This article was first published in the Summer 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
The lawyer and writer John Stephens, of a large and politically-active Gloucestershire family, became an “admitted member” of Lincolns Inn in 1611. Stephens is remembered by some for his Satyrical Essayes, Characters, and Others or accurate and quick descriptions fitted to the life of their subjects (1615). Nicholas Storogenko, in Notes and Queries (4th ser., iii, 550-51, 1869), characterized Essayes as the most accomplished of several conscious imitations of Bacon’s Essayes (1597) which enjoyed considerable eclat among a scandal-attuned readership who strove to make out the personal allusions obscured by a fog of generalities.
Of specific and especial interest to Oxfordians is Stephens’s essay “A Worthy Poet,” his representation of the Poet-Ideal. Storogenko sees a similarity between Stephens’s “Worthy Poet” and Shakespeare, and quotes Stephens:
He only among men is nearest infinite; for in the scenical composures of a tragedy or comedie, he shewes the best resemblance of his high Creator, turning his quicke passions and witty humors to replenish and overcome into matter and form, as infinite as God’s pleasure to diversifte mankinde.
Storogenko ignores the boundaries between the categories of poet and playwright in observing that “among the dramatists of the day” only Jonson might be considered a rival, but he then goes on to show that Stephens was at pains to exclude Jonson on the grounds that, unlike Jonson, the “Worthy Poet” was more indebted to the moderns for his sources than to the ancients.
In support of his relay of Stephens’s views, Storogenko quotes one Headley that “were the ancients to reclaim their property, Jonson would not have a rag to cover his nakedness.”
In the Dictionary of National Biography entry on Stephens, A. F. Pollard cites Storogenko, remarking that “A Worthy Poet” has been perceived as a veiled portrait of Shakespeare, but “on no very conclusive grounds.”
According to Storogenko, Stephens educes a “biographical fact” in Shakespeare’s life when he observes that…
When he is lastly silent (for he cannot die), he findes a monument prepared at others cost and remembrance, whilst his former actions be a living epitaph.
Storogenko asserts that “this last allusion to Shakspeare is so clear that it needs no further explication,” identifying it as the final encomium to [the Stratford] “Shakespeare” before his death in 1616.
Yet the quoted passage seems better suited to Oxford-as-Shakespeare.
Let us first scotch the objection most likely to be raised to the foregoing proposition, that the present tense of the passage consorts with the still-living state of William of Stratford in 1615 and conflicts with the defunctiveness of Oxford after 1604. In delineating his Poet-Ideal, it is unremarkable that Stephens would employ an eternal-present tense, since the Poet-Ideal is a philosophical entity and so stands outside time. In fact, if Stephens did take the biographical particulars of some living model as the clay from which to shape his Ideal, we are compelled to interpret the gnomic present as a projection from a real historical past. Here that means that the real poet (and dramatist, by Storogenko’s lights) indeed is silent, probably because he has died; a monument has already been prepared for him at others’ expense; and his “former actions” — to wit, his literary works — continue to exist as his epitaph.
There are two expressions in the quotation that tend to qualify Oxford (if Stephens did indeed take Shakespeare for his paradigm) and to disqualify William of Stratford.
“For he cannot die,” declares Stephens of the Poet-Ideal. Would this be said any more frequently of the living, one wonders, than the “ever-living” of The Sonnets dedication?
“Whilst his former actions be a living epitaph,” he then adds. Who would ever so characterize one who was not yet a tenant of the narrow house? Truly, this passage doth breathe the cypress and the willow.
Owing to its peculiar concreteness, the phrase “a monument prepared at others cost and remembrance” strikes one as a genuine event which Stephens has blithely lifted into the empyrean as a typical characteristic of the Poet-Ideal. Going along with Storogenko — that Stephens has fashioned his Poet-Ideal from Shakespeare — can we avoid reading here an allusion to the Stratford monument?
Supposing it to be the Stratford monument, it must have come into existence after the death of Oxford and before the death of William of Stratford (a possibility that the deep-diving Robert Detobel of Frankfurt, Germany, has already surmised). Stephens could have seen the Stratford monument finished, or in the process of completion, prior to its installation at Stratford, sometime during that period after Oxford’s death in 1604, when the creators of the Stratford myth were waiting for the Stratford “Shakespeares” to disappear, and thereby relieve the Shakespeare-Folio project of its chief potential embarrassments.
