Of Oxford's prosody, Oxfordians say little, other than to note that Oxford wrote a sonnet in a form that is very much like the form that Shakespeare used most often, and that he wrote four poems in the same stanza Shakespeare used in Venus and Adonis, and that they consider these coincidences to be evidence that Oxford wrote the works of Shakespeare. Oxfordians neglect to point out that the overwhelming majority of Shakespeare's poetry is in verse forms that Oxford never used, and that many of Oxford's poems are in verse forms that Shakespeare used seldom or never. This would be surprising if Oxford had indeed written the works of Shakespeare. In that case, one might expect Oxford's poems to be the apprentice work of the man who became Shakespeare; one might expect him to be trying out the verse forms that find their fullest achievement in the plays and poems--but such is not the case.
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The coincidence that Oxford's sonnet is in the form used most often by Shakespeare led the founding father of Oxfordianism, J. Thomas Looney, to assert that "the actual founder of the Shakespearean sonnet was Edward de Vere" (386). In actuality, this particular sonnet form was established before Oxford was even born, and it was used to good effect by a great many other poets. Indeed, there were hundreds if not thousands of sonnets in that form published in English before 1600. It would be useful to review some of the history of the "Shakespearean" sonnet in the years before Shakespeare's Sonnets appeared in print.
The Shakespearean sonnet comprises 14 lines of iambic pentameter rhyming "ababcdcdefefgg." Shakespeare's are the most famous poems written in this form, but it had been used by many other poets for more than half a century before the publication in 1609 of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Although it sounds silly to refer to sonnets written before Shakespeare as "Shakespearean," that's the most common name today for the form; when I refer to the form and not the author I'll use quotation marks.
Credit for establishing the form in English belongs to Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47; Oxford was born in 1550), whose poems circulated in manuscript before appearing in the popular and influential 1557 collection known as "Tottel's Miscellany." Edmund Spenser came to prefer a different sonnet form of his own invention, but as a young man he had employed the "Shakespearean" sonnet in his 1569 translations of Bellay and Marot.
Originally, the word "sonnet" was used to refer to any short lyric, not necessarily one of 14 lines (let alone one using the "Shakespearean" rhyme scheme), but in 1575, George Gascoigne, in his "Certain Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English," tried to restrict the meaning of the word to refer to "Shakespearean" sonnets only:
some think that all poems (being short) may be called Sonnets, as indeed it is a diminutive word derived of "Sonare," but yet I can best allow to call those Sonnets which are of fourteen lines, every line containing ten syllables. The first twelve do rhyme in staves of four lines by cross-meter, and the last two rhyming together do conclude the whole. [note 4]Gascoigne followed his own advice. One of his "Shakespearean" sonnets appeared as a commendatory poem to Thomas Bedingfield's Cardanus Comfort (1573), the same volume in which Oxford's first published poem--not a sonnet--also appeared. Gascoigne's 1575 collection The Posies contains eighteen "Shakespearean" sonnets, including a series of seven on a theme suggested by Alexander Nevile as well as "A Sonnet Written in Praise of the Brown Beauty" (perhaps a forerunner of Shakespeare's "Dark Lady"?).
The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), in which eight of Oxford's poems (but not his sonnet) appeared, included a "Shakespearean" sonnet by another poet; "Shakespearean" sonnets appear also in such volumes as the Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions (1578) and the Forest of Fancy (1579); Walter Raleigh used the form in a commendatory poem for Spenser's Faerie Queene (1589). Another non-sonnet of Oxford's was published in The Phoenix Nest (1593), which also included 14 "Shakespearean" sonnets by other poets.
After the appearance of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella in a pirated quarto in 1591, a great many poets published sonnet sequences of their own. Sidney wrote in over 30 different sonnet forms, and while none of the sonnets in Astrophil & Stella is a "Shakespearean" sonnet, Sidney nevertheless did use the form in 14 sonnets that were not written for the collection. Moreover, this edition of Astrophil and Stella also included 28 "Shakespearean" sonnets by Samuel Daniel. Daniel soon published an authorized volume of his poems, and other poets followed suit.
