The year when the Swan first took flight: Four hundred years ago this summer, a promising young writer made his debut in the London bookshops. Kevin Jackson reports

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IT HAD been a terrible summer. London was hot, dangerous, panic-stricken. Most of the richer citizens had fled to the relative safety of the countryside, leaving the town to the dying and the scavengers. Sextons were marking out infected houses and mercilessly imprisoning the healthy inside with their sick and dying: the playwright Dekker described scenes of families 'fearfully sweating with coffins, to steal forth dead bodies lest the fatal hand-writing of death should seal up their doors'. By the end of the year of grace 1593, plague would have taken some 11,000 Londoners.

Not the most promising time for literature, though ambitious young wits might take some cold solace from the thought that so much of the competition had been suddenly wiped out - Greene had died in squalor the previous September, Marlowe was assassinated at the end of May - and that plague was killing off public entertainments, too, thus driving educated Londoners back to their books. After a brief and disastrous revival in early January, London's theatres had been ordered to close again for the duration of the plague. Pembroke's men were off in the West Country, Sussex's men were touring the North, and Lord Strange's men had been granted a licence to perform in any uninfected town outside the seven-mile quarantine limit surrounding London.

But one of Strange's regular actors, writers and jacks-of-all-trades seems to have risked his life by staying in town; he had a new career to launch. His name was William Shakespeare, a 28-year-old provincial man, and he was about to shake off his raffish professional origins and become something far more dignified: a published poet. The auguries were good. No less a person than the the Archbishop of Canterbury had licensed Shakespeare's first book, and it had been entered in the Stationers' Register by Richard Field, printer, as early as 18 April. It was not until early autumn, however, when the plague had abated somewhat, that the 1200-line poem became available to the public 'at the signe of the white Greyhound in Paules Church-yard'.

What, then, would this new book have meant to an Elizabethan customer, assuming he - or, importantly, she - were sufficiently intrepid, literate and wealthy to go browsing under the sign of the Greyhound? The title page of the slim quarto volume was beautifully printed (Field, another Stratford man, whose father had had dealings with Shakespeare's own father, was skilled at his trade, and had produced a fine edition of Orlando Furioso a few years before), but otherwise cryptic. No author's name: simply the title, Venvs and Adois, with the device of an anchor below, an intricate floral engraving above, and a Latin tag:

Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo

Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua

words which the browser, if he or she possessed more than the proverbial small Latin, would have L recognised as a quotation from Ovid's Amores, 1. 15. 35-6. The late Christopher Marlowe, first translator of that work into English, had rendered them in a neat couplet:

'Let base-conceited wits admire vile things,

Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses's springs.'

A boastful motto, though the dedication to Southampton on the following page was phrased in conventionally modest terms: I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolisht lines to your Lordship, not how the worlde will censure mee for choosing so strong a proppe to support so weake a burden. . . Well, it was only right and proper that an obscure arriviste like the signator (Your Honors in all dutie, William Shakespeare) should make a show of humility to the young nobleman. Although his three plays of Henry VI had been successful enough to prompt a fellow professional, Greene, to pen an enviously spiteful pamphlet in his last days on earth, few spectators would remember the playwright's name. Moreover, there was not much in Shakespeare's abortive dramatic career to date that might appeal to the cognoscenti.

Consider his credits before 1593: The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus. . . As one modern critic puts it, 'You get hardly a breath of poetry so far, though plenty of vigorous rhetoric, and a clear mind at work making the best of the plots.' Then, at about the age of 27, Richard III had seemed about to put Shakespeare on a new artistic course towards poetic drama when the sudden outbreak of plague threw him into unemployment. Outside the world of the theatre, even smaller and more incestuous than its modern counterpart, Shakespeare was more or less unknown.

That state of affair was about to change for ever. On the next page began the poem itself: Even as the sunne - or, to continue in modern spelling:

Even as the sun with purple-colored face

Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase;

Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn.

Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,

And like a bold-fac'd suitor 'gins to woo him. . .

'It is not too much,' asserts one of the bard's modern biographers, 'to say that Venus and Adonis made Shakespeare's reputation,' and made it virtually overnight. Indeed, it was the Elizabethan equivalent of a best-seller, and went through at least 11 editions before 1620. Not, to invoke a more recent criterion of merit, that there was much original about the poem. The story came from Ovid (the Metamorphoses, that is, not the Amores), the metre had been made popular by Lodge's Scillaes Metamorhosis (1589) and Marlowe had refined it in his Hero and Leander, widely circulated in manuscript though not published until 1598.

