THE 154 SONNETS
Continuing our search for clues as to the identity of the poet, the next group of
sonnets is, I suggest, #s 67 - 75. I would describe it as The Contemplation of
Death set. The first two are addressed to 'him' and 'he,' the next two to 'thee'
and 'thou.' They are written to someone no longer young who has suffered
various vicissitudes in life. Because the references are so germane to the poet's
own real life as he describes it from time to time, I suspect his literary self, his
alter ego, is here looking at his real life as he grows older, and here he's
commenting appropriately on it.
Ah! wherefore with infection should he live
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve
And lace itself with his society? ...
Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is, ...
O! him she stores, to show what wealth she had
In days long since, before these last so bad.
This male person has an infection that cannot be shaken off, and it has altered
the physical characteristics of the sufferer. The disease is related to 'sin by
him' and the poet wonders why the person should continue to live, and infect
others, so that these last days are 'so bad.' I suggest the suffering here is
probably through advanced stages of syphilis. I would not be so positive about
this but for what we found in chapter 9, and note 3 to that chapter regarding
this poet's Troilus and Cressida play. It seems that death is on the horizon for
the subject of this sonnet.
We don't know whether the poet is writing about himself or someone else.
Another poem about a male, apparently continuing on from 67:
Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn ...
Without all ornament , itself and true, ...
The poet seems to be talking about wearing wigs to create false beauty, 'golden
tresses' having been shorn from the dead to 'live a second life on second head'
but the subject of the poem has not done this.
Those parts of thee that the world's eye doth view
Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend,
All tongues - the voice of souls - give thee that due,
Uttering bare truth...
Thy outward thus with outward praise is crown'd; ...
The soil is this, that thou dost common grow.
That thou art blam'd shall not be thy defect
For slander's mark was ever yet the fair; ...
Thou hast pass'd by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail'd, or victor being charg'd ...
Whoever these poems are about has reached at least middle years in life and
has sunk from being praised by others to becoming common.
Now infection, growing common, blame by others, are leading towards
contemplation of death to come:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe
O! if, - I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
The poet will of course die with his real name, and it seems the world is likely
to mock him in his real name after he is gone. He has a deep affection for the
person he's writing to, who is close enough to him to be able to read what he's
written either before or after his death.
He continues his post-mortem instructions in the next poem:
O! Lest the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me, that you should love
After my death, - dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than my own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
O! lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
For I am sham'd by that which I bring forth,
And so should you to love things nothing worth.
The name to be buried with his body is of course his real name, not his
More on his impending death:
yellow leaves ...the cold... the twilight... sunset fadeth... black night doth take
away...death's second self... the ashes of his youth... the death-bed...
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee: ...
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life...
So are you to my thoughts as food to life,...
Now counting best to be with you alone,..
I suggest that the first four poems, (67 - 70) were written very late in the poet's
If the poet is de Vere, then the next 5 (71 - 75) would seem to be to his wife
Elizabeth Trentham. She would have been with him until his death, and
looking at his last poems as they were written, or soon after his death. His
wishes expressed in these poems were carried out. It's probable he was buried
in a churchyard at Hackney, his wife Elizabeth later next to him. We don't
know for sure where he was interred. This was a sad ending for the former
premier Earl of England, whether or not he's the poet.
Now we seem to begin another set, probably of a much earlier time in the
poet's life. I suggest we call this the Queen set, because it seems they were probably addressed to her.
The Queen's motto was Semper Eadem (ever the same), e.ver = Edward de Vere.
Why is my verse so barren of new pride
Why write I still all one, ever the same...
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know, sweet love, I always write of you, ...
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear...
These vacant leaves thy mind's imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show...
Look! What thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver'd from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.
You may remember that earlier we quoted a letter by de Vere to Burghley
mentioning the problems which he and the Queen experienced with his office.
This after he was receiving the annual stipend of £1,000.
So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly, ...
And given grace a double majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile
Whose influence is thine and born of thee: ...
But thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning my rude ignorance.
The poet says he is plagued by others writing under his name, which scholars
confirm was happening to Shakespeare.
Some Stratfordians say this shows the poet was not a nobleman and was the
man from Stratford on Avon. But we know already from this investigation that
it cannot be him. The 'double majesty" seems to imply it's to the Queen. The
poet may well be ignorant in comparison with her, as to affairs of state and her
apparent mastery of 6 languages as well as her being a keyboard performer.
If the poet is de Vere, his rude ignorance may be referring to his behaviour
when the Queen made advances to him in his youth.
Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decay'd,
And my sick muse doth give another place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again...
This other poet may well be Spenser, whose talent Shakespeare admired, and
Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene. I can only trace a royal payment to him of
£50 for literary work. Obviously, this poet of the sonnets did not know that.
O! how I faint when I of you do write
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might, ...
But since your worth - wide as the ocean is, -
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear. ...
He of tall building and of goodly pride:
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this, - my love was my decay.
