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The Problem of The Funeral Elegy

©by Joseph Sobran


News item: With the aid of computers, scholars are attributing a poem titled “A Funeral Elegy,” published in 1612 and signed “W.S.,” to William Shakespeare.

“Well, Holmes,” I said, laying down the morning paper, “have you seen the report of the newly discovered ‘Funeral Elegy’ by Shakespeare?”

“I have heard something about it,” Sherlock Holmes replied. “But I confess I have not given it my full attention. Perhaps, my dear Watson, you will be so kind as to enlighten me.”

“An American scholar named Donald Foster, who found the poem, has determined, with the aid of modern computer methods, that it closely matches the style of Shakespeare.” Here I am afraid I yielded to the temptation to gloat at my old companion’s expense. “If he is right, Holmes, it certainly explodes your strange notion that the Earl of Oxford was the real author.”

“Indeed?” he said with mild surprise, but without removing the pipe from his mouth.

“Oh, most certainly. You see, the poem was written in 1612. Having been dead for eight years, my lord of Oxford could hardly have written it.”

“My understanding is that the Elegy was published in 1612. That is a different matter. It may actually have been written many years earlier.”

I shook my head. “Impossible, Holmes. The subject of the Elegy is a young man named William Peter, who was murdered near Exeter in January of 1612. The poem was registered for publication three weeks later by Thomas Thorpe, who was also the publisher of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.”

“There is no chance of a mistake?”

“I am afraid not. The title page makes it quite clear that Peter is the deceased man, and the poem indirectly confirms the fact.”

“Indirectly?”

“It contains an oblique play on the name Peter, calling him ‘friendship’s rock.’ Peter, of course, is from the Greek word for ‘rock,’ petros.”

“Apart from the poem itself, what else has been learned of this Peter?”

“Professor Foster has ascertained that he was twenty-nine at the time of his murder, and had been married three years. He had been a student at Oxford, where he probably met Shakespeare. The professor points out that Shakespeare must have passed through Oxford frequently while travelling between London and Stratford.”

“Surely he does not suggest that Shakespeare matriculated at Oxford?”

“Certainly not. Even an American could hardly suppose such a thing.”

“I am relieved,” Holmes smiled, taking up his violin and sawing casually on it. He was silent for a few minutes. I resumed the attack.

“I must say, Holmes,” I gibed, “I have always wondered how you could adhere to the snobbish belief that the real author of Shakespeare’s works must have been an earl. The truth is common sense itself. There is no need to posit mystery or conspiracy. Shakespeare was neither an earl, nor Francis Bacon, nor Christopher Marlowe; Shakespeare was Shakespeare. We have the testimony of those who knew the man himself; the scholars are unanimous; and now modern science has confirmed what nobody should have questioned.”

“Quite so, Watson. No doubt you are perfectly right.”

He continued improvising melodies, allowing me to savor my victory. It was not every day that Sherlock Holmes admitted defeat. At length he laid the violin down and spoke again.

“You say that young Peter was murdered in January, 1612?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “On January 25.”

“He was married?”

“For three years.”

“Did he have children?”

“None are mentioned”

“And the Elegy was registered for publication shortly after his death?”

“Yes. Nineteen days afterward.”

“In Exeter?”

“In London, of course.”

“Oh dear,” said Holmes, with a faint hint of mock alarm.

“Why not? All Shakespeare’s works were published in London.”

“And to whom is the poem dedicated?”

“To Peter’s brother, John Peter.”

“So the poem was presented to him before it was published?”

“I don’t know. The newspapers say nothing about that.”

“But presumably an elegy about a friend would be presented to the family before it was sent to the publisher, especially if it was dedicated to a member of the family.”

“Perhaps. There seems to be no positive evidence on the point.”

“And where was Shakespeare in 1612? In London?”

“The scholars believe that he had retired to Stratford.”

“Ah.”

I felt a twinge of uneasiness. “What are you driving at, Holmes? Do you find something amiss? The story seems quite straight forward to me.”

“Tell me, Watson, were the trains reliable in Shakespeare’s day?”

