuccessful efforts to seduce the physically desirable young mortal Adonis, surely one of the sexiest figures in literature. He dies, ravaged in the loins by the boar he has been hunting, and Venus speaks a beautiful threnody of love on his death.

The other narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, is a tragic counterpart to the tender comedy of its predecessor, a poem of love too, but of the sexual desire of a savage rapist that looks forward to plays such as Macbeth and Cymbeline.

And the most beautiful of all Shakespeare’s poems is ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ – the turtle dove, famous for constancy -, a mystical celebration of the perfection of ideal married love.

National Poetry Day can be celebrated by reading Shakespeare ‘s poems as well as his plays, and will reward all those who do so.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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