Oxford's Literary Reputation


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. William Webbe
  3. George Puttenham
  4. Francis Meres
  5. Henry Peacham
  6. A Device and a Conceit
  7. Praise for the Patron
  8. Lists of Elizabethan Poets that Exclude Oxford
  9. Conclusion
  10. Works Cited


What was the literary reputation of Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, in his own time? A handful of his poems appeared in print throughout the last decades of the Sixteenth Century. Other poems of his circulated in manuscript. Poems by other poets were occasionally misattributed to him, which suggests that he had sufficient reputation as a poet to be thought capable of writing such verses, but did anyone in his own day consider him a great poet?

It is a commonplace among those who believe that Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare's works that Oxford was indeed considered a great poet in his own time, but that the works that justified this reputation have not come down to us under his name. The inventor of the Oxfordian notion, J. Thomas Looney, refers to "a contemporary opinion that [Oxford] was the best of these poets" (112). Charles Wisner Barrell refers to "Oxford's preeminence in both poetical and dramatic creation" (455). Charlton Ogburn, the foremost Oxfordian of the age, says that Oxford's contemporaries "left no doubt . . . that he wrote far more, and of outstanding quality, than has hitherto been credited to him" (401). According to the Frontline tv show "The Shakespeare Mystery,"

literary critics of the period called de Vere one of the greatest Elizabethan poets and "the best for comedy." If he did write great comedies and great poems, what happened to them?
What indeed? In looking over these Oxfordian accounts, I notice that the same few names come up again and again: William Webbe, George Puttenham, Francis Meres, and Henry Peacham. I intend to demonstrate that the judgments of these men about Oxford's writing are consistent with both the quantity and quality of Oxford's known work, and do not justify assigning him the works of Shakespeare.

In order to come to a proper understanding of Oxford's contemporary reputation, it is important to examine what these authors actually said about Oxford and to consider the context of their remarks. Which writers did they consider great? Did they consider Oxford a great writer? Were their estimations of Oxford's work based on their familiarity with works that have not come down to us under Oxford's name? Were they also familiar with the works of Shakespeare? The evidence will show that while Oxford did indeed have some slight reputation as a poet, nobody ever considered him a great poet; nobody who was familiar with the works of Spenser or Sidney or Daniel or Shakespeare thought Oxford was a better poet than any of these men.

Oxfordians also draw our attention to reports of works possibly connected with Oxford that have been lost. Since we don't have the works themselves (at least not under Oxford's name), we cannot evaluate them, but at least we may consider whether the people who were familiar with those works thought they had been written by Oxford and whether they considered them the works of a great writer.

In addition, Oxfordians remind us of the flattering remarks about Oxford made by writers who had sought or gained his patronage, such as Gabriel Harvey, Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, and others, and so it is also important to consider their statements. Finally, we should see whether Oxford's name appears on other lists of the best poets of his time. We should then be able to see whether Oxford's reputation in his own time was so great as to persuade us that his contemporaries believed he wrote the works we know today as Shakespeare's.

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William Webbe

The earliest printed praise of Oxford as a poet is in William Webbe's Discourse of English Poetry (1586). For Webbe, the Shepheardes Calender was the finest poetry and its author was the finest poet in the English language. After surveying English poets from Gower and Chaucer down to his own time, he offers this judgment:
This place I have purposely reserved for one, who if not only, yet in my judgment principally deserveth the title of the rightest English Poet, that ever I read: that is, the Author of the Shepheardes Calender, . . . sorry I am that I can find none other with whom I might couple him in this Catalogue, in his rare gift of Poetry . . . (35).
In his discussion of pastoral poetry, Webbe again mentions the Shepheardes Calender, whose author he considers the equal of Theocritus and Virgil:
But now yet at the last hath England hatched upon one Poet of this sort, in my conscience comparable with the best in any respect: even Master Sp: Author of the Shepheardes Calender . . . (53)
Webbe refers to Oxford once, and then with considerably less enthusiasm than he musters for Spenser. Earlier in his catalogue of English poets, before his apostrophe for Spenser, Webbe had mentioned a number of recent and contemporary poets whose work he liked:
I might speak next of the divers works of the old Earle of Surrey: of the L. Vaus, of Norton, of Bristow, Edwardes, Tusser, Churchyard. Wyl: Hunnis: Haiwood: Sand: Hyll: S. Y. M. D. and many others, but to speak of their several gifts, and abundant skill shewed forth by them in many pretty and learned works, would make my discourse much more tedious.

I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honorable and noble Lords, and Gentlemen, in her Majesty's Court, which in the rare devices of Poetry, have been and yet are most excellent skillful, among whom, the right honorable Earle of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest.

Works by most of the poets in this passage (Vaux, Edwards, Churchyard, Hunnis, Heywood, Hill, Oxford, and perhaps "Sand" and "S. Y.") appeared in the 1575 Paradise of Dainty Devices, and Webbe's praise of Oxford's skill in the "rare devices of Poetry" is an obvious reference to the title of the collection, which contained eight of Oxford's poems. The praise of Oxford is trebly qualified:

This is a far cry from the unqualified praise of Spenser as the "rightest English poet that ever I read." Still, if Webbe had placed Oxford second to Spenser among the poets, that would have constituted high praise indeed. Yet he has no more to say about Oxford than his trebly qualified compliment, while among the poets whose work he praises more highly and in more detail than Oxford's are Gascoigne, Phaer, Twyne, Golding, Googe, Turberville, Fleming, Whetstone, Munday, and Harvey.

