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De Vere Poem 17: Sitting Alone Upon My Thought (The Echo Verses)

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. 17: “Sitting Alone Upon My Thought” (The Echo Verses)

(May PBO #1: 10 x 2 with 4-line coda)

1            Sitting alone upon my thought, in melancholy mood,

2            In sight of sea, and at my back an ancient hoary wood,

3            I saw a fair young lady come, her secret fears to wail,

4            Clad all in colour of a nun, and covered with a veil.

5            Yet, for the day was clear and calm, I might discern her face,

6            As one might see a damask rose hid under crystal glass.

7            Three times with her soft hand full hard on her left side she knocks,

8            And sighed so sore as might have mov’d some pity in the rocks.

9            From sighs, and shedding amber tears, into sweet song she brake,

10          When thus the echo answered her to every word she spake.


11          “O heavens, who was the first that bred in me this fever?”

Echo:               Vere.

12          “Who was the first that gave the wound, whose scar I wear for ever?”

Echo:               Vere.

13          “What tyrant Cupid to my harms usurps the golden quiver?”

Echo:               Vere.

14          “What wight first caught this heart, and can from bondage it deliver?”

Echo:               Vere.

15          “Yet who doth most adore this wight, O hollow caves, tell true?”

Echo:               You.

16          “What nymph deserves his liking best, yet doth in sorrow rue?”

Echo:               You.

17          “What makes him not regard good will with some remorse or ruth?”

Echo:               Youth.

18          “What makes him show, besides his birth, such pride and such untruth?”

Echo:               Youth.

19          “May I his beauty match with love, if he my love will try?”

Echo:               Aye.

20          “May I requite his birth with faith? Then faithful will I die?”

Echo:               Aye.


21          And I, that knew this lady well,

22          Said Lord, how great a miracle,

23          To her how echo told the truth,

24          As true as Phoebus’ oracle.


As noted in the Introduction (note 3), we generally follow Looney’s text for the poems included in his edition. As he noted (1921, Miller ed. 1975, 1: 561), Vere in the echoes here would be pronounced “Vair.”

This poem may have been inspired by Oxford’s relationship with his mistress Anne Vavasour (c. 1560-c. 1650). The affair began around 1579, produced a son (Edward Veer) born in March 1581, and apparently ended later that year (see, e.g., Anderson 161-65, 172-73, 178-81).

Looney’s text relies on the Rawlinson manuscript in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, which identifies “the Earl of Oxford” as the author and is the superior and preferable source.

Professor May (1980, 79-81) acknowledged strong reasons (convincing in our view) to accept Oxford’s authorship of No. 17, though he also questioned that attribution. May relied on the text in the Folger Library’s manuscript 1.1112, which has the name “Vavaser” attached to it.

A comparison of the Rawlinson and Folger versions is set forth below. We invite readers to judge for themselves.


Comparison of Rawlinson (Bodleian Library) and Folger Library manuscript versions of No. 17


(4) Clad all in colour of a nun, and covered with a veil

‘But like a cloistress she will veiled walk’ (Twelfth, 1.1.27); cf. ‘Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot’ (Sonnets, 95.11).

(5-6) I might discern her face, As one might see a damask rose hid under crystal glass

‘[he] calls me e’en now … through a red lattice, and I could discern no part of his face from the window’ (2 Hen. IV, 2.2.74-75); ‘I have seen roses damask’d, red and white’ (Sonnets, 130.5); cf. ‘as sweet as damask roses’ (Win., 4.4.220); ‘With cherry lips and cheeks of damask roses’ (Kins., 4.1.74); ‘feed on her damask cheek’ (Twelfth, 2.4.112).

See also No. 14.26 (damask rose) and related discussion.

(7) her soft hand

her soft hand’s print’ (Venus, 353); cf. ‘thy soft hands’ (Venus, 633).

