THE 154 SONNETS
The next, and apparently last to be published, of the poems attributed to
Shakespeare were the 154 SONNETS published in 1609. Here's the wording on
Neuer before Imprinted
The dedication is by the publisher, not the poet. It's not from the poet to an
Earl as a patron. It's by one non-entity in the annals of history to another. The
poet is described as 'our ever-living poet'. It's been suggested, not without
reason, that this seems to imply the poet is no longer alive, and that he
promised eternity (in the past tense), which he indeed did by saying in the
sonnets that they would far outlive the poet or those about whom they were
written. And the name is in the obvious pseudonym form: 'Shake-speare.'
How these poems found their way to a printer is something of a mystery. No
one today knows who Mr. W. H. was. Some say he was the Earl of
Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, backwards. This seems unlikely to me,
partly because of the 'Mr,' as the Earl of Southampton was still very much
alive in 1609. Although it may be that the 'Fair Youth" of the Sonnets was
Southampton, and whoever that youth was probably possessed copies of the
considerable number of the Sonnets about the 'Fair Youth', there seems no
reason why he would have had all the poems.
Another suggestion is that William Harvey, third husband of the Countess of
Southampton, came across the poems after her death in 1607, during house
cleaning for his new wife. My objection still stands for any of these people.
They may have had a good number of the sonnets, those about the 'Fair
Youth,' but not necessarily those relating to other affairs.
A further suggestion is that Mr. W. Hall, described as 'a kind of publisher's
scout,' who lived in the village of Hackney, nearby to King's Place, somehow
got possession of the papers and turned them over to Thomas Thorpe, the
printer, who expressed his appreciation in the dedication. This seems to me a
more practical explanation. If the poet was de Vere he presumably had the
original manuscripts for all the sonnets in his possession. In that case it may
be that Elizabeth Trentham intentionally gave the papers to Hall for
publication, when she left King's Place, at Hackney, a few months earlier.
There may be an Elizabethan 'conceit' in the dedication because the word
following W.H. is ALL (W.HALL} and the sentence still makes sense if read
that way. Thorpe was fortunate to have these poems. Shakespeare's poetry
was famous and eminently saleable in his day.
There appears to be no mention of manuscripts, poems or plays in Elizabeth
Trentham's will in 1612. If these papers were in her possession after de Vere's
death, and whether or not he was 'Shakespeare' he certainly had poems and
plays which were in his own name. None are referred to in her will.
At first glance the decorations in a strip across the page at the top of the
'Shake-speares Sonnets' page, and the first sonnet page, appear to be the usual
convoluted twists and turns with cherubs, curved lines and so forth. But closer
examination may tell a different story.
The two decorations are not the same. The first one has on the left a naked
youth with wings. The youth is in profile and facing the centre. In the centre is
a face looking at us, more male than female, with a crown of feathers. On the
right is another naked winged figure in profile facing the centre. The
reproduction I have is not entirely clear. In it, the figure on the right has a
black dot on the thigh and another just above the hip. I would say the face is,
or could be, feminine, and appears to have a crown on the head. Just in front of
and facing away from the centre towards the winged figures on each side is a
crouched rabbit, except that the ears are very long, making each one a hare. In
Elizabethan lexicon this could be a 'conceit' for 'heir'. (If it's de Vere, he had 2
surviving sons, one illegitimate.)
Closer to the centre, next to the hares on each side is a hound (because of short
legs and body size). While the hares face the winged human forms the hounds
face forward with heads turned to look at each other. One commentator says
these are two dragons, another, they are two dolphins, a 'conceit' for Dauphin -
prince of France. The feathers over the head of the centre face looking forward
have been said to represent the Prince of Wales' feathers, which implies
Southampton as the child of de Vere (Shakespeare) and the Queen. I believe
this to be incorrect because of the wording in the poem the Phoenix and the
Turtle (see Chapter 14). Feathers over a crown are part of the Monarch's
Royal coat of arms. There is much in this strip design and each part probably
has a specific meaning or implication. You need to examine it for yourself to
decide what you find in it and what you think the message is.
The second strip design, heading the first page of the sonnets is also complex.
It does seem to have, as has been suggested, an urn in the centre, with two
birds on the left. One does look like a dove (the turtle dove?). There may be
one or perhaps two Phoenix representations to the right of the centre urn, but I
can't be sure because I don't know what this mythical bird was supposed to
look like. The Phoenix and the Turtle poem was first printed in a different
collection in 1601, 8 years earlier, and was not a sonnet.
