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De Vere Poem 14: These Beauties Make Me Die

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. 14: “These Beauties Make Me Die”

(May #14: 6 x 7)

1            What cunning can express

2            The favour of her face,

3            To whom in this distress

4            I do appeal for grace?

5            A thousand Cupids fly

6            About her gentle eye.


7            From whence each throws a dart

8            That kindleth soft sweet fire

9            Within my sighing heart,

10          Possessed by desire;

11          No sweeter life I try,

12          Than in her love to die.


13          The lily in the field,

14          That glories in his white,

15          For pureness now must yield

16          And render up his right;

17          Heaven pictured in her face

18          Doth promise joy and grace.


19          Fair Cynthia’s silver light,

20          That beats on running streams,

21          Compares not with her white,

22          Whose hairs are all sunbeams;

23          Her virtues so do shine

24          As day unto mine eyne.


25          With this there is a red

26          Exceeds the damask rose,

27          Which in her cheeks is spread,

28          Whence every favour grows;

29          In sky there is no star

30          That she surmounts not far.


31          When Phoebus from the bed

32          Of Thetis doth arise,

33          The morning, blushing red,

34          In fair carnation wise,

35          He shows it in her face

36          As queen of every grace.


37          This pleasant lily-white,

38          This taint of roseate red,

39          This Cynthia’s silver light,

40          This sweet fair Dea spread,

41          These sunbeams in mine eye,

42          These beauties make me die.


(5) A thousand Cupids

‘arm’d with thousand Cupids’ (Kins., 2.2.31).

(8) That kindleth soft sweet fire

‘his love-kindling fire’ (Sonnets, 153.3); ‘the raging fire of fever bred’ (Errors, 5.1.75); ‘Therefore let Benedick, like cover’d fire, Consume away in sighs, waste inwardly’ (Much, 3.1.78); ‘let virtue be as wax And melt in her own fire’ (Ham., 3.4.85).

According to Eric Sams (297), “[a]mong Tudor dramatists, it is [Shakespeare] who notices how fire behaves and converts that knowledge into proverbs and sayings of his own ….” This parallel suggests that Oxford was in fact the innovator.

(13-14) The lily in the field, That glories in his white

The lily is one of Shakespeare’s favorite flowers, being alluded to at least 21 times in the plays. E.g.:

‘Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white, Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose’ (Sonnets, 98.9-10); ‘The lily I condemned for thy hand … The roses fearfully on thorns did stand, One blushing shame, another white despair’ (Sonnets, 99.6, 8-9); ‘most lilywhite of hue’ (Dream, 3.1.84).

See also lines 21-26.

(19) Fair Cynthia’s silver light

Cynthia for shame obscures her silver shine’ (Venus, 728); ‘Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow’ (R&J, 3.5.20); ‘Cynthia with her borrowed light’ (Kins., 4.1.153). Cynthia refers to the moon.

(21, 23, 25-26) Compares not with her white … Her virtues so do shine … With this there is a red Exceeds the damask rose, Which in her cheeks is spread

Her lily hand her rosy cheek lies under’ (Lucrece, 386).


Compare also these lines in Lucrece:


To praise the clear unmatched red and white

Which triumphed in that sky of his delight



When Beauty boasted blushes, in despite

Virtue would stain that o’er with silver white



This heraldry in Lucrece’ face was seen,

Argued by Beauty’s red and Virtue’s white.

Of either’s colour was the other queen



This silent war of lilies and roses

Which Tarquin viewed in her fair face’s field



Also: ‘Upon the blushing rose usurps her cheek’ (Venus, 591); ‘The air hath starved the roses in her cheeks’ (Two Gent., 4.4.154); ‘Meantime your cheeks do counterfeit our roses’ (1 Hen. VI, 2.4.62); ‘The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade’ (R&J, 4.1.99); ‘as those cheek-roses Proclaim you are no less!’ (Meas., 1.4.16); ‘rosy lips and cheeks’ (Sonnets, 116.9).

