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Introduction to the Poems of Edward de Vere

by John Thomas Looney

This is the Introduction to the 1921 edition of the Poems of Edward de Vere, edited by J. Thomas Looney. Click here to read the poems of Edward de Vere.

In the last year of the preceding reign (1557) there was published a forerunner of the Elizabethan series of miscellaneous poems, namely: “Songs and Sonettes written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey and other, Apud Richardum Tottel, 1557.” Surrey had been executed ten years before, so the songs and son- nets had evidently been preserved in manuscript by his friends. For nearly twenty years (1557-1576) this work was the only one of its kind in the hands of readers and students of poetry.

It was the work which would be frequently in evidence at the particular time when Oxford, as a royal ward and courtier, was spending much time at Windsor. The influence of Surrey’s poetry in the early work of Oxford is unmistakable. Again, he had himself a very close personal interest in the Earl of Surrey, who had married Frances de Vere, his father’s sister, and was therefore his uncle by marriage. Evidence of this interest is to be seen in his relationship to Surrey’s son, Thomas Howard, fourth of the Howard Dukes of Norfolk. When in 1572 the latter was imprisoned in the Tower, awaiting execution, Oxford used the whole of his influence to secure his release. When this proved unavailing he made an unsuccessful attempt to rescue him by force. Family connections, poetic interests, and the power of romantic appeal in the character and career of the poet Surrey, mark him as a dominant influence in the spirit of Oxford.

Now the life record of the Earl of Surrey belongs to the history of Windsor Castle, and is told with much charm in William Hepworth Dixon’s work on Royal Windsor (Vol. III.) The story of the protecting friendship by Surrey towards the Duke of Richmond, illegitimate son of Henry VIII, and Elizabeth Blount, and the romantic courtship and marriage of the two noblemen to Frances de Vere and Surrey’s sister Mary, throw a beautiful ray of chaste light through the sombre and sensual annals of the court of Henry VIII. It was at Windsor where the four young people associated and where much of Surrey’s poetry was written. Speaking of the poet’s birth Hepworth Dixon sums up: “He was . . . that Henry of Surrey, who was to spend so many of his days at Windsor, to become a great poet, to have his arms set up in St. George’s choir, to suffer harsh imprisonment in the Norman tower, and found at Windsor Castle a national School of Song.”

When in 1562 Edward de Vere, as a royal ward, was brought to court, it was to a Windsor, “Each tower, each gate, each garden (of which) spoke . . . of Surrey,” whilst the volume in the hands of all readers of poetry was Surrey’s Book of Songs and Sonnets.

Now turn to the Merry Wives of Windsor.

At the very beginning is mention of Surrey’s book: “I had rather than forty shillings I had my Book of Songs and Sonnets here.” (I., i.)

The play which furnishes the most precise Shakespearean topography gives not the environment of William Shakespere’s early poetic life, but of Edward de Vere’s, and the poetry to which direct reference is made is not of William Shakspere’s period, but of the period of the Earl of Oxford.

These early Windsor poets had begun the work of versifying the Psalms. Wyat and Surrey initiated the practice later continued by Sidney and his sister Mary whilst at Wilton. To this we find a mocking allusion: (II., i.) . . . “the Hundredth Psalm to the tune ‘Green Sleeves.”

Even the direct reference to this song emphasises the period of the play, for the song “Lady Green Sleeves” was published in another collection in 1584 (Handful of Pleasant Delights.), quite close to Oxford’s court period, if not within it; and is many years in advance of the Shakspere period.

The particular “Shakespeare” play which furnishes such important lyrical links with Oxford’s life and poetic interests, contains also very vital connections with what we are entitled to regard as Oxford’s lyrical contributions to Munday’s and Lyly’s plays. The Lyly connection is with the song of the Fairies:

“Pinch him, fairies mutually; Pinch him for his villainy. Pinch him, and burn him, and turn him about, Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out.” (Merry Wives, v.5.)

In Lyly’s Endymion an almost identical Fairies’ song had appeared.

