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The Bard’s Orphans

(Reprinted from SOBRANS, April 2003, pages 3–6)
(Text dropped or modified
from the print edition appears in blue.)
Maybe I’m crazy. I’ve long since learned not to rule out that possibility when I think I have a bright idea. When I began to suspect, back in 1986, that the great Bard “William Shakespeare” was actually Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, I tried not to accept the Oxfordian theory too rashly.

Ten years later, when I was finishing my book Alias Shakespeare, I found an obscure sonnet cycle, Emaricdulfe (see the January 1998 issue), which seemed to me to bear all the signs of the Bard’s authorship. It was published in 1595 under the initials “E.C., Esquire.” But if Oxford could write under one alias, why not another? Still, I waited over a year before committing myself. I wanted to be good and sure before I took the radical step of proposing to expand the Bard’s canon.

Five more years have passed, and I think it’s time to advance what is either my brightest idea or my craziest. I can only sketch the evidence here, but I submit it as worthy of consideration.

I believe Oxford also wrote, under various pseudonyms, much of the poetry for which the Elizabethan Age is remembered.

This wasn’t a conclusion I was predisposed to reach. Just the opposite. I was quite content with a single important discovery. I didn’t want to discover too much, for fear of sounding like those Baconians who “discovered” that Francis Bacon wrote not only the Shakespeare works, but also the King James Bible and the works of Milton, Bunyan, and Robert Burton. The Shakespeare authorship question doesn’t need any more absurd exaggerations.

Then again, think of it this way: if the Baconian theory had panned out, it would have been a tremendous discovery, what? We should give even far-fetched ideas a fair chance. Anyway, here goes.

During the 1590s and beyond, about two dozen sonnet cycles — about a thousand sonnets in all — were published in England. This has led scholars to speak of an “Elizabethan sonnet craze,” whose stellar names include Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Watson, and Edmund Spenser, along with Richard Barnfield, Thomas Lodge, Michael Drayton, Bartholomew Griffin, Henry Constable, Barnabe Barnes, and others, lesser known or only vaguely identified, if identified at all.

I studied these sonnets for a couple of years and was struck by their similarities of style, as well as by hundreds of recurrent images and turns of phrase. Some were better than others, but that is also true of the Bard’s plays at different stages of his development. All but a few of the sonnets showed technical proficiency.

Could most of them have been the work of a single poet? The more I read, the more plausible this seemed. Still, I resisted the idea, for the reasons I’ve mentioned.

[Breaker quote: The phantom sonnetteers]It was more than a matter of style. Many of the supposed poets, whose identities scholars have seldom doubted, were friends, relatives, acquaintances, and employees of Oxford! In most cases, even less is known of these men than of William of Stratford, whose meager biographical record has frustrated scholars for centuries. It’s a striking point that among the few facts we do know of these poets is their connection to Oxford. One of the oddest things about “Shakespeare” is that we have so little evidence that he had any literary friends in London. Apart from Ben Jonson, no other writer seems to have met him!

Many of the dedicatees also belonged to Oxford’s circle. One sonnet cycle, Hecatompathia, was dedicated to Oxford himself; it was ascribed to Thomas Watson, one of Oxford’s secretaries. Another, Cynthia, supposedly by Richard Barnfield, was dedicated to Oxford’s son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, in 1595 — the year Derby married Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth. Wit’s Pilgrimage, ascribed to John Davies, was dedicated to the Earl of Montgomery a few years later, around the time Montgomery married Oxford’s daughter Susan. Several works were also dedicated to Montgomery’s mother, the Countess of Pembroke; others to “the gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” especially Gray’s Inn, where Oxford had studied law. (These poems were published between 1582 and 1628; the Bard’s between 1593 and 1634. Two of the poets speak of writing their sonnets in Italy, where Oxford spent a year as a young man.)

These might all be coincidences, but there were other things too, chiefly the wording of the dedications. In several cases the poet refers to his sonnet cycle as his first effort, usually in the metaphor of offspring: as his “first fruit,” “first-born,” “child,” “issue,” “infants,” “babe,” “maiden verse,” “orphans,” even “bastard orphan.” Compare the Bard’s reference to Venus and Adonis as “the first heir of my invention”; the poem was dedicated in 1593 to the Earl of Southampton, who nearly became Oxford’s son-in-law. Usually the poet disparages his verse as “rude” or “unpolished” (the Bard calls his “unpolished” and “untutored”), though it’s anything but. Often the poet professes his gentlemanly reluctance to publish his verses, but explains that his friends (or some villainous publisher) have left him no choice in the matter.

