Monday, April 26, 2010

Happy 464th Birthday, William Shakespeare!


Today, April 26, 2010, is the 464th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. It is also the final Monday of National Poetry Month. You know what that means: It's time for some Shakespeare poetry.

People argue about the provenance of much of Shakespeare’s poetry, as well as his plays; to me this is like arguing about whether there is an afterlife: why bother when you'll never be able to prove your point? In any case, most people agree that, at the very least, Shakespeare did write the sonnets, of which there are 154. They were first published in 1609.

I can’t reproduce all of the sonnets here and don’t want to revisit the ones most people already know (e.g., Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”). Therefore, I have boldly and arbitrarily chosen to present the first and the last. Enjoy. You can savor Sonnet 2 through Sonnet 153 here or here.

But perhaps you would prefer to honor Shakespeare's birth by writing some sonnets of your own. If so, follow this recipe: 
  • write three stanzas of four lines (quatrains)
  • and a final stanza of two lines (a couplet) 
  • in iambic pentameter (da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM) 
  • using the rhyme pattern abab cdcd efef gg

Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And tender churl mak'st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

Sonnet 154

The little Love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep,
Came tripping by, but in her maiden hand,
The fairest votary took up that fire,
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed,
And so the general of hot desire,
Was sleeping by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love's fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy,
For men discased, but I my mistress' thrall,
Came there for cure and this by that I prove,
Love's fire heats water, water cools not love.


The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has a pleasingly designed website that is loaded with information about Shakespeare and his works. Click here to explore and learn more.

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