“Pinch him, pinch him black and blue
Saucy mortals must not view

What the Queen of Stars is doing,
Nor pry into our fairy wooing.
Pinch him blue
And pinch him black,
Let him not lack
Sharp nails to pinch him blue and red
Till sleep has rock’d his addle head.”

The context too is practically the same, so that an intimate connection is indisputable. Many agree that both are from the same pen.

Although written near the same early period (1585), this song was not published until 1632, sixteen years after William Shakspere’s death, twenty-six after Lyly’s and twenty-eight after Oxford’s, clear evidence of the existence of some extraordinary secret.

Between the 1557 book of Songs and Sonnets by Oxford’s uncle, Surrey, and the 1576 collection, the Paradise of Dainty Devices, linked to Oxford himself, there is a connecting link in the person of Lord Vaux, whose poems appear in both volumes. Lord Vaux had died in 1562, the year of the death of Oxford’s father. His contribution to the 1576 collection was, like Surrey’s contribution to the 1557 collection, the posthumous publication of verses previously circulating in manuscript. Lord Vaux’ influence on Oxford’s work is also traceable; he has not the sweetness of Surrey, but at the same time he possesses distinctive notes which contributed to the formation of Oxford’s style. A song by Lord Vaux is incorporated with adaptation into Shakespeare’s gravedigger’s song in Hamlet. Its insertion in such a place, forty years after the death of the poet, is not only an act of honour to his memory, but links on the great Shakespearean drama to a period of Oxford’s life very far removed from the time usually associated with the writing of the play. Hamlet, too, is a drama of court life written by an Englishman who has shown himself intimate with Windsor. Elsinore is but Windsor thinly disguised. The introduction of this particular song connects this play also with the Windsor of Oxford’s early days. The age of Hamlet himself, it has been pointed out, varies at different parts of the drama; which marks it both as the product of very many years, and also as a special work of self-revelation on the part of the dramatist.

“Windsor was the cradle of the school of (English) song” (Royal Windsor, III, 116); the Earl of Surrey, in Henry VIII.’s reign, there gave to our national lyric its first strong impulse; his nephew, the Earl of Oxford, was its dominating force in the early part of Elizabeth’s reign; and that when it culminated in the work of “Shakespeare,” it was with a very clear recognition of its intimate connection with the home of our English monarchs. From this point of view, Windsor may be regarded as the center and source of England’s greatest achievement in the domain of man’s mind, the foundation on which rests the nation’s most enduring title to an exalted position amongst the peoples of the world; and the symbol of it all is the one play from the pen of the great dramatist which bears in its title an English place name. The circumstances, which bring Fenton, the nominal hero of the drama. into accordance with Edward de Vere can- not therefore be deemed unimportant.

Generally, poets and poetry were scornfully regarded in the Elizabethan period, and young nobles would not risk losing caste by publishing under their own name. The usual practice with the upper classes was to pass copies of their separate poems, in manuscript, to their friends. These were freely transcribed and sometimes preserved. In this way those who were interested in poetry would be able to gather together appreciable collections of miscellaneous verse.

From collections of this kind much poetry was published after the death of the poets: in Surrey’s case ten years, and, in Vaux’ case fourteen years after. Some of these sheets were signed by their authors; others would doubtless be allowed to go forth without signatures, whilst the omission by transcribers of the names of the authors would very frequently occur. The erroneous ascription of verses to authors when the work was subsequently published is a marked feature of this period of literature.

From time to time either on the initiative of some of the poets themselves, who seem to have had a strong reluctance to be seen in the work of publication, or as the result of enterprise on the part of some publisher, collections of these verses were published at the instigation of some of the authors of the poems, and publishers’ ventures and surreptitious issues followed later. The Paradise of Dainty Devices, was published hot-foot upon the incidents in Oxford’s life to which his contributions make distinct reference, and which contained a number of poems from another poet whom he had evidently studied, but who had been dead for fourteen years. These considerations point to Oxford as publisher. In that year of 1576 he published Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus’s Comfort, and contributed to it a prefatory letter and introductory poem.

The title given to the 1576 collection (A Paradise of Dainty Devices) is indicative of Oxford’s faculty for striking new notes. The earlier collection had appeared under the plain title of the Book of Songs and Sonnets. The Paradise of Dainty Devices was published, and then there followed a series of collections: The Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions (1578), the Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584), the Garland of Good Will, the Bower of Delights (1597), Anthony Munday’s Banquet of Dainty Conceits, the Phoenix Nest, England’s Parnassus, England’s Helicon, and Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody.

Such were the conditions under which much of the Elizabethan poetry was produced and published. One curious result of the loose-leaf transcriptions has been the ascription to Oxford’s antagonist, Sidney, of poems written by Oxford himself. In 1591, between four and five years after Sidney’s death, an edition was published of the Astrophel and Stella sonnets, and in this collection were included certain verses Oxford had written: work which had been attributed to Sidney for no other reason than that it had been found amongst his papers after his death. This work Oxford reclaimed for himself by having it included above his own signature in England’s Parnassus (1600).

In the same year there appeared England’s Helicon, which ultimately will be found to contain matter of the utmost importance in relation to the “Shakespeare” problem. There is in it but one poem attributed to the Earl of Oxford, that beginning “What cunning can express?” and but one set of lines attributed to “Shakespeare,” and quoted from Love’s Labour’s Lost. This poem of Oxford’s had appeared in The Phoenix Nest, in 1593, and, on being reprinted in England’s Helicon, the opening line was modified in order to bring it into keeping with the character of the anthology, namely to “What Shepherd can express?” This change, verbal improvements, indicate Oxford was in touch with the publisher, Nicholas Ling, who afterwards published Hamlet.

The work contains one very striking feature, quite unlike anything else with which we have met in Elizabethan poetry. In the book as it originally came from the press there are poems attributed to men who, like Sidney. had been Oxford’s rivals and antagonists, notably Sir Walter Raleigh; work which, in some cases, is not only superior to their other poems, but is conceived in a totally different vein. Then, before the volumes had been put upon the market, a printed slip, containing the one word, “Ignoto,” had been pasted over the original name or initials: presumably the result of intervention on the part of someone who was interested in seeing that these writers were not allowed to be decked in another’s plumes. In 1614, ten years after the death of the Earl of Oxford, a second edition of England’s Helicon appeared, with several additional poems subscribed “Ignoto.”

There is a distinctiveness of these “Ignoto” poems which marks the work as a whole as the production mainly of one writer, the name “Ignoto” indicating not merely anonymity, but rather one definite concealed personality. These poems link the early De Vere poetry and the later Shakespearean work. R. Warwick Bond, M.A., the editor biographer of Lyly, who is amply supported by Sir Sidney Lee, establishes very clearly the connection between “Shakespeare” and what he conceives to be Lyly’s special contribution to Elizabethan drama and poetry; and he concludes by suggesting that certain “Ignoto” poems were probably from Lyly’s pen. We may repeat that Lyly was a servant of the Earl of Oxford, and is credited with achievements, both in drama and poetry, which we believe to have been those of his master, and it is this which links itself up with the Shakespeare work. We may claim indirect authority of Mr. Bond for the theory we present respecting the “Ignoto” poems. The appearance of Oxford’s hand in England’s Helicon, together with his relationship to the personalities for whose names “Ignoto” furnishes quite appreciable support to the theory.

One other significant detail remains in England’s Helicon relevant to our problem. The verses in Spenser’s Tears of the Muses referring to “our pleasant Willie,” which have received much attention as one of the mysteries of Elizabethan literature we were led to connect with Oxford, by means of an earlier poem of Spenser’s in the “Shepherd’s Calendar.” This is a versifying competition between two shepherds called “Willie and Perigot,” the opening sentences of which, and an interposition by a third party: “What a judge Cuddy were for a King,” furnishing important clues identifying Oxford with “Willie.” This “roundelay” is reproduced in England’s Helicon (after Spenser’s death) stripped of all these marks of identification. Even the name “Willie,” which Spenser placed first, is struck out, and what was given by the poet himself as Willie’s and Perigot’s roundelay, is given as Perigot’s and Cuddy’s roundelay. There could be no accident about this. Thus Oxford after his first literary output deliberately adopted a course of self-effacement. What had already gone forth as his could not be recalled, but so far as later productions were concerned, he was resolved not to obtrude himself on the public notice. Although he was quite willing to employ a mask of his own choice, he was not willing that rivals and antagonists should walk away with his laurels. Around the person of the Earl of Oxford hangs an extraordinary literary mystery, as great as that which has surrounded the production of the great Shakespeare dramas, and from every point of view, chronological, poetic and dramatic, these two mysteries fit into and explain one another, if Oxford was the great poet dramatist, and William Shakspere but a mask. It is the extraordinary character of each of these mysteries, along with the infinitesimal probability that two such mysteries, so mutually explanatory, could exist at the same time by purely accidental coincidence, that establishes our theory with almost mathematical certainty.

Although the authorship of the “Ignoto” poems remains an open question, we have included a selection of them in the present issue: Poems which might reasonably be supposed to have come from one pen. These verses are already accessible in a modern setting in the late A. H. Bullen’s edition of England’s Helicon, and in Bond’s edition of Lyly’s works.

Every lyric included in both groups of the first section has been accepted as Oxford’s work, and appears in the collection brought together in 1872 by Dr. Grosart for the Miscellanies of the Fuller Worthies’ Library (Vol. IV.) with only 106 copies printed for private circulation. Dr. Grosart’s work retains the archaic and irregular spelling of the originals, whilst several of the poems are printed with the separate lines and stanzas running into one another. It has therefore been necessary to modernism the spelling, to make some attempt at correct versification, and, in some cases, to supply titles.

There are variant readings of most of the lyrics, all of which are indicated in the notes which Dr. Grosart appended to the separate poems. In almost every case we have kept to the rendering which he selected for the main text. The principal exception is the opening line of the poem, “What cunning can express?” The substitution of the word “shepherd” for “cunning” in England’s Helicon is so obviously a modification made to meet the new setting of the work, and introduces an element so out of harmony with the purely personal character of the entire lyric, that we used the earlier text of the Phoenix Nest.

With the exception of placing together, in the opening pages, most of the poems that had appeared in the Paradise of Dainty Devices, Dr. Grosart made no pretence of grouping or arranging these lyrics.

The dates of the publication of the poems furnish hardly any clue to the actual order of their composition. It has already been pointed out, for example, that certain verses of Oxford’s, which were not published with any indication of authorization until the year 1600, had already appeared in a collection of Sidney’s poems so early as 1591. As this error is explained by supposing that copies had been found amongst Sidney’s papers after his death in 1586, whilst it is impossible to surmise how long they had lain there previously, it is evident that the date of publication is widely separated from the actual time of writing.

This fact must be borne clearly in mind in studying the problem of Shakespearean authorship; to produce, and to secrete his productions, is one of the most pronounced features of Edward de Vere’s methods. Small as is the number of his lyrics which have been preserved, we owe some of them to their having been rescued almost by accident in modern times from ancient manuscripts. Writings preserved in this way may be expected to retain blemishes which would have been removed had their author actually published them. They contained many errors which could not have been the work of the poet himself; but are due to defective transcription by others. Several obvious mistakes of this kind were corrected by Dr. Grosart, but it has not always been possible to surmise what the original version has been, and crudities have been allowed to stand, for which the poet cannot be held responsible. This illustrates the folly of cavilling at isolated expressions; his work must be judged by what are self-evidently finished productions and by general quality, especially when com- paring them with the later “Shakespeare” work. For the order of their composition we are thrown back very largely upon internal evidence. From following the career of Oxford we have attempted a rough grouping of these lyrics. This can only be considered as a first step, and considerable modification may be called for later.

With the exception of the points just indicated the poems presented in the first section are substantially a reproduction of Dr. Grosart’s issue with a few important details selected from his notes. The sources from which Dr. Grosart gathered the poems were the various anthologies, the Rawlinson and Tanner M.S.S., and an ancient M.S. miscellany.

