Love's labours found?

February 2, 1996

Can a long overlooked but mediocre poem be the work of the Bard? Tim Cornwell reports on the latest Shakespearean row.

The Usual Suspects

Since time, and his predestinated end, Abridged the circuit of his hopeful days, Whiles both his youth and virtue did intend The good endeavors of deserving praise, What memorable monument can last Whereon to build his never-blemished name But his own worth....?

In late 1985 an youngish American scholar who had only just completed his doctorate set out for Oxford on a mission to debunk. Donald Foster was deeply sceptical of the startling claims being made by another youthful American, Gary Taylor, who claimed to have unearthed a love poem by William Shakespeare.

The sensational discovery had the backing of no less a person than Stanley Wells, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare. But in a piece he published in the Times Literary Supplement, and a longer article that followed in the Shakespeare Quarterly, Foster threw the stylistic book at the nine-stanza verse.

The poem began: "Shall I die? Shall I fly?/Lovers' baits and deceits, sorrow breeding?/Shall I fend?/Shall I send? Shall I shew, and not rue my proceeding?" It carried a contemporary attribution to "Wm Shakespeare". From the outset critics called it a dreadful ditty, but it was the work of Foster and others that largely discredited it.

Ten years later the tables are turned. It is Foster making international headlines by claiming a new poem for the Bard. Though he is being taken seriously by some leading American scholars, the work again appears totally at odds with Shakespeare's familiar style. And in Britain Stanley Wells leads the critics.

"A Funeral Elegy" was written in honour of William Peter, a young man murdered on horseback in 1612 after a day's drinking binge. It was printed in pamphlet form by Thomas Thorpe, who published Shakespeare's sonnets, and signed WS. Professor Foster came across the 21-page poem in the Bodleian Library - on microfilm, in 1983.

The elegy is addressed to John Peter, older brother of the murdered man. "The love that I bore your brother, and will do to his memory, hath craved from me this last duty of a friend," the dedication begins. The poem that follows seems almost empty of the word play, wit, or cadence one would expect.

Foster cites some "wonderful, rich passages" such as one that deals with the death and friendship and begins: "For when the world lies wintered in the storms,/Of fearful consummation, and lays down/Th'unsteady change of his fantastic forms,/expecting ever to be overthrown I".

He calls it significantly better than most other elegies he has studied. But he added: "I make no defence of this poem aesthetically I people may come to it looking for a sonnet and they find a rather cold, sombre and even hopeless tone."

It took him almost a dozen years, he says, to satisfy himself that he could stake his academic reputation on Shakespeare being the author. Neither Foster nor his supporters claim the elegy is an artistic masterpiece. But for believers the implications for the study of Shakespeare are alarming in their scope.

"Nobody thinks it's a great poem," says Professor Lars Engle of the University of Tulsa, one of four scholars who argued for the elegy at the Modern Languages Association convention in December. But for Engle, the author of Shakespearean Pragmatism, it raises the possibility that the elusive figure to whom Shakespeare addressed many of his sonnets was the 29-year-old Devonshire man.

"He's about the right age, he has the right first name, it's clear that the author of the elegy cares deeply about William Peter," he said. Some sonnets suggest the mysterious young man's name was Will, Engle said. And the poem, like the sonnets, suggests some shameful rumour or scandal that clouded the author's reputation.

Richard Abrams of the University of Southern Maine, who has encouraged and worked with Professor Foster in the past four years, suggests that in the poem's unusual tone Shakespeare deliberately turned his back on his own imaginative style in what would be his last work written alone.

And Professor Abrams claims that the elegy has already opened up other avenues. Working from the premise that it is Shakespeare's has led him to new evidence that Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, one of the best friends of his patron the Earl of Southampton, was an important connection of the poet's at Queen Elizabeth's court. Abrams claims to have found brief homages to Mountjoy in several plays. The connection "was inspired by the belief that Shakespeare wrote the elegy but doesn't rely on that," he said.

Donald Foster is now the Jean Webster professor of dramatic literature in the English department of Vassar College, a leading liberal arts institution. His is a tale that appeals to a romantic notion of literary study: that scholars are not merely reinterpreters of old text, but that they are explorers. A new poem of Shakespeare's is discovered in musty corners at Oxford, an alleged Michelangelo recently turns up in New York; what next, wonders Professor Engle - a new Vermeer in Tulsa?

At 45, the man who may be poised to make the first serious addition to the Shakespeare canon since 1871 has had an eclectic career. He graduated in psychology and sociology from what he describes as a conservative midwestern religious school, Wheaton College in Illinois. Then he did social work for a year. In the mid-1970s he spent three more as a self-described "travel bum", going round the world once with his brother and once with his wife, and tried everything from scuba to sky diving, he says.

It was not until 1980, when his wife finished her own graduate degree, and after dabbling in a high school teaching career, that he decided to pursue a growing interest in literature and enlisted in the graduate programme at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has pioneered - and this is one bone of contention for his critics - the use of computers in literary analysis.

Though he claims to have been drawn rather unwillingly into the spotlight while he completes an anthology of early women writers, it is not for the first time. In 1987 he claimed to solve a mystery that for years spawned a myriad of books and articles by literary historians - the identity of "Mr W. H.", to whom Thomas Thorpe dedicated his 1609 edition of the sonnets.

Foster concluded in an article boldly titled "Master W. H., RIP", that it was a simple typographical error. In what he deduced was a common practice, Thorpe had addressed his dedication to the poet himself - W.S. - Foster argued. He won the Modern Languages Association's Parker Prize for the work. "Written with tremendous energy and wit, the essay is a real page turner," the judges concluded.

Foster, a father of two, aired his first tentative conclusions in 1989 in Elegy by WS: A Study in Attribution, from the University of Delaware Press, which dealt in both pros and cons, he said. But when he first approached Oxford University Press with the book, he said, two readers concluded it relied too heavily on "internal evidence" alone. With what he describes as a graduate student's cheeky attempt to prove a point, he used the same type of analysis to identify the anonymous and critical readers by name. They were not amused, he said.

But since the book was published he has found new supporting evidence. Computer analysis has picked out a pattern of rare words used both in the elegy and in Shakespeare's work from the same period - The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Henry VIII.

Foster fears he may now reap what he sowed when he "stomped" on others' attempts to add to Shakespeare's work. In a review in The TLS Stanley Wells calls the poem tedious in an un-Shakespearean way, and wonders how Shakespeare could have found the time or inclination to write it given the recent death of his brother. Wells lifts a quizzical eyebrow at work he says takes literature into the realm of higher mathematics. And he acidly suggests the author of the elegy was actually "a curate with literary aspirations".

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