Shakespeare's Richard III was popular, but his erotic poem Venus and Adonis was an outright hit.
It's easy to see why. It is a super sexy seduction narrative combined with stunning pastoral imagery, including one hundred ways to describe a horse. Considering it takes place in about 24 hours - most of it in the same place -it has a surprising urgency.
Shakespeare's natural imagery only got more sophisticated as he progressed, but it's pretty vivid, almost too wild here. Here, the Goddess Venus tries to hold young Adonis:
Sometime her arms infold him like a band:
She would, he will not in her arms be bound;
And when from thence he struggles to be gone,
She locks her lily fingers one in one.
"Fondling" she saith, "since I have hemmd thee here
Withing the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park and though shalt be my deer:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain , or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry
Stray lower where the pleasant fountains lie.
It goes on, but you get the picture. But aside from the naughty, Shakespeare works out his descriptive powers with a thrilling courtship of two horses. Here is just some of it:
Look, when a painter would surpass the life,
In limning out a well-proportion'd steed,
His art with nature's workmanship at strife,
As if the dead the living should exceed;
So did this horse excel a common one
In shape, in courage, colour, pace and bone.
Round-hoof'd, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back.
In the end I noticed a touch of the villainous zeal that I saw in Richard III. Venus, having lost her Adonis to the Boar, pledges discord. I'll quote it in full, but end by saying that it really prefaces the themes of love that Shakespeare approaches in the great plays.
Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy:
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend:
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end,
Ne'er settled equally, but high or low,
That all love's pleasure shall not match his woe.
'It shall be fickle, false and full of fraud,
Bud and be blasted in a breathing-while;
The bottom poison, and the top o'erstraw'd
With sweets that shall the truest sight beguile:
The strongest body shall it make most weak,
Strike the wise dumb and teach the fool to speak.
'It shall be sparing and too full of riot,
Teaching decrepit age to tread the measures;
The staring ruffian shall it keep in quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures;
It shall be raging-mad and silly-mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child.
'It shall suspect where is no cause of fear;
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust;
It shall be merciful and too severe,
And most deceiving when it seems most just;
Perverse it shall be where it shows most toward,
Put fear to valour, courage to the coward.
'It shall be cause of war and dire events,
And set dissension 'twixt the son and sire;
Subject and servile to all discontents,
As dry combustious matter is to fire:
Sith in his prime Death doth my love destroy,
They that love best their loves shall not enjoy
By the way, Charlie Sheen's recent talk of goddesses and Adonis were not what prompted me to reread the poem. It is just a strange coincidence.