Normally, an announcement of this kind takes place in scholarly journals. But I felt impelled to tell you about this today.
The poem “Fram’d in the front of forlorn hope past all recovery” (a.k.a. “Loss of Good Name”) has been traditionally attributed to Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. No one has ever considered that Shakespeare might be the true author of the poem, primarily because the poem itself (printed in full below) is so very, very bad. But it occurred to me that this is likely to be a work of Shakespearean juvenilia: a truly awful poem tossed off in his youth (from the style, I imagine he could not have been more than twelve years old when he composed it). In this post, I hope to examine the arguments on either side and arrive at the conclusion that I set out at the beginning to prove.
The argument against it being by Shakespeare:
Essentially, the arguments are threefold. First, tradition has insisted that the poem is by someone other than Shakespeare. Second, a conspiracy of Oxfordians have conspired together to carry on a conspiracy to cover up the true authorship of this poem. Disregarding any contrary evidence and refusing to debate on equal terms, the Oxfordians insist on maintaining the fiction that this poem is by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Third, the poem, if it is Shakespeare’s, clearly isn’t Shakespeare’s best effort.
Each of these arguments can be easily countered. Tradition, as we know, holds no scholarly weight—a lesson we have ironically learned from the Oxfordians themselves. Conspiracies are easy to carry out, particularly when the stakes are high. And Shakespeare has written bad poetry—or, to qualify that claim appropriately, he has written poetry that is not at the highest point of genius. Consider, for example, the bad poetry the rude mechanicals recite in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare may have written this bad poem for reasons of his own—or, as I will suggest, in his youth when he didn’t know any better.
The argument for it being by Oxford:
First, the poem is pretty bad, and that particular adverb / adjective combination describes the majority of the Earl’s poetic output. But badness, however much a part of Oxford’s style, is not an exclusive quality. Other poets have written badly—either intentionally, unintentionally, or in their youth. The poem’s sheer inadequacy is not enough to make its proposed authorship by Oxford certain.
Second, the poem has traditionally been attributed to Oxford. But the Oxfordians can present no contemporary evidence that this is the case. If it were by the Earl, we would expect to find contemporary references to it—perhaps a letter from one of the Earl’s acquaintances to another, reading something like, “Have you seen the latest bosh from Eddie? It’s better than most of his maudlin verse, but it’s still a stinkeroo, eh, what?” No such evidence exists.
Third, the poem seems to be signed “E.O.” Oxfordians make the case that these two letters stand for “Earl Oxford.” In making this preposterous claim, they neglect two important pieces of germane information:
- If the initials stand for the Earl’s title, what explains the inexplicable absence of an O standing for “of”? “Earl Oxford” simply wasn’t a title for any of the de Veres. The title more correctly reads “Earl of Oxford,” which, if initials are used, would equate to “E.O.O.” or “E.o.O.”
- The initialism “E.O.” was similar to modern internet initialisms (viz., LOL, BRB, TTYL, OMUTB, et cetera). Contemporary readers would have instantly translated the initialism “E.O.” to “Esbrandill Ord.” The verb “esbrandill” and the noun “ord” have fallen out of fashion, most unfortunately. Had they not, these initials would be recognized as a slightly-veiled reference to their true author. See the images below (taken from The Oxford English Dictionary) to piece together the true meaning of E.O. for yourself:
The logical progression is quite clear: “E.O.” = “Esbrandill Ord” = “Shake Spear” = “Shakespeare.” That evidence is, in my puddling parvipension (in other words, humble opinion—check the O.E.D. if you have any questions), irrefutable.
The argument against it being by Oxford:
Even though the poem is very bad, it seems to be better than Edward de Vere is capable of composing. There’s virtually no overlap between Shakespeare at his worst and de Vere at his best, as you can see from the chart below:
As the chart clearly indicates, Oxford’s poetry occasionally stretches very near the “Good” mark, but Shakespeare’s poetic ability starts at good and stretches far past the “Genius” level. Since it is easier for a good poet to write bad poetry than a bad poet to write good poetry, it is impossible that de Vere wrote this poem.