Whatever is represented as going on in the dedication and these two
decorations, it's not intended to be obvious, and there must be one or more
reasons for concealment. When these sonnets were published, the Queen,
Burghley, and de Vere were all dead. The only survivors were the three Anne
Cecil daughters, all married to nobility; Elizabeth Trentham, de Vere's wife
and Countess of Oxford, and her teenage son Henry, the 18th Earl; and de
Vere's illegitimate son by Anne Vavasour, Edward Vere, and his mother.
What caused the obscurity in this publication was presumably that which
caused the original obscurity: the poet's writings about real living persons in
high places; and to distance his writing, which he knew was superb, from the
disgrace and ruin of his personal life. We know from Tarquin's speech in the
Rape of Lucrece that de Vere thought his 3 daughters were so ashamed of him
they wished he'd never been born. Elizabeth Trentham, though she apparently
loved her husband, if she gave the sonnets to the printer's associate, might have
wanted to continue the anonymity of the poet both because the Shakespeare
name had now become famous and to protect her young son from adverse
publicity as the sonnets were very personal. In that small world it so happens
that he and young Southampton became friends. All this is relevant only if de
Vere was the poet. But it shows us that de Vere is still not excluded from
consideration as a candidate for Shake-speare.
Before we begin to review the 154 sonnets let's consider the only known facts
1. No one knows who Shake-speare was, and therefore who wrote the sonnets.
2. No one knows whether or not they were published in chronological order.
3. No one knows who any of them were written for, although many are
addressed to others.
4. No one knows how many different people they were for or about.
5. No one knows whether there is a single author, or the sonnets were written
by a committee. That's even been suggested. (The King James Version of the
Bible was translated by a committee and published in 1611, 2 years after the
6. No one knows how or why the 154 sonnets came to be published when they
7. No one knows who had possession of the 154 sonnets prior to publication in
8. No one knows what span of time these sonnets cover.
If we were to be without a plan for reviewing these 154 sonnets, with so many
unknowns, we would just be reading them as poems that have stood the test of
time and we'd be none the wiser at the end as to what lies behind them than we
were at the beginning.
But this investigation has one single purpose, not literary criticism, not
scholarly analysis as to the technical attributes of the poet, but only to attempt
to determine who was William Shake-speare, beyond a reasonable doubt.
With that purpose in mind, as de Vere is our present candidate under
examination, I propose, as we have already provided a brief outline of his life
history which we can refer to, we will assume that de Vere is the writer, and
keep three questions always before us:
1. Why were these 154 sonnets not published in his lifetime?
2.What circumstances in his life caused each poem to be written?
3.What is the approximate date of composition ascribable to each if it fits his
With such a specific purpose in mind surely we can hope that by the end of the
review of the 154 poems we should have come a long way towards determining
whether or not de Vere was their author.
THE FIRST 17 SONNETS
As we go through these poems I think we will find there is a tendency for them
to be clumped together with a common theme for the set. The first 17 sonnets
have provoked much debate and many theories about what lies behind them.
The reason is simple; the common theme is stated clearly in #10
make thee another self
but recurs in different forms and guises in the other 16 of the set.
Establishment scholarly concensus seems to be that they are written to the Earl
of Southampton, to whom the Venus and Lucrece long narrative poems were
Oxfordians tend to agree, because Burghley, as Wardmaster of the youthful
Southampton, tried to marry him off to Elizabeth Vere, de Vere's eldest
daughter. This creates a timetable for our first sonnet theme, as the
negotiations took place about 1589-90. At the time, de Vere was about 40,
Southampton 16-17, and Elizabeth Vere 14-15.
But there's another recent suggestion: although "two, maybe three, can be
justly assumed unequivocally to have been written to a male, or males" the
remainder of the 17 were written to Queen Elizabeth. The argument here is
that it was a national concern that the Queen should marry and produce a
Parliament made representations to her about it. Her ministers pressed her to
do something about it. There were, over the years, various suitors, including
one from Sweden, but the main contender was the French Duke of Anjou, also
Duke of Alençon, son of Catherine de Medici. De Vere was among the group
which favoured this union; Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Leicester were
part of another group which opposed it. This 'courtship' dragged on for about
and helped the Queen as a counterweight to Philip 2nd of Spain, who had been
the husband of Queen Elizabeth's predecessor, Catholic Queen 'Bloody' Mary.
Philip was intent on suppressing the mainly Protestant Netherlands, which
were England's main trading partner. The marriage was a national
preoccupation and almost became a fact in about 1579.