It is no surprise that Webbe doesn't mention Shakespeare, as A Discourse of English Poetry was published in 1586, and one wouldn't have expected anyone to mention Shakespeare before the 1590s; moreover, the only plays that Webbe mentions are translations of the classics. What may be surprising is that he does not mention Philip Sidney. His trebly qualified praise of Oxford would still be high praise if he meant to say that Oxford's poetry was more impressive than Sidney's--but Webbe seems unaware that Sidney wrote poetry at all. The reason for this is that Sidney's poetry had not yet appeared in print, and Webbe does not refer to any works that had circulated in manuscript but had not been printed. Thus, Webbe's praise of Oxford must now be considered subject to a fourth qualification: Oxford may challenge for the title of the best at poetic devices among those courtiers whose works were printed before 1586.

Webbe's praise of Oxford, such as it is, does not provide any support for the Oxfordian cause. He seems to have been delighted by most of the poets whose works appeared in the Paradise of Dainty Devices, and would probably have placed Oxford in the top ten among them, but there are many poets he praises more highly than Oxford. There is nothing to suggest that Webbe was familiar with works by Oxford other than those that appeared in print under his name. Based on the evidence, there is certainly no reason to believe that Webbe considered Oxford a great poet.

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George Puttenham

The most important evidence for Oxford's literary reputation is George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589). I have discussed this work in considerable detail in a separate essay, and rather than repeat what I said there, I will summarize the main points as they relate to the matter at hand.

Where Webbe had considered Spenser the finest English poet, Puttenham awards that honor to Queen Elizabeth:

But last in recital and first in degree is the Queen our sovereign Lady, whose learned, delicate, noble Muse, easily surmounteth all the rest that have written before her time or since, for sense, sweetness and subtility, be it in Ode, Elegy, Epigram, or any other kind of poem Heroic or Lyric, wherein it shall please her Majesty to employ her pen, even by as much odds as her own excellent estate and degree exceedeth all the rest of her most humble vassals. (77)
There are a number of surviving poems that may be credited to Queen Elizabeth, and whatever their quality, we may I think reasonably discount Puttenham's remarks as being the sort of fawning that the queen generally received and expected. Perhaps a better measure of Puttenham's judgment would be the number of references in his work for each poet. The queen is referred to four times as a poet, as are Harding, Stanyhurst, and Vaux; Lydgate, Dyer, Sidney, Raleigh are referred to between five and nine times each; Gascoigne, Gower, and Surrey are referred to between ten and nineteen times each; while Chaucer and Wyatt crack twenty. Thus, while Puttenham praises the queen's poetry above all others, there are nine poets about whose verse he has more to say. Oxford, however, is not one of those nine.

Puttenham mentions Oxford three times. He includes him in a list of Elizabethan poets, he refers to Oxford's having written a comedy or interlude, and he quotes one of his poems.

The list of Elizabethan poets in which Oxford's name occurs includes

Edward, Earl of Oxford. Thomas Lord of Buckhurst, when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Master Edward Dyer, Master Fulke Greville, Gascoigne, Breton, Turberville, and a great many other learned gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for envy, but to avoid tediousness, and who have deserved no little commendation.
The names are listed in order of social rank: an earl outranks a lesser lord, who outranks a knight, who outranks a gentleman, who outranks a mere poet. Thus, Sidney's appearing fourth on the list should not be taken to mean that Puttenham thought Oxford, Buckhurst, and Paget were each finer poets than he. Nevertheless, Oxford's social priority on this list probably had the effect of increasing his apparent reputation as a poet.

Puttenham, unlike Webbe, had access not just to printed works but also to works that circulated in manuscript, such as Sidney's Certain Sonnets and Arcadia. The one poem by Oxford that Puttenham quotes had never before been printed, but versions of that poem have survived in manuscript, and Puttenham does not refer to any poem by Oxford that has not come down to us. The most surprising name on the list is Paget; not one poem by him has come down to us, and yet Puttenham thought well enough of his verse (added to Paget's exalted rank) to include him. Nobody has ever suggested that Paget's inclusion on the list means his output was enormous, but Puttenham must have known poems by Paget that have not survived, and perhaps he also knew other poems by Queen Elizabeth and Oxford than we know of today, though there is no reason to think either that the number of Oxford's possible poems was great or that their quality was markedly different from the surviving poems we know to be his.

Puttenham discusses classical drama in some detail, but he has very little to say about contemporary plays. He seems completely unaware of the existence of public theaters, but is only concerned with performances before the monarch:

That for Tragedy, the Lord of Buckhurst, and Master Edward Ferrys for such doings as I have seen of theirs do deserve the highest price: Th'Earl of Oxford and Master Edwardes of her Majesty's Chapel for Comedy and Interlude. (77)
Puttenham's praise seems qualified and tentative. Where Webbe considered Spenser the equal of Theocritus and Virgil, Puttenham does not say that England has produced playwrights to equal the best dramatists of the classical world but only that "such doings as I have seen of theirs do deserve the highest price." Buckhurst's sole contribution to tragedy was the last two acts of Gorboduc (1562); Edwards's sole comedy was Damon and Pithias (1565: Edwards also wrote a two-part tragedy, Palamon and Arcite, which has not survived). We know of no play of any kind written by Oxford, but it is reasonable to suppose that Oxford had a hand in some comedy or interlude that Puttenham had seen or read, but which has since been lost, like Paget's poems.