While it may not be wise policy to stray too far beyond the illumination of evidence, we would all the same be too timid and prudential not to at least acknowledge the good fit between the apparent timing of the fabrication of the monument and the Oxfordian hypothesis of a possible larger fabrication: that William of Stratford was eventually to be employed, that is to say, paid off, to serve as the dummy upon which to drape the literary habiliments of the true Shakespeare.
Moving back closer to the fire, there remains the matter of how Stephens might have known that a monument had been prepared for “Shakespeare” by 1615. The solution seems relatively straightforward, even convincing, if we take the following as evidence: John Stephens knew Ben Jonson personally.
Stephens was also the author of a play, called Cynthia’s Revenge, or Menander’s Exstasy. The DNB entry (describing it as “long and tedious,” and based upon the Pharsalia of Lucan and the Metamorphoses of Ovid) gives it a date of 1613 and reports that it was published on the quiet, without being entered into the Stationers’ Register. Jonson supplied the following commendatory poem, entitled “To His Much and Worthily Esteemed Friend the Author”:
Who takes thy volume to his vertuous hand,
Must be intended still to understand:
Who bluntly doth but looke upon the same,
May aske, what Author would conceale his name?
Who reads may roave, and call the passage darke*,
Yet may as blind men sometimes hit the marke.
Who reads, who roaves**, who hopes to understand,
May take thy volume to his vertuous hand.
Who cannot reade, but onely doth desire to understand,
Hee may at length admire.
**roave: shoot to determine the range
Nine of these ten Jonson lines verge on literal nonsense. Three relatively incoherent lines lead up to line four, which asks unambiguously — and momentously, being uniquely italicized in the original — “what author would conceal his name?”
The concluding six lines are more mumbo-jumbo out of which we can only glean the sense that a hidden meaning in literature (i.e. hidden in “the passage darke”) is difficult to bring into the light, with success being a hit-or-miss affair.
Jonson’s commendation has little, if anything, in it to connect it to the work to which it is prefixed. His deliberately incondite warning about secret messages is generic. And, finally, what author would conceal his name?
The italicized portion of line four has really little to do with the other nine lines of matrix, except that all ten bear upon that which is hidden — and ought, perhaps, to be revealed. Cool as a cuckoo, Jonson has dropped line four into the nest confident that to the inattentive reader of his encomium his lines shall prove to be no more than nine dull and incomprehensible eggs — and one ovate ringer.
A close investigation of Stephens’s book of philosophical satires and his play must await a subsequent article, yet here we see perhaps that this minor and hitherto ignored genre of poetry, the literary-commendatory verse of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, bears examination in the ongoing Shakespeare authorship controversy. This verse and others like it have been ignored for good reason, as they were the dust jacket blurbs of the age. Read, for example, the grandiloquent English eulogies to be found at the front of Du Bartas’ Divine Weeks (“How great thou art, how great thine art…”).
The ruefully illuminating experience of Ben Jonson supports the view that such commendatory verse is the branch of the McPoetry clan living up in the hollow. Jonson’s introductory verse to the First Folio probably ranks as the greatest eulogy of one writer for another in the English language. It may be Jonson’s greatest poem. But its strange — yet not strange — fate has been to serve as a now well-turned forty acres of Shakespeare research, where the diggers, intent upon the fragment of bone and the shard of pottery, have gone blind to the beauty of the lie of the land.
To end with a question is to end with a beginning, but: where was there a handy place in the Tudor and Jacobean world of letters to cache sensitive or explosive material where it might avoid premature exposure, and where it might enjoy protection from the total destruction or obscurity that is the customary fate of the long passage of time? It begins to look as if the commendatory poem may have been an almost allowed “drop” or hollow tree wherein one might conceal the goods.
To read the standard eulogistic confections in Josuah Sylvester’s Divine Weeks, for example, and then, by way of comparison, to re-examine there the Latin eulogy of Edward Lapworth, the bizarre-anywhere eulogy of R.R. (almost certainly by Jonson), and Jonson’s own signed eulogy, is to realize how thoroughly atypical are these latter (see Shakespeare Oxford Newsletters, Winter 1997 and Spring 1997).
Jonson’s weird accolade which we have just looked at seems but one more indication that in such aberrant dedications as these may authorship clues be discovered.