- Shakespearean Stanzas?Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and Complaint
Irregular ode; English sonnet; free verse; heroic couplet. As with many taxonomies, the way we label formal poetic structures can betray our critical preoccupations, even values. In the case of William Shakespeare's two first published poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the stanzaic labels "Venus and Adonis stanza" and "rhyme royal" reveal literary history's investment in origins and the way it institutionalizes certain stanza forms: "Venus and Adonis stanza" represents the sixain as Shakespeare's invention and "rhyme royal" suggests a particular connection with regal, or at least noble, subject matter.1 Far from being aesthetically removed from sociopolitical concerns, poetic form is profoundly implicated in canon-making.
Excavating the origins and effects of the labels of certain poetic forms raises further questions. If we think about style in Jeff Dolven's terms as what makes writers unique and yet also what is imitable about them, then what do authors' choices of stanza forms tell us about their style?2 If an author is associated with a particular stanza form, do we always read subsequent usage as some kind of allusion, whether parody or homage? And more broadly, how do certain stanza forms attract, or become associated with, certain genres and with certain rhetorical tropes? In her influential work, Caroline Levine has adopted from design theory the term "affordances," meaning "potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs," and deployed it for literary forms.3 In these terms, we might explore the affordances of a certain stanza form and whether these change in relation to, for example, the gender of the writer or (in the case of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece) the speaker.
This essay investigates how the stanza forms of Shakespeare's first two published poems (and the first to be sold with his name on them) were theorized in the early modern period, how they were used by Shakespeare himself, and how they have since been invested with meaning. The history and cultural associations of these stanza forms are more multiple and branching than the myths of origins suggested by labels such as the "Venus and Adonis stanza" or "rhyme royal." This article will present microhistories of these two forms which [End Page 1] reveal entirely different legacies, showing the extent of Shakespeare's borrowing from his peers and predecessors on a formal as well as thematic level. The naming of the VA stanza (we will use the abbreviation "VA stanza" except when explicitly commenting on the label) implies it was distinctive to him, but close examination of the mechanics of these stanzas in practice suggests far more wide-reaching connections to his peers. Another of Dolven's definitions of style is the way a poem asks the reader to imagine the process of making it.4 In his idiosyncratic yet often revealing theory of poetry, George Puttenham developed a threefold sense of form: rhetorical style ("ornament"), genre ("kind"), and stanza ("proportion").5 By calling on Puttenham's definition we can get closer to Dolven's stylistic question "how," closer to understanding Shakespeare's craft in terms of his borrowing and adaptation (rather than invention) of forms.6 Puttenham's "proportion" encompasses rhyme and rhyme scheme, metre, stanzaic composition and shape.7 It is a critical element of what we now consider poetic "form," but its importance to the meaning of Shakespeare's poems has been neglected relative to their rhetoric and imagery (Puttenham's "ornament"), genre (Puttenham's "kind"), and their politics. In both Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, Shakespeare reflects upon female articulation and on whether these stanza forms afford female speakers a particular kind of articulation. Embedded in both poems are complaints by each protagonist, Venus and Lucrece. Shakespeare's deft manipulation of female complaint draws upon the specific (and currently unrecognized) connotations of the VA stanza and the (better-known) connotations of rhyme royal. It is exactly the interplay of each stanza form's associations, built up by previous usage, and Shakespeare's own innovations, that creates the affective force of these poems.
Despite its name associating the stanza with Shakespeare's poem, many poets used...