It’s also clear from the poem itself that Oxford could not have written it. The poem alludes to things outside the experience of an English aristocrat in the Renaissance. Where could Edward de Vere have found out about “birds and worms” (line 15)? What could he have known about any of the things “that on the earth do toil” (15)? Would Oxford ever have asked for “Help” (10; cf. 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17) of any kind, especially from “fish” and “fowl” (16)? The very idea is ridiculous in the extreme. These things were all completely unknown—and completely unknowable—by the English aristocracy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Edward de Vere simply did not have the knowledge that the author of this poem had.
Furthermore, Edward de Vere was not subject to “shame and infamy” (2), as is clear from the murder he committed and its subsequent cover-up. Based on this fact, it is impossible that he would have considered that his “good name” could ever have been lost!
The argument for it being by Shakespeare:
But if Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford didn’t write the poem, who did?
As is frequently the case, an examination of the text itself gives us a clear indication of the author behind it. I have put together a list of those qualities the author of this poem must have possessed. Once we examine those, we can determine which Elizabethan they most clearly indicate.
- The author was raised in a small town that had easy access to worms and birds but that was also large enough to possess echoes, sheep, and a graveyard.
- The author intended to travel to London to seek his fortune.
- The author hoped to marry young and intended to seek a wife some years older than he, ideally marrying her after she had become pregnant with his child.
- The author had a gift—as yet undeveloped or underdeveloped—for composing dramatic poetry.
- The author suspected that he would, in later life, suffer from hereditary male pattern baldness.
I have a fairly-comprehensive grasp of Elizabethan and Jacobean personages, having read the National Dictionary of Biography entries on Christopher Marlowe, Elizabeth (Queen, the First), William Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, Elizabeth Carey, Ben Jonson, and up to five others, and no one—no one at all—better fits these characteristics then William Shakespeare. It’s truly uncanny how clearly the life of the man from Stratford matches the characteristics listed above.
Naturally, a cipher also contributes to the evidence, though I will not make too much of it. Unless based on the most profound evidence, as this one is, ciphers and cryptography in general form an uncertain art. Fortunately, the ground for this cipher is rock solid. Taking a map of the constellation “Cassiopeia” (alluded to in the third stanza) and superimposing it on the poem provides us with this intriguing and convincing “internal signature” of the true author of the poem (see image above and to the right).
The stars in the constellation clearly trace the letters “S-h-a-c-e-s-spea-r-e.” Doubters will no doubt consider that “Shacesspeare” is an odd spelling, especially because there are Ks in the poem (and the cryptogram uses a C with a K sound instead) and there is no apparent need to double the S in the middle of the name, but spelling was notoriously unfixed during Shakespeare’s day. In addition, Shakespeare must have wanted to remain somewhat anonymous during this period—probably because the poem is pretty bad, as he himself would have recognized. Doubtless, he wanted credit for the poem—but he wanted that credit to come eventually rather than immediately, after he had established his name as a poet of the highest distinction. The misspelling was intended either to mislead his contemporaries or to provide him with “deniability.”
