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De Vere Poem 5: I Am Not as I Seem to Be


See the Introduction to this new presentation of early poems by Edward de Vere. Click here to go to the next poem or the previous poem in the series. All the poems, and a printable pdf version of the entire presentation, may also be accessed from the Introduction. See also Note on Sources, Titles, and Presentation of Parallels, Key to Abbreviations, and Bibliography of Works Cited.


Poem No. 5: “I Am Not as I Seem to Be”

1            I am not as I seem to be,
2            Nor when I smile I am not glad,
3            A thrall although you count me free
4            I, most in mirth, most pensive-sad;
5            I smile to shade my bitter spite,
6            As Hannibal, that saw in sight
7            His country soil, with Carthage town,
8            By Roman force defaced down.

9            And Caesar, that presented was
10          With noble Pompey’s princely head,
11          As ’twere some judge to rule the case,
12          A flood of tears he seemed to shed;
13          Although indeed it sprung of joy,
14          Yet others thought it was annoy;
15          Thus contraries be used, I find,
16          Of wise to cloak the covert mind.

17          I Hannibal, that smiles for grief,
18          And let you Caesar’s tears suffice,
19          The one that laughs at his mischief,
20          The other all for joy that cries;
21          I smile to see me scorned so,
22          You weep for joy to see me woe,
23          And I a heart by love slain dead
24          Presents, in place of Pompey’s head.

25          O cruel hap and hard estate
26          That forceth me to love my foe,
27          Accursed by so foul a fate
28          My choice for to prefix it so,
29          So long to fight with secret sore,
30          And find no secret salve therefor;
31          Some purge their pain by plaint, I find,
32          But I in vain do breathe my wind.


Textual sources: Grosart (395-96); Looney (1921, Miller ed. 1975, 1: 587-88);
May (#5) (1980, 28-29; 1991, 273-74).
Poem structure: 8 x 4.
Looney’s title: same as above.
Past commentaries on parallels: Looney (1920, 165, 167-70); Sobran (240-41);
Brazil & Flues; Goldstein (2016, 55-58).

Clarifications of the text:

(10, 24) Pompey refers to the ancient Roman consul (106–48 BCE).

(30) The spelling of therefor is modernized from therefore, consistently with our general approach to spelling (see Note on Sources, Titles, and Presentation of Parallels) and with the meaning here, which is not “therefore” as in modern usage (“for that reason” or “it follows that”), but rather, simply “for (something)” (i.e., the salve is for the sore) (OED 17: 909).


Strongest parallels to No. 5:


(1) I am not as I seem to be

‘I am not what I am’ (Twelfth, 3.1.140, and Oth., 1.1.65); ‘I am not I, if there be such’ (R&J, 3.2.50); cf. ‘Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I’ (Rich. III, 5.3.199).

De Vere and Shakespeare very distinctively use the Biblical phrase “I am that I am” (Exodus 3.14) (meaning “I am that [which] I am”).

See also de Vere’s defiant letter of October 30, 1584, to his father-in-law, William Cecil (Lord Burghley) (Fowler 321): “… I mean not to be your ward nor your child, I serve Her Majesty, and I am that I am ….”

See also, with the same meaning: ‘I am that I am’ (Sonnets, 121.9). Compare, indeed, the entire theme of Sonnet 121, best known by its memorable first line: ‘ ’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed.’

This entire de Vere poem (see also, e.g., line 2, when I smile I am not glad, and line 16, to cloak the covert mind), and numerous Shakespearean passages (those quoted above being merely a few examples), explore the ancient philosophical dichotomy between appearance and being.

This topos of dissimulatio—the purposeful obscuring of an internal mental state, used by various characters in the history plays for the sake of Machiavellian advantage (often imitated from Seneca)—is immensely important to Shakespearean studies and strongly imprinted on both bodies of work compared here.

On this leitmotif of dissimulation, see also Nos. 6.4, 9.2, 10.9-10, 12.16, and 18.40.

(4) I, most in mirth, most pensive-sad

I show more mirth than I am mistress of’ (As You, 1.2.3); ‘With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage’ (Ham., 1.2.12); ‘So mingled as if mirth did make him sad’ (Kins., 5.3.52); ‘But sorrow that is couched in seeming gladness is like that mirth fate turns to sudden sadness’ (Troil., 1.1.40); ‘sad tales doth tell To pencilled pensiveness’ (Lucrece, 1496).

Here we start to clearly see, beyond dissimulation, a distinct theme of antithetical states of emotion, discussed further in connection with lines 17-22 and No. 12.5-6. Looney commented perceptively on the vivid duality and contrast reflected in line 4 (among others in these poems), between light humor and stark grief (1920, 168, and see generally 167-70). As he noted, they foreshadow Shakespeare’s “striking combination” and “startling contrast” between “high comedy and profound tragedy” (167).

(4, 12, 14, 17, 18) mirth, most pensive-sad … flood of tears … annoy … grief … tears suffice

Compare two passages from Lucrece:

For mirth doth search the bottom of annoy;
Sad souls are slain in merry company;
Grief best is pleased with grief’s society.
True sorrow then in feelingly sufficed
When with like semblance it is sympathized.

