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The Phaeton Sonnet

by Joseph Sobran

This article first appeared in the Summer 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Mainstream Shakespeare scholars are currently debating the authorship of the poem A Funeral Elegy, published in 1612 and assigned to an otherwise unidentified “W.S.” Professor Donald Foster argues that the poem is by Shakespeare. Others disagree, partly because they deem the poem unworthy of our greatest poet. The controversy has even reached the front page of The New York Times.

A few years earlier, the short lyric “Shall I Die?” achieved the same distinction when Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor included it (along with several doggerel epitaphs) in the canon of the Collected Oxford Shakespeare. Their lead was followed, with some reservations, by Maurice Evans in the New Penguin edition of Shakespeare’s narrative poems. Another poem sometimes thought to be Shakespeare’s has never received comparable attention, and yet it has closer affinities to Shakespeare’s traditionally acknowledged work than a Funeral Elegy, “Shall I Die?”, or the epitaphs. This is the so-called “Phaeton” sonnet. The sonnet appeared under the title “Phaeton to His Friend Florio” as a commendatory poem in John Florio’s book Second Fruits, published in 1591. It merits careful study. In 1591 Florio (1554?-1625) had lately served as tutor to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and he later became a friend and protege of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, both of whom are believed to have been Shakespeare’s patrons. Florio is now chiefly remembered for his translation of Montaigne; the son of Italian Jewish immigrants who had become Protestants, he was best known in his own time for his fashionable books of Italian lore, of which Second Fruits is one.

As Robert Giroux argues in The Book Known as Q, it seems likely that Florio and Shakespeare crossed paths, especially since it appears that Shakespeare consulted Florio’s version of Montaigne’s Essays in manuscript. Moreover, Florio may well have inspired the title of Love’s Labour’s Lost with his aphorism “It were labour lost to speak of love.” The play also uses Italian expressions from his books, and the character Holofernes may be, as some surmise, based on Florio himself. Some scholars believe the Phaeton sonnet is Shakespeare’s. Others rule this out, because they believe the date of its publication, 1591, was too early for Shakespeare to have known Southampton’s circle. It is also puzzling that Shakespeare should have written it under a pseudonym.

Beginning with William Minto in the nineteenth century, a few scholars have held that “Phaeton” and Shakespeare were the same poet. The reason most have given is simply the sonnet’s excellence. “Those familiar with the commendatory verse of the period,” Minto wrote, “will recognize at once its superiority.” In our own time Giroux and Peter Levi have revived this thesis with plausible arguments. Giroux calls the Phaeton poem “good enough to be Shakespeare’s work.” This may be, but there were many excellent sonneteers writing in 1591. What, if anything, makes this poem Shakespearean? “From a literary point of view,” Giroux says carefully, “it is possible that the ‘Phaeton’ sonnet is an early poem of Shakespeare’s. From a scholarly point of view, it is clearly impossible to prove it.”

In The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Levi goes further. The poem, he contends, “is surely by Shakespeare: he certainly knew Florio, though we don’t know when they met, and no other poet in 1591 could have written the sonnet.” He adds: “No other writer of sonnets is as good as this except Spenser, but Spenser would have signed it. The humour is Shakespeare’s, and so is the movement of thought, so is the seasonal coloring.” This is shrewd, as far as it goes, but it is hardly real proof.

A much stronger claim can be made for the Phaeton sonnet than any of its supporters have yet advanced for it. Not that the poem has had many supporters, or, for that matter, many detractors. It has generally been ignored, even though it is a far more accomplished poem than those that have received publicity of late. We should note, however, that the magisterial E.K. Chambers doubted that the poem could be Shakespeare’s. For him its early date was strong evidence against the idea. He allowed that the Phaeton sonnet “is of merit, but does not compel a recognition of Shakespearean authorship, and in any case antedates Venus and Adonis [published in 1593, the first work to bear Shakespeare's name].” The Phaeton sonnet also uses the “Spenserian” rhyme scheme “abba abba cdcdee”, which none of Shakespeare’s known sonnets employs; Shakespeare generally prefers the less demanding pattern “abab cdcd efef gg”.