The oddity on the list is the name "Edward Ferrys." No gentleman of that name is known to have written plays or even poetry in 16th-Century England, but an earlier reference in Puttenham sheds some light on this mystery:

In king Edward the sixths time ... Edward Ferrys ... wrate for the most part to the stage, in Tragedy and sometime in Comedy or Interlude, wherein he gave the king so much good recreation, as he had thereby many good rewards. (74-75)
It seems likely that Puttenham is referring to George Ferrers, a lawyer, courtier, and poet of the mid-16th Century, who was the Lord of Misrule (the supervisor of court entertainments) under Edward VI, and who contributed to court entertainments in Elizabeth's time. Unfortunately, not one tragedy or other play by George Ferrers is known to us even by name; however, if we can judge by the extra attention Puttenham devotes to him, the lost dramatic output of Ferrers was more impressive to Puttenham than the lost output of Oxford.

Puttenham does not refer to Shakespeare, but he is, like Webbe, writing in the 1580s, before Shakespeare has begun to make his mark. His references to Oxford do not suggest that he considered the man either a great poet or a great playwright. Oxford's name tends to drift to the top of any list he is on simply because of his high rank, but there are many poets about whom Puttenham has far more to say and whom he praises in much higher terms. As for contemporary drama, Puttenham does not seem very excited by what he has seen, but then we must remember that the great age of English drama lies in the future. Puttenham was familiar with dramatic works by "Ferris" and Oxford that have not survived, but his mild praise of them does not suggest that we have lost any masterpieces by them. Thus, the evidence from Puttenham does not support the Oxfordian claim that Oxford was acknowledged as a great writer on the basis of works that have not come down to us under his name.

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Francis Meres

Webbe and Puttenham wrote works of literary criticism; Meres's Palladis Tamia; Wits Treasury, Being the Second Part of Wits Commonwealth (1598) is nothing of the sort. It is a commonplace book, a treasury of cliches and received opinions, cast into comparisons. The chapter of the book that interests us is "A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets, with the Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets," in which he makes many observations of the form "As Greek poetry had A and Latin poetry had B, so English poetry has C." As Don Cameron Allen has demonstrated, Meres relied very heavily on the writings of Ascham, Sidney, Puttenham, Nash, and Webbe for his literary judgments.

Meres seems to have had both Webbe and Puttenham before him as he wrote this chapter. Puttenham began his survey of English poets in book 1, chapter 31, of The Arte of English Poesie with these poets: Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, "that nameless, who wrote the Satyre called Piers Plowman," "Harding the Chronicler," and "Skelton, (I wot not for what great worthines) surnamed the Poet Laureat." The first six English poets in Meres's "Comparative Discourse" are, in order, Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, Piers Plowman, "Harding the Chronicler," and "Skelton (I know not for what great worthines, surnamed the Poet Laureat)." Meres differs from Puttenham and follows Webbe in believing that "Piers Plowman" was the name of the author of that work. Moreover, Meres's praise of Piers as "the first that observed the true quantity of our verse without the curiosity of Rhyme" is a pointless repetition of Webbe's describing Piers as "the first that I have seen, that observed the quantity of our verse without the curiosity of Rhyme." Webbe thought that English poets should eschew rhyme, and he singles out Piers Plowman as a forerunner of the direction he hopes English poetry takes, but Meres expresses no objection to rhyme, and his borrowing from Webbe shows his tendency to transcribe the opinions of his sources even when he does not share those opinions.

Oddly enough, Meres, who borrows the words and opinions of both Puttenham and Webbe on other matters, ignores their references to Oxford's nondramatic poetry and only mentions him for comedy. In all, Meres mentions more than 70 English poets: Oxford's name is only one of many in only one of Meres's many lists; among the 16th-Century English poets Meres praises repeatedly are Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, Drayton, Shakespeare, Warner, Chapman, and Watson. Thus, Meres does not seem to have considered Oxford a great poet, certainly not in a class with those men.

Meres is writing more than a decade later than Puttenham and Webbe, and he will sometimes update information he finds in his sources. For instance, Puttenham's pastoral poets are "Sir Philip Sydney and Maister Challenner, and that other Gentleman who wrate the late shepheardes Callender." Meres knows the name of Spenser, and he has other names to add to Puttenham's list: "Sir Philip Sidney, master Challener, Spencer, Stephen Gosson, Abraham Fraunce and Barnfield."

Meres again borrows from and supplements Puttenham in his lists of the best poets for tragedy and for comedy. Both of these lists are of those who are said to have written plays, whether those plays survived or not, and English names are listed in the same manner in each list: first comes the name of a nobleman named by Puttenham, then one playwright each from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (even if he wrote not in English but in Latin), then a gentleman named by Puttenham, then the professional playwrights.

Here is his list for tragedy:

As these Tragic Poets flourished in Greece, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Alexander Aetolus, Achaeus Erithriaeus, Astydamas Atheniensis, Apollodorus Tarsensis, Nicomachus Phrygius, Thespis Atticus, and Timon Apolloniates; and these among the Latins, Accius, M. Attilius, Pompeonius Secundus and Seneca: so these are our best for Tragedy, the Lord Buckhurst, Doctor Leg of Cambridge, Doctor Edes of Oxforde, master Edward Feris, the Author of the Mirror for Magistrates, Marlow, Peele, Watson, Kid, Shakespeare, Drayton, Chapman, Decker, and Benjamin Iohnson.
Among the Greek names are the big three: Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. Some of their plays have come down to us--but who are those other writers? Some of them are believed to have written plays that did not survive except for the odd passage quoted by another author, while for others we have neither a title nor a line from any play, yet they are included on this list because Meres came across a references to their having writtten plays, probably in the Officina of J. Ravisius Textor, a popular Latin grammar school text in the 16th Century (Allen, 127-28). Similarly, he found the names of Lord Buckhurst and Edward Ferris in Puttenham. As I noted in my discussion of Puttenham, it is true that Buckhurst wrote two acts of Gorboduc, but "Edward Ferris" is a phantom name. We know of no such Elizabethan playwright. Even if Puttenham meant to refer to George Ferrers, it was enough for Meres that he found the name "Edward Ferris" listed in Puttenham, and his transcription of Puttenham's error suggests that Meres did not require firsthand knowledge of tragedies by all the men on this list. On the other hand, Meres also includes nine playwrights of a later generation than those mentioned by Puttenham, and his familiarity with their works is more probable.

