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De Vere Poem 4: The Loss of My Good Name

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. 4: “The Loss of My Good Name”

(May #4: 6 x 3)

1            Framed in the front of forlorn hope, past all recovery,

2            I stayless stand t’abide the shock of shame and infamy.

3            My life, through lingering long, is lodged in lair of loathsome ways,

4            My death delayed to keep from life the harm of hapless days.

5            My [spirits], my heart, my wit and force in deep distress are drowned;

6            The only loss of my good name is of these griefs the ground.


7            And since my mind, my wit, my head, my voice and tongue are weak

8            To utter, move, devise, conceive, sound forth, declare and speak

9            Such piercing plaints as answer might, or would, my woeful case,

10          Help crave I must, and crave I will, with tears upon my face

11          Of all that may in heaven or hell, in earth or air, be found

12          To wail with me this loss of mine, as of these griefs the ground.


13          Help gods, help saints, help sprites and powers that in the heaven do dwell,

14          Help ye that are to wail, ay wont, ye howling hounds of hell,

15          Help man, help beasts, help birds and worms that on the earth doth toil,

16          Help fish, help fowl that flocks and feeds upon the salt-sea soil,

17          Help echo that in air doth flee, shrill voices to resound

18          To wail this loss of my good name, as of these griefs the ground.


For the convenience of modern readers, “spirits” (line 5) is substituted in brackets for the original “sprites,” an archaic usage (in the context of that line) likely to baffle most readers today. “Sprites” is left untouched, however, in line 13, where it is used in a different sense (still comprehensible today) to refer to elves or spirit-creatures.

Prechter deserves notice for his exegesis of numerous parallels in No. 4 to Shakespeare—notwithstanding that many may view it as perhaps the weakest known de Vere poem. Indeed, as Prechter noted (148), No. 4 has been singled out by some anti-Oxfordians for especially vituperative ridicule, as supposedly making a mockery of the idea that Oxford wrote the works credited to Shakespeare (e.g., Elliott & Valenza 2010, 138, 142-43, 151).

No. 4 was likely inspired by Oxford’s traumatic experience at age 13, having lost his father just the year before, of being unjustly accused of illegitimacy by his elder half-sister (in an apparent effort to divest him of his inheritance), and may well have been written the same year (see, e.g., Anderson 24-25). It certainly has an angry, self-pitying, and freshly wounded ring—expressed, as Anderson aptly noted (25), “in an adolescent voice given to tub-thumping meter and alliterative excess.”

False and unjust defamations of character (often leveled against women) are, of course, a pervasive theme in Shakespeare. Oxfordians have often (very properly) linked that theme to de Vere’s apparent remorse over accusing his first wife of infidelity (e.g., Anderson 220-21). No. 4 reminds us that his own much earlier experience, as victim of a false accusation himself, may already have seared an obsession with that theme deeply into his psyche. Do not many of us recall with unusually persistent clarity the hurts and embarrassments of adolescence? See, e.g., parallels noted below to line 6 (loss of my good name), and lines 7-8, 10-11 (my mind, my wit, etc.).

Prechter’s stronger parallels are cited below, and significantly expanded upon in some cases, but his entire 2012 article merits attention. Having generally credited Sobran in the Introduction, we do not usually cite him for specific parallels, but we do so here (for all his parallels to No. 4, see Sobran 238), to highlight the synergy between his and Prechter’s research and our further study.

Prechter astutely noted the risk—which we take very seriously and fully acknowledge—that apparent textual linkages may sometimes reflect “commonplace[s] or data-min[ing]” (Prechter 154), or as Sobran put it (232), “coincidence and poetic convention” (see also Introduction, note 9, discussing Professor May’s arguments along this line). It is important to avoid confirmation bias or cherry-picking of weak or strained parallels, as best we can.

Prechter’s preliminary diagnostic comparison of No. 4 to Christopher Marlowe’s corpus, however, yielded notably “barren result[s]” (155), suggesting that No. 4’s rich vein of parallels to Shakespeare cannot easily be brushed aside—even, strikingly, in what may be Oxford’s weakest and most juvenile known poem, the raw cri de coeur of a traumatized pubescent boy. Sometimes a distinctive and telling crop of fruit really is there, and should not be left to rot.

(1) forlorn hope, past all recovery

‘For grief that they are past recovery; For were there hope to conquer them again’ (2 Hen. VI, 1.1.114-15) (Sobran, expanded by Prechter 151).