As tremendously convincing as the evidence of the cipher is, the text itself reveals even more proof that the poem’s true author was William Shakespeare. Even though the following line is nauseating, vile, putrid, and contemptible (and better than anything the Earl of Oxford could ever write), it does have a certain affinity with a line from one of Shakespeare’s plays:
If taken seriously, that line is despicable. When Shakespeare had gained more experience, he realized that an intentionally-bad line can be used remarkably effectively in a humorous context. Quince recites a prologue foretelling the death of Pyramus, played by Bottom the Weaver, in the play-within-the-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That prologue contains these horrible—and horribly funny—lines:My life, through ling’ring long, is lodg’d in lair of loathsome ways . . . (3)
The overdone alliteration is perfect for this incredibly comic moment even though it was, in Shakespeare’s earlier poem, laughable beyond all speaking of it.Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broach’d his boiling bloody breast . . . (V.i.148-49)
The loss of reputation is, in this poem, considered in only the lightest, most flippant manner:
Later in his career, Shakespeare would realize that the subject could be sounded far more fully:The only loss of my good name is of these griefs the ground. (6)
The earlier poem is lame; the latter consideration (even though it is placed in the mouth of Iago) is divine. How far Shakespeare came from this work of juvenilia!Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed. (Othello, III.iii.155-61)
Finally, note the utter, mixed-up incomprehensibility of this couplet:
The first line contains four nouns (considering “voice and tongue” to be a syllepsis—or, more accurately, a zeugma); the second line contains seven verbs. No matter how you slice it, it doesn’t add up. The mind might conceive, the wit might devise, the voice and tongue might utter, and the head might move (at present, mine is, by way of example, shaking in mild disbelief at the sheer idiocy of the lines), but we have three extra verbs with no specific nouns to go with them. This is poetically and logical unconscionable.And since my mind, my wit, my head, my voice and tongue are weak,
To utter, move, devise, conceive, sound forth, declare and speak . . . (7-8)
Shakespeare would use a much more refined version of this concept twice more in later works—once humorously and once with pathos. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom the weaver has a similar nonsensical set of lines (which play with the language of 1 Corinthians 2:9):
With greater tragedy at the formerly-sound mind breaking under the weight of woe, he uses the idea in the speech Ophelia gives to conclude her part of the nunnery scene:The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. (IV.i.211-14)
In this instance, he gives us three possessives and three nouns but does not clarify which goes with which. Is it the courtier’s eye or the courtier’s tongue? Is it the soldier’s tongue or the soldier’s sword? Is it the scholar’s sword or the scholar’s eye? The disconnection in Ophelia’s rhetoric indicates the cracks that are forming in her own noble mind. It’s a much more effective use of the idea than in the frankly pathetic lines in his juvenile poem.O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword . . . (III.i.150-51)
It’s a bad poem, certainly. But for a twelve-year-old Shakespeare, it’s not that bad. Fortunately, Shakespeare’s juvenilia (of which this is the earliest example) served as exercises that enabled him to develop his true genius later.
How could the mistake have been made?
The most probable explanation is that the Earl of Oxford, recognizing that he could never aspire even to the fairly-flat heights of this mediocre poem and yet desiring someone, somewhere to think that he had the tiniest, most miniscule, most infinitesimally minute spark of poetry in him, hinted to certain members of his circle that, perhaps, “E.O.” meant something other than “Esbrandill Ord” in this instance. Perhaps he said something like, “If that poem were signed “E.O.O.,” one might be convinced that I was its author. Ha, ha. Those are my initials, after all. Yes, indeed. Earl of Oxford, that’s I!” Although skeptical at first, his acquaintances may have eventually spread the untrue rumor to less-discerning members of the general public, where the deception caught on until modern Oxfordians could carry on the conspiracy.
Here’s the poem itself, in full:
Thank you for allowing me to reclaim this lost and disregarded Shakespeare poem, misattributed to the Earl of Oxford for centuries. May the world take note that this poem’s author was correctly identified as William Shakespeare on this, the first day of April, 2011.“Loss of Good Name”Fram’d in the front of forlorn hope past all recovery,
I stayless stand, to abide the shock of shame and infamy.
My life, through ling’ring long, is lodg’d in lair of loathsome ways;
My death delay’d to keep from life the harm of hapless days.
My sprites, my heart, my wit and force, in deep distress are drown’d;
The only loss of my good name is of these griefs the ground.
And since my mind, my wit, my head, my voice and tongue are weak,
To utter, move, devise, conceive, sound forth, declare and speak,
Such piercing plaints as answer might, or would my woeful case,
Help crave I must, and crave I will, with tears upon my face,
Of all that may in heaven or hell, in earth or air be found,
To wail with me this loss of mine, as of these griefs the ground.
Help Gods, help saints, help sprites and powers that in the heaven do dwell,
Help ye that are aye wont to wail, ye howling hounds of hell;
Help man, help beasts, help birds and worms, that on the earth do toil;
Help fish, help fowl, that flock and feed upon the salt sea soil,
Help echo that in air doth flee, shrill voices to resound,
To wail this loss of my good name, as of these griefs the ground.
Links: One year ago today at Bardfilm.