Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Who Wrote "A Funerall Elegie"?

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Who Wrote "A Funerall Elegie"?

Article excerpt

My approach to the 1612 "A Funerall Elegie" will be quite different from those adopted by Donald Foster, Richard Abrams, Lars Engle, and others. Rather than asking--as Engle has done--"If the Elegy were Shakespeare's, What Difference would it Make?"(1) I want first to assemble some of the powerful arguments, both internal and external, against its being the work of Shakespeare. Some of these were touched on by Foster in his 1989 Study in Attribution, but many were not. To me these arguments rule out any possibility of Shakespeare's authorship, no matter what Professor Foster's database may reveal. In the process of doing this, I shall explore the poem for indications of the kind of person who appears to have written it, emerging with a "profile" very different from Shakespeare's. Secondly, I shall set out in some detail the credentials of a writer who, on the basis of this "profile," seems to me to be a strong contender for authorship.

Exit Shakespeare

In common, I imagine, with many other Renaissance scholars who have been lucky enough to work in Oxford's Bodleian Library, I first looked briefly at the Elegie many years ago, along with any other works I could lay my hands on that had the initials "W. S." attached to them. The STC makes such a search now quite a simple matter. A perusal of the author's dedicatory epistle, in which he speaks of himself as not a habitual or professing poet--"Exercise in this kind I will little affect, and am lesse adicted to"--soon dulled my curiosity. The writer is modest enough to admit that some divine intervention--indeed, a "miracle"--will be required to sustain his literary labor of love for his friend, the otherwise obscure Devonian William Peter. The poem itself seemed, and to me still seems, charged with that "passionate intensity" that Yeats, in "The Second Coming," attributes to "the worst" among his contemporaries. The quality of the writing, acknowledged by Foster and Abrams to be "aesthetically disappointing," strikes me as a good deal worse than this. Though by no means unintelligent, it is utterly devoid of literary finesse. The poem is slow moving, awkward, and repetitive, and includes lines and phrases of startling clumsiness, such as "O thou deceast!" (539). I suspect that many greater scholars, such as Chambers and Greg, may also have glanced at the poem in their time, turning from it again in disappointment. Certainly there is no evidence that anyone before 1989 ever considered attributing it to Shakespeare. Nor, perhaps more importantly, are there any general allusions to Shakespeare in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries as having any special gift for elegy, the extraordinary "Phoenix and Turtle" notwithstanding--whose utter difference from the Elegie as a dense, concise work of spectacular originality, should surely give us pause. While we may feel that the discovery of some of those pre-1598 texts of "sugred sonnets," as praised by Francis Meres, is still a remote but exciting possibility, there is no reason to believe that there are elegies by Shakespeare awaiting discovery or recovery. In respect of the lack of either specific attribution or general association, the claims of the Elegie are weaker even than those of the lyric "Shall I Die?," which at least is ascribed to Shakespeare in one seventeenth-century manuscript.(2)

I would like to begin by asking some broad thematic questions, prompted by passages in the Elegie, that bear on the probability or otherwise of Shakespeare's authorship. I have already touched on the dedicatory epistle, which seems to assert, a little pompously, that W. S. is not a habitual poet. But that aside, I wonder if A Funerall Elegie could possibly have been written by a professional player and dramatist? To be more specific, how likely is it that a writer whose most celebrated tragic hero envied the histrionic gifts of the First Player, in whom a mere "dream of passion" provoked "Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect," would have been moved to praise William Peter for his determinedly un-actorlike quiet sincerity:

this man (whiles yet he was a man)

Sooth'd not the current of besotted fashion:

Nor could disgest as some loose Mimicks can,

An empty sound of ouer-weening passion. …

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