On the imagery of the damask rose specifically: ‘I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks’ (Sonnets, 130.5-6); ‘feed on her damask cheek’ (Twelfth, 2.4.112); ‘as sweet as damask roses’ (Win., 4.4.220); ‘With cherry lips and cheeks of damask roses’ (Kins., 4.1.74).

See also lines 13-14, and No. 17.5-6 (see a damask rose); Looney (1920, 141-45).

We can readily agree with Professor May that these particular parallels are rendered less compelling by the pervasive popularity of white (or lily) and red (or rosy) imagery in the poetry of the time (and probably many other times), to describe facial beauty (and not only female: see, e.g., Venus and Adonis). The damask rose seems to have been a favored Elizabethan motif in this regard, as May showed (2004, 224, 246-47).

But overall these parallels still seem significant—again considering how they fit into the broader intertextuality explored here. See also No. 9.14 (discussing the haggard hawk motif), and more generally, the Introduction (and note 9) to this edition of de Vere’s poems.

Looney, diligent schoolmaster though he was, did not have May’s deep knowledge of Elizabethan poetry, but May (2004, 224) too hastily dismissed Looney’s insights.

As Looney noted (141-42), “This is the only poem in the De Vere collection in which the writer lingers tenderly and seriously on the beauty of a woman’s face; and … his whole treatment turns upon the contrast of white and red, the lily and the damask rose.” Looney then observed (142) the “striking fact … that the only poem of ‘Shakespeare’s’ [Lucrece] in which he dwells at length in the same spirit upon the same theme is dominated by the identical contrast.”

By contrast, no similarly extensive parallels are suggested by any of the examples by other poets (such as George Turberville) cited by May (2004, 246-47).

May also misunderstood and exaggerated Looney’s reliance on the damask rose parallels specifically. Looney (144-45) did briefly note those parallel references, but then immediately, and very carefully, “emphasize[d] a principle which is vital to the argument … namely, that we are not here primarily concerned with the mere piling up of parallel passages [emphasis added]. What matters most of all is mental correspondence and the general unity of treatment which follows from it.”

Looney correctly concluded that No. 14 and the quoted lines in Lucrece “form an excellent example.” They do indeed resonate tellingly. We would add, as stated in the Introduction, that the foregoing principle stated by Looney guides this entire edition of de Vere’s poems.

(29-30) In sky there is no star That she surmounts not far

‘The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars’ (R&J, 2.2.19).

(31-32) When Phoebus from the bed Of Thetis doth arise

‘And Phoebus ’gins arise’ (Cym., 2.3.21).

Shakespeare refers five times by name to Thetis, a Greek sea nymph. Phoebus is an epithet for Apollo, Greco-Roman god of the sun.

(33) The morning, blushing red

‘King Richard doth himself appear, As doth the blushing discontented sun From out the fiery portal of the east’ (Rich. II, 3.3.63); ‘a blush Modest as morning’ (Troil., 1.3.229); ‘To blush and beautify the cheek’ (2 Hen. VI, 3.2.167); cf. ‘His treasons will sit blushing in his face’ (Rich. II, 3.2.51).

See also No. 8.5 (When that Aurora, blushing red) (Aurora = dawn).

(34) In fair carnation wise

‘Our carnations and streak’d gillyvors’ (Win., 4.4.96).

Again Oxford employs a flower favored by “Shakespeare,” the carnation. This makes three along with lilies and roses.

(35-42) He shows it in her face As queen of every grace. This pleasant lily-white, This taint of roseate red, This Cynthia’s silver light, This sweet fair Dea spread, These sunbeams in mine eye, These beauties make me die.


Compare this passage with the second stanza of Venus and Adonis:


‘Thrice fairer than myself,’ thus she began,

The field’s chief flower, sweet above compare,

Stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man,

More white and red than doves or roses are;

Nature that made thee with herself at strife

Saith that the world hath ending with thy life.


[posted January 22, 2018]

About Bryan Wildenthal

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