Benson's Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent.

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Shakespeare, William, and John Benson. Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent. London: Thomas Cotes, 1640.

Image sources: Folger Shakespeare Library and British Library

Benson’s edition of Shakespeare’s poems included the first new edition of the Sonnets since their initial publication in 1609. The volume contains a mix of Shakepseare’s sonnets and songs as well as works by other authors.

In 1640, publisher John Benson produced an edition of Shakespeare’s poems – the first edition containing the bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets since they had been published in 1609. The volume was printed by Thomas Cotes, the publisher of the Second Folio. It combined 146 of the 154 sonnets that had been published in the 1609 Sonnets, with 29 poems, some by Shakespeare, first printed in 1612 in a book called The Passionate Pilgrim or Certain Amorous Sonnets between Venus and Adonis. While the latter book contained many poems by other writers, as well as 5 by Shakespeare, Benson might well have thought its contents authentic because Shakespeare’s name had twice appeared on its title page in prior editions.

While The Passionate Pilgrim had been repeatedly printed, the Sonnets  had not sold well. Benson worked to increase their interest by reorganizing them into small thematic groups of 1-5 poems, mixing sonnets with other lyrics, including songs from some of Shakespeare’s plays. Each group was given a thematic heading, which suggested universal characteristics and predicaments of love. All the headings were written in the third person, suggesting that the poems referred to the ups and downs of generic lovers. The intensity of the relationships between speaker, fair youth, and “black” mistress that would preoccupy readers of the sonnets starting in the late 18th century was dispersed by these changes into a variety of characters and situations.

Benson’s reorganization and relabeling of the sonnets has been criticized for its substantial alteration of 1609 Sonnets. Among other things, his headings seem to regender some of the sonnets, making them describe male-female couples when the 1609 Sonnets  centers on a male-male relationship. Nonetheless, for 140 years, Benson’s reordering, including the headings, was the form in which readers encountered Shakespeare’s lyric poems. Only when Edmund Malone edited the poems for a supplement to the 1778 Samuel Johnson-George Steevens edition would the Sonnets  be published again in the order of the original 1609 quarto.