Shakespeares verse, like his plays, has established
itself at the very foundation of English literature: again and
again the reader is confronted with phrases that have become proverbial
(Shall I compare thee to a summers day?) and with
combinations of words (the remembrance of things past) that
bear the special resonance of cultural icons. Only the King James version
of the Bible can claim a greater influence over the shape and cadence
of English-language expression.
Nearly all the best-known and most enduring of Shakespeares poems,
the 154 sonnets, were written in the first decade of his theatrical
career. These compellingly personal works were circulated in handwritten
copies among their authors circle of acquaintances in the mid-to-late
1590s, and were published in book form in 1609. The first attempt to
collect a larger range of Shakespeares lyric verse did not occur
until the 1640 Poems was issued, nearly a quarter-century after
the poets death. This unauthorized edition, printed in the small
octavo pocket format characteristic of the times, was published
by John Benson, a bookseller specializing in broadside ballads, popular
literature, and music. This Octavo Edition reproduces one of the fewer
than fifty surviving copies.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
5 9/16 x 3 9/16 inches (141 x 91 mm)
Despite our enormous familiarity with Shakespeares works, John Bensons 1640 edition of Shakespeares Poems shows just how difficult it is to know who and what Shakespeare is. Arguably the most outrageous of several pirated editions of Shakespeares poems, Bensons text copies the famous portrait from the First Folio, omits sonnets, changes their order and format, and includes poems known to be by other authors of the period.