You will have astutely noticed that in among all this detail, the two datings
relating to the two different theories as to the motive for this theme are about
10 years apart. This does not make the problem simpler. Now let's look at
these 17 poems.
1. It's addressed to a 'tender churl.' Churl can mean a person of low birth, a
peasant fellow. It can also mean a 'niggardly person,' someone who gives
grudgingly, or in small amounts. The whole line says 'And, tender churl mak'st
waste in niggarding' I suggest the rest of the poem indicates that this is the
intended meaning here. The opening line says 'From fairest creatures we
desire increase,' and later 'Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament.'
The message seems clear: this good looking young man should procreate. A
female is not referable to as a 'churl.'
If these 17 sonnets are a set, which seems likely, I suggest they cannot be
addressed to Southampton, who was well known, a court favourite, and
already a patron of the arts world, as no poet would describe the young Earl as
a 'tender churl', a commoner.
2. 'When forty winters shall besiege thy brow'. 40 years from now when
you're old and asked where your beauty lies, how much more praise to be able
to say 'This fair child is mine.'
This could be to either sex, but if linked to the first sonnet, is to the same young
man, and has the same message. It's doubtful whether de Vere would have
written this before he was 23, at which time the Queen was already 40. So I
deduce it cannot be about the Queen, if de Vere wrote it.
3. The same theme again, even more directly:
Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another....
For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry...
But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.
There's a mild pun on husbandry. This is definitely to a male. Presumably so
far we're looking at a set of sonnets all on the same theme, and all to the same
good looking young man. The last two lines suggest that the person won't be
famous enough to be remembered after death.
4. Why do you spend your beauty on yourself, you 'beauteous niggard'?
The sonnet calls the addressee 'profitless usurer.'
There's a rather awkward metaphor at the end:
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unus'd beauty must be tomb'd with thee
Which used, lives th'executor to be.
The same theme presumably but not necessarily to the same youth.
5. The 'lovely gaze' could be for either sex, but as part of a group would be for
the youth again. 'Time leads summer on to hideous winter.' "Flowers
distilled... their substance still lives sweet.' This thought seems to continue into
the next sonnet which begins
Then let not winter's ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer...
That's for thyself to breed another thee;
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one,
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur'd thee,...
In 1566 the Queen's physician told an envoy of Charles 1X of France, a then
suitor, 'Your King is 17 and the Queen only 32. ... If the King marries her, I
will answer for her having 10 children, and no one in the world knows her
temperament better than I do.'
It's also said that when Alençon went to London in 1579 he 'immediately
wanted to get in bed with the Queen and made it public knowledge. And he
loudly and roundly advertized his outstanding virility by proclaiming that he
would produce for the Queen, not just one heir, but ten of them.' Elizabeth was
about 46 then!
We have a wide choice of dates here, 1566 or 1579 (when de Vere was 29). This
later date seems more consonant with the public concern in England for an
heir, and de Vere's age and writing experience. And as #5 and #6 seem to be
linked, both might be addressed to the Queen. It's possible, perhaps even
probable, that de Vere, who was 16 in 1566, and living in Cecil's household as
a ward, would have known about the 1566 report of the Queen's physician. De
Vere's wife Anne Cecil certainly had the same physician as the Queen in
But the poem says 'treasure thou some place with beauty's treasure.' This
suggests a male rather than female addressee. It ties in with the thought in #3
about the 'unear'd womb.' It has the word 'usury,' which seems to connect
So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon,
Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son.
This could be to an older person, perhaps the Queen, as she was middle aged in
the 1570s, and often compared to celestial and mythological beings.
Sings this to thee 'Thou single will prove none.'
This could be for either sex.
Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye
That thou consum'st thyself in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shall hap to die,
The world will wail thee...
That on himself such murderous shame commits.
This is apparently intended as a poem to a male.
Make thee another self, for love of me
This poem could be for either sex, but 'for love of me' introduces a new
element. Would de Vere, called 'cousin' by the Queen in official documents,
say this to her? Perhaps, but then it should be for love of the nation, or us.
Or is it to Southampton, if he's the male person? There's a further problem
ahead, and this is just the first glimpse of it. The next major theme for a
considerable number of sonnets is love for a male person. It's generally
thought of by most people as a homosexual relationship, although some deny
this. It all may have begun with the 'tender churl' addressed in the very first
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die
This could be for either sex, but the poem includes the phrase 'when thou from
youth convertest' which suggests the conversion hasn't taken place yet. The
Queen, remember, was about 46 in 1579.