I suggest that whoever the poet is, this is about competition for favouritism
with the Queen. The maritime references may be because it's about Ralegh
rather than Spenser. But if it's de Vere writing here, it's doubtful he would
give precedence to Ralegh, though he might well with Spenser.
Or I shall live your epitaph to make
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, - such virtue hath my pen, -
Where breath most breathes, - even in the mouths of men.
Although it seems to me his verse is that of nobility, the noble class, he will only
have a common grave. He explains this in more detail in sonnets 71 and 72.
It's his wish as he doesn't want to sully his descendants with attention drawn
to his personal life, only to his verse, free from all that with his pseudonym.
The verse he confidently and correctly asserts, will be immortal. This fits de
Vere's life, and seems to be to his Queen, if it's his poem.
More of the same:
I grant thou wert not married to my Muse..
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue...
Thou truly fair wert truly sympathized
In true plain words by thy true-telling friend;
In another poem the poet said that she loved Dowland, (the musical composer),
he Spenser. True or truly four times in 2 lines is reminiscent of de Vere with
his emphasis on truth and true, related to his family name. We note that it is
all in the past tense. This leads us on to the next sonnet:
I never saw that you did painting need.
And therefore to your fair no painting set...
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,...
This silence for my sin you did impute,...
... I impair not beauty being mute. ...
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.
This I suggest is almost certainly to the Queen and the other poet is most
probably Spenser. The first line would then have a double meaning. An attack
of smallpox left its marks on her face apparently. The poet doesn't think she
needs cosmetics, and doesn't need word painting in praise of her by her two
poets as her quality is innate. This poet is a true telling friend, he's not going
to fawn on her with obsequious extravagant praise. But she must have chided
him for not writing about her as others did. Spenser's massive work The
Faerie Queene must have been in the poet's mind's eye when he wrote the last
two lines of this sonnet.
Who is it that says most? which can say more
Than this rich praise, - that you alone are you? ...
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond of praise, which makes your praises worse.
This looks very like de Vere to his Queen. Who could this be other than plain
spoken de Vere to Elizabeth, who was always looking for praise. Who else of
her courtiers would dare to tell her this to her face?
85. But, if I'm right, this poet is far from ending his reflections on his Queen.
My tongue tied Muse in manners holds her still
Whilst comments of your praise, richly compil'd,
Deserve their character with golden quill, ...
I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words, ...
Hearing you prais'd, I say ''Tis so, 'tis true,'
But that is in my thought, whose love to you
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.
'Holds his rank before.' An appropriate comment for the premier earl in
England, if it's de Vere writing.
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse
Bound for the prize of all too precious you, ...
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished. ...
But when your countenance fill'd up his line
Then lack'd I matter; that enfeebled mine.
This is all in the past tense. An older poet is reviewing in his mind the pressure
he felt from competition of others, particularly one gifted poet, in their
extravagent praise of this one person. To have a number of poets all praising
this person at one time makes it clear, I suggest, that it's the Queen. This poet
is saying it's not in his nature to compete with others, even one of exceptional
ability, in sheer flattery of the monarch. This other poet has to be, I suggest,
Edmund Spenser. I just opened a book at random and the first stanza of his
which I saw was this:
Look how the crown, which Ariadne wore
Upon her ivory forehead that same day,
That Theseus her unto his bridal bore,
When the bold Centaurs made that bloody fray,
With the fierce Lapithes, which did them dismay,
Being now placed in the firmament,
Through the bright heaven doth her beams display,
And is unto the stars an ornament,
Which round about her move in order excellent:
You can see where our poet's 'by spirits taught to write' comes from. Spenser
is steeped in classical mythology and cleverly has the subliminal references to
Queen Elizabeth which she would be quick to pick up as subtle flattery. This
was just my completely random choice of a page and stanza. Let's now look at
the reference. It's given as The Dance of the Graces: The Faerie Queene, VI.
X. 6-16, 1596. This shows us that the stanza is just a grain of sand in a work
that goes on and on and on, as well it might, the subject being almost
inexhaustible. No wonder our poet felt pressure from what the Queen turned
into a competition of flattery.
Farewell ! thou art too dear for my possessing
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing,
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting? ...
Thyself thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav'st it, else mistaking; ...
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but, waking, no such matter.
In sonnet 76 came the line
That every word doth almost tell my name
and in sonnet 82
In true plain words by thy true telling friend
This poet is not like Spenser, or Milton, or Tennyson, lofting along with a never
ending stream of high flown language. This poet is writing from personal
experience, about actual events and people, and has no hesitation in saying
what he thinks in plain language, As part of a set, it seems there is little doubt
it's to the Queen. There was some bond or mutual promising between these two
in earlier days, when neither really knew their eventual places in history, she
as the greatest queen of England, he as the greatest poet. Now they each know
their destiny, and he can no longer 'hold' her to her part of the agreement, or
bond, or whatever it was. Only those two knew what it really was. It's doubtful
that we or ages to come will ever know. But it was so close that at night he
could dream that he was her king. Not any more. He has given up the struggle
to hold her and his place in her life.
