Shakespeare's Poems (Arden Shakespeare: Third Edition). Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones & H.R. Woudhuysen.

As the editors of this third Arden edition of his poems explain in their introduction although Shakespeare is generally thought of a playwright first, poet second, during his lifetime, the situation was very much reversed. Venus and Adonis was his first authorised edition to go into print and it was that, along with the follow up The Rape of Lucrece which made is fortune, both entering multiple editions.  Only later with the publication of the First Folio and the start-stop Bardolitary which followed did the plays become the more prominent expression of his genius, largely because they were omitted from that collection of plays because at the time those perfectly useful editions were already in circulation.

Katherine Duncan Jones and H.R. Woudhuysen say they're fighting against a situation in which the poems are now so frequently overlooked or regarded as a footnote that they're added only apologetically to lists of topics under consideration at conferences. Their method is to produce about as comprehensive collection of the works as possible and with my amateur eyes, I’d say they’ve succeeded. Along with Venus and Lucrece, the whole of The Passionate Pilgrim is reproduced, The Phoenix and the Turtle portion of Love’s Martyr (along with a photographic facsimile of the rest) as well as a range of attributed short verses, mainly from tombs of aristocrats and nobles connected with the family and friends of friends.

F.T. Prince’s second series edition from 1960 was two hundred pages. This edition is nearly six hundred and the kind of baroque volume whose maze like text leaves you staggered once again by Shakespeare’s flexibility and the variety of his thought. There’s no conclusive proof that he wrote the epigram which accompanied a set of gloves to one Alexander Aspinall, but if as a working poet we have to believe that he wasn’t simply hoarding his talent for limited application but like many contemporary writers spreading it across a range of disciplines turning his words even to gift cards when necessary.

Both of the epic poems, written during a period when the theatres of London were closed due to plague, are entirely accessible and steeped in emotion. Venus and Adonis (in which the latter fights off the predatory advances of the former) is positively pornographic, surprisingly so considering it was signed off for publication by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. For reasons inherent in the title, The Rape of Lucrece is more ambiguous but no less absorbing in its ability to draw the reader into the pain of the protagonist. On stage, Shakespeare was constrained by the ability of the boys to communicate the emotional complexity of his female characters. No such constraints exist for him on the page.

There are perhaps a couple of unusual choices in relation to the presentation of the text. As with Prince's earlier edition, The Passionate Pilgrim is printed across the pages so that sometimes the flow of the verse is broken up with the first line of a poem marooned on one side of a sheet from the others. Perhaps a clearer approach would have been to dedicate a single page to each with the “footnotes” printed on the opposite page, as happens with the attributed poems at the back and in the separate edition of sonnets. Also, teasingly, although explanations against authorship are included for poems of modern attribution, the texts themselves are not, unlike the complete Pilgrim section.

With such a diverse range of material, the introduction and appendices are surprisingly comprehensive, covering everything from production history, authorship to thematic resonance. The key word, as is so often the case with Shakespeare is “perhaps”. Most of the poems only exist in unique copies and the available contextual material is of the kind which sends most academics down a rabbit hole, especially in relation to The Phoenix and the Turtle, which is as enigmatic as a clue from old gameshow 321. That section does offer some way into understanding at least a couple of the passages though as the editors freely admit there are others for which we will never have a satisfactory explanation.

Shakespeare's Poems (Arden Shakespeare: Third Edition) edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones & H.R. Woudhuysen. Methuen Drama. 2007. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1903436875. Review copy supplied.

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