(3) My life, through lingering long, is lodged in lair of loathsome ways

Word choice, theme, and alliteration all link the following:

life, Which false hope lingers in extremity’ (Rich. II, 2.2.71-72) (Sobran); ‘by the minute feed on life and, ling’ring, By inches waste you (Cym., 5.5.51-52) (Prechter 149, 151, expanded here); ‘lean-faced Envy in her loathsome cave’ (cave = lair) (2 Hen., VI, 3.2.315) (Prechter 149, 151); ‘This loathsome sequestration have I had … detained me all my flow’ring youth Within a loathsome dungeon, there to pine’ (1 Hen., VI, 2.5.25, 57) (Prechter 151, expanded here) (not just indirect parallels of lair to “sequestration” and “dungeon” but also similar images of prolonged and life-wasting virtual or actual imprisonment); ‘O, let him keep his loathsome cabin still’ (Venus, 637) (Prechter 152, expanded here) (not just one more alliterative loathsome, and yet another indirect parallel to lair, but yet again an image of prolonged time, “still keep”).

(4) death delayed to keep from life the harm of hapless days

‘In the delaying death’ (Meas., 4.2.164) (Sobran); ‘His days may finish ere that hapless time’ (2 Hen. VI, 3.1.200) (Sobran, also noted by Prechter 152).

(5) in deep distress are drowned

Ophelia, drowning, is ‘incapable of her own distress’ (Ham., 4.7.178); cf. ‘deeply distress’d’ (Venus, 814) (both Sobran).

(6, 18) loss of my good name

Good name occurs eight times in Shakespeare; see especially Othello (Iago), 3.3.155-61 (Sobran, also noted by Prechter 152), and also, e.g.: ‘Let my good name be kept unspotted’ (Lucrece, 820-21) (Prechter 152).

(6, 12, 18) of these griefs the ground

‘any ground To build a grief on’ (2 Hen. IV, 4.1.109-10) (Prechter 150-52).

Prechter pointed, in addition to the alliterative word parallel, to the similar usage of the less-common singular ground, in atypical relation to emotions as opposed to cognitive or rational matters (contrast, e.g., “grounds for a claim”). Also: ‘We see the ground whereon these woes do lie, But the true ground of all these piteous woes’ (R&J, 5.3.179-80) (Sobran, expanded by Prechter 151); ‘grounds and motives of her woe’ (Lover’s Comp., 63) (Sobran, also noted by Prechter 151).

(7-8, 10-11) my mind, my wit, my head, my voice and tongue are weak To utter, move, devise, conceive, sound forth, declare and speak … Help crave I must … Of all that may in heaven or hell, in earth or air, be found

Compare the use of two verbs above (though granted the samples use “move” in different senses) in a similar rapid-fire list of verbs: ‘they … do muster true gait, eat, speak, and move under the influence of the most received star; and though the devil lead the measure [i.e., the dance], such are to be followed’ (All’s Well, 2.1.52-56) (Prechter 149, 152, expanded here). Note also that both samples involve the one who acts seeking help from, or acting under the influence of, both heavenly and hellish forces.

See also, later in the same scene of All’s Well That Ends Well, weak/speak echoed by speak/weak. ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak His powerful sound within an organ weak’ (All’s Well, 2.1.175-76) (Prechter 152, expanded here). It would admittedly be unremarkable if each sample merely used the same two common words to create a rhyme, but both also present the same image of a weak vessel with a powerful message to declare and speak.

And there’s more: The latter Shakespearean lines are spoken by the King in response to Helena wagering the loss of [her] good name (line 6; see also line 2, shame and infamy) if she proves unable to cure the King’s malady.

‘[King:] What dar’st thou venture?’ [Helena:] Tax of [i.e., charge me with] impudence, A strumpet’s boldness, a divulged shame Traduced by odious ballads; my maiden’s name seared otherwise’ (All’s Well, 2.1.170-73).

See more parallels to line 11 (Of all that may, etc.), below.

(9) Such pierc­ing plaints as answer might, or would, my woeful case

‘Hearing how our plaints and prayers do pierce’ (Rich. II 5.3.127) (Sobran, also noted by Prechter 153); ‘the traitor Stands in worse case of woe’ (Cym., 3.4.86-87) (Prechter 153).

(10) Help crave I must, and crave I will

‘Hence will I to my ghostly father’s cell, His help to crave’ (R&J, 2.2.189-90) (Prechter 153).

(10) tears upon my face

‘Cooling his hot face in the chastest tears’ (Lucrece, 682) (Sobran); ‘Poor soul, thy face is much abused with tears’ (R&J, 4.1.29) (Sobran, also noted by Prechter 153).

On the theme of tears and weeping, see also Nos. 3, 5, and 9.