Like his list of the best poets for tragedy, Meres's list of the best for comedy includes classical authors reputed to have written comedies, even though for most of them no plays have survived; English names mentioned by Puttenham; scholars; and professional playwrights:

The best Poets for Comedy among the Greeks are these, Menander, Aristophanes, Eupolis Atheniensis, Alexis Terius, Nocostratus, Amipsias Atheniensis, Anaxandrides Rhodius, Aristonymus, Archippus Atheniensis and Callias Atheniensis; and among the Latins, Plautus, Terence, Naeuius, Sext. Turpilius, Licinius Imbrex, and Virgilius Romanus: so the best for comedy amongst us bee, Edward Earle of Oxenforde, Doctor Gager of Oxforde, Maister Rowley once a rare Scholar of learned Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, Maister Edwardes one of her Majesty's Chapel, eloquent and witty John Lilly, Lodge, Gascoyne, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood, Anthony Munday our best plotter, Chapman, Porter, Wilson, Hathway, and Henry Chettle.
Among the classical authors, works by Menander, Aristophanes, Plautus, and Terence have survived, but we have not a single play by any of the others. Meres lists them not because he was familiar with their plays (he couldn't have been) but because he had read that they were reputed to have written plays. Similarly, he came across Oxford's name as a reputed English author of comedy in Puttenham, and whether he was familiar with a comedy by Oxford or not, Puttenham's mention was enough to qualify Oxford for inclusion. Of course, it's conceivable that Meres somehow came across some comedy by Oxford that was known to Puttenham but has since disappeared. Given the nature of Meres's project, however, and his propensity for transcribing the information, judgments, and even mistakes he found in his sources, it seems more reasonable to conclude that Oxford's name is listed not because Meres was familiar with any comedy by Oxford but because he was still borrowing from Puttenham. Meres found the names of Oxford and Edwards listed by Puttenham for comedy just as he had found Buckhurst and "Edward Ferris" listed for tragedy.

It is more likely that Meres was familiar with English dramatists whose names occur further down his lists. Several other authors on Meres's lists of the best poets for tragedy or comedy are never mentioned again by him; however, among the listed playwrights who (unlike Oxford) are praised elsewhere by Meres are Marlowe, Peele, Watson, Kyd, Drayton, Legge, Lodge, Gascoigne, Greene, and Wilson. Meres seems to have thought more highly of each of these men's works than he did of Oxford's reputation. Chapman and Shakespeare are on both lists, and Meres seems to have an especially high regard for the latter's plays:

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latins: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Loves labors lost, his Loves labors won, his Midsummers night dream, and his Merchant of Venice: for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare is here compared to Latin playwrights whose works have survived and not to classical authors who are merely reputed to have been playwrights; note also that Shakespeare is described not as a dramatic "poet" but as one who wrote "for the stage."

Thus the evidence from Meres does not add to Oxford's reputation. Although both Webbe and Puttenham had kind words for Oxford, Meres, who borrows from them liberally, ignores their praise of Oxford's lyric verse. He does apparently borrow Puttenham's reference to Oxford as the author of a comedy, but does not suggest that he is familiar with the work in question; in any event, there are a dozen other playwrights mentioned by Meres whom he praises more highly than he does Oxford, and one in particular, Shakespeare, whose works can stand direct comparison with the best classical works for the stage. Webbe had thought Spenser at least the equal of Theocritus and Virgil for pastoral; Meres seconds that opinion and also ranks Spenser's Faerie Queene with the Iliad. If there is a great playwright in Meres's judgment, his name is not Oxford but Shakespeare.

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Henry Peacham

Henry Peacham's reference to Oxford is yet another case where the evidence suggests the extent not of Oxford's reputation but of the popularity of Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie. Peacham's 1622 work, The Compleat Gentleman Fashioning him absolute in the most necessary & commendable Qualities concerning Minde or Bodie, is a courtesy book, not a work of literary criticism. Most of the one chapter Peacham devotes to poetry is given over to an appreciation of Latin poetry, but he then moves to a survey of English poetry from the time of Chaucer. The reference to Oxford appears in the last paragraph of the chapter:
In the time of our late Queene Elizabeth, which was truly a golden Age (for such a world of refined wits, and excellent spirits it produced, whose like are hardly to be hoped for, in any succeeding Age) aboue others, who honored Poesie with their pens and practice (to omit her Majesty, who had a singular gift herein) were Edward, Earl of Oxford, the Lord Buckhurst, Henry Lord Paget; our Phoenix, the noble Sir Philip Sidney, M. Edward Dyer, M. Edmund Spencer, M. Samuel Daniel, with sundry others; whom (together with those admirable wits, yet living, and so well known), not out of Envy, but to avoid tediousnesse I overpass. Thus much of Poetry. (95-96)

The list isn't entirely Peacham's own work but is based on the list from Puttenham that I quoted above. The first four names on Peacham's list are the same names and in the same order as on Puttenham's list, and the reason for not listing every poet (not for envy but to avoid tediousness) is also the same. Somewhat surprisingly, for the author of a courtesy book, Peacham commits something of a social gaffe by transcribing Puttenham so slavishly. Peacham means to list the poets in the order of social rank. Peacham refers to "the Lord Buckhurst," which was the appropriate title when Puttenham wrote, but Buckhurst was named the Earl of Dorset in 1604. Similarly, M[aster] Edward Dyer was the appropriate title in Puttenham's time, but Dyer was knighted in 1596 and deserved the honorific "Sir." If Peacham had made the list without cribbing from Puttenham, he would used the higher titles.

