Finally I come to Shakespeare’s poems, or rather to the Sonnets. Some of these, like the plays, are very well known, whereas the few other poems he wrote, though well worth reading (in particular the long narrative Venus and Adonis), would not I think be remembered were it not for his other work.
Perhaps the same is true of the sonnets taken as a whole. What Shakespeare is best at is depicting relationships between people in a social context. Though the sonnets are concerned, almost entirely, with the poet’s relations with two people, a young man and a woman termed the Dark Lady, they are monologues dealing with conceits, namely artificial expansions of aspects of the relationship. But several of the conceits are enchantingly put, and a theme that recurs constantly, that of passing time, is of course of universal interest. The first and the last two lines of Sonnet 12 express this graphically, while also asserting another idea we find repeated in the series, that of the importance of procreation:
“When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.”
Most of the 154 Sonnets are addressed to a youth, which has led to much speculation as to whether Shakespeare had a romantic interest in a young man. More directly sexual are the 26 sonnets addressed to a Dark Lady. The contrast serves, I think, to confirm that, as happens in many contexts in which women did not share the full life of their menfolk, intimacy between men could be intense, whether or not there were physical aspects to the relationship.
Certainly the intensity of affection does often seem romantically sentimental, as in the little known 71st sonnet: