by John M. Rollett
This article was published simultaneously in Ever Reader No. 5 and in the Fall 1997 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
Donald W. Foster’s 1987 article with the title “Master W. H., R. I. P.” (PMLA 102, pp. 42-54) is a masterpiece. No wonder it received the annual award for the best article published that year. The mysterious Dedication to the Sonnets, as it was generally known, but which Foster prefers to call (correctly, I am sure) an Epigraph, has for the last ten years been laid open in its full glory: a printer’s error, a typo, has sent generations of commentators and scholars on a wild goose chase of epic proportions. “Mr. W. H.” is, after all, “Mr. W. S.” and the mystery evaporates in a puff of printer’s ink!
Donald Foster’s critical apparatus is formidable, and each crux is resolved by numerous extracts from contemporary literature, giving evidence of assiduous reading. The principal method might be called ‘the argument from the weight of parallels’. If there are ‘x’ examples of a word being used in a certain sense, and only ‘y’ exceptions, where y is substantially less than x, then we may be reasonably confident that the word under scrutiny (in the Epigraph, as we must now learn to call it) carries the sense of the x examples, and the few y examples can be mulled over, and then safely dismissed from consideration. The logic is flawless.
Thus the word “begetter”, when used in connection with a poem or other publication, nearly always means “author”, with one exception (y = 1). Therefore it probably means “author” in the Epigraph, and so “Mr. W. H.” is to be identified with Shakespeare, and the “H” explained away as a misprint for “S”. And it so happens that there are other examples of initials being incorrectly printed in other epigraphs or dedications. Similarly, the adjective “ever-living” is almost always applied to the Almighty, “our Lord”, who therefore must (with due reservations) be identified with “our ever-living poet”. Sure enough, parallels abound where the Almighty is given a number of different avocations, in different contexts, and if ‘Poet’ is not precisely to be found among them, then surely it may legitimately be added to the list.
We can now see that the Epigraph should be understood somewhat along the following lines. “To the author of the ensuing Sonnets, Mr. W[illiam] S[hakespeare], all happiness! – together with that eternity promised by Our Ever-living Lord, wishes [Thomas Thorpe], the well-wishing adventurer in publishing [this slim quarto].” At last, the puzzle which eluded 160 or more years of determined investigation has been finally solved. This leads us into a paradox. How is it possible that such scholarship, such industry, such brilliance, such combing of sources, such plausible and judiciously argued trains of thought, should result in a conclusion which is totally, utterly, and completely – wrong?
It has been said that the devil is in the details, and so it will emerge. But first I am reminded of Niels Bohr, who once upbraided a PhD student, telling him “You are not thinking, you are just being logical.” I will give three examples to show where Donald Foster has gone off the rails and why, and to show how impeccable reasoning can, on occasion, lead one straight into the wilderness.
(1) “THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER.”
The opening phrase contains a word, “begetter,” which has been a stumbling block for commentators from the beginning of critical interest in the Dedication (that is to say, Epigraph). Some have thought it might mean “inspirer,” and some “procurer” (of the manuscript for the publisher). Another group has speculated that it might refer to the poet’s urging of the young man of the first seventeen sonnets to procreate, and beget a son of his own, just as his father had done; the reluctant “begetter” is then again the young man. But for Foster a “begetter” is, in this context, by all relevant parallel passages, the “author,” as many quotations indicate, and so it is in this sense that we are to understand it in the Epigraph (and amend an “H” to an “S”).
Unfortunately, Donald Foster has overlooked something. The Epigraph is addressed not to “the begetter.” It is addressed to “the onlie begetter.” For Foster, it might just as well read “the begetter,” or “the one begetter,” or “the sole begetter,” or “the unique begetter,” or “the singular begetter.” However, to an educated Elizabethan reader the phrase “the onlie begetter” conveys a whole complex of meanings, for the simple reason that it is a quotation, or rather an adaptation, from a well-known text. In the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 1, verse 14 (Geneva version and others), occurs the phrase “onely begotten Sonne.” Thus for an Elizabethan familiar with the Gospels, the phrase “onlie begetter” is irrevocably linked with the word “Sonne.” Since the theme of the first seventeen sonnets is the urging of the young man to beget a son (Your Father had a son, let your Son say so; Make thee an other selfe for love of me), it follows inevitably that the “begetter” is to be understood as the young man, just as for 160 years the majority of commentators have supposed. And indeed, in the one exception quoted by Foster (y = 1), Daniel (in his sonnet “To the countess of Pembroke,” prefaced to “Delia”), says that his verse has been “[b]egotten by thy hand.” So we have a parallel, in which the dedicatee is also cast in the role of the author, having inhabited the poet’s mind to such an extent as almost to have guided his pen.
(2) “OVR. EVER-LIVING. POET.”
Donald Foster has found numerous examples of the use of the compound adjective “ever-living”, most of which (‘x’) refer to the Almighty. He is surprised not to find even one example which refers to a living person, in particular Queen Elizabeth, but has located a few which refer to attributes of a dead person, for instance Henry Vth, described by Shakespeare in Henry VI, part 1 (IV, iii, 51-2) as “[t]hat ever-living man of memory” (‘y’). Foster is not remotely to be faulted for overlooking the passage in Covell’s Polimanteia (ed. A. B. Grosart, 1881, p. 32), where he urges some member of the Inns of Court to write in such a way as to “give immortalitie to an ever-living Empresse,” the Queen herself. Whether this example would have affected his approach in any way is hard to guess. And the possibility, which follows logically from the smaller set of y examples, that “our ever-living poet” might be dead, is not mentioned, even to be ruled out (although it must surely have occurred to him). Hence the identification of “poet” with “Lord” becomes a necessity to save appearances.
Foster’s interpretation of “our ever-living poet” to mean “our ever-living Lord” is flawed for another reason: the use of the possessive pronoun “our.” His examples of the use of the epithet “ever-living”, as applied to the Almighty, mostly employ the word “the,” as in “the only and ever-living Saviour,” “the ever-living Lord God,” and simply “the Ever-Living”; in none of his examples is the pronoun “our” used in place of “the.” But the use of “our” instead of “the” in the phrase “our ever-living poet,” with “poet” standing for “Lord”, suggests a rather too familiar relationship with the Maker of All Things; “Our Lord,” when He looks after us, but “The Ever-Living Poet,” when He is at His writing-desk. Had the Epigraph read “that eternitie promised by the ever-living poet,” it might (perhaps) have carried Foster’s meaning. But “our ever-living poet” rules it out. Foster’s interpretation won’t do.
What the writer of the Epigraph is actually saying (pace D. W. F.) is that the immortality conferred upon the dedicatee, by our ever-living poet in these insuing sonnets, is additionally wished upon him by the well-wishing adventurer T. T., as he sets into print and launches forth upon the booksellers of Paul’s the aforesaid slim quarto; Your name from hence immortall life shall have.
(3) “Mr. W. H.”
With disarming confidence, Donald Foster opines that “[n]one but the party faithful” still suppose that Thomas Thorpe (“a commoner”) would dare to address a Lord, such as Henry Wriothesley (Earl of Southampton) or William Herbert (Earl of Pembroke), as “Master,” and therefore “Mr. W. H.” can only be a commoner (eg Shakespeare, with a typo “H”), notwithstanding the fact that for well over a century commentators have taken it for granted that the notation “Mr. W. H.” is designed to obscure, rather than to suggest, the status and identity of the dedicatee. Nevertheless, in several of the sonnets we get a distinct impression that the young man addressed is well-born. He is invoked or alluded to in various places as “Lord,” “prince,” “sovereign,” “king,” and elsewhere it seems that he is a man of substance and distinguished lineage. So it follows that the young man cannot be “Mr.” W. H. When, we might ask ourselves, is a lord not a lord? No great knowledge of Elizabethan history is required to furnish an answer.
In February, 1601, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, launched an ill-fated rebellion against those he believed were controlling the government of the country, and had out-manouvered him in influencing the Queen and the Council’s deliberations. Within three weeks he had been beheaded, and his most devoted follower, also convicted of treason, had been attainted, deprived of his lands, stripped of his earldom, and confined to the Tower, where he signed himself “of late Southampton, but now . . . H. Wriothesley.” Here, from February 1601 until the accession of James I, when he was freed and soon after (July 1603) restored to his earldom, he languished, a commoner, plain “Mr. H. W.” A lord and no lord. It might well be the case that the Epigraph was written during his incarceration and bundled up with the manuscript of the sonnets, to be later passed on to Thorpe and printed as found. The Epigraph is so different from Thorpe’s other dedications –which are exuberant, witty, full of puns, making free use of alternations between roman and italic fonts, and none of which is signed “T. T.”– that it is easy to suppose that someone else wrote it, the initials “T. T.” being added for the sake of form, not as an indication of authorship.
And why should someone other than Thorpe have written this mysterious Epigraph, and for what purpose? Are we meant to read between the lines? Is there a subtext? Does it contain secret information, hidden in some simple manner? Is it a cryptogram, as several commentators have suggested? Time will tell, no doubt. And then the mystery will finally have been resolved. Requiescat, Mr. W. S. Resurgat, Mr. W. H.!
Copyright, J. M. Rollett, 1997