“There were no trains in Shakespeare’s day. Don’t be silly.”

“But there must have been trains in Shakespeare’s day.”

“Really, Holmes! What is the point of this absurdity?”

“Absurdity, Watson? I should call it iron logic. We have already established that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the Elegy. From this it follows, by the simplest deduction, that he must have availed himself of modern means of transportation. How many times must I remind you, Watson,” he sighed, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

I was speechless.

“Young Peter, a gentleman of no great rank or renown, was killed on the night of January 25 in an obscure village near Exeter, over a hundred and fifty miles from both Stratford and London. Yet within three weeks, several events had occurred. Let us take them in order. The news reached the remote town in Warwickshire where Shakespeare lived. Shakespeare, shocked and grieved, hastily wrote an elegy of some length, which he took or, let us concede, sent to Peter’s family. He then sent a second copy of the poem to a publisher in London, some ninety miles from Stratford, who decided to publish it immediately. In order for all this to be achieved, the actors in this little drama must have been moving at extraordinary velocities. It could not have happened without modern vehicles. The alternative is to suppose that Exeter and Stratford were nearer to London in those days.”

“The sequence you describe,” I said stubbornly, “however improbable, was not physically impossible.”

“Even assuming you are right, what would be the hurry?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why would a publisher want to rush to the presses with a poem about a man nobody in London had ever heard of? It was rare for the writers of elegies and the reading public to take an interest in anyone below the rank of knight, as Professor Foster himself admits.”

“But the poem was by Shakespeare! He was extremely popular!”

“Then it is all the more extraordinary that the publisher neglected to put his name on the title-page. He was identified only by his initials, ‘W.S.’ Surely it is remarkable that the title-page should tell us so much about the victim, who was unknown, and so little about the author, who it seems was already celebrated. Why withhold that name which alone could ensure sales?” As I tried to think of a reply, Holmes went on: “Moreover, this same publisher, Thomas Thorpe, had only recently published Shakespeare’s Sonnets, evidently without his permission, thereby exposing the most intimate details of his love life to public view. Such, at any rate, is the account of the scholars by whom you set such store. But I put it to you: Is this piratical scoundrel Thorpe the man Shakespeare would rush to favor with his next long poem?”

“So you have been following this story! Holmes, you are devious!”

“Forgive me, Watson,” he smiled. “I could not resist hearing what you would make of it. You know I value your counsel. And I did not deceive you. I know less about the case than I would wish to.”

“Well, what else have you learned?”

“Professor Foster himself acknowledges some of the difficulties in his position. But others have escaped his notice entirely. For example, he admits that there is no evidence that Shakespeare actually met Peter except for the poem itself, such as it is. Yet he fails to see that the author of the poem could have known little or nothing about William Peter.” “Why not?”

“Because poor William Peter was murdered after only three years of marriage, as Professor Foster has found, and apparently died without issue. Yet the poem itself tells us plainly that its subject had been married for nine years and was a devoted father!”

“What do you conclude from that?”

“That the Elegy cannot have been written about William Peter.”

“Good heavens!”

Holmes smiled complacently.

“Then Professor Foster has misled the public?”

“He was misled himself, Watson. The sleights of Thomas Thorpe operate across the centuries.”

“Perhaps,” I suggested desperately, “Shakespeare was merely mistaken on the point of Peter’s family life.”

“I fear that is impossible, Watson. The poet, it is clear, knew the murdered man very well. We have only Thorpe’s word that this man was William Peter of Exeter.

“But none of this disproves Shakespeare’s authorship.”

“The suspicious circumstances of the Elegy itself create grave doubt as to its authorship, Watson. Thorpe tried to make it appear to be Shakespeare’s work without using Shakespeare’s name. Why should he be so roundabout? There is our mystery. And there, I confess, I am at a loss for the moment.”

“Perhaps there is no solution,” I suggested. “As with so many other problems surrounding Shakespeare, we may be doomed to ignorance.”

“Perhaps,” Holmes agreed. “But it is still too early to despair. We have, as it happens, a few clues.”

“Such as?”