So far, then, the external evidence points away from Shakespeare’s authorship of this poem. But the internal evidence of the Phaeton sonnet points strongly in the opposite direction. The poem is rich in Shakespearean terms, conceits, and images.

Phaeton to his Friend Florio

Sweet friend, whose name agrees with thy increase
How fit a rival art thou of the spring!
For when each branch hath left his flourishing,
And green-locked summer’s shady pleasures cease,
She makes the winter’s storms repose in peace
And spends her franchise on each living thing:
The daisies spout, the little birds do sing,
Herbs, gums, and plants do vaunt of their release.
So when that all our English wits lay dead
(Except the laurel that is evergreen)
Thou with thy fruits our barrenness o’erspread
And set thy flowery pleasance to be seen.
Such fruits, such flowerets of morality
Were ne’er befroe brought out of Italy.

Let us examine it line by line, beginning with its author’s pseudonym. Phaeton: The name Phaeton is found in Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 2. Phaeton is the son of Phoebus Apollo who insists on driving his father’s chariot, only to scorch the earth and fall to his death. Shakespeare refers to the Phaeton story five times in his plays.

Line 1 – Sweet friend: A typical Shakespearean endearment, as in sweet love (76, 79), thy sweet-beloved name (89), fair friend (114), sweet boy (108), my lovely boy (126), thy sweet self (126), my sweet’st friend (133), etc. (Shakespeare uses the word sweet 72 times in the Sonnets, and nearly a thousand times in his works as a whole.)

Line 1 – whose name agrees: Giroux notes that this phrase calls to mind John of Gaunt’s cry “O how that name befits my composition!” in Richard II (2,1,78). Shakespeare often remarks or plays on the aptness of names, as when Henry V ironically tells the blustering Ancient Pistol that his name “sorts well with your fierceness” (Henry V, 4,1,64). In Titus Andronicus (2,3,119) Lavinia tells “barbarous Tamora” that “no name fits thy nature but thy own.” In Cymbeline (4,2,383) Lucius tells “Fidele”(who is Imogen in disguise): “Thy name well fits thy faith, thy faith thy name.” At the end of the same play (5,6,444-6) the Soothsayer says:

Thou, Leonatus, art the lion’s whelp.
The apt and fit construction of thy name,
Being leo-natus, doth import so much.

Notice too that the word fit, which I have italicized in these examples, appears in the second line of Phaeton’s sonnet. The Sonnets also refer seven times to the youth’s name (which they promise to immortalize, yet, curiously, never actually mention).

Line 1 – thy increase: It is typical of Shakespeare to use increase as a noun and to rhyme on it. As a matter of fact the very first line of Sonnet 1 ends with it: “From fairest creatures we desire increase.” The word is almost the poet’s trademark: “Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase” (11), “When I perceive that men as plants increase” (15, though here for once it is a verb), “The teeming autumn, big with rich increase” (97). He often uses the word in his other works, as in Venus and Adonis (169-70):

Upon the earth’s increase why shouldst thou feed,
Unless the earth with thy increase be fed?

Equally characteristic is 3 Henry VI (2,2,164): “And that thy summer bred us no increase” (which -see below- links increase to summer). The reader may also recall such familiar examples as Hamlet’s “increase of appetite” and Lear’s “organs of increase.”

Line 2 How fit a rival art thou of the spring!: This line bears witness to its author first in its syntax (Shakespeare often begins an exclamatory or declaratory clause or sentence with “how,” using this form 14 times in the Sonnets alone) and, more important, in likening his friend to a season: “only herald to the gaudy spring” (1). Just as the Phaeton sonnet and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1 both end their first lines with increase, so the Phaeton sonnet and Sonnet 1 both rhyme on spring. The most famous similitude between the poet’s friend and a season is of course Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Note the simile that begins 97:

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!