Although Shakespeare's book of sonnets was not printed until 1609, at least some of those sonnets had been written by the end of the previous decade: Francis Meres referred in 1598 to Shakespeare's "sugared Sonnets among his private friends," and versions of sonnets 138 and 144 appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599). I have therefore decided not to mention other poets whose sonnets, though they may have circulated in manuscript, were not published before 1598. The following works were written entirely or substantially in "Shakespearean" sonnets and published between 1592 and 1597 (this list is not meant to be complete):
Thus, far from being "the actual founder" of the Shakespearean sonnet, as Looney dubbed him, Oxford was not present at the creation of the form, and his one attempt did not contribute materially to its development. Since so many poets wrote not just isolated sonnets like Oxford's sole effort but entire sequences of "Shakespearean" sonnets, Shakespeare had hundreds, if not thousands of exemplars available to him in print, and many more besides Oxford's existed in manuscript.
As for J. Thomas Looney himself, his near-total ignorance of the history of the "Shakespearean" sonnet is amazing. Looney knew that Oxford had written a commendatory poem for Thomas Bedingfield's Cardanus Comfort, but if he had ever looked at Bedingfield's book he should have seen Gascoigne's commendatory sonnet. Looney knew that several of Oxford's poems appeared in the Paradise of Dainty Devices, but he seems not to have looked at that book either, or else he might have noticed the "Shakespearean" sonnet that occurs there.
Looney was not a scholar. He did not spend his time tracking down obscure Elizabethan texts in the great libraries of England; indeed his researches seem to have been limited to books available to him through the Library of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He seems never even to have looked at modern editions of Elizabethan sonnets. All but one of the sonnet sequences listed above had been reprinted in the English Garner series in the late 19th Century, and had appeared again in Sidney Lee's two-volume collection Elizabethan Sonnets, which was published in 1904. Looney was clearly impressed by Lee: there are dozens of citations in Looney's Shakespeare Identified to other works by Lee, who wrote a biography of Shakespeare and the entry on Oxford for the Dictionary of National Biography, and surely Lee's collection of sonnets made it as far north as Newcastle-upon-Tyne (I have seen Lee's Elizabethan Sonnets in several used book stores in America in recent years), but Looney somehow missed it.
If Looney had known of the "Shakespearean" sonnets by Surrey, Spenser, Gascoigne, Raleigh, Sidney and the many sonnet writers of the 1590s, he could never have called Oxford "the actual founder of the Shakespearean sonnet," but Looney was never one to let his own ignorance get in the way of a good story. Fortunately, he was at least a little bit more knowledgeable and careful in his discussion of the Venus and Adonis stanza.
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-The six-line pentameter stanzas in Venus and Adonis described by "Shakespeare" as the "first heir of my invention," occur commonly in extant early poetry of Edward de Vere but almost nowhere else in the English verse of the 16th century.Of the 16 poems that may be safely credited to Oxford, the V&A stanza occurs in 4, but the stanza appeared in poems written before Oxford was born, and was used by a great many poets before Venus and Adonis appeared; it was, in fact, one of the most commonly used stanzas in Elizabethan poetry, and Venus and Adonis shows no signs of being influenced in the slightest by Oxford's four attempts in this form. The anonymous author of the "Beginner's Guide" seems as unacquainted with Elizabethan poetry as Looney was, so once again a survey is in order. As was the case with my discussion of the "Shakespearean" sonnet, many of the poems in the Venus and Adonis stanza that I will refer to will be familiar to readers who have read much Elizabethan poetry; for other readers (and for the anonymous Oxfordian author), this part of my essay may serve as a reading list.
As with the term "Shakespearean sonnet," it sounds silly to name a term for Shakespeare or one of his works when discussing its existence and development before Shakespeare used it, but Venus and Adonis is the most famous poem using the stanza, so we're stuck with the name. I'll refer to the stanza as the "V&A stanza" for short, and when I refer to the poem, I'll spell out the title.