(7-8) on her left side she knocks, And sighed so sore

‘coy looks with heart-sore sighs’ (Two Gent., 1.1.31); ‘daily heart-sore sighs’ (Two Gent., 2.4.129).

The heart is on the left side of the chest. See also parallels to the rest of line 8, below.

(8) as might have mov’d some pity in the rocks

‘O if no harder than a stone thou art, Melt at my tears, and be compassionate; Soft pity enters at an iron gate’ (Lucrece, 593); cf. ‘Beat at thy rocky and wrack-threat’ning heart’ (Lucrece, 590); ‘hard’ned hearts, harder than stones’ (Lucrece, 978).

Also: ‘He is a stone, a very pebble stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog’ (Two Gent., 2.3.11); ‘I would to God my heart were flint, like Edward’s, Or Edward’s soft and pitiful like mine’ (Rich. III, 1.3.140); ‘I am not made of stones, But penetrable to your kind entreats’ (Rich. III, 3.7.224); cf.May move your hearts to pity’ (Rich. III, 1.3.348); ‘Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes’ (Rich. III, 4.1.98); ‘Rush all to pieces on thy rocky bosom’ (Rich. III, 4.4.235).

Still more: ‘What rocky heart to water will not wear?’ (Lover’s Comp., 291); ‘Your sorrow beats so ardently upon me That it shall make a counter-reflect ’gainst My brother’s heart and warm it to some pity, Though it were made of stone’ (Kins., 1.1.126-29).

Compare Oxford’s 1572 letter: “on whose tragedies we have an [sic] number of French Aeneases in this city, that tell of their own overthrows with tears falling from their eyes, a piteous thing to hear but a cruel and far more grievous thing we must deem it them to see” (Fowler 55).

The same idea is expressed in different words by “Shakespeare”:

To see sad sights moves more than hear them told, For then the eye interprets to the ear The heavy motion that it doth behold’ (Lucrece, 1324-26).

(9) From sighs, and shedding amber tears, into sweet song she brake

Shakespeare uses shedding tears 24 times; tears and sighs 11 times; and sigh with “weep,” “groan,” “grief,” etc., many more times.

(10) When thus the echo answered her to every word she spake

Echo replies’ (Venus, 695); ‘And still the choir of echoes answer so’ (Venus, 840); cf.every word doth almost tell my name’ (Sonnets, 76.7).

(11) bred in me this fever

‘the raging fire of fever bred’ (Errors, 5.1.75).

(12) Who was the first that gave the wound, whose scar I wear for ever?

‘When griping grief the heart doth wound, And doleful dumps the mind oppress’ (R&J, 4.5.126). Both samples use and par­ody wound as a metaphorical extravagance.

(13) What tyrant Cupid to my harms usurps the golden quiver?

‘if Cupid have not spent all his quiver in Venice’ (Much, 1.1.241-42). Shakespeare often uses usurp figuratively, as it is used here in de Vere’s lyric.

(14) can from bondage it deliver

‘Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius’ (Caes., 1.3.90).

(15) O hollow caves, tell true

‘Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies’ (R&J, 2.2.162); ‘And fetch shrill echoes from the hollow earth’ (Shrew, ind.2.46).

Both samples reveal the same observant (Ovidian?) association between cave and echo.

(19-20) May I his beauty match with loverequite his birth with faith …?

‘I will requite you with as good a thing’ (Tem., 5.1.169); cf. ‘Benedick, love on, I will requite thee’ (Much, 3.1.111); ‘I do with an eye of love requite her’ (Much, 5.4.24).

(24) As true as Phoebus’ oracle

‘And in Apollo’s name, his oracle’ (Win., 3.2.118); ‘There is no truth at all i’th oracle!’ (Win., 3.2.140); ‘Apollo said, Is’t not the tenor of his oracle’ (Win., 5.1.38).

Phoebus is an epithet for Apollo, Greco-Roman god of the sun.

[posted January 22, 2018]

About Bryan Wildenthal

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