(11) Of all that may in heaven or hell, in earth or air, be found

Yet more parallels to this line (see also lines 7-8, 10-11, above):

‘Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air, Th’extravagant and erring spirit hies To his confine’ (Ham., 1.1.153) (Sobran, also noted by Prechter 153); ‘Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell’ (Ham., 1.4.41) (Prechter 153); ‘Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?’ (Errors, 2.2.211) (Prechter 153); ‘i’th’air, or th’earth?’ (Tem., 1.2.388) (Sobran).

(12) To wail with me this loss of mine

Wailing our losses’ (3 Hen. VI, 2.3.26); ‘Wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss’ (3 Hen. VI, 5.4.1); ‘That she hath thee is of my wailing chief, A loss in love that touches me more dearly’ (Sonnets, 42.3) (all Sobran, Prechter also noting the second).

See also line 18 (To wail this loss). Again we see in each sample, in strikingly similar words, the common interest in extreme states of emotion.

(13-16) Help gods, help saints, help sprites [i.e., elves] and powers that in the heaven do dwell, Help ye that are to wail, ay wont, ye howling hounds of hell [i.e., spirits, fiends, or demons], Help man, help beasts, help birds and worms that on the earth doth toil, Help fish, help fowl

In a much-mocked poem, these lines—especially those hyperventilating howling hounds of hell—have aroused particular ridicule. Could Shakespeare have written such stuff? As an emotionally distraught 13-year-old, why not? Perhaps he was practicing (to excess) a recently learned lesson in alliteration. Even great artists find their way by early and often clumsy experimentation.

In their Bardolatrous zeal to insist that Shakespeare, no matter how young, could never have written anything of less than high quality, critics have been distracted from noticing striking thematic, structural, and word-choice parallels between these very lines and several Shakespeare plays.

In an echo of the young de Vere, Shakespeare has both Joan of Arc and Prospero call upon various supernatural forces and entities for help: ‘Now help, ye charming spells and periapts [i.e., amulets, objects with supernatural powers]; And ye choice spirits that admonish me’ (1 Hen. VI, 5.3.2-3) (Prechter 150, 153); ‘Ye elves [i.e., sprites] of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves, And ye that on the sands with printless foot Do chase the ebbing Neptune … you demi-puppets [i.e., elves or sprites] … by whose aid … I have bedimmed The noontide sun, called forth mutinous winds [etc.]’ (Tem., 5.1.33-36, 40-42) (Prechter 150, expanded here).

Compare the tersely rhythmic two-syllable clauses in Oxford’s lines with six similar clauses—five of which use de Vere’s very words—in which Queen Margaret also calls upon several sources of supernatural help:Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray, To have him suddenly conveyed from hence. Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray’ (Rich. III, 4.4.75-77) (Prechter 150, 153, expanded here).

Expanding on something Prechter noticed (150), we observe that in just these three short Shakespearean passages, the master playwright—to convey the theme of desperately invoking supernatural help—used no fewer than 10 words (italicized) on 13 occasions (one, ye, that he used quite rarely) that are identical or closely interchangeable with 9 words (bolded red), similarly used on 18 occasions by the teenage Oxford, in just 3 and 1/2 lines of poetry, to convey the very same theme:

  1. help (9)/help (1) (including one parallel of help ye/help ye, not even counting the parallel of crying help with seeking aid and pray-ing, and noting also that plaints appears in line 9 and help crave and crave in line 10).
  2. gods (1)/God (1).
  3. saints (1)/saints (1).
  4. sprites (1)/elves (1)/demi-puppets (1) (see also spirits).
  5. ye (2)/ye (4) (including one parallel of ye that/ye that, but not counting one use of the common pronoun you).
  6. wail (1)/roar (1).
  7. howling (1)/roar (1).
  8. hounds of hell (1)/spirits (1)/fiends (1).
  9. earth (1)/earth (1).

Finally, though admittedly a weak parallel in itself, Shakespeare—deftly avoiding overkill alliteration in a work that, however, not unlike No. 4, even many Bardolators find weak and distasteful—does indeed refer explicitly to those hounds of hell:

‘A pair of cursed hell-hounds and their dam’ (Titus, 5.2.144) (Prechter 153).

(16) fowl that flocks and feeds upon the salt-sea soil

salt-sea shark’ (Mac., 4.1.24) (Sobran).

Prechter (154) also noted this parallel, observing that this compound adjective “is a very rare construction.” We might add that it seems the most creative and satisfying instance of alliteration in No. 4. The overall bracing natural image makes for perhaps the most pleasing line in the poem, one arguably hinting at the future Shakespeare.

(17) echo that in air doth flee, shrill voices to resound

shrill echoes from the hollow earth’ (Shrew, ind.2.46); ‘What shrill-voiced suppliant makes this eager cry?’ (Rich. II, 5.3.75) (both Sobran, both also noted by Prechter 154).

[posted January 22, 2018]

About Bryan Wildenthal

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