The Funeral Elegy Poem: Is the emperor wearing any clothes?
by Stephanie Caruana
This article first appeared in the Spring 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
The battle over the A Funeral Elegy by W.S.(1613) rages on in the pages of the London Times Literary Supplement.
Professor Stanley Wells of the University of Birmingham began the round by rejecting the identification of W.S. as William Shakespeare (TLS 1/26/96,p.28). He pointed out that it would have been unlikely for Shakespeare to focus his attention on writing and publishing an elegy for William Peter since his own brother Gilbert died and was buried in Stratford only nine days after Peter’s death.
Wells’ other objections focus on the poor quality of the Elegy itself, which “seems not so much bad as tedious in a very un-Shakespearian way.” He noted the generalized, nonspecific praises heaped on the murdered man, and the mistakes W.S. made about details of Peter’s life. He questioned the value of Foster’s computerized measurements of word usage, and the way computer programs are currently touted as superior to human literary perception. He ended by saying he would “continue to harbor a suspicion that W.S. was…perhaps a curate with literary aspirations, who had little personal knowledge of William Peter but was commissioned by Peter’s family to memorialize him in an effort to minimize the unpleasant, if not disreputable circumstances of his death.”
Professor Richard Abrams of the University of Southern Maine, Donald Foster’s champion in the current drive to canonize the Elegy, sees the Elegy as a statistically unimpeachable example of “Shakespeare’s late style” (TLS,2/9/96,p.25–6). By this he means Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen—two plays which have traditionally been dogged with doubts and questions regarding their own authorship.
He responded to what many see as an inexplicable error with regard to the duration of William Peter’s marriage (three years in reality, as opposed to “nine of years…in his bed” (Elegy 511–2)) with an unsubstantiated tale of a nine-year affair with a mistress while Peter was a student at Oxford. He lauded W.S. for displaying “considerable daring in affording pride of place to the ‘other woman’ as the most deeply aggrieved of Peter’s mourners.” He concluded by attempting to connect Prospero’s abjuration of magic in The Tempest with W.S.’s “plain style.”
Brian Vickers, an editor of Shakespearean books, took up the cudgel (oops! baton) with “Whose Thumbprints?—A more plausible author for ‘A Funeral Elegy.'” (TLS,3/8/96,p.16–18). He argued against Foster’s “too great reliance on computerized stylometrics,” because “depending…on an atomistic notion of style,(use of computer programs) has produced bewilderingly conflicting results.”
Vickers delivered a crushing blow to the significance of Foster’s study of Jacobean poets whose initials were ‘W.S.’ He cited John Horden, to the effect that a pair of authorial initials may be false, or reversed, or may represent the last letters of a name, and supplied instances for each case. He brought up “the power of negative instances (it takes only one black swan to falsify the proposition that all swans are white.)”
He pointed out “the overt piety of several passages, quite unlike anything in Shakespeare.” Finally he proposed another candidate for author: Simon Wastell, who was headmaster of a school at Northampton. Foster had tentatively identified Wastell as the author of The Muses Thankfulness, A Funeral Elegy for Robert, Baron Spencer (1627), in which he “plagiarized a whole series of funeral elegies, including W.S.’s on William Peter, Samuel Daniel’s elegy for the Earl of Devonshire (1606), Tourneur’s for Lord Oxford (1609), and John Webster’s for Prince Henry (1613).”
The elegy to