There are some striking facts in connection with these publications which have a distinctly significant bearing upon the theory of Shakespearean authorship. There are only twenty-two short poems attributed to the Earl of Oxford. Three of these are merely single stanzas, each of six lines, in the precise manner of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis“; two of these Oxford would seem to have acknowledged only because they had been previously claimed for and published as Sidney’s. Of the remainder seven were published in the Paradise of Dainty Devices and one in Bedingfield’s Cardanus. That is, eight of the longest poems were published authoritatively in the year 1576, the year of his domestic crisis when he was but twenty-six years of age; although he lived for nearly thirty years longer (died 1604) and was a prominent figure in the literary and dramatic life of his times, only three other of his poems were originally published during his lifetime, or until recent years, with his name attached. Even these three were published separately, at intervals of thirteen, four, and seven years respectively, in what were probably publishers’ ventures, suggesting Oxford himself was not responsible for their appearing. No less than seven of the remainder were printed, some for the first time by Dr. Grosart in 1872, from the Rawlinson and Tanner M.S.S., and two from “an ancient M.S. miscellany.” Thus, he published his poems voluntarily in 1576, but probably never again.

As a poet, he deliberately effaced himself so far as publication was concerned from the age of twenty-six; notwithstanding that throughout his life and in the period immediately following his death his poetic eminence was recognised. This is hardly the place to discuss the publication of his plays, but it is important to connect with the fact just stated the further fact that he attained eminence as a writer of drama, but never published a single play; whilst not the slightest vestige of manuscript of his unpublished dramas has ever been unearthed. In view of the survival, after so many years, of fragments of his unpublished manuscript verse, is it reasonable to suppose that the total disappearance of the much more voluminous manuscript dramas is purely accident: that these writings were simply “lost or worn out”? In view of the evident deliberateness of the non-publication of superb poems, is it not reasonable to suppose that the non-publication of dramas under his own name was equally deliberate?

What has governed the arrangement of the following poems has been the nature of their contents. Contrasted with the disappointment and chagrin expressed in the 1576 set, along with the explicit reference to youth in the Echo Poem, and the tone of unsullied youth in the sonnet “Love thy Choice,” the happier, healthier spirit of the latter poems justifies the position here assigned to them. The other poems reflecting a similar spirit are accordingly associated with these two. Moreover, as the manuscripts of these poems are signed by Oxford, it is reasonable to suppose that they were allowed to go forth before he had resolved on self-effacement, a resolution which many things indicate was made shortly after the 1576 crisis.

Adopting this general classification the one fact which stands out above everything else is this: that practically the whole of the poetry known as Oxford’s belongs to his very early manhood, much of it being preserved in spite of him; and whilst he lived to the age of fifty-four, and was closely identified with the literary and dramatic movements of his time, there has been up to the present nothing to show for it, notwithstanding the remarkable character of his powers.

With reference to the lyrics which form the second section, these are selections taken from Lyly’s plays. At the time when Lyly produced the dramas he was working as secretary to the Earl of Oxford, assisting with the troupe known as “Oxford’s Boys.” Lyly has shown himself, in some of his work, to have been noticeably deficient in lyrical capacity, and as these lyrics are in some ways the best things his plays contain, doubts have been freely expressed respecting Lyly’s authorship of them. It is not an unreasonable assumption therefore that they were a contribution made by Oxford to Lyly’s dramas. This is further supported by the fact that when Lyly published his dramas he did not include the lyrics, their positions alone were indicated in the text. This continued until 1632. Then these lyrics unaccountably reappeared simultaneously in an edition of Lyly’s works, published in the same year and from the same firm that published the Second Folio Shakespeare. They are of especial value, therefore, as a bridge between Oxford’s early lyrics and the Shakespeare work, and help to make good our contention that the right understanding of Elizabethan literature is just in its beginnings; that that literature has a key to it in the person of the poet whose early lyrics we now present for the first time to the general reader.

There is probably no better way of examining the work of Oxford according to this relative method than by comparing it with that of Sir Philip Sidney, which may be taken as fairly representative of contemporary verse. Sidney was four and a half years younger than Oxford, and had spent much of his time in early manhood in continental travel. When he returned to court in 1575, a few months before Oxford set out for Italy, the latter had evidently been already engaged in writing poetry for some years. Sidney would have the advantage of starting with some of Oxford’s work in front of him. Oxford is spoken of by a contemporary (Webbe) as one of the “most excellent in the rare devices of poetry,” and as it is quite in keeping with Sidney’s methods to learn what he could from the verses of others, whilst one poem of Sidney’s contains unmistakable traces of some of this early work of Oxford’s, we may be sure that he did not neglect his opportunities.