“The name of the murdered man who is the subject of the poem was indeed Peter, or something similar. Whether this was his Christian name or his surname is impossible to tell.”

“If he wasn’t William Peter, how do you know his name?”

“The poem, as you say, refers to it indirectly. It plays upon the verse in St. Matthew in which our Saviour tells St. Peter that he is the rock upon whom he will build his church. This may also be an indication that the murdered man was of the Church of Rome, since the claims of the papacy are traditionally referred to that verse.”

“But if his name was Peter, the fact argues for Professor Foster’s thesis.”

“Not necessarily, Watson. The evidence I have already cited rules out William Peter of Exeter. Consider the possibility that on the night when he was stabbed to death, the Elegy was already in Thorpe’s hands.”

“What?!”

“The Elegy was written before the Sonnets _ long before. In the Sonnets the poet consistently describes himself as old or aging, with death imminent. In the Elegy he twice speaks of himself as being still in his youth.”

“But may he not be speaking figuratively?”

“So Professor Foster contends. He is not convincing, any more than the scholars are convincing in asserting that the author of the Sonnets exaggerates his years. The poet makes it clear in the Elegy that he and his dead friend were contemporaries. He says that in honoring his friend’s memory he is only doing what the friend had also pledged to do for him, in the event that he died first. Such a bargain argues against any great disparity in their ages. Furthermore, the style of the Elegy, though very fine, shows that the poet had not yet reached the full mastery of rhyming verse he would achieve in the Sonnets. It is even further from the irregular meter of the late plays.”

“Then how do you account for it?”

“Mr. Shakespeare of Stratford is not the author, Watson. The poet refers to himself in the Elegy _ a presumptuous gesture in a poem of mourning, unless the author was himself a man of some importance. Moreover, the poet complains of his treatment by his country. He has been traduced and forced to live in some undeserved shame.”

“What does that prove?”

“It proves nothing. But it suggests a great deal. It suggests a man of a certain stature and renown with a public reputation to uphold. It suggests a great grievance, a conviction that his name has been abused.”

“The Earl of Oxford?”

“Precisely. Oxford was extremely sensitive about his reputation. An early surviving poem of his laments ‘the loss of his good name.’ His fortunes and respectability declined so sharply that a contemporary, far inferior to him in rank, could later taunt him about his ‘decayed reputation.’ Bear in mind that the author of the Sonnets frequently bemoans his ‘shame,’ his ‘disgrace in fortune and men’s eyes,’ and the ‘vulgar scandal stamped upon his brow.’ There was no known reason for Mr. Shakespeare to feel that his faults, whatever they were, were, so to speak, a matter of public record. But there was every reason for Oxford to feel that way. He had lived licentiously, wasted his immense family fortune, and made many enemies.”

“Go on.”

“Yet the author of the Elegy still hopes to clear his reputation. The author of the Sonnets has despaired of doing so. He feels he must carry his wounded name to his grave. Everything points to the authorship of one man, and to the priority of the Elegy.”

“It seems to make sense,” I admitted.

“It is noteworthy that the author of the Elegy feels free to allude to his own disgrace. I think we may reasonably take it that he was addressing trusted friends, and was not bent on immediate publication. On the contrary. The Elegy was meant for private reading only. It was never meant for the general public.”

“Then how did it fall into Thorpe’s hands?”

“We may never know. But we do know that the Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ had fallen into his hands, because he published them. I surmise that he acquired these poems and the Elegy at the same time, between Oxford’s death in 1604 and the appearance of the Sonnets and the Complaint in 1609.”

“But why would he not publish the Elegy with the other poems?”

“Because it would embarrass and outrage Oxford’s family. Consider again that though the poet speaks of himself as in his ‘youth’ in this poem which makes its public debut in 1612, he has spoken mournfully of himself as old and aging in the Sonnets, which can be traced with some confidence to the early 1590s. What does that tell us?”

“As you say, that the Elegy was written before the Sonnets.”

“Not only before the Sonnets, but many years before. Surely at least a decade must be allowed. A man does not go overnight from thinking of himself as a hale youth to complaining of age, decrepitude, and imminent death. So profound a change must be gradual.”

