Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Passionate Pilgrim

None of the poems in “The Passionate Pilgrim” are good.

Most likely, Shakespeare wrote only five of them, though the publisher back then claimed he wrote all. There are 20 total, the authors of the others are sometimes known, other times not.

The best poem in the little collection is not Shakespeare’s and it’s not much of a poem. It’s very simple and straight-forward, more like song lyrics than poetry, but it really moves along in a simple and affecting way. That guy had potential. Too bad he never got famous. Oh, wait, he did: Apparently, it was Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great competitor:

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield…

But if you compare them the other poems (and assuming Shakespeare really only did write five of them), you see a difference. Shakespeare is more assured than the others and more importantly, his words carry more weight. The others are flouncing around, it’s all shepherds and Adonis and love and lying in the grass. Shakespeare gives you the feeling that he is going beyond that. In the best cases, he plays with logic in a paradoxical way.

Here’s a presumably non-Shakespeare beginning (Poem Nr. 4):

Sweet Cytherea, sitting by a brook
With young Adonis, lovely, fresh and green…

Here’s Shakespeare (Poem Nr. 1 / Sonnet 138):

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies…

It’s not just images or pretty scenes of love, immediately there’s intellectual connection.

Also, he nails the endings. He knows that it’s the end that more impresses the reader, and it’s strange that the other poets sometimes don’t seem to get that (oddly enough).

Here’s Nr. 4 again (the poem is about Cytherea trying to seduce the beautiful but inexperienced Adonis – he, being stupid, resists):

Then fell she on her back, fair queen, and toward:
He rose and ran way; ah fool too froward!

I like his foolishness, but it just end it with a little comment thrown at his back while he beats it is a let-down.

Here’s Sonnet 138:

Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love with me,
Since that our faults in love thus smother’d b e.

All of a sudden, everything is wrapped up and the thought is also somehow new – a conclusion that surprises and satisfies.

Shakespeare mastered 1) the art of challenging and surprising the reader and 2) the art of the ending.

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