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De Vere Poem 6: If Care or Skill Could Conquer Vain Desire

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. 6: “If Care or Skill Could Conquer Vain Desire”

(May #6: 6 x 5)

1            If care or skill could conquer vain desire,

2            Or reason’s reins my strong affection stay,

3            Then should my sights to quiet breast retire,

4            And shun such signs as secret thoughts bewray;

5            Uncomely love, which now lurks in my breast,

6            Should cease my grief, through wisdom’s power oppressed.

 

7            But who can leave to look on Venus’ face,

8            Or yieldeth not to Juno’s high estate?

9            What wit so wise as gives not Pallas place?

10          These virtues rare each god did yield amate,

11          Save her alone who yet on earth doth reign,

12          Whose beauty’s string no gods can well distrain.

 

13          What worldly wight can hope for heavenly hire

14          When only sights must make his secret moan?

15          A silent suit doth seld to grace aspire;

16          My hapless hap doth roll the restless stone;

17          Yet Phoebe fair disdained the heavens above,

18          To joy on earth her poor Endymion’s love.

 

19          Rare is reward where none can justly crave,

20          For chance is choice where reason makes no claim;

21          Yet luck sometimes despairing souls doth save:

22          A happy star made Gyges joy attain;

23          A slavish smith of rude and rascal race

24          Found means in time to gain a goddess’ grace.

 

25          Then lofty love thy sacred sails advance;

26          My seething seas shall flow with streams of tears.

27          Amidst disdain drive forth my doleful chance;

28          A valiant mind no deadly danger fears.

29          Who loves aloft, and sets his heart on high,

30          Deserves no pain though he doth pine and die.

 

(1) conquer vain desire

‘Therefore, brave conquerors—for so you are, That war against your own affections And the huge army of the world’s desires’ (LLL, 1.1.8-10).

(2) reason’s reins my strong affection stay

‘for now I give my sensual race the rein’ (Meas., 2.4.160); ‘What rein can hold licentious wickedness’ (Hen. V, 3.3.22); ‘curb his heat, or rein his rash desire’ (Lucrece, 706); ‘he cannot Be rein’d again to temperance’ (Cor., 3.3.28).

This image, found often in Shakespeare, is of emotion being reined in. The danger posed by emotion is characteristically construed in terms of equestrian terminology, as if one might relax or tighten the reins on emotion.

(3) to quiet breast retire

Into the quiet closure of my breast’ (Venus, 782); cf. ‘Truth hath a quiet breast’ (Rich. II, 1.3.96).

(4) secret thoughts

‘Nor shall he smile at thee in secret thought’ (Lucrece, 1065); ‘the history of all her secret thoughts’ (Rich. II, 3.5.28).

This is another highly suggestive common interest seen in both samples. It is also the first of many examples of a leitmotif of dissimulation that is strongly imprinted on both.

See also Nos. 9.2, 10.9-10, 12.16, and 18.40.

(5) Uncomely love, which now lurks in my breast

‘tyrant folly lurk in gentle breasts’ (Lucrece, 851).

(6) my grief, through wisdom’s power oppressed

‘To coun­terfeit oppression of such grief’ (Rich. II, 1.4.14).

(7, 9) Venus’ face … Pallas place?

‘The shrine of Venus, or straight-pight [erect] Minerva’ (Cym., 5.5.164).

There are at least 21 references to Venus in the Shakespearean plays. Minerva is the Latin name of Pallas Athena.

(9) What wit so wise as gives not Pallas place?

The paradoxical juxtaposition of wise wit is a core Shakespearean concept, occurring more than 250 times in the canon. E.g.:

‘Your wit makes wise things foolish, Wise things seem foolish and rich things but poor (LLL, 5.2.95-99); ‘This fellow is wise enough to play the fool; And to do that well craves a kind of wit’ (Twelfth, 3.1.57-58); ‘For though it have holp madmen to their wits, In me it seems it will make wise men mad’ (Rich. II, 5.5.62-63).

(13) What worldly wight can hope for heavenly hire

‘My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love’ (LLL, 4.3.64); ‘a heavenly effect in an earthly actor’ (All’s Well, 2.3.23); ‘heaven’s praise with such an earthly tongue’ (LLL, 4.2.118); ‘Between this heavenly and this earthly sun’ (Venus, 198); ‘Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces’ (Sonnets, 17.8).

The antithesis between worldly (“earthly”) and heavenly is another pattern found in both samples.

(16) roll the restless stone

‘That stands upon the rolling restless stone’ (Hen. V, 3.6.29).

(17-18) Phoebe fair disdained the heavens above, To joy on earth her poor Endymion’s love

‘And the moon sleeps with Endymion’ (Merch., 5.1.109).

Phoebe, a Greek goddess associated with the moon, is referred to several times in Shakespeare (e.g., LLL, 4.2.37). On the amours of the gods, see also No. 8.6.

(22) A happy star made Gyges joy obtain

a happy star Led us to Rome’ (Titus, 4.2.32); cf. ‘my thwarting stars’ (3 Hen. VI, 4.6.22); ‘no comfortable star’ (Lucrece, 164); ‘constant stars’ (Sonnets, 14.1).

Adjectives used to personify stars are very common in Shakespeare. Variants from Oxford’s letters include “I know not by what unfortunate star” (Fowler 652). Gyges, in Greek mythology, was a shepherd who seized the throne of Lydia and was said to possess a magic ring rendering him invisible.

(23) A slavish smith of rude and rascal race Found means in time to gain a goddess’ grace

The reference is to Vulcan, god of metallurgy and crafts, whose wife was Venus. He is referred to at least six times in the canon. E.g.: ‘as like as Vulcan and his wife’ (Troil., 1.3.168).

(26) My seething seas shall flow with streams of tears

my eye shall be the stream’ (Merch., 3.2.46); ‘weeping as fast as they stream forth thy blood’ (Caes., 3.1.201); ‘mine eyes … shall gush pure streams’ (Lucrece, 1076); ‘And round about her tear-distained eye blue circles stream’d’ (Lucrece, 1587).

See also Nos. 12.19 and 18.33.

Quite aside from the parallels, does not this line exhibit some proto-Shakespearean power and beauty? Note how, instead of the more predictably structured metaphor one might expect (e.g., “my tears flow like the seas”—a model actually followed by two of the Shakespearean samples: “stream forth … blood” and “gush pure streams”), the young de Vere deftly and unexpectedly inverts his to first suggest seas of emotion within.

This is the poet whose work was sneeringly dismissed as “really bad” by a leading orthodox Shakespeare scholar, Sir Jonathan Bate, during a widely-watched debate with Alexander Waugh in 2017. Doth Stratfordian academia protest too much?

(29-30) Who loves aloft, and sets his heart on high, Deserves no pain though he doth pine and die

‘To love, to wealth, to pomp, I pine and die’ (LLL, 1.1.31).

[posted January 22, 2018]

About Bryan Wildenthal

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