Thus, the names of such minor poets as Oxford and Paget make the list because they were lords whose poetry was known to Puttenham. There is nothing in Peacham's brief chapter on poetry to suggest that he himself had actually read the poetry of Oxford or Paget, but Puttenham's approbation of their verse in the 1580s was good enough for Peacham in 1622. The only poet on the list whose work was entirely unknown to Puttenham is Samuel Daniel. Daniel, like Spenser before him, had been considered poet laureate under Elizabeth, and as such would have merited inclusion on such a list. Ben Jonson, however, does not appear on the list because he was made poet laureate under Elizabeth's successor.

Oxfordians note that while Oxford is mentioned, Shakespeare is not. Yet Peacham says that the list is not complete; Shakespeare could certainly be among the "sundry others" (as could Marlowe, Chapman, Lodge, Warner, and Drayton, to name a few of Meres's favorites); for that matter, there is no one on the list who was primarily a playwright, or who wrote plays at all for the public theaters. The only poetry published by Shakespeare during Elizabeth's reign appeared before he had attained the rank of "gentleman." By Peacham's standards, Shakespeare's social rank among Elizabethan poets would not have been high enough to make the list. Had Peacham's list included Jacobean gentlemen who wrote poetry or plays, then we would have expected Shakespeare and Jonson to be named.

Peacham's reference to Oxford, like Meres's, thus tells us more about Puttenham's reputation than Oxford's. Oxford's reputation as a poet was based originally on a handful of poems in the Paradise of Dainty Devices that William Webbe liked; Puttenham was familiar with some other Oxford poems and a play; Meres we know had read both Webbe and Puttenham, and copied not only some of their judgments but also some of their errors, but he does not seem familiar with any works by Oxford that are unknown to us; Peacham essentially copied out a passage from Puttenham and pasted it into his text. There is no suggestion that Peacham is familiar with any poems at all by Oxford, even those known to Webbe, let alone works by him that have not come down to us under his name.

A careful consideration then of the four sources that Oxfordians claim as evidence that Elizabethans considered Oxford a great poet contradicts that claim. Oxford had some slight reputation as a poet, but nothing in any of the four sources suggests that Oxford produced work of both a quantity and quality far beyond what today we may safely attribute to him.

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A Device and a Conceit

Oxford is mentioned in references to a pair of other works that have not come down to us: a "device" of which he was a "presenter" in 1579, and a "pleasant conceit" said to have dated from about 1580. As Oxfordians claim that these two items add yet more gloss to their man's reputation, it is worth considering what kinds of works they were likely to have been, whether Oxford wrote them, and whether if they had survived we should have been more likely to esteem him.

The Shrovetide Device

Our source for the first work is a letter from Gilbert Talbot to his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, early in 1579:
It is but vain to trouble your Lordship with such shows as were showed before Her Majesty this Shrovetide at night. The chiefest was a device presented by the persons of the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Surrey, the Lords Thomas Howard and Windsor. The device was prettier than it happened to have been performed; but the best of it, and I think the best liked, was two rich jewels which were presented to Her Majesty by the two Earls. (Quoted in Ward, 163-34)
From this lukewarm notice, and the report that a play called The History of Murderous Michael was performed about the same time, some Oxfordians have persuaded themselves that the "device" and the play were the same work, that Oxford was both the author of this work and an actor in it, and that the work was actually Arden of Feversham (see, for example, Clark 116-61 and Ogburn 617-18). We know nothing more about the Shrovetide device than is contained in Gilbert Talbot's letter, but his description clearly identifies the device not as a play but as a court masque. Since the Oxfordian confusion seems to result from a basic ignorance about masques, it might prove useful to discuss Oxford's probable contribution to the device on the basis of masques that have survived.

George Gascoigne published "A device of a Maske" that he had been commissioned to write for the marriages of two children of Lord Mountacute in 1572. He tells us that

eight Gentlemen (all of blood or alliaunce to the sayd L. Mountacute) . . . had determined to present a Maske at the daye appointed for the sayd marriages. . . . Whereupon they entreated the Aucthor to devise verses to be uttered by an Actor ... (xliii)
What is of interest to us here (besides Gascoigne's use of the word "device") is the division of labor between the presenters, the author, and the actor. The presenters had the original idea for a masque, and they procured fine clothes to wear, but in order to justify the spectacle they hired Gascoigne to write the verses and a professional actor to speak them; Gascoigne tells us that the actor brought in a boy (presumably from his company) to "pronounce the device."

This seems to have been the general pattern. Although Oxfordians like Clark and Ogburn believe Talbot's letter is evidence that Oxford had a career as an actor, I can find no reference anywhere to any nobleman's ever speaking a line in any court masque during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. The lines were spoken and the songs were sung by professional actors; the "presenters" appeared in costume as the actors spoke lines about the characters or qualities that were being presented; then the "presenters" danced; and then members of the court audience were brought into the dance.

A masque that has points in common with the Shrovetide device is Samuel Daniel's "Vision of the Twelve Goddesses," which was "presented by the Queen's most excellent majesty and her ladies" on January 8, 1604. Queen Anne herself "presented" Pallas, and eleven other ladies of the court "presented" other goddesses, but none of them spoke any lines, and there was never any attempt at acting. The spectators were never meant to forget that they were seeing the queen herself "presenting" Pallas. The queen and the ladies appeared in marvelous costumes, presented gifts (as Oxford seems to have in the Shrovetide device), and participated in a dance, but all the lines were spoken by actors.