[Breaker quote: The tell-tale dedications]Your first impression, reading these dedications, is of a sort of courtly monotony. They all sound alike. They use hundreds of the same phrases. They belittle their poetic “children.” They apologize for their unworthiness. They grovel to the dedicatees. Was all this just standard Elizabethan practice? Or didn’t these rhymesters have any sense of dignity?

How odd, too, that so many able sonneteers, some of them brilliant, should make their debuts in quick succession — and never reappear! Each makes his debut as sonneteering Rookie of the Year, as it were, and then never writes another sonnet! Contrast French sonneteers like Pierre Ronsard, who poured out reams of sonnet cycles. What’s more, these English boys keep promising to write something better in the future, just as the Bard promises “some graver labor” to follow Venus, but the promise is never kept.

The casual reader may dismiss the whole issue with the vague explanation that “they all wrote pretty much alike in those days.” But this will hardly do. Consider some parallel passages from Phillis (1593), usually ascribed to Thomas Lodge, and from Chloris (1596), assigned to William Smith. No two poets in any age ever wrote this much alike:


Long hath my sufferance labor’d to enforce
One pearl of pity from her pretty eyes, 
Whilst I with restless rivers of remorse, 
Have bath’d the banks where my fair Phillis lies 

~     ~     ~
When as she spied the nymph whom I admire, 
Combing her locks, of which the yellow gold 
Made blush the beauties of her curled wire, 
Which heaven itself with wonder might behold, 
Then, red with shame, her reverend locks she rent, 
And weeping hid the beauty of her face 

~     ~     ~
And as nor tyrant sun nor winter weather 
May ever change sweet Amaranthus’ hue, 
So she though love and fortune join together, 
Will never leave to be both fair and true 

~     ~     ~
For you I live, and you I love, but none else. 
O then, fair eyes, whose light I live to view, 
Or poor forlorn despis’d to live alone else 

~     ~     ~
Burst, burst, poor heart: thou hast no longer hope ... 
Let all my senses have no further scope 

~     ~     ~
And should I leave thee there, thou pretty elf? 
Nay, first let Damon quite forget himself 

~     ~     ~
Look, sweet, since from the pith of contemplation 
Love gathereth life, and living, breedeth passion 

Long hath my sufferance labor’d to enforce
One pearl of pity from her pretty eyes; 
Whilst I, with restless oceans of remorse, 
Bedew the banks where my fair Chloris lies 

~     ~     ~
There did I see the nymph whom I admire, 
Remembering her locks; of which the yellow hue 
Made blush the beauties of her curled wire, 
Which Jove himself with wonder well might view. 
Then red with ire, her tresses she berent; 
And weeping hid the beauty of her face 

~     ~     ~
But as cold winter’s storms and nipping frosts 
Can never change sweet Amaranthus’ hue, 
So, though my love and life by her are cross’d, 
My heart shall still be constant firm and true 

~     ~     ~
For her I live, and her I love and none else. 
O then, fair eyes, look mildly upon me: 
Who poor, despis’d, forlorn, must live alone else 

~     ~     ~
But burst, poor heart: thou hast no better hope, 
Since all thy senses have no further scope 

~     ~     ~
And I cannot forget her, pretty elf ... 
Yet let me rather clean forget myself 

~     ~     ~
To penetrate the pith of contemplation ... 
Nor move her heart on me to take compassion 
Is Smith simply plagiarizing Lodge? If so, he’s doing it awfully blatantly, and you’d expect Lodge to have a thing or two to say about it. Yet there is no record of any complaint by Lodge. In fact, as far as I can tell, no scholar has ever noticed these parallels, let alone surmised that “Lodge” and “Smith” were actually the same poet. I think they were the same poet — Oxford — and that the latter work was actually a revision of the former.

