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De Vere Poem 1: The Labouring Man That Tills the Fertile Soil

The Introduction to this new Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship edition of the known poems of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), explaining their text, format, annotations, and historical background, with key to abbreviations and works cited, is available here (see copyright notice therein, note 1). The other de Vere poems published in this edition (and a printable and citable pdf version of the entire article, including all 20 poems with annotations) may be accessed from the Introduction.

Poem No. 1: “The Labouring Man That Tills the Fertile Soil”

(May #1: 4 x 6 with terminal couplet)

1            The labouring man that tills the fertile soil

2            And reaps the harvest fruit hath not indeed

3            The gain, but pain, and if for all his toil

4            He gets the straw, the lord will have the seed.


5            The manchet fine falls not unto his share,

6            On coarsest cheat his hungry stomach feeds.

7            The landlord doth possess the finest fare;

8            He pulls the flowers, the other plucks but weeds.


9            The mason poor, that builds the lordly halls,

10          Dwells not in them, they are for high degree;

11          His cottage is compact in paper walls,

12          And not with brick or stone as others be.


13          The idle drone that labours not at all

14          Sucks up the sweet of honey from the bee.

15          Who worketh most, to their share least doth fall;

16          With due desert reward will never be.


17          The swiftest hare unto the mastiff slow

18          Oft-times doth fall to him as for a prey;

19          The greyhound thereby doth miss his game we know

20          For which he made such speedy haste away.


21          So he that takes the pain to pen the book

22          Reaps not the gifts of goodly golden Muse,

23          But those gain that who on the work shall look,

24          And from the sour the sweet by skill doth choose.


25          For he that beats the bush the bird not gets,

26          But who sits still and holdeth fast the nets.


This poem, introduced by the notation, “The Earle of Oxenforde to the Reader,” was published in 1573 as part of the preface to Thomas Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte, which was dedicated to Oxford. Cardanus is a philosophical work by the Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576), originally published in Venice as De Consolatione (1542). As discussed by Sobran (279), orthodox scholars including Hardin Craig have long termed it “Hamlet’s Book”—thought to be the one the Prince of Denmark is reading in Hamlet, act 2, scene 2—because of its widely acknowledged influence on the philosophical dimensions of that play.

As Sobran further noted (279), de Vere’s prefatory letter to Bedingfield, published in the 1573 edition along with this poem,


unmistakably prefigures the Southampton poems of Shakespeare: the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. Written when Oxford was only twenty-three, the letter anticipates those poems in spirit, theme, image, and other details. Like those poems, [the letter] borrows, for figurative use, the languages of law, commerce, horticulture, and medicine. It speaks of publication as a duty and of literary works as tombs and monuments to their authors. It has echoes in the [Shakespeare] plays, and the points of resemblance to the Southampton poems are especially notable.

See generally Sobran (279-86). Just to cite one example among many discussed by Sobran, Oxford’s Bedingfield letter exhibits some especially striking verbal and thematic parallels to lines in Coriolanus (Sobran 281-82).


Cover page of Cardanus Comforte (1573, rev. 1576)


(1) The labouring man that tills the fertile soil

‘let the magistrates be labouring men’ (2 Hen. VI, 4.2.18); ‘fertile England’s soil’ (2 Hen. VI, 1.1.238); ‘soil’s fertility’ (Rich. II, 3.4.39).

(2-3) reaps the harvest fruit … for all his toil

‘the main harvest reaps’ (As You, 3.5.103); ‘They that reap must sheaf and bind’ (As You, 3.2.102 ); ‘And reap the harvest which that rascal sow’d’ (2 Hen. VI, 3.1.381); ‘We are to reap the harvest of his son’ (3 Hen. VI, 2.2.116); ‘To reap the harvest of perpetual peace’ (3 Hen. VI, 5.2.15); ‘My poor lips, which should that harvest reap’ (Sonnets, 128.7); ‘never ear so barren a land for fear it yield me so bad a harvest’ (Venus, ded.); ‘Scarce show a harvest of their heavy toil’ (LLL, 4.3.323).

(8) He pulls the flowers, the other plucks but weeds

‘They bid thee crop a weed, thou pluck’st a flower’ (Venus, 946); ‘which I have sworn to weed and pluck away’ (Rich. II, 2.3.167); ‘He weeds the corn, and still lets grow the weeding’ (LLL, 1.1.96).

(9-10, 13-14) The mason poor that builds the lordly halls, Dwells not in them … The idle drone that labours not at all Sucks up the sweet of honey from the bee

‘For so work the honey-bees … The singing masons building roofs of gold … the lazy yawning drone’ (Hen. V, 1.2.187, 198, 204); ‘Not to eat honey like a drone from others’ labors’ (Per., 2.prol.18-19); ‘Where the bee sucks’ (Tem., 5.1.88); ‘Drones suck not eagles’ blood, but rob beehives’ (2 Hen. VI, 4.1.109); ‘Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath’ (R&J, 5.3.92); ‘That suck’d the honey of his music vows’ (Ham., 3.1.156); ‘And suck’d the honey which thy chaste bee kept’ (Lucrece, 840).

The idea of drones sucking honey from the bees is a characteristic idiom of both samples. See also No. 2.7-8 (The drone more honey sucks, that laboureth not at all, Than doth the bee).

(17-20) The swiftest hare unto the mastiff slow … The greyhound thereby doth miss his game … For which he made such speedy haste

‘like a brace of greyhounds, Having the fearful flying hare in sight’ (3 Hen. VI, 2.5.130); ‘like greyhounds in the slips … The game’s afoot!’ (Hen. V, 3.1.31); ‘thy greyhounds are as swift’ (Shrew, ind.2.47).

The seemingly spontaneous references to the greyhounds (or mastiff) and the hares suggest personal experience of such aristocratic hunting sports.

(20) speedy haste

‘Good lords, make all the speedy haste you may’ (Rich. III, 3.1.60).

(21, 26) takes the pain … sits still

Shakespeare uses both expressions many times.

(24) the sour the sweet

‘Speak sweetly, man, although thy looks be sour’ (Rich. II, 3.2.193); ‘How sour sweet music is When time is broke’ (Rich. II, 5.5.42); ‘that thy sour leisure gave sweet leave’ (Sonnets, 39.10); ‘Sweetest nut hath sourest rind’ (As You, 3.2.109); ‘Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms’ (A&C, 2.2.24); ‘For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds’ (Sonnets, 94.13); ‘To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me’ (Sonnets, 35.14); ‘The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours’ (Lucrece, 867).

This sweetsour antithesis is the first of many such locutions found both in the de Vere poetry and Shakespeare. Both have a marked fondness for antithesis and paradox.

(25-26) For he that beats the bush the bird not gets, But who sits still and holdeth fast the nets

‘Poor bird, thou’dst never fear the net nor lime’ (Mac., 4.2.34); ‘Look how a bird lies tangled in a net’ (Venus, 67); ‘Birds never lim’d no secret bushes fear’ (Lucrece, 88).

See also No. 2.5 (And he that beats the bush, the wished bird not gets, But such I see as sitteth still and holds the fowling nets).

[posted January 22, 2018]

About Bryan Wildenthal

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