Based on what we know about other masques, we can reasonably say that Oxford as a "presenter" probably wore a costume and danced, but never uttered a line. As for the authorship of the masque, there is no reason to believe Oxford wrote it, as our only source about the work, Gilbert Talbot, is silent on the matter. Thus, Oxford's participation as a presenter in the Shrovetide device contributed nothing to his literary reputation.

A Pleasant Conceit

While there is no reason to believe that Oxford wrote the Shrovetide device, Oxfordians are on somewhat stronger ground in suggesting that one work by Oxford that is unknown to us still existed in the 1730s, when Francis Peck announced his intention to publish a number of manuscript items including "A pleasant Conceit of Vere Earl of Oxford, discontented at the Rising of a mean Gentleman in the English Court, circa MDLXXX" (Miller 369).

Peck's description does not match any work by Oxford's that has survived under his name. The work may not have been by Oxford at all. It is described as "of" not "by" Oxford, which may indicate that Oxford was not the author but the subject of the work. Even if Peck meant to name Oxford as the author, he could have been wrong in his attribution; works by such poets as Campion and Dyer have been falsely attributed to Oxford, and Peck himself is not the most reliable of writers: Masson, who is often generous with praise of his predecessors, refers to Peck's work on Milton as a "silly medley of odds and ends" (ix). Since Peck never published the work, and the manuscript of it has not survived, we may never know what it was; but let's assume that there was indeed such a work and it was correctly attributed to Oxford: what kind of work was it?

For some Oxfordians, the "pleasant conceit" can only have been Twelfth Night, and they think Peck had in his hands a manuscript of the play attributed not to Shakespeare but to the actual author, Oxford (e.g. Clark 220-32; Ogburn 386, 633). To believe this idea, we must believe that Peck did not recognize the work. Yet Twelfth Night was not an obscure work in Peck's day and Peck himself was a Shakespeare buff, the author of Explanatory and Critical Notes on Divers Passages of Shakespeare's Plays (1740). If Peck had come across Twelfth Night in manuscript, he would certainly have recognized it. If he had thought Twelfth Night was by Oxford, he would surely have mentioned it.

That Peck describes the work as a "pleasant conceit" suggests that the work was not a play at all; The title of Peck's 1740 work refers to Shakespeare's "plays," not his "pleasant conceits." I cannot find an instance of anyone in Oxford's day or Peck's referring to a play as a "pleasant conceit," but the phrase does turn up in Lyly's Euphues, where the hero, suffering from love-sickness, asks a friend to "practise some pleasant conceit upon thy poor patient" (51). The "pleasant conceit" would consist in treating Euphues's condition not with medicine but with love poems: "one dram of Ovid's art, some of Tibullus's drugs, one of Propertius's pills, which may cause me either to purge my new disease or recover my hoped desire" (51).

Euphues does not ask his friend to write a play for him, but to join him in a joke. There is a practical joke played in Twelfth Night, and I suppose Toby Belch might consider the forged letter to Malvolio a "pleasant conceit" (although the phrase occurs nowhere in Shakespeare); but to say that the play contains within it a "pleasant conceit" is not to say that the play itself is a "pleasant conceit" anymore than the play Julius Caesar, which depicts an assassination, is itself an assassination.

My guess is that what Peck found was an epigram by or about Oxford, but that's only a guess. Still, it's a much more reasonable guess than that the "pleasant conceit" was Twelfth Night. Given Peck's familiarity with Shakespeare's work, it is inconceivable that he would not have recognized the play and then announced his discovery. There's no reason to believe that the "pleasant conceit," even if it was by Oxford, was a play at all, or that knowledge of the work would have improved Oxford's literary reputation. After all, Peck saw the manuscript himself, but it did not make an Oxfordian out of him.

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Praise for the Patron

Oxford was not just an occasional poet, he was also a patron of poets and other writers, and quite a few works were dedicated to him. Now, just as we had to discount Puttenham's praise of Queen Elizabeth as the finest poet who ever wrote, so it is important to remember that dedications to patrons are often written in a tone so obsequious and fawning as to make us doubt their author's sincerity. What is so surprising about the dedications to Oxford is that while they are full of flattery and praise, their authors do not praise Oxford's skill as a poet.

Of course, one expects a high-born patron to be praised for his high birth and generosity, but shouldn't a patron who is also a poet be praised for the excellence of his verses? Thomas Bedingfield in his dedication to Cardanus Comfort (1575) thanks Oxford for his support and encouragement--but he does not mention Oxford's writings. Anthony Munday's dedication to Oxford of his Mirror of Mutability (1579) praises not Oxford's skill as a poet but his generosity as a reader, noting his "courteous and gentle perusing my book entitled Galien of France" (quoted in Ogburn 672). In 1580, Munday dedicated Zelauto to Oxford and mentioned Oxford's reputation not as a poet but as a patron, referring to "all the brave books which have been bestowed" upon the earl (Ogburn 672). In 1580 John Lyly dedicated Euphues and His England to Oxford, who is praised for his high birth and honor, and for the puissance of his protection--but not his writing. Thomas Greene's dedication of Greene's Card of Fancy (1584) again refers to Oxford's reputation as a patron:

Wheresoever Maecenas lodgeth, thither no doubt will scholars flock. And your Honor being a worthy favorer and fosterer of learning hath forced many through your excellent virtue to offer the first-fruits of their study at the shrine of your Lordship's courtesy. (Ogburn 675)
Patrons were often called "Maecenas," after the ancient Roman patron of Horace and Virgil, but a patron who had a reputation as a poet might preferred being called another Horace rather than another Maecenas.