The V&A stanza comprises six lines of iambic pentameter rhyming "ababcc." Any good anthology of Elizabethan verse should contain quite a few poems in this stanza. I began my survey of the "Shakespearean" sonnet with Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who died three years before Oxford was born, and it seems fitting to point out that his poem "My Ratcliffe, when thy reckless youth offends" is written in the V&A stanza. As I have mentioned, even Looney concedes that Lord Vaux, who died when Oxford was 6 years old, also used the stanza. George Gascoigne, who did so much to establish the "Shakespearean" sonnet as the typical English sonnet form, was also quite fond of the V&A stanza. His Posies (1575) contains, in addition to its 18 "Shakespearean" sonnets, 13 poems in the V&A form, comprising 117 stanzas.
In 1576, one of Oxford's V&A-stanza poems appeared in The Paradise of Dainty Devices, along with 12 poems in that stanza by other poets, at least four of them by Vaux; three more poems in the stanza appeared in the 1580 edition of The Paradise of Dainty Devices and yet another in the 1585 edition: Oxford thus wrote only one of the 17 V&A poems to appear at some point in The Paradise of Dainty Devices. In 1576 the stanza was also used in George Whetstone's The Rock of Regard and in Walter Raleigh's commendatory poem to George Gascoigne's Steele Glasse. Chidiock Tichborne's greatest hit, "Verses Written in the Tower The Night Before His Execution" (1586), and Robert Greene's "Sweet are the thoughts that savor of content" (published 1591) are written in the V&A stanza, and Sir Philip Sidney used it in a dozen different poems.
Many V&A stanza poems are three stanzas long, and special mention should be made of Thomas Watson's Hekatompathia, or The Passionate Century of Love (1582) which comprised 100 18-line "sonnets": each poem contained, in effect, three V&A stanzas. Hekatompathia was dedicated to Oxford, who, Watson tells us, read the work in manuscript [note 5]. One of Oxford's V&A-stanza poems, "Fain Would I Sing but Fury Makes Me Fret," is in this special form, which we may call the "Watson" sonnet; no poem by Shakespeare is in this form.
We know that Shakespeare was familiar with Thomas Lodge's prose romance Rosalynde (1592), because it is the principal source for As You Like It: five poems in the V&A stanza appear in Lodge's work.
One poem by Oxford, "What Cunning Can Express," appeared in the 1593 collection The Phoenix Nest. Oxford's poem is delightful, but it was not written in the V&A stanza; however, 23 of the 97 poems in the collection were written in the V&A stanza, making it the most popular verse form in The Phoenix Nest.
By this point it should be clear that Oxford's contribution to the V&A stanza was minimal. Even if all poems written in the V&A stanza before the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593 had been brief lyrics, as Oxford's V&A poems were, there were thus a great many other examples from which Shakespeare could have drawn inspiration or influence. Venus and Adonis, however, is a long narrative poem, and the most important poems in the V&A stanza were also much longer than anything Oxford ever attempted. Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender (1579) uses the V&A stanza in "Januarye," "August," and "December." It is also the stanza of his 600-line "Teares of the Muses" (1591), and of his 108-line pastoral elegy on the death of Sidney, "Astrophel" (1595--published after Venus and Adonis, but a wonderful poem).
The most important model for Venus and Adonis is not by Spenser, however, but by Thomas Lodge, who also wrote Rosalynde. Lodge's Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589) is not just a long poem in the V&S stanza (786 lines), it is also the first of the Elizabethan erotic minor epics based on an episode from Ovid, the genre to which Venus and Adonis (1593) belongs. Some of the poets who wrote in the genre Lodge introduced used rhymed couplets (e.g., Marlowe, Chapman, Edwards, Drayton), but among the many other minor epics that followed Lodge's and Shakespeare's, both Thomas Heywood's Oenone and Paris (1594) and John Marston's The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion's Image (1598) were in the V&A stanza [note 6].
Thus what the Oxfordian web site would have us believe about the V&A stanza is as false as what Looney would have us believe about the "Shakespearean" sonnet. The stanza was used by other poets before Oxford; it was used in a great many lyrics by such poets as Surrey, Vaux, Gascoigne, Sidney, and Watson; it was used in longer poems by Spenser; and Lodge's minor epic clearly helped establish it as the appropriate stanza for the genre in which Venus and Adonis was written.
