Shakespeare’s bad poetry

A new edition of Shakespeare’s complete works leaves out a poem historically attributed to him. For the ensuing controversy, see Did Shakespeare really write “A Lover’s Complaint”? – By Ron Rosenbaum.

The poem depicts a young woman mourning because she was seduced and abandoned, a poignant subject that shows its author’s moral sensitivity. But the metaphors are over-the-top and the poem is, arguably, ludicrously bad. Here are two stanzas, and you can see for yourself:

Oft did she heave her napkin to her eyne,
Which on it had conceited characters,
Laundering the silken figures in the brine
That season’d woe had pelleted in tears,
And often reading what contents it bears;
As often shrieking undistinguish’d woe,
In clamours of all size, both high and low.

Sometimes her levell’d eyes their carriage ride,
As they did battery to the spheres intend;
Sometime diverted their poor balls are tied
To the orbed earth; sometimes they do extend
Their view right on; anon their gazes lend
To every place at once, and, nowhere fix’d,
The mind and sight distractedly commix’d.

That is to say, she is crying so hard, her tears, with their brine, are laundering her handkerchief. The part about the balls tied to the orbed earth means that her eyes (eyeballs) are looking down.

My take: Historical evidence points to Shakespeare as the author. It appeared in the edition of his sonnets that appeared during his lifetime.

Just because a poem is bad does not mean it was not written by a good writer. Shakespeare, like all good writers, wrote some terrible lines in his day. “Lover’s Complaint” is no worse than “Titus Andronicus.” Writing is a craft, and craftsmen try things that work and things that don’t work, and they learn by doing. There is a lesson here for all vocations.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.libertasacademy.blogspot.com/ Kathy in VA

    We all have bad days!

    On the other hand, is there any possibility that Shakespeare was actually poking fun at overdone metaphors? It is rather over the top.

  • http://www.libertasacademy.blogspot.com/ Kathy in VA

    We all have bad days!

    On the other hand, is there any possibility that Shakespeare was actually poking fun at overdone metaphors? It is rather over the top.

  • http://randomintolerance.blogspot.com/ RandomDan

    I have a fascination with bad poetry. While this poem is bad, it doesn’t fall into the “so bad it’s good” category.

  • http://randomintolerance.blogspot.com/ RandomDan

    I have a fascination with bad poetry. While this poem is bad, it doesn’t fall into the “so bad it’s good” category.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Not only is it bad, but it is insufferably long! You would think that a man like shakespear would have figured out that it wasn’t working after 3 or 4 stanzas.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Not only is it bad, but it is insufferably long! You would think that a man like shakespear would have figured out that it wasn’t working after 3 or 4 stanzas.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare personally, praised him in the highest, but complained that he “never blotted a line,” and added that in many cases he should have.

    Shakespeare was a dramatist. His other lyric poems of undoubted attribution, while good, for the most part (though some of them have bad passages also) go on and on. (Dramatists tend to be talkative!) Only the sonnet, with its strict 14 line form, reigned him in, allowing his poetic greatness to find its form.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare personally, praised him in the highest, but complained that he “never blotted a line,” and added that in many cases he should have.

    Shakespeare was a dramatist. His other lyric poems of undoubted attribution, while good, for the most part (though some of them have bad passages also) go on and on. (Dramatists tend to be talkative!) Only the sonnet, with its strict 14 line form, reigned him in, allowing his poetic greatness to find its form.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare personally.
    Now what does that do to all the conspiracy theories? I’m not familiar with them, but my ex obsessed over them. She was convinced no one knew who Shakespear was. Personally I felt there were better things to be obsessed about.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare personally.
    Now what does that do to all the conspiracy theories? I’m not familiar with them, but my ex obsessed over them. She was convinced no one knew who Shakespear was. Personally I felt there were better things to be obsessed about.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X