The most significant dedication to Oxford for our purposes is in Spenser's Faerie Queene. Spenser wrote 14 dedicatory sonnets for the work, and he praises Oxford for his high birth and for his kindness to poets:

And also for the love, which thou dost bear
To th'Heliconian imps, and they to thee,
They unto thee, and thou to them most dear:
Dear as thou art unto thyself, so love
That loves and honors thee, as doth behoove.
"Helicon" is the legendary home of the muses (who are called by Spenser the "Heliconian maids" at FQ and the "imps" are their offspring; thus the "Heliconian imps" are poets. Oxford is called not a poet himself but a lover of poets, and his generous patronage surely entitled him to that honor. He couldn't be called "Maecenas" here because Spenser reserves that name in another dedicatory sonnet for Francis Walsingham, "the great Maecenas of this age," a much more significant patron.

Among the other recipients of Spenser's dedicatory sonnets, some, such as Christopher Hatton, Lord Burghley, and the Earl of Essex were also, like Oxford, occasional poets, but they are praised not for their poetry but for their character and accomplishments. However, both Lord Buckhurst and Raleigh, whose names had appeared with Oxford's in Puttenham's list of Elizabethan poets, are highly praised by Spenser for their fine poetry. Thus, to judge by Spenser's dedicatory sonnets to the Faerie Queene, Oxford's reputation as a poet was not worth mentioning compared to Buckhurst's or Raleigh's, and even Oxford's considerable reputation as a patron was dwarfed by Walsingham's.

Spenser's friend Gabriel Harvey never dedicated a work to Oxford, but he did once refer to his literary efforts in a Latin poem addressed to the Earl in 1578 that savors of a bid for patronage:

Your British numbers have been widely sung, while your Epistle testifies how much you exceed in letters, being more courtly than Castiglione himself, more polished. I have seen your many Latin things, and more English are extant; of French and Italian muses, the manners of many peoples, their arts and laws you have drunk deeply. Not in vain was Sturmius known to you, nor so many Frenchmen and polished Italians, nor Germans. But, O celebrated one, put away your feeble pen, your bloodless books, your impractical writings! (Jameson 4.3.5-15)
Although this is a favorite passage among Oxfordians (who invaribaly quote the highly inaccurate translation by B. M. Ward), it hardly reflects great credit on their man's literary reputation. Harvey is telling him to stop writing, and become a soldier instead. Harvey does not call Oxford a great writer, but rather one who has wielded a "feeble pen." The most interesting element is his reference to having seen other "Latin things" by Oxford. Harvey doesn't say whether they were any good, but in any event they have not survived. The one work of Oxford's he praises at all is his Latin Epistle to John Cheke's Latin translation of Castiglione. Of Oxford's English poetry, Harvey says only that "they have been widely sung" and he suggests that Oxford's writings are highly derivative of French and Italian sources. It sounds as if the English poems Harvey saw were very much like those in the Paradise of Dainty Devices, if indeed they were not the same poems.

If Harvey had admired Oxford's poetry, this was certainly the time to say so, but there is no suggestion here that he considered Oxford a great poet or that Oxford's poetic output was substantial, or that Oxford wrote plays. In another Latin poem from the same volume, Harvey lists works that would be required in

a complete library in delightful things. Let Chaucer be there, and let famous Surrey be there, and let there be some room, my hearts, for Gascoigne. (Jameson 4.22.30-32)

Thus, in 1578, at least, Harvey did not consider Oxford a great poet. When Harvey on later occasions listed the best poets of his time, he still did not include Oxford. For instance, in his marginal notes in an edition of Chaucer, he mentions Sidney, Spenser, Warner, Daniel, Silvester, Chapman, Dyer, Raleigh, Constable, Fraunce, Watson, and Shakespeare--but not Oxford (Wells 4). When Harvey wished to praise, he would not merely admit, "I have seen your writings," as he said of Oxford's work, but would say something along these lines:

Come divine Poets, and sweet Orators, the silver streaming fountains or flowingests wit, and shiningest Art: come Chaucer, and Spenser; More, and Cheke; Ascham, and Astley; Sidney, and Dyer (Wells 33)
Harvey had read some of Oxford's writingss, but did not find in them the streaming fountains, flowing wit, and shining art he found in Spenser, Sidney, and Dyer.

The evidence of those who sought or received Oxford's patronage does not suggest that any of them considered him a great poet. Even though we would expect exaggerated praise in such works as dedicatory poems and Harvey's Latin encomium to Oxford, what we find in them is praise of Oxford's high birth, his learning, his promise, his generosity--but not of his poetry.

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Lists of Elizabethan Poets that Exclude Oxford

The Oxfordians naturally point to Webbe, Puttenham, Meres, and Peacham as evidence for Oxford's reputation as a poet, but there are plenty of other lists of poets from the period on which Oxford's name is nowhere to be found, just as we do not find it on Harvey's lists. On the assumption that Spenser was the poet with the highest reputation in the last years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, I searched William Wells's Spenser Allusions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1972). Of course, every item in this work contains an allusion to Spenser, but I was searching for items where Spenser is but one of several named poets. I found that such names as Sidney, Daniel, Drayton, and Shakespeare pop up repeatedly, while Oxford goes practically unmentioned. The only new source I have found where Oxford's name is listed is John Bodenham's Bel-vedere or The Garden of the Muses (1600), a collection of lines of poetry sorted into categories. Oxford is one of 41 poets whose works Bodenham has mined, so his appearance on the list suggests that he was considered a notable poet, but hardly a great one: the poets Bodenham cites most are Drayton, Daniel, Spenser, and Shakespeare.

