Venus and Adonis: stanzas 1-31, or “Was Venus the Harrriet Weinstein of her ‘day’?”

So the narrative poem Venus and Adonis starts straightforwardly enough: the first six-line stanza of rhymed iambic pentameter (ababcc) sets the table in terms of characters, conflicts, and themes:

Even as the sun with purple-colored face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheeked Adonis hied him to the chase.
Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn.
 Sick-thoughtèd Venus makes amain unto him
 And, like a bold-faced suitor, ‘gins to woo him.
  • Lines 1-6

It’s a misty morning as the sun rises, and the hunt-loving love-scorning Adonis is chasing his quarry; only his quarry isn’t the only quarry in this scene: he is now Venus’ quarry. Sure, she is “like a bold-faced suitor” (6), but a hunter? you ask. Yes. Venus’s approach is one of domination, with “amain” meaning “In, or with, full force; with main force, with all one’s might; vehemently, violently” (“amain, adv.; 1.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018.). This sense of violence is what sets apart the already gender/expectation-bent (female rather than male suitor) more intensely; it isn’t just that she is pursuing him, but that she’s doing so in a violent (masculine) manner.

In the next three stanzas, we get Venus’ appeal to Adonis, sounding so much like our usual expectation of the poetic lover. She calls him “thrice fairer” than herself (7)–what is it with the thrice fairer that is such a thing?–”above compare” (8), and if she did compare, “more lovely than a man” (9). And what does she (the compliment-or) want him (the compliment-ee) to do? “Here come and sit where never serpent hisses, / And being set, I’ll smother thee with kisses” (17-8). Now THAT’s an incredible pick-up line… IF you’re a predatory (and probably serial) sexual harasser. She wants some “time-beguiling sport” (24).

But, since Adonis doesn’t succumb to her invitation(?), that pursuit is made physical in the next twelve stanzas. She grabs him by his “sweating palm, / The precedent of pith and livelihood” (25-6), a sign of lasciviousness (remember back to Othello). His sweat, to Venus, is a “balm, / Earth’s sovereign salve to do a goddess good” (28-9). There’s a lotion joke to be made there, as well as a great advertising tag line. Yet through all this he remains “in a dull disdain” (33). She pulls him off his horse, and “So soon was she along as he was down, / Each leaning on their elbows and their hips” (43-4). It’s a pretty comical mental picture: she lassos his horse, throws him to the ground, then joins him laying sideways facing him (in my mind, I see her elbow bent and resting her head on her hand, all casual). And when he begins “to chide, … she stops his lips, / And kissing speaks” (46-7). No request from Adonis needed (or wanted, or gotten): she just plants some on him. “Even so she kissed his brow, his cheek, his chin, / And where she ends she doth anew begin” (59-60). She keeps kissing (and–in a preview to Friday’s bawd-fest–is heading down his body).

Adonis is “forced to content, but never to obey” (61), and if that doesn’t sound like sexual harassment, I don’t know what you need. “She entreats, and prettily entreats” (73), but it doesn’t work. She even vows that if he will give her just one kiss, she’ll stop. When it looks like he might, he blinks (“winks” [90]) and turns away–this only frustrates her more: “‘O, pity,’ ‘gan she cry, ‘flint-hearted boy! / ’Tis but a kiss I beg. Why art thou coy?’” (95-6). She takes his refusal as playing “hard to get”… “No” means “no,” lady.

In the next thirteen stanzas, we hear more of Venus’ verbal volley, with more comically sonnet-like praise, as well as an invocation of a past lover. Even though Mars the god of war chased her, “he was servile to [her] coy disdain” (112). She goes on to tell him that if he is ashamed to kiss, he should close his eyes, she’ll close hers, and “bold to play, our sport is not in sight … These blue-veined violents whereon we lean / Never can blab, nor know not what we mean” (124-6). In other words, close your eyes, and whatever we do in the “dark,” well, it’ll be our little secret.

She goes on to urge him to use his beauty now, as is at its height (very Shakespearean sonnet-like), but then takes a different tack. She says that if she was ugly or old, barren or “lacking juice” (136)–and yes, that too is a preview for Friday–she could understand his pause, but since she’s not, she wants to know why he refuses her. She tells him, “Love is a spirit all compact of fire, / Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire” (149-50). She urges him to love her (and I can’t–again–but grin looking at that line, with its spirit not sinking but aspiring). She pleads with him to procreate (“to get it is thy duty” [168]).

In the last two stanzas of the section, we hear Adonis’ response. He’s going to take a hard pass on this: “Souring his cheeks, cries, ‘Fie, no more of love! / The sun doth burn my face; I must remove’” (185-6). And with this verbal escape, the first section (my division, not Willy Shakes’) comes to a close.

On Friday, we’ll “hit it hard” with a pretty damned bawdy blog…not that the bawdiness hasn’t been foreshadowed (and isn’t followed up by even more): at the head of today’s final stanza, Adonis has “a lazy sprite” (181). “Sprite” meant spirit, and spirit had a number of meanings, IF you know what I mean…

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