Venus and Adonis: stanzas 177-99, or “love stinks”

When we last left Venus and Adonis, she had found her not-quite-lover’s body gored by the boar, his wound weeping “purple tears” (1054). So we have seen the death, and today, as we finish the poem, we have the aftermath…

The stanza opening this section is one of the best depictions of grief I have ever read:

This solemn sympathy poor Venus noteth.
Over one shoulder doth she hang her head.
Dumbly she passions, frantically she doteth.
She thinks he could not die, he is not dead.
 Her voice is stopped, her joints forget to bow,
 Her eyes are mad that they have wept till now.
  • 1057-62

She cannot speak, she cannot believe, she cannot move, and even her eyes go crazy to think that they ever had shed a tear before this moment. Wow. Even the poetry mimics this. After two lines of relative regular iambic pentameter (pretty textbook save for the feminine ending in the first line, and the trochee that kicks off the second, which would still sound like the unstress/stress of an iamb–particularly if one elides “Over” to “O’er”… almost breathless), the next three lines all have punctuated breaks midway through them, halting the reader just as Venus has been halted.

She continues the stare at the body so intently that she now sees multiple wounds, “[f]or oft the eye mistakes, the brain being troubled” (1068). And then, as if the only way for her out of this trapped wordless endless frozen moment of grief is to somehow think, and think out loud, she speaks. She says she cannot express the grief for one because she sees two Adonises. She pities the world which has lost a “treasure” (1075), has lost “true sweet beauty” (1080). She speaks of the sun and the wind that will now halt because they’ve lost THEIR love: the wind used to blow Adonis’ hat off so that the sun could touch his face, and the air could “[p]lay with his locks” (1090), and if he cried, they both tried to dry his tears.

She goes on to say how the animal kingdom loved him: lions, tigers, wolves, lamb, fish and birds. She tells of the boar’s natural tendency to look down; if he had only looked up and saw Adonis’ face, she claims, the boar would have “thought to kiss him” (1110), not kill him. In fact, she says now, the boar’s killing of him was an accident (“unaware” [1116]), when the boar was actually trying to kiss him.

She falls onto his body and “stains her face with his congealèd blood” (1122). She examines his body, even opening his eyes, in which she remembers seeing herself so many times in the past. But now those eyes have no light, and she feels the irony of no light in his eyes, yet light in the world that allows her to see this horrible sight.

She then has a prophecy about love itself. From here on, it will bring more pain than joy. Cue the J. Geils Band:

“It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud,
Bud and be blasted in a breathing while,
The bottom poison and the top o’erstrawed
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 valor, 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.”
  • 1141-1164

That’s depressing. It’s also the feeling of just about anyone who has lost a love.

Then we get what seems to me to be a very weird transition: “By this the boy that by her side lay killed / Was melted like a vapor from her sight” (1165). Adonis’ body has disappeared. Has she been next to him through the full decay of his body? Jeez, that’s a disturbing image. Then again she did say that love will mess with your head big-time.

And then Shakespeare takes us back to the myth. In the soil where his blood had spilled, “[a] purple flower spring up, checkered with white” (1168). She smells it to compare it to Adonis’ breath and says (and NOT in a direct quote, mind you…when–if I remember correctly–all of her statements have been quoted) that it will live in her bosom. She then breaks the flower from its stalk, and the sap that drops she compares to his tears.

Then she speaks (back to quotes) the two stanzas that are her last. She calls the flower Adonis’ child. She says that in her breast is the flower’s father’s bed, and since he is next in line for the love Adonis received, he shall inherit it. And then as if the flower were a child, she uses fitting maternal imagery: “Lo, in this hollow cradle take thy rest; / My throbbing heart shall rock thee day and night” (1185-6). A rocking cradle. And one the occupant of which will never have a minute when she won’t kiss it.

Then in the final stanza of the poem, she leaves, transported by her silver doves back to her home at Paphos, where she intends to seclude herself and “not be seen” (1194).

That’s a bummer of an ending.

It was all fun and games (though they be sexually harassing ones) until the damn boar. Damn him.

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