At least Bodenham noticed Oxford. The following are more typical among the items in Spenser Allusions:

There are a great many more such instances in Spenser Allusions, but these should be enough to suggest the extent of Oxford's poetic reputation in the last decade of his life. Someone who lists the five or so finest poets of the day is unlikely to think of Oxford, but if there are more than forty names on the list, as there are for Meres and Bodenham, then Oxford may make the cut.

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I have tried to look at all the evidence about Oxford's contemporary reputation in context. In context, Webbe's remarks appear not as a declaration that Oxford was a great poet but as the qualified approval of one who, while he was was fond of the Paradise of Dainty Devices, reserved his true adulation for Spenser's Shepheardes Calender. In context, Puttenham's placing Oxford's name first among Elizabethan poets and writers of comedy says more about social rank than literary merit. If we consider how seldom he mentions or quotes Oxford, we cannot conclude that Puttenham considered him either a great poet or a great playwright. In context, the references to Oxford in Meres and Peacham say a great deal more about Puttenham's reputation than about Oxford's.

Those four authors are the strongest evidence Oxfordians advance for their claim that Oxford's reputation was that of a great poet, yet none of the four praises Oxford in the terms they use for the poets they admire most. As for those lost works, the Shrovetide device (for which there is no evidence of Oxford's authorship) and the "pleasant conceit" (for which the authorship is uncertain), neither Gilbert Talbot nor Francis Peck, the only people we know of that ever referred to these works, seemed very impressed by them. Moreover, if Oxford's reputation had been that of a great poet, how did his greatness escape the notice of those who in dedicating works to him praised his high birth and his generosity but not his poetry? How could he have been considered a great poet in his time if most of the writers who listed the best poets of the day did not even mention him?

This survey of the actual evidence allows us to see how misleading the partial quotation favored by some Oxfordians can be. Here again is the statement about Oxford's literary reputation from the Frontline show:

literary critics of the period called de Vere one of the greatest Elizabethan poets and "the best for comedy." If he did write great comedies and great poems, what happened to them?
It is not true to say that any literary critic of the period thought Oxford "one of the greatest Elizabethan poets" or that he wrote "great comedies." What praise there is of his poetry is based, as far as we can tell, on his surviving poems, especially those that appeared in the Paradise of Dainty Devices. If he wrote works that have been lost, there is nothing to think that their quality was markedly different from the poems that have survived. He may have had a hand in a comedy known to Puttenham that has not survived, but Puttenham's mild praise does not suggest that he was struck by the comedy's greatness. Indeed, the more closely we look at the evidence the more obvious it becomes that Oxford was never considered a great poet by his contemporaries. As for the question what happened to his "great comedies and great poems," there is no evidence that any "great" works by Oxford ever existed.

Terry Ross

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Works Cited

Allen, Don Cameron. Francis Mere's Treatise "Poetrie": A Critical Edition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 16, nos. 3-4 (September-December 1933).

Barrell, Charles Wisner. "Afterwards." In J. Thomas Looney, "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949.

Bodenham, John. Bel-vedere, or The Garden of the Muses. 1600. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1979 [rpt. of 1875 Spenser Society edition].

Bedingfield, Thomas. Cardanus Comforte, translated into Englishe. And Published by commandment of the right honourable the Earle of Oxenforde. Newly perfected, corrected, and augmented. 1576. Reprint. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1969.

Clark, Eva Turner. Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Payson, 1931.

Daniel, Samuel. The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604). Edited by Joan Rees. In Terence John Bew Spencer and Stanley Wells, eds., A Book of Masques. 1967. Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Gascoigne, George. The Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire. Corrected, perfected, and augmented by the Author 1575. Reprint. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1969.

Harbage, Alfred and S. Schoenbaum. Annals of English Drama: 975-1700, Second edition. London: Methuan, 1964.

Jameson, Thomas Hugh. The "Gratulationes Valdinenses" of Gabriel Harvey. 1938: Dissertation, Yale University.

Looney, J. Thomas. "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward De Vere Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and The Poems of Edward de Vere. Third edition, ed. Ruth Loyd Miller. 1920. Reprint. Port Washington NY, Kennikat, 1975.

Lyly, John. Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit; Euphues & his England (1578-80). Ed. Morris William Croll & Harry Clemons. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

May, Steven. "The Poems of Edward DeVere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, and of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex." Studies in Philology, Texts and Studies 1980.

Masson, David. The Life of John Milton, vol. 1: 1608-39. 1881. Reprint. New York: Peter Smith, 1946.

Meres, Francis. Palladis Tamia. Wits Treasury Being the Second part of Wits Common wealth 1598. Reprint. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1973.

Miller, Ruth Loyd, ed. A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres: From the Original Edition of 1573. Port Washington NY: Kennikat, 1975.

Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality. New York: Dodd, 1984.

Orgel, Stephen. The Jonsonian Masque. 1967. Reprint. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Peacham, Henry. The Compleat Gentleman, Fashioning him absolute in the most necessary Commendable qualities concerning Minde or Bodie that may be required in a Noble Gentleman. 1622. Reprint. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1968.

Puttemham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. 1589. Reprint. Kent State University Press, 1970 [reprint of 1906 Arbor ed.].

Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576-1606). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927.

Spenser, Edmund. Poetical Works. Edited by J. C. Smith & E. de Selincourt. 1912. Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Stern, Virginia F. Gabriel Harvey: His Life, Marginalia, and Library. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Ward, B. M. The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. London: Murray, 1928.

Webbe, William. A Discourse of English Poetrie (1585). Edited by Edward Arbor. 1870. Reprint. Freeport NY, Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

William Wells, editor. Spenser Allusions in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Compiled by Ray Heffner, Dorothy E. Mason, and Frederick M. Padelford. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

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