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
This could be written for either sex.
...Dear my love, you know
You had a father: let your son say so.
After 12 sonnets on the same theme the new element 'dear my love' enters
again. The poet himself now seems to be falling in love with the addressee of
14. Now it's the first theme again
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive...
'Truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert'
There's a broader sweep to this poem. it could be to the Queen. It talks of
princes, plagues, dearths (scarcities, or famines), constant stars.
When I perceive that men as plants increase,...
You most rich in youth before my sight,...
And all in war with Time for love of you
Now the procreation theme is beginning to give way before the poet's love for
this person who is youthful, and therefore not the Queen.
Many maiden gardens yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers...
To give away yourself keeps yourself still...
So it's the procreation theme again. And it's to a male person.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes...
The age to come would say, 'This poet lies,...'
So should my papers, yellow'd with their age,
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice,-in it and in my rime.
Here we have the procreation theme second, and the admiration for an
unspecified person first. It could be for either sex. Let's summarize our results:
So we have 4 for males only with a possible 5th (#6), 3 for young persons, 7
could be for either sex, and 3 may be for the Queen, although #6 may be for a
male, leaving 2 for her. All of them could be to a young male or males, except
perhaps #7. 12 or perhaps 13 of them could be to a young woman; 9, possibly
10 could be to the Queen.
Here are my conclusions on this group of sonnets.
First, I think they are a set, and written at about the same time. They don't
seem to show the disparities of some being written about 10 years later than
others. This is confirmed by, in my opinion, #5 flowing into #6; #15 flowing into
#16; #1 using niggarding, #4 using niggard; #10 roof to ruinate, #13 house fall
#4, usurer, #6, usury; #8, husband, #9, husband's. The 'male' poems , #s 1, 3,
possibly 6, 9, and 16 are not together as a group, but scattered throughout the
This poet, who wrote a 28 page poem followed by a 43 page poem would have
had no trouble writing these 17 poems in a year, a month, a week, or even at
It seems to me that the 1590 date, necessary to involve Southampton and the
proposed marriage to de Vere's eldest daughter, Elizabeth, is too late for these
poems. Further, de Vere never did show much interest in Anne Cecil's
daughters. It was the Burghleys, not de Vere, who tried to and succeeded in
arranging all their marriages. As for de Vere, in 1590 he was probably
thinking about Elizabeth Trentham, who married him in 1591 or 1592. I
suggest his interest in homosexuality was by then in the distant past for him.
But the decade of 1570 to 1580 was very significant for de Vere. He finally
emerged from Wardship, was pushed into a marriage he didn't want, toured in
Europe, probably contracted syphilis, was the Queen's favourite, thought his
wife was false to him and separated himself from her, the Queen apparently
made sexual advances to him, he probably became homosexual, began an
affair with Anne Vavasour and made her pregnant. I suggest it was in the
midst of all this, probably in the late 70s, that these sonnets were first written,
although they may have been polished later. Sonnet #16 refers to 'my pupil
But back to Southampton. We have another clue besides the 'tender churl'
problem. The poet says in #9
Ah! if thou issueless shall hap to die
the world will wail thee...
This suggest that, whether Southampton or not, the male person (as this is a
male poem) is known to the world, presumably either for ability, or rank. But
Southampton is eliminated if the poems are dated to the 1570s because he was
born in 1573, and would only have been about age 7 by 1580, too young for a
homosexual relationship or procreation talk.
So who was the 'tender churl'? I suggest it was quite possibly a commoner, and
if so might have been one of the young boys de Vere had sexual relationships
with in the 1570s. It may even have been Orazio Cogno, the Italian choirboy
and musician, who was remarkable enough for de Vere to have brought him to
England, and for the Queen herself, it's said, to have talked to him about
converting to Protestantism. I think Cogno is an unlikely candidate though,
because he was gone in a year, back to Italy, while the ensuing poems suggest
this relationship was deep and went on for a number of years. But whoever it
was, the physical beauty of this youth, if only one is described, must have
gradually come to obsess the mind of the poet, estranged from his wife as he
was at the time, and with good reason to avoid female entanglements.
The sonnets in this group which are not evidently to a male person do not
speak of beauty in the way this poet can write about women. For him the
Queen was too old for that. Years previously she had suffered through
smallpox, which pits the face and disfigures the skin, causing her to have make
up or 'painting' to cover the disfigurements. But this didn't prevent de Vere
adoring her as having a brilliant mind and sharing their common love for
literature and music. As a courtier, despite all his vicissitudes of fortune, de
Vere was completely loyal and faithful to her in this way to the end of her life.