And of course, seasonal images and analogies dominate many of the sonnets, especially the early ones.

Line 3 – For when each branch hath left his flourishing: Richard II (1,2,18) gives us “One flourishing branch of his most royal root.” The word flourish also occurs in Sonnet 60. And “each branch” has a close match in “every bough” (102) _ no great coincidence, but the sort of thing we should expect if Phaeton and Shakespeare are the same poet.

Line 4 – And green-locked summer’s shady pleasures cease: Compare Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” See also “Making no summer of another’s green” (68); “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet” (94); “For summer and his pleasures wait on thee” (97); and this quatrain from 12:

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.

Trees that are barren of leaves implies branches that have left their flourishing, and canopy against heat implies shade. Beard also suggests locks. The Phaeton sonnet shows the same subtle patterns of association and imagery we find in Shakespeare. The Sonnets use shade, shady, and shadow 16 times. And when Shakespeare mentions locks, he often specifies their color (yellow, gory, grey, golden, browny).

Line 5 – She makes the winter’s storms repose in peace: Compare the line “Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day” (13). Again, no miracle, but another interesting little similarity. So is the occurrence of repose in Sonnets 27 and 50.

Line 6 – And spends her franchise on each living thing: Shakespeare loves to blend legal and commercial language with seasonal imagery and with the language of love. (The Sonnets contain at least 80 legal terms.) One of the most pertinent passages comes in 4:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.

The word spend occurs 14 times in the Sonnets, not to mention the related words expense, thrift, waste, consume, and so forth. Spending a franchise and spending a legacy are kindred ideas, as the word frank, cognate with franchise, underscores. Shakespeare uses the legal term franchise and its variants about twenty times in all his works, a remarkable number. Venus uses enfranchising as a metaphor at 369, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (3,1,156) has enfranchise within two lines of the name Phaeton! (For extended legal metaphors, see Sonnets 4, 13, 30, 35, 46, 49, 58, 87, 134, 136, 146, and 152.)

Line 6 – each living thing: This phrase, in its position and function here, reminds us of Sonnet 98:

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing.

The epithet proud-pied April has several resemblances to green-lock’d summer: A season is personified with a compound word that describes its coloring. And April in this sonnet, like spring in Phaeton’s, vivifies all living things.

Line 7 – the little birds do sing: Shakespeare is particularly fond of the simple image of little birds singing: “When birds do sing,/Hey ding a ding ding!” There are dozens of examples in the plays. In the Sonnets we find several: “Upon those boughs . . . where late the sweet birds sang” (73), “And thou away, the very birds are mute” (97), “the lays of birds” (98), not to mention such variants as “Philomel in summer’s front doth sing” (102). Commonplace as this image may seem, not every poet uses it; it seems too naive for Marlowe or Jonson, for example.

Line 8 – Herbs, gums, and plants do vaunt of their release: Romeo and Juliet (2,3,16) offers a parallel in plants, herbs, stones. Even more striking is the brilliant image of plants exulting in spring: we find the same image again in Sonnet 15, where “men as plants increase . . . [and] vaunt in their youthful sap”! Venus (165) offers “Herbs for their smell, and sappy plants to bear.” And release suggests 87′s “The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing.” Its legal overtones also recall summer’s lease (18) and several other uses of lease in the Sonnets. Venus and Adonis (254-6) rhymes increasing and releasing.

Line 9 – So when that all our English wits lay dead: A faint echo of Henry V (3,1,2): “Or close the wall up with our English dead.”

Lines 10, 12 – evergreen, seen: Shakespeare rhymes green and seen in four different sonnets.