Dear lord, thy sorrow to my sorrow lendeth
Another power; no flood by raining slaketh.
My woe too sensible thy passion maketh,
More feeling-painful. Let it then suffice
To drown one woe, one pair of weeping eyes.

(17-22)            I Hannibal, that smiles for grief,
                        And let you Caesar’s tears suffice,
                        The one that laughs at his mis­chief,
                        The other all for joy that cries;
                        I smile to see me scorned so,
                        You weep for joy to see me woe

‘Then they for sudden joy did weep, And I for sorrow sung, That such a king should play bo-peep, And go the fools among’ (Lear, 1.4.175); ‘weeping joys’ (2 Hen. VI, 1.1.34); ‘how much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!’ (Much, 1.1.28).

The antithetical states of emotion continue the common thread seen in other parallels, and show the same tendency to treat such opposing emotions as also correlated. See also line 4 (most in mirth, most pensive-sad) and No. 12.5-6.

The example above from King Lear, in particular, when contrasted with these lines of de Vere, gives a nice snapshot of the developmental patterns of the artist. The weeping and joy motifs are handled with considerably greater naturalism in the mature work—and yet the connectedness in diction and thought of one with the other is quite evident on careful inspection.


Additional parallels to No. 5:


(2) when I smile I am not glad

‘I am not merry; but I do beguile The thing I am by seem­ing otherwise’ (Oth., 2.1.125).

(6-8)           As Hannibal, that saw in sight
                   His country soil, with Car­thage town,
                   By Roman force defaced down

‘And see the cities and the towns defaced’ (1 Hen. VI, 3.3.45).

De Vere mentions Hannibal twice in this poem (see also line 17). Shakespeare mentions Hannibal four times and Carthage seven (Spevack 184, 536). The idea of defacement, based on the strong presence of this topic in canonical Shakespeare, has been a subject of some commentary by orthodox scholars.

See also No. 10.16 (raze the ground).

(10) Pompey’s princely head

De Vere mentions Pompey twice in this poem (see also line 24). Two of Shakespeare’s Roman plays (Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra), and three others (Henry V; Henry VI, Part 2; and Love’s Labour’s Lost—act 5 of the latter is largely devoted to a scene in which a character plays Pompey), make a total of 65 references to Pompey, the Roman consul (not counting 26 references to the unrelated clown character “Pompey” in Measure for Measure) (Spevack 992-93).

(12) A flood of tears he seemed to shed

‘Return thee therefore with a flood of tears’ (1 Hen. VI, 3.3.56); ‘My heart is drowned with grief, Whose flood begins to flow within mine eyes’ (2 Hen. VI, 3.1.198-99); ‘floods of tears will drown my or­atory’ (Titus, 5.3.90); ‘drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears!’ (Errors, 3.2.46); ‘till the tears that she hath shed for thee Like envious floods o’er-run her lovely face’ (Shrew, ind.2.62-63).

On the theme of tears and weeping, see also lines 17-22, and Nos. 3.13, 4.10, 6.26, 9.1, and 17.8-9.

(16) to cloak the covert mind

To cloak offenses with a cunning brow’ (Lucrece, 749).

On the leitmotif of dissimulation, see also line 1, and Nos. 6.4, 9.2, 10.9-10, 12.16, and (again using the word cloak) 18.40.

(23) a heart by love slain dead

‘in love was slain’ (Phoenix, 28); ‘Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain’ (Sonnets, 22.13).

(25) O cruel hap and hard estate

‘Our hap is loss, our hope but sad despair’ (3 Hen. VI, 2.3.9); ‘twere hard luck, being in so preposterous estate as we are’ (Win., 5.2.147-48).

(26) That forceth me to love my foe

My only love, sprung from my only hate! … Prodigious birth of love it is to me That I must love a loathed enemy!’ (R&J, 1.5.138, 140-41).

(29-30) So long to fight with secret sore, And find no secret salve therefor

‘A salve for any sore that may betide’ (3 Hen. VI, 4.6.88).

See also parallels to No. 9.22 (She is my salve, she is my wounded sore) and No. 18.9 (No wily wit to salve a sore). The salve … sore motif (like some others) was echoed by some other Elizabethan poets and these parallels may not be that telling in and of themselves (see May 2004, 229), but as with many of the additional parallels noted, much of their significance is in the overall cumulative context.

(32) But I in vain do breathe my wind

‘You breathe in vain’ (Timon, 3.5.59); cf. ‘no wind of blame shall breathe’ (Ham., 4.7.65).

We can see how the more mature thought has gained clarity and energy through compression, but the idiom is preserved. The locution in vain, which occurs three times in these de Vere poems (see also Nos. 9.26 and 18b.11), appears around 40 times in canonical Shakespeare (Spevack 1421).

Continue to Poem No. 6, return to Poem No. 4, or return to the Introduction.

[posted June 22, 2018]
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