Just as Looney's ignorance of Elizabethan sonnets enabled him to call Oxford the "actual founder" of the "Shakespearean" sonnet, a similar ignorance of Elizabethan verse lies behind the claim that the V&A stanza was seldom used except by Oxford and Shakespeare. Looney is beyond helping, but it would behoove living Oxfordians to brush up on their non-Shakespearean poems before citing formal coincidences as evidence of authorship.
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Of all the verse forms used by Shakespeare, far and away the most important was blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Ogburn notes that Surrey, whose translation of the Aeneid was the first English work in blank verse, was Oxford's uncle (415). Since Surrey died before Oxford was born, the nephew could not have picked up any poetic pointers at his uncle's knee, and family pride apparently was not much of an inducement either. Not one of the sixteen poems we have by Oxford was written in blank verse. On the other hand, most of Shakespeare's plays were written primarily in blank verse. The greater part of every one of the histories (save 2H6), tragedies, and romances (and of 5 of the 12 comedies) is in blank verse, yet none of Oxford's poems is in blank verse.
Shakespeare's second most used verse form is heroic couplets (two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter). Of all the plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the richest in heroic couplets. Some of Oxford's stanzas and his sonnet end in couplets, but unlike Shakespeare he never composed in continuous heroic couplets.
The Rape of Lucrece, a poem of 1855 lines, and A Lover's Complaint, a poem of 329 lines, are written in rhyme royal (a seven-line stanza of iambic pentameter, rhyming "ababbcc"). Since the days of Chaucer this had been perhaps the most popular stanzaic form for serious narrative poetry in English, but none of Oxford's verse is written in rhyme royal.
Shakespeare uses two different stanzas in The Phoenix and Turtle, both of them based on a 7-syllable line. The first 52 lines comprise 13 4-line stanzas rhyming "abba"; the last 15 lines comprise 3-line stanzas rhyming "aaa." Oxford wrote no verse in a 7-syllable line; moreover, he never wrote any stanzas in any meter rhyming either "abba" or "aaa."
Many of the songs and poems that appear in Shakespeare's plays are also written in the 7-syllable line that Oxford never used. Oxford left us no poem in the meter Shakespeare predominantly used for "Who is Sylvia," "Come thou monarch of the vine," "Tell me where is fancy bred," and "Full fathom five thy father lies." The 7-syllable line is also the special meter of magic used by Oberon and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream: see the passages beginning "Through the forest have I gone" (2.2.66), "Flower of this purple dye" (3.2.102), "Be as thou wast wont to be" (3.2.70), "Fairy king attend and mark" (4.1.92), and the entire last 68 lines of the play. Shakespeare found the 7-syllable line magical again in Macbeth, where it is the witches'special meter. The 7-syllable line is also used in the messages within the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare even finds comical possibilities in the 7-syllable line when he uses it for the verses of poetically challenged lovers: it is the meter of the love poems sent to Rosalind by Orlando and Phoebe in As You Like It, and of Dumaine's "On a day (alack the day!)" in Love's Labor's Lost. To repeat, Oxford never wrote a poem in the 7-syllable line, which Shakespeare used so many different ways and to such memorable effect.
These songs, charms, chants, and poems in 7-syllable lines generally have strong stresses on the first syllable of each line, which in itself makes them rhythmically unlike anything found in Oxford's poems. On occasion in Oxford's verse the first syllable is stressed but he never maintains the strong initial stress throughout a single poem.
While the overwhelming majority of Shakespeare's verse is iambic pentameter (compared to 42% of Oxford's lines, by my count), and while Shakespeare wrote hundreds of 7-syllable lines (Oxford wrote none), Oxford himself was rather fond of 14-syllable lines. Two of Oxford's poems are written in fourteener couplets (i.e., fourteen-syllable rhyming iambic lines), and three others are written in poulter's measure (rhyming iambic lines of alternately 12 and 14 syllables). Fourteeners and poulter's measure were extremely popular in English poetry through the 1570s, but in the later decades of the century they were supplanted by pentameter. Fourteeners survived in a way as ballad or common meter, which is the meter of, for example, most of Emily Dickinson's poetry; but the most famous American poem in fourteeners is surely "Casey at the Bat."