Lines 11-14 – fruits, barrenness, pleasance, Italy: The antonym of increase, barrenness is a theme of the Sonnets, which use the word barren six times. I have already quoted “barren of leaves” (12). And in Shakespeare, barren is often accompanied by fruit. Compare Venus, where fruitless chastity (751) is followed by barren dearth (754). Or see A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1, 1, 72-3), where a barren sister is imagined chanting hymns to the cold fruitless moon. What is more, Phaeton’s association of fruit and pleasance with Italy in the concluding section of this poem calls up several passages in Shakespeare. Lucrece yields us barren skill (81) and, four stanzas later, fruitful Italy (107). The Taming of the Shrew (1,1,3-4) gives us fruitful Lombardy, The pleasant garden of great Italy.

And in Antony and Cleopatra (2,5,23-5), Cleopatra welcomes the messenger from Rome with a sensual image:

O, from Italy!
Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears,
That long time have been barren.

Line 11 – o’erspread: Shakespeare is fond of the prefix o’er; the Sonnets give us o’ercharg’d, o’ergreen, o’erpress’d, o’ersnow’d, o’ersways, and o’erworn, among other constructions. (His plays boast such odd coinages as o’erwrastling and o’erstunk!)

Line 12 – thy flowery pleasance: Shakespeare is extremely sensitive to vegetation: if anything delights him more than little birds singing, it is flowers and plant life. The Sonnets mention roses, violets, lilies, marjoram, marigold, buds, blooms, sap, thorns, blooms, fruit, olives, boughs, leaves, forests, apples, meadows, sheaves, cankers, weeds. The words flower and pleasure appear in the Sonnets about a dozen times each.

Lines 13-14 Such fruits, such flowerets . . . Were ne’er before: Compare the syntax of 17: “Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.” Shakespeare often doubles such: “Such wretched hands such wretched blood should spill” (The Rape of Lucrece, 999); “such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery” (Troilus and Cressida, 2,3,71); “O, such another sleep, that I might see/But such another man!” (Antony and Cleopatra, 5,2,77); “Such seething brains,/Such shaping fantasies” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5,1,4-5); “such ferret and such fiery eyes” (Julius Caesar, 1,2,186).

Lines 13-14 – morality . . . Italy: The rather lame rhyme of the final couplet is not out of character for Shakespeare’s sonnets, whose endings are often weak. And sometimes he is content with pairs of words that end with -y, as in Sonnets 40 (poverty with injury) and 55 (enmity with posterity). And of course the poem’s affection for things Italian is typical of Shakespeare, a dozen of whose plays are set in Italy and whose English characters are apt to quote Italian phrases.

The Phaeton sonnet should be studiously compared with Sonnets 1, 5, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 54, 68, 73, 97, 98, 102, and 103 for theme, style, sentiment, imagery, vocabulary, rhyme patterns, and other affinities. Sonnets 97 and 98 are surely the work of the same hand that wrote the Phaeton sonnet, which they echo in the words winter, pleasure, bareness, summer’s, increase, decease, fruit, birds, sing, spring, sweet, flowers, shadow, and various synonyms and paraphrases.

If internal evidence alone can prove authorship, Shakespeare wrote the Phaeton sonnet. It certainly deserves at least parenthetical inclusion in the canon. Its early date certainly poses a problem –but only for those who assume that “Shakespeare” must mean the Stratford man born in 1564.

If he was Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the problem vanishes. Not only was Oxford 41 years old in 1591; he was a highly esteemed poet, a patron of literature, and a member of both the courtly and the literary circles Florio moved in. Florio later referred to an unnamed “friend” of his as “a gentleman” who “loved better to be a poet than to be accounted one.” This could have meant any number of gentlemen (including noblemen) who deemed it beneath their dignity to publish their writings; but it would fit Oxford with a peculiar aptness. Being addressed to the poet’s “friend Florio,” the Phaeton sonnet reminds one irresistibly of Francis Meres’ reference to Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets among his private friends.”

To my mind the question is not whether Shakespeare-Oxford wrote it, but how many other such poems he wrote, anonymously or pseudonymously, which are now lost to us _ or perhaps awaiting rediscovery.

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