There are not too many who could say this to the Queen. Not Spenser, or
almost any other poet. Only Leicester, Ralegh, and de Vere come to mind.
Even in this select company de Vere doggedly continues to be a candidate.
The poet's reflections on their relationship continue
When thou shalt be dispos'd to set me light
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side against myself I'll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.
With mine own weakness, being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults conceal'd, wherein I am attainted; ...
Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right myself will bear all wrong.
Only she knows how she is forsworn, and what her concealed faults are, and
though she publicly scorns him, his admiring love for her is so deep that he will
never betray her to the world. The poet is not finished with this gentle chiding
yet, and this is from a time in his life when he is already lame
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou canst not love, disgrace me half so ill, ...
As I'll myself disgrace, knowing thy will, ...
I will ...
Be absent from thy walks, and in my tongue
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I ...
... haply of our old acquaintance tell ...
Continuing, the first line begins
Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross, ...
... so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might,
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compar'd with loss of thee will not seem so.
This poet has a habit of down-playing or disparaging his station in life. He
tells us so much about his life that if we could learn from him who he really is,
everything he writes about would fall into place. He knows this, of course, and
that's why every word does almost tell his name, but not quite:
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill
Some in their wealth, some in their body's force.
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse, ...
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments' cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, ...
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.
This true telling poet writes what he knows about. He's evidently familiar with
high born life. Here he seems to say to us that he is of high birth, but the love
of this person is of more value to him. It seems he also has all the other
worldly attributes that he lists: wealth, costly garments, hawks and horses. He
is not to be measured by them, though, This is not saying he doesn't have them,
to the contrary he appears to be telling us that he indeed has them all. He's not
wretched or poor because he lacks them; he only dreads the poverty or
wretchedness of losing this person's love. But 'take all this away' also implies, I
suggest, that the loved one has the power actually to take all the concomitants
of high birth away, which then leads us back to the Queen. And de Vere, our
candidate for poet.
The theme continues:
But do thy worst to steal thyself away
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine. ...
Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind, ...
But what's so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.
This could be to the male lover, as 'false' is more appropriate for carnal love
than fealty to a monarch and the monarch's duty to the subject, as in 'noblesse
But the second line seems closer to the baron-monarch relationship than that
between male lovers. The 'inconstant mind' was complained of in the Queen by
several of her amorous courtiers. I suggest the poet is just not giving us enough
information here to be certain in our interpretation.
This continues from #92:
So shall I live, supposing thou art true
Like a deceived husband, ...
Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place
For there can live no hatred in thine eye, ...
How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!
The reference to Eve's apple may imply the poem is about a female, in which
case, if the poet is de Vere, the female is presumably the Queen, and 91, 92 and
93 just continue in the Queen set.
If by de Vere, this would seem to have been written in the early 1580s soon
after the bitter personal experience occurred of feeling what it was like to be,
or think he was, a deceived husband. He and the Queen were relatively young
then, and after her apparent amorous advances, followed it seems by some
kind of mutual commitment between them, he thought he could rely on it and
her for life, but such was not to be the case. She dominated his life at the time,
he was a very small part of her life and responsibility.
The set seems to continue here, beginning
They that have power to hurt and will do none
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone, ...
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence. ...
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
'Lord,' and 'his'? But then, even if to the Queen, the poet could hardly say
'lady' and 'hers' or it would be too obvious. There are strong words of
condemnation here. But the content seems more apropos of the Queen than a
How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O! in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose
That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport, ...
Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege,
The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.
Apparently continuing the same set. This is a kinder but still stern admonition
to the recipient who evidently has considerable power and influence.
The last two lines are repeated from #36, where we quoted and discussed it. I
believe the entire poem, if by de Vere, relates to the Queen when she was
relatively young, as does #95, and that these are chronologically out of place
here. To save your looking back, here are a few lines:
Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are lov'd of more or less:
Thou makest faults graces that to thee resort
As on the finger of a throned queen
The basest jewel will be well esteem'd, ...
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
And yet this time remov'd was summer's time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase, ...
If the poet is de Vere it's probably from the time of one of his several effective
banishments from court due to his escapades in the early 1580s.
From you have I been absent in the spring, ...
Yet seem'd it winter still, and you away,
The forward violet thus did I chide
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? ...
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair; ...
More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or colour it had stol'n from thee.
As it's in the past tense, and if it's by de Vere, it could have been to the Queen
shortly after his return from the Continent, after their amorous encounter, and
before his subsequent fall from favour.
Technically this is not a sonnet, as it has 15 lines. But such aberrations are of little interest to us in our search for the poet's identity.
This seems to be the last in the Queen set, as I've interpreted the sonnets. We
must always remember we are only testing out the de Vere as poet hypothesis.
The fact that his candidacy seems to continue to have reasonable interpretation
for the poems does not make him Shakespeare. It is only that we have failed to
eliminate him as a candidate so far.
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