“I fail to see where you are leading.”

“If the Elegy precedes the Sonnets by more than a decade, it must have been written while Mr. Shakespeare was still living in his home town. The scholars have him arriving in London around 1590 or shortly before. They can only conjecture as to the date because of the absence of records, but his wife bore him twins in February 1585. Even if he departed for London immediately after begetting them, without even waiting for their birth, he would have arrived in London no earlier than May 1584. That still leaves less than a decade before the composition of the Sonnets.”

“He could have written the Elegy during his youth in Stratford.”

Holmes smiled. “I hardly think so. At that point, assuming he was already capable of so polished a poem, he was far too obscure to complain of his ruined reputation. It is also unlikely that while still in Stratford he should have formed a close friendship with a married gentleman some years his senior. Besides, the name of Shakespeare does not appear in print at all until 1593. No, Watson, it is far more reasonable to suppose that Oxford wrote the Elegy; that he wrote it when he was still young but somewhat notorious, probably before 1580, but perhaps shortly afterward. He commenced the Sonnets many years later, during the campaign to persuade the young Earl of Southampton to marry. You will recall that the great Lord Burghley exerted all his influence to persuade Southampton to marry his young granddaughter. Burghley was Oxford’s father-in-law; the young lady was Oxford’s daughter. By then Oxford himself was past forty and his health was beginning to fail. In his letters of the period he describes himself as ‘lame’ _ the very word the author of the Sonnets uses repeatedly of himself. All the pieces fall into place.”

“It seems plausible, as far as it goes. But I still don’t understand Thorpe’s role in the business.”

“He had the Elegy, but he could do nothing with it _ until he chanced to hear of the murder of another man named Peter in 1612. He then altered the title and dedication of the poem to match what he knew of the new victim, and quickly presented it for sale. This supposition requires us to believe only that he heard of this murder within three weeks of its occurrence, as in fact he did. He was unaware of the discrepancies between this William Peter and the subject of the Elegy; but for his purposes, they hardly mattered. Nobody else in London was likely to know of them either.”

“Brilliant, Holmes! Bravo!”

“I must caution you, Watson, that this is only a hypothesis. But it surmounts the difficulties and impossibilities of Professor Foster’s theory.”

“But what about Foster’s computer?”

“His computer is quite right. It pronounces no judgment as to the identity of the author. It merely indicates that whoever wrote the works we call Shakespeare’s probably also wrote the Elegy. Professor Foster assumes this author to be Shakespeare; I have long since concluded that he was the Earl of Oxford.”

“I must say, I don’t find the Elegy worthy of Shakespeare.”

“Worthy of Shakespeare, perhaps,” Holmes smiled. “But I agree that it is not Oxford’s finest work. Here again,” he added seriously, “Professor Foster has gone astray. He thinks the poem is a late work. His theory requires him to believe that Shakespeare wrote it at the end of his career. But it is all too plainly a youthful work. It bears unmistakable mannerisms of the great poet we have erroneously called Shakespeare; all that is missing is greatness itself.”

“Is that not an argument against its authenticity?”

“Not at all, Watson. Even genius must have its infancy. The man who wrote the Elegy was still learning to write verse, and learning very well. Had he stopped there, however, he would have been forgotten. There is hardly a memorable line in the poem; whereas in his maturity, he could hardly write a dull phrase. Technically, the Elegy is more than competent. But if we measure it against Macbeth, The Tempest or even Venus and Adonis, it seems insipid stuff.”

“Well, Holmes, there must be something in what you say about Oxford after all. I have misjudged you. In any case, Professor Foster’s theory is certainly untenable.”

“Let us not be too harsh with him, Watson. He has made, however inadvertently, a new addition to the Shakespeare canon. That is far more than most scholars achieve in a lifetime.”

I returned to my newspaper, and Holmes put his violin back into its case. Suddenly he turned to me, struck by a new thought. “Watson,” he said, “has it ever occurred to you that Homer must have been a woman?”

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