Context Readings in Poetry for Shakespeare’s Plays
Shakespeare lived in a time of enormous creativity and social transformation. The boundaries of the known world had been stretched by exploration of the New World, and the fields of art and science were blossoming with new ideas. Here are a few poems by Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
- “The Doubt of Future Foes” by Queen Elizabeth I
- Come Sleep, O Sleep! The Certain Knot Of Peace” by Sir Philip Sidney
- “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe
- “To a Lady with an Unruly and Ill-Mannered Dog Who Bit Several Persons of Importance” by Sir Walter Raleigh
- “Epitaph” by Sir Walter Raleigh
- “Translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses” by Arthur Golding
- “Psalm 19: Coeli Enarrant” by Sir Philip Sidney
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
THE doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subject faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joy untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.
You may listen to audio versions of some of Queen Elizabeth’s poetry, letters, and speeches at Luminarium.
Sir Philip Sidney 1554-1586
Come, Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
Th’ indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof shield me from out the press
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw!
O make in me those civil wars to cease!—
I will good tribute pay if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf of noise and blind of light,
A rosy garland, and a weary head;
And if these things, as being thine in right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.
Christopher Marlowe 1565-1593
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of th purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.
The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.
Poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was more than just an intrepid explorer – he was able to number poetry among his many talents. Here are two of his poems – one humorous, and one the epitaph he is said to have written for himself the night before his execution.
Sir Walter Raleigh 1552-1680
Your dog is not a dog of grace;
He does not wag the tail or beg;
He bit Miss Dickson in the face;
He bit a Bailie in the leg.
What tragic choices such a dog
Presents to visitor or friend!
Outside there is the Glasgow fog;
Within, a hydrophobic end.
Yet some relief even terror brings,
For when our life is cold and gray
We waste our strength on little things,
And fret our puny souls away.
A snarl! A scruffle round the room!
A sense that Death is drawing near!
And human creatures reassume
The elemental robe of fear.
So when my colleague makes his moan
Of careless cooks, and warts, and debt,
— Enlarge his views, restore his tone,
And introduce him to your Pet!
Sir Walter Raleigh 1552-1680
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.
by Arthur Golding
According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature (6th Edition, Volume I, page 989), Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was one of Shakespeare’s favorite books. Here is a brief excerpt of one of the most famous passages, “The Four Ages,” from Book One of the Metamorphosis. (Book 1, Lines 104-170). A more contemporary translation of this poem can be found at the Norton website.
Then sprang up first the golden age, which of it selfe maintainde
The truth and right of every thing unforct and unconstrainde.
There was no feare of punishment, there was no threatning lawe
In brazen tables nayled up, to keepe the folke in awe.
There was no man would crouch or creepe to Judge with cap in hand,
They lived safe without a Judge, in everie Realme and lande.
The loftie Pynetree was not hewen from mountaines where it stood,
In seeking straunge and forren landes, to rove upon the flood. … [I.110]
Men knew none other countries yet, than where themselves did keepe:
There was no towne enclosed yet, with walles and diches deepe.
No horne nor trumpet was in use, no sword nor helmet worne,
The worlde was such, that souldiers helpe might easly be forborne.
The fertile earth as yet was free, untoucht of spade or plough,
And yet it yeelded of it selfe of every things inough.
And men themselves contented well with plaine and simple foode,
That on the earth of natures gift without their travail stoode,
Did live by Raspis, heppes and hawes, by cornelles, plummes and cherries,
By sloes and apples, nuttes and peares, and lothsome bramble berries, … [I.120]
And by the acornes dropt on ground, from Joves brode tree in fielde.
The Springtime lasted all the yeare, and Zephyr with his milde
And gentle blast did cherish things that grew of owne accorde,
The ground untilde, all kinde of fruits did plenteously afforde.
No mucke nor tillage was bestowde on leane and barren land,
To make the corne of better head, and ranker for to stand.
Then streames ran milke, then streames ran wine, and yellow honey flowde
From ech greene tree whereon the rayes of firie Phebus glowde.
But when that into Lymbo once Saturnus being thrust,
The rule and charge of all the worlde was under Jove unjust, … [I.130]
And that the silver age came in, more somewhat base than golde,
More precious yet than freckled brasse, immediatly the olde
And auncient Spring did Jove abridge, and made therof anon,
Foure seasons: Winter, Sommer, Spring, and Autumne off and on:
Then first of all began the ayre with fervent heate to swelt.
Then Isycles hung roping downe: then for the colde was felt
Men gan to shroud themselves in house. Their houses were the thickes,
And bushie queaches, hollow caves, or hardels made of stickes.
Then first of all were furrowes drawne, and corne was cast in ground.
The simple Oxe with sorie sighes, to heavie yoke was bound. … [I.140]
Next after this succeded streight, the third and brazen age:
More hard of nature, somewhat bent to cruell warres and rage.
But yet not wholy past all grace. Of yron is the last
In no part good and tractable as former ages past.
For when that of this wicked Age once opened was the veyne
Therein all mischief rushed forth: then Fayth and Truth were faine
And honest shame to hide their heades: for whom crept stoutly in,
Craft, Treason, Violence, Envie, Pride and wicked Lust to win.
The shipman hoyst his sailes to wind, whose names he did not knowe:
And shippes that erst in toppes of hilles and mountaines had ygrowe, … [I.150]
Did leape and daunce on uncouth waves: and men began to bound
With dowles and diches drawen in length the free and fertile ground,
Which was as common as the Ayre and light of Sunne before.
Not onely corne and other fruites, for sustnance and for store,
Were now exacted of the Earth: but eft they gan to digge,
And in the bowels of the ground unsaciably to rigge
For Riches coucht and hidden deepe, in places nere to Hell,
The spurres and stirrers unto vice, and foes to doing well.
Then hurtfull yron came abrode, then came forth yellow golde,
More hurtfull than the yron farre, then came forth battle bolde, … [I.160]
That feightes with bothe, and shakes his sword in cruell bloudy hand.
Men live by ravine and by stelth: the wandring guest doth stand
In daunger of his host: the host in daunger of his guest:
And fathers of their sonne in lawes: yea seldome time doth rest,
Betweene borne brothers such accord and love as ought to bee.
The goodman seekes the goodwifes death, and his againe seeks shee.
The stepdames fell their husbandes sonnes with poyson do assayle.
To see their fathers live so long the children doe bewayle.
All godlynesse lies under foote. And Ladie Astrey, last
Of heavenly vertues, from this earth in slaughter drowned past. … [I.170]