Rather, what entranced contemporary readers was the poem's eloquence, its mellifluousness, its sprezzatura (a term in use among the learned British since the first translation of Castiglione's Courtier in 1561). Above all, readers were delighted by its eroticism. The story goes that randy undergraduates would sleep with copies of the poem under their pillows, and though the evidence for this claim is scanty, it has been repeated down the centuries, particularly by novelists.

Sir Walter Scott's cheerfully anachronistic Kenilworth (1821) has the Earl of Leicester bellowing: 'Ha, Will L Shakespeare - Wild Will] - thou hast given my nephew, Philip Sidney, love-powder - he cannot sleep without thy Venus and Adonis under his pillow]' And in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus picks up a line from Georg Brandes's William Shakespeare: A Critcal Study (1895-6) ('Contemporaries aver that it lay on the table of every light woman in London') and gives it a characteristic twirl: 'That memory, Venus and Adonis, lay in the bedchamber of every light-of-love in London'.

Still, if the pillows and bedchambers are no more than charming accretions on the poem's reputation, it is certainly true that Elizabethans responded warmly to its sexy wit: to Venus's comparison of her body to a parkland, for example:

Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,

Stray lower, where the pleasant founains lie.

One of the earliest readers to be inflamed by such lines was William Reynolds, esq, an entertaining maniac who laboured under the delusion that the Privy Council was trying to persuade him that Queen Elizabeth was in love with him by issuing books with occult messages. In a letter dated 21 September 1593, he babbles about the latest offending volume, Venus and Adonis, in which the Queen, or Venus, tells Adonis, or Reynolds, that 'although she be oulde, yet she is lustie freshe & moyst, full of love & life (I beleve a goodell more than a busshell full) and she can trip it as lightly as a phery nimphe vppon the sandes and her foote stepes not seene, and much ado with red & whyte. . .' Much ado about nothing, in Reynold's view.

Elizabethan London did not enjoy such an abundance of critical prose as our own times, but such 'reviews' as survive of Venus and Adonis are almost unanimously raves: Francis Meres, admittedly never a hard man to please, described Shakespeare as the reincarnation of Ovid's 'sweete wittie soule', while John Weever described V&A as the true offspring of Apollo. Only Gabriel Harvey, a few years later, struck a more judicious note: 'The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis; but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, haue it in them, to please the wiser sort.'

Quite so, posterity replies, at least so far as Hamlet is concerned. For one of the most striking curiosities of Shakespeare's reputation is the fact that the poem which first brought him fame should now be one of the least read, least regarded texts in the canon - indeed, that it should often be thought of as a minor digression from the real career of our national poet. He wrote it as much money as for fame, runs one line of thought, in the hope of cadging a decent sum from Southampton much as a modern writer might hope for an Arts Council bursary. What's more, he was unsuccessful into the bargain. The tradition that Southampton gave him the astonishing sum of pounds 1,000 - a rumour transmitted by word of mouth, and made solid in Giles Jacob's Poetical Register (1719) - is almost certainly without foundation.

Other legends and speculations L have proved more tenacious. Many biographically inclined commenL tators have seen Adonis as an idealised portrait of young Southampton; others, like Sir William Empson, think that the poem reflects Shakespeare's own enforced marriage, at the age of 18, to a woman who was all of eight years older; and Anthony Burgess, in his novel Nothing Like the Sun, proposes that Adonis is a composite of both young men. None of them suggests that this element of displaced allegory is sufficent to put Venus and Adonis on a par with the great tragedies or the late plays. Despite its contemporary success, if the plague had carried off Shakespeare in 1593, his name might scarcely be better known today than that of Richard Barnfield or Bartholomew Griffin.

Or would it? Even if late-20th- century undergraduates can breeze through their English courses without so much as glancing at the poem, the most ardent admirers of Venus and Adonis have also been the among the most substantial critics in our language. Coleridge thought it a work of incomparable dramatic brilliance ('Throughout you seem to be told nothing, and to see and hear everything'), while Keats despaired at the idea of trying to match its observations of the natural world: 'He has left nothing to say about nothing or any thing: for look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails. . .'.

More recently, and a good deal more controversially, our Poet Laureate has maintained that Venus and Adonis and its companion piece The Rape of Lucrece offer the key to Shakespeare's central myth (Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, 1992). Judging by some of the harsh reviews this study received, Mr Hughes's arguments will not be orthodox for quite a few weeks yet. None the less, to cite William Empson, Shakespeare's two narrative poems 'saved his career at the one crucial time, and they record. . . an experience so formative that the plays echo it for the rest of his life'. Venus and Adonis belongs almost entirely to the scholars today, but it could quite easily belong to the reading public again. Four hundred years after its first publication, it continues to be a promising work.