Category Archives: Epic Poems

Poetic Dedications to an Earl

venus & adonis ded

These words form the dedication page of Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis.  The poem in its entirety can be found on the following link:  

In The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s Patron, biographer Charlotte Carmichael Stopes writes:

In that very month of April, on the 18th day, something happened which has done more than anything else to keep the Earl of Southampton in memory.

Yet a commonplace enough event it was the registration of a book in the Stationers’ Registers. But the name of the book was Venus and Adonis the name of the author was William Shakespeare, the name of the printer was Richard Field, the Stratford friend of the poet, and it was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton dedicated timidly, because the poet did not know how the public would take his venture, and he wanted to leave his patron as free as possible to slip out, should the venture prove a failure.

It happens that the first preserved fragment of Shakespeare’s prose writing is this dedication.

A painting of Venus and Adonis by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1614

A painting of Venus and Adonis by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1614

According to Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Venus and Adonis is categorized as a minor epic“characters in a minor epic usually come from the periphery of myth or legend; its interest is in eroticism, sophistication, and wit” (

As pointed out by G.P.V. Akrigg in Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, certain themes found in this poem are echoed in the Procreation Sonnets.  One example is as follows:

Beauty within itself should not be wasted.
   Fair flowers that are not gathered in their prime
   Rot and consume themselves in little time.      (Venus & Adonis, lines 130-132)

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die…      (Sonnet 1)

Portrait of Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Derby (artist unknown)

Portrait of Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Derby (artist unknown)

With all this in mind, we must consider that when this erotic piece of poetry was published in 1593, Henry Wriothesley was ensnared in a betrothal arrangement initiated by the Lord Burghley, William Cecil, who wished to have his ward marry the Lady Elizabeth de Vere, Cecil’s granddaughter and the eldest daughter of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

In choosing Wriothesley as his dedicatee, the poet was most likely making a not-so-subtle commentary on the young earl’s private life.  There was much at stake for Wriothesley in this period of his life, and in refusing to marry Lady Elizabeth, he subsequently alienated himself from both Cecil and the Queen.

On May 9th, 1594, The Rape of Lucrece was entered into the Stationers’ Register, and published shortly thereafter.  This poem can be found here:

Again, Shakespeare chose to dedicate his work to the Earl of Southampton.


This poem evokes a grimmer tone than that of Venus and Adonis.  According to Akrigg, “Shakespeare may have begun by pandering a bit to Southampton’s taste for erotica but now, secure in his friendship, he is trying to lead the young aristocrat into the paths that he ought to follow” (200).

Whether it was due to military aspirations, a disinterest in marriage, or some other reason, Wriothesley finally broke free of this entanglement.  But in doing so, he also incurred an enormous fine.  In a letter from 1594 written by Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, we learn that: “The young Earl of Southampton, refusing the Lady Vere, payeth £5000 of present payment.”

 Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton Artist unknown, c.1600

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton
Artist unknown, c.1600

But there was, indeed, a woman in Wriothesley life:  Elizabeth Vernon, one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting.

Elizabeth was also the first cousin of Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex.

She was his secret mistress first, and then on August 30, 1598, the pregnant Vernon became the Countess of Southampton when Henry Wriothesley took her as his wife.

According to Stopes, “Southampton knew that, though a betrothal might make the condition of his beloved perfectly respectable in the eyes of the world, there would be difficulties about dower, and title, and Court precedence for her, and loss of the inheritance to the coming heir (if such there were), without the sanction of the religious service of marriage, a sacrament to a Catholic” (122).

Although this illicit alliance was concealed from Queen Elizabeth as long as possible, when she eventually discovered the truth (no doubt thanks to Robert Cecil’s spies), the furious queen had both husband and wife confined to Fleet Prison.

Prior to the imprisonment, Southampton had abruptly left for Paris under the guise of collecting a debt that was owed to him.  A letter from the Royal Secretary to the Earl of Southampton reads:

I am grieved to use the style of a councillor to you to whom I have evere rather wished to be the messenger of honour and favour, by laying her Majesty’s command upon you; but I must now put this gall into my ink, that she knows that you came over very lately, and returned very contemptuously; that you have also married one of her maids of honour, without her privity, for which, with other circumstances informed against you, I find her grievously offended, and she commands me to charge you expressly (all excuses set apart) to repair hither to London, and advertise your arrival, without coming to the Court, until her pleasure be known. Sept. 3rd 1 598. From the Court at Greenwich.

After Southampton’s release, relations between Elizabeth and Southampton never recovered.  In fact, they were about to worsen, and Southampton would again be imprisoned, this time as a result of his involvement in the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601.  This will be discussed further in my next post.

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