The best-known and most enduring of William Shakespeare’s poems, his 154 sonnets, were circulated in handwritten copies, "among his private friends," in the mid-to-late 1590s. Shakespeare wrote nearly all of these excruciatingly personal lyrics, in their tightly prescribed form, during the first decade of his theatrical career, and during a brief literary vogue for such fourteen-liners. The first attempt to collect Shakespeare’s lyric verse came only in 1640, when an edition in small octavo format (a "pocket" style in keeping with other mid-century poetical volumes) was published by John Benson, a bookseller specializing in broadside ballads, popular literature, and music. It contains all but eight of the sonnets, a few songs from the plays and from The Passionate Pilgrim, "A Lover’s Complaint," and "The Phoenix and the Turtle," as well as elegies on Shakespeare by the young John Milton and others.
Why Benson omitted eight sonnets remains a mystery. Benson does, however, include many poems not by Shakespeare at all, but by his contemporaries Christopher Marlowe ("Come live with me and be my love"), Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, John Fletcher, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and by several latter-day authors of light, witty, amorous verse (known collectively as the "Cavalier" poets).
The 1640 Poems has influenced readers and editors for nearly two hundred years, simply by collecting in one hand-friendly volume most of Shakespeare’s best-loved lyric poetry. This superb digital edition of the original work enables today’s reader to share their experience.
Commentary by Arthur Freeman, searchable live text.