A poem 'indistinguishable from Shakespeare'?
In claiming that the Funerall Elegye 'is formed from textual and linguistic fabric indistinguishable from that of canonical Shakespeare' (1996a, p. 1082), Donald Foster never offered a reading of the whole poem, preferring to treat it as a group of linguistic elements, raw material for computational stylistics. Reduced to a bundle of snippets, deprived of context, he then compared it with bundles of other snippets, some from his specially selected corpus of funeral elegies, others from Shakespeare. Here, too, the contexts were eliminated, a favourable decision for his purposes, but unfavourable for a genuinely open-minded exploration of the extent to which the two writers were similar, or different. Fuller citations from the Shakespearian contexts would immediately bring out the differences between his work and the anonymous poet's, differences which are less visible with Foster's atomizing treatment of texts. In the same way, a sustained reading of the whole Elegye will reveal even more strikingly its dissimilarity from authentic works written by Shakespeare in the period 1609–13. In this chapter I shall offer a brief account of the poem as a whole, before investigating some aspects of its 'linguistic fabric' which show it to be the work of a different hand. The linguistic features which I select will be new to the discussion, having been overlooked by Foster.
The Funerall Elegye is, for the most part, a completely conventional poem of condolence. Its goal, like all others in that genre, was to remember the deceased with respect, review his virtues and good deeds, offering his family and friends the consolation that his goodness would long be remembered, and that his life had not been in vain. Such comfort was usually given in private, best of all by a personal visit, but poets also offered consolation in writing, in both manuscript and printed form. 1