Without discounting anything for this advantage, and regarding Sidney as quite contemporary, his work is altogether of an inferior type. He admits that poetry was not to him an “elected vocation,” and almost plaintively refers to himself as one “who, I know not by what mischance, in these my not old years and idlest times, having slipped into the title of a poet.” The feebleness and affectation which disfigure much of his verse is precisely what might be expected from one who, as a poet, had had “greatness thrust upon him,” and who, lacking ideas, is compelled to admit:

“Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow, Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.”

A true poet no doubt derives delight and inspiration from the work of fellow artists, but the poet, who works definitely along such lines as these, can only be expected to produce inferior stuff, or to lapse into mere parody or unseemly plagiarism. As an example of parody we have (following the example of Dr. Grosart) included in the collection, what has been spoken of as Sidney’s “sensible reply” to Oxford’s stanza, “Were I a King.” It is included because it illustrates the relations between the two men, and also because it has assisted in the valuable identification of Oxford with Spenser’s “Willie.” Although, in concluding the first of the Astrophel and Stella sonnets from which we have just quoted, Sidney professes to have learnt the lesson, “Look into thy heart and write,” Sir Sidney Lee states that many of the best of the poems are almost verbatim translations from the French.

Nevertheless, the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney may be taken as quite typical of, if not superior to, most of the work of the group to which he belonged. Spenser, who did not enter the literary world of London until just before the antagonism between Oxford and Sidney culminated in the tennis-court quarrel, stands quite apart, and is of no group. Comparing the poetry of Oxford with that of the Sidney group, we are struck with the contrast which the strength and reality of the one presents to the feebleness and unreality of the other. Each poem of his is an expression of actual experience either internal or external. Theirs, on the other hand, often suggest writers afflicted with literary vanity, and wishful to write poetry, but with nothing very particular to say demanding metrical or figurative expression. His is the work of a man looking life full in the face, seeing clearly, feeling deeply, thinking earnestly, and striving after an expression of corresponding intensity. Such are the true roots of metrical diction and the matter of spontaneous metaphor.

Although the imagery he employs reveals an intimacy with classical literature as well as a knowledge of the poems and lives of his fellows, his compositions are neither mere imitations or translations of the classics, nor, with one exception, the poem attributed to Queen Elizabeth, were they dramatic poses; nor had he searched “others’ leaves” for his theme. It is always himself he is expressing. There may be exaggeration of expression, the natural result of a combination of intense feeling, large command of language, and comparative youthfulness, but the feeling is real and the words are relevant. We make bold to say that he struck a note of personal realism not heard before in English poetry; such as was not heard again with the same clear ring, until the “Shakespeare” sonnets appeared, with their challenging declaration: “I am that I am.” Before and since those days we have had an affected conventional personalism, and, by way of reaction, just as unreal a defiant and anti-conventional personalism; we doubt whether the line of truth and just proportion has ever since been so well maintained in personal poetry as in Oxford’s and “Shakespeare’s.”

After comparing this poetry with that of the Sidney group, we have only to turn to the group that arose in the following decade: Daniel, Drayton, Marlowe, Thomas Campion and Thomas Greene, in order to realize the relation of Oxford’s work to, and its probable effect upon, the poetry of days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign which foreshadowed most distinctly, if it did not actually furnish, the generating impulse for the poetry of her later years. It is amongst these later writers that we find the Elizabethan poetry which has more than an historic interest; verses that, by their fidelity to actualities, and by their appeal to what is perennial in human nature, may be read today with something of the same interest as that with which we read “Shakespeare” and Burns. We are not now discussing the question of whether or not Edward de Vere was “Shakespeare,” but we are quite entitled to claim that, at the time when these early poems were written, he was the only poet whose work foreshadowed Shakespeare’s.

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