Fourteeners are extremely rare in Shakespeare. Some of the lines in the hilarious pageant of the nine worthies in Love's Labors Lost are fourteeners, and parts of the even funnier "Pyramis and Thisby" in A Midsummer Night's Dream are metrically equivalent. Here is a pair of Oxford's fourteeners:
My life through lingering long is lodged, in lair of loathsome ways, My death delayed to keep from life, the harm of hapless days.Here are some lines from "Pyramis and Thisby" that I have typed as fourteeners for purposes of illustration:
But stay: O spite! But Mark, poor knight, What dreadful dole is here? Eyes, do you see? How can it be? O dainty duck, O dear. (MND 5.1.269-74)Each of Shakespeare's lines appears in the text as three lines, but the effect on the ear is very similar to that of fourteeners, except for Shakespeare's additional interior rhyme and caesuras. Both passages are extremely alliterative and contain strong pauses (caesuras) after the eighth syllable. Oxford's lines, unlike Shakespeare's, are not meant to be funny. They are written in a style that was very popular in its day, but for Shakespeare fourteeners seem to have been old-fashioned, monotonous, and perhaps even ridiculous. So complete was the triumph of pentameter over fourteeners at the end of the 16th-century that many poets who wrote in the older form and whose works were admired in their own time (such as Googe and Turberville) are practically unreadable today, and I'm afraid Oxford's fourteeners may also strike most modern ears as tiresome or even laughable, though by the standards of their day they're quite competent.
One of the Fool's songs in King Lear also uses a few fourteeners, but the only other place in Shakespeare I can recall where fourteeners are not used in a burlesque is in Posthumus's dream in Cymbeline (5.4.30ff., the lines are not set as fourteeners, but the rhythmical effect is almost the same, although Shakespeare adds a couple of short lines to forestall metrical monotony). The lines are spoken by the ghosts of Posthumus's long-dead parents and brothers, and Shakespeare's use of fourteeners is dramatically significant. The ghosts cry out to Jupiter to save Posthumus, and the old-fashioned meter in which their complaints are made suggests how long their suffering has lasted. When Jupiter appears in the dream, he speaks pentameter. He tells the ghosts to "hush," explains that he's had a happy ending planned for Posthumus all along, and says, "And so away, no further with your din / Express impatience, lest you stir up mine" (5.4.111-12). After Jupiter leaves, the ghosts thank him not in the "din" of fourteeners but in pentameter, and they and fourteeners vanish from the play.
The significance of the the difference between pentameter and fourteeners is not obvious to all readers. Charlton Ogburn at one point compares a passage attributed to Oxford with some lines by Shakespeare: "I am not sure I should be able to pronounce with absolute certainly which was Oxford's, which Shakespeare's, except that the former is in iambic heptameter [fourteeners] (393)." This is equivalent to saying that the only difference between two poems is that one is a limerick while the other is a sonnet, or to say that since Strauss and Sousa both used so many of the same notes, Strauss's waltzes sound just like Sousa's marches. On the contrary, Oxford's fondness for fourteeners and Shakespeare's evident contempt for the form suggest a generational difference between the two. For poets of the 1570s, fourteeners were still an acceptable verse form, but for most poets of the 1590s (save Chapman, who used fourteeners in his Iliad), fourteeners were as outmoded as the disco music of the 1970s is today.
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Oxfordians I have cited believe that the coincidence of Oxford's writing a "Shakespearean" sonnet and four poems in the same stanza Shakespeare used in Venus and Adonis should count as evidence that he was Shakespeare. Surely by this kind of reasoning the fact that not one of Oxford's poems is in blank verse, or in heroic couplets, or in rhyme royal, or in the 7-syllable line should count against the Oxfordians. Indeed, there's little to suggest that Shakespeare was even aware of Oxford's poetry, or that if he had been he would have been influenced by it. Much of Oxford's poetry was written in a form and style that had already become outmoded when Shakespeare wrote; almost all of Shakespeare's verse is in forms unattempted by Oxford; where there is a coincidence of form, it is just that--a coincidence. If he needed models, Shakespeare had available to him a great many other poets whose works he would have found more copious, more modern, and more congenial.
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