Over several years, I found about 3,000 such parallels among these poems. Many of them could hardly be coincidental. A sonnet from The Tears of Fancy, published in 1592 by “T.W.” (often assumed to be Thomas Watson), is a near twin of the only sonnet published under Oxford’s name. Compare the last of T.W.’s 60 sonnets with Oxford’s sonnet:


Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, sweet heart?
Who taught thy tongue to marshal words of plaint? 
Who filled thine eyes with tears of bitter smart? 
Who gave thee grief and made thy joys so faint? 
Who first did paint with colours pale thy face? 
Who first did break thy sleeps of quiet rest? 
Who forc’d thee unto wanton love give place? 
Who thrall’d thy thoughts in fancy so distress’d? 
Who made thee bide both constant firm and sure? 
Who made thee scorn the world and love thy friend? 
Who made thy mind with patience pains endure? 
Who made thee settle steadfast to the end? 
    Then love thy choice though love be never gain’d, 
    Still live in love, despair not though disdain’d. 

Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart?
Who taught thy tongue the woeful words of plaint? 
Who filled your eyes with tears of bitter smart? 
Who gave thee grief and made thy joys to faint? 
Who first did paint with colours pale thy face? 
Who first did break thy sleeps of quiet rest? 
Above the rest in court who gave thee grace? 
Who made thee strive in honour to be best? 
In constant truth to bide so firm and sure, 
To scorn the world regarding but thy friends? 
With patient mind each passion to endure, 
In one desire to settle to the end? 
    Love then thy choice wherein such choice thou bind, 
    As naught but death may ever change thy mind. 
In various ways, the evidence kept pointing to Oxford.

I checked out all these poets in The Dictionary of National Biography and other sources. Of some of them nothing is known; “William Smith” could be anyone named William Smith, or the name could be a blind. The poets who gave only their initials are of course untraceable. One, the author of the cycle Zepheria, didn’t even give his initials.

Some were real men. There was a man named Richard Barnfield, said to have been a friend of Watson and Drayton, but though a few works were published under his name in the mid 1590s he doesn’t seem to have been a writer. He published nothing else before his death in 1627.

Samuel Daniel wrote loads of poetry after the exquisite sonnet cycle Delia, but none of it was anything like Delia: his major work was a verse history, so prosaic it’s almost doggerel. Here I found an interesting clue: Ben Jonson, who knew practically every writer in London, said that Daniel was “an honest man ... but no poet.” He could hardly have said that if he thought Daniel wrote Delia.

[Breaker quote: The Bard's poteic apprenticeship]Finally it hit me: What if all these rookie poets were the same poet? What if all these dedications were a running inside joke? What if it was Oxford, amusing his friends? That would explain almost everything.

Another interesting detail is that most of these sonnet cycles appeared in only one edition, and there is very little contemporary comment on them. The genre seems to have been less popular than the scholars have assumed. This suggests that the sonnets were published at the author’s or authors’ own expense, not by popular demand. (Could a large reading public be snared by titles like Parthenophil and Parthenophe?)

Desperate for at least some scholarly support for my outlandish theory, I found a little in an unexpected and utterly respectable source: C.S. Lewis’s magisterial history of English literature in the sixteenth century. Not that Lewis agrees with me. Not at all. The idea never crosses his mind, and he would surely have found it outré. But he does name seven poets who remind him of the Bard in some respect — and all seven are among my suspected masks of Oxford! He finds Daniel’s sonnets as lovely as the Bard’s; he thinks Barnfield imitates the Bard; he thinks Watson’s “conception of the sonnet” is much like the Bard’s; Barnabe Barnes sounds like “a weaker Shakespeare”; and so on.

Sometimes, in the dedications, the verbal parallels with the Bard are unmistakable: after apologizing for his “rude and unpolished lines,” Barnfield adds: “If my ability were better, the signs should be greater; but being as it is, your honor must take me as I am, not as I should be. But howsoever it is, yours it is; and I myself am yours; in all humble service....” Compare the Bard’s dedication to Lucrece: “What I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater my duty would show greater, meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship.” Again, Barnfield: “Small is the gift, but great is my good will.” The Bard, in Pericles, writes, “Yet my good will is great, though the gift small.” The dedication to Diella (by “R.L., Gentleman,” 1596) addresses “your ladyship ... to whom I ever wish long life, lengthened with all honorable happiness. Your ladyship’s in all duty,” et cetera. Again, compare Lucrece: “your lordship, to whom I wish long life still lengthened with all happiness. Your lordship’s in all duty,” et cetera.