I conclude some poems might have been to the Queen about her necessity to
produce a male heir, so avoiding dreadful civil war such as that of the previous
century between Yorkists and Lancastrians. Could de Vere have written some
of these poems to the Queen? It's quite possible he could have addressed her
the way the poems do. Could another poet have written this way to her? The
only ones closer were Burghley, who as we saw, was not a poet of sufficient
stature, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her 'sweet Robin'. If Leicester
did write poetry it did not merit inclusion in the Oxford book of 16th century
verse. But 5 other earls did, including de Vere. Except for de Vere, they did
not, I think, have the panache and closeness to the Queen to have written some
of these 17 sonnets to her. And Sir Christopher Hatton, who was apparently
besotted with the Queen, if he was a poet did not find his way into the 16th
century anthology either.
It's possible that the printer collected the 'make thee another self'' poems
together as a group from an unsorted collection handed to him. But if you read
these poems in the printed order without preconceived ideas or any external
information, they seem to flow forward examining and playing on a main
theme until, after 17 sonnets, it's exhausted, and a new theme begins to
develop, the 'for love of me.' This turns out to be the poet loving the other
person, and it develops, as we shall next see, into a major theme dominating
the 154 sonnets and veering towards homosexuality.
There is never a suggestion in these 17 poems as to whom the addressee(s) of
these sonnets should marry, or beget with, only that there should be
procreation, and 'another thee.' If it's de Vere writing, he's not saying (to
Southampton?) 'marry my daughter.' There's no praise for the daughter as a
prized possession or her beauty. Sonnet #16 specifically says 'many maiden
gardens yet unset would bear you living flowers.' The poet shows no
predilection for a particular female. He sees the beauty in this other male
person's eyes, as he tells us more than once. His whole attention is focused on
this other person and that he/she should procreate. The fact that four poems
are specifically to a male, and the others unspecified as to sex, none addressed
to a female, may incline one to conclude that they are all male oriented and
that the poet twists and turns this theme of procreation around until he's
through with it and something else has begun to occupy his artistic sensibility,
just as a painter may go through a 'blue period' and then move on to something
As 4 of the 17 poems are definitely to a male and all 4 have the procreation
theme, to say that the others are to the Queen, (from which we have to deduct
those to a youthful person) is I believe a false argument because to be valid it
means there are two sets of procreation poems, one group to a male because of
his exceptional good looks, the other to the Queen for purely political reasons.
It seems unlikely that the same theme was applied to two different persons for
entirely different reasons. It also seems to me that of both theories, the
Southampton marriage proposal and the Queen's succession proposal, only one
could be right and in fact the internal evidence of the poems, such as it is, is
against either of them.
The problem here is why would any male tell another male 'make thee another
self.' Who would you say it to? In those days, lacking contraceptive devices,
more likely advice was 'be careful.' Perhaps this young male was a
homosexual, and so unlikely otherwise to have children born to him. This
would set the scene for the next group of sonnets which seem to imply a
Before we leave this group of sonnets let's see if we have answers to our three
1. Why were these not published in his lifetime?
The answer seems to be that there was zero tolerance for homosexuality in
those days. The age had a deep religious controversy, between Catholics and
Protestants. Their belief was in the tenets of religion, though today our belief
has mainly shifted from Religion to Science. But back then biblical mandates
had the force of law, including the Judeo-Christian biblical book of Leviticus
(18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind, it is abomination).
These poems demonstrate how such a relationship came into being. They are
very personal poems, and there was a law against writing about living persons.
The only missing link is the name of the person. The person addressed might
not have wanted publication. We know de Vere was accused by his former
friends of pederasty, homosexuality with young boys.
2. What circumstances in his life caused these poems to be written?
While in Venice de Vere obtained the parents' permission to bring Orazio
Cogno, said to be a 16 year old, back to England with him. Soon afterwards,
de Vere heard the story of his wife's alleged infidelity and birth of a supposed
illegitimate child. This caused him to cut off his wife from his affection. I
suggest shortly after that his sexual drive turned towards homosexuality. The
first encounter might have been with the remarkable youth Orazio, away from
his family and friends, alone in de Vere's household.
3. What was the approximate date of composition of the poems?
This would then be after de Vere's return from the Continent, in 1576, during
his estrangement from his wife, and before his affair with Anne Vavasour in
It seems that de Vere can be fitted into the scenario of these 17 poems without
stretching the evidence, and so his candidacy at present continues.
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