The poems themselves afford hundreds of matches like these: “O dear vexation of my troubled soul” (Parthenophil and Parthenophe, Barnes, 1593); “The deep vexation of his inward soul” (Lucrece). And “Hunting he lov’d, nor did he scorn to love” (Diella); “Hunting he lov’d, but love he laugh’d to scorn” (Venus).

Still, there are difficulties. Sidney and Spenser are so renowned that it gives me pause to include them in my list of Oxford’s beards. The short (though insufficient) answer is that Sidney’s supposed writings were published many years after his death; and Spenser’s supposed sonnets, the Amoretti, are markedly different from his other poems, whose authorship (in most cases) I don’t question. I mean to explore this more fully in another book. (One important link here is the Countess of Pembroke, to whom Delia is dedicated. In addition to being Montgomery’s mother, she was also Sidney’s sister. Small world.)

All this calls for an explanation. How could this have happened? I can only guess. But here is my guess:

[Breaker quote: Oxford's literary network]Oxford grew up in a highly literate family. One of his uncles was the great poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who introduced the Petrarchan sonnet in English; he was the first to use the “Shakespearean” sonnet form (never dreaming, of course, that one of his nephews would actually become “Shakespeare”). Another uncle was Arthur Golding, a great classical scholar and translator of Ovid. Under these two influences, Oxford aspired to become England’s Petrarch (through the sonnet cycle) and also its Ovid (through narrative poems).

For many years (I’m still guessing, but not, I think, unreasonably) Oxford wrote sonnet cycles and narrative poems, which he circulated among his friends, but, like a good gentleman, refrained from publishing. Print was still considered a vulgar medium; no gentleman would write for money or popularity.

This is the part modern men find hard to understand. When we write nowadays, it’s usually for the very things English gentlemen used to sniff at: money and popularity. Otherwise, we feel, why bother writing? Very few of us now write only for a small coterie. (For an illuminating study of how the old attitude lingered but eventually changed, see Alvin Kernan’s Samuel Johnson and the Impact of Print.)

Maybe (still guessing here, but, I hope, plausibly) Oxford came to realize that if he wanted literary immortality — and his poems were lavishly praised by those who saw them — he’d better get them into print. Yet it wouldn’t do to put his own name on them. So he borrowed other men’s names, invented fictitious names, or just used initials. By the time he reached full maturity, he had begun to use the name William Shakespeare.

When he pulled his old sonnet cycles and narrative poems out of the drawer and prepared them for the printer, Oxford added dedications, in which, for the amusement of insiders, he played the humble novice poet, using a different pseudonym each time. The fake humility was part of the gag. His friends would get the joke; the reading public (and later scholars) would be taken in. But if you read the dedications in succession, you can feel the phantom poet winking at you.

The hoax worked only too well. To this day, the pseudonyms and dedications are taken at face value. It took more than four centuries for someone (ahem!) to crack the code, so to speak. Meanwhile, a poor country bloke has reaped most of the glory due to Oxford’s works.

This could explain a great paradox: the Bard says, in his most famous sonnets, that he expects his poems to be immortal while hoping his own name will be “forgotten.” As a rule your name is remembered as long as your poems are. But if virtually all of Oxford’s poems were pseudonymous, the puzzle is resolved. And as I’ve written elsewhere, Oxford had an additional motive for concealing his authorship: his own scandalous personal life.

My theory could solve another puzzle. In 1599 came the small volume The Passionate Pilgrim, “by William Shakespeare”; yet scholars have found that several of its 20 poems had already appeared under the names of Barnfield, Griffin, and others, so its place in the Bard’s canon is now considered marginal. But if I’m correct, Oxford may indeed have written the whole thing under various names.

All this would mean that we possess hundreds of priceless pages Oxford wrote in his poetic apprenticeship, before he became “Shakespeare.” It would also mean that the entire history of Elizabethan literature must be overhauled. The “Elizabethan sonnet craze,” it appears, was pretty much a one-man show.

If I’m right, Oxford would be surprised, and probably disappointed, that his plays have lasted better than his poems. But considering all the confusion he has caused, he’d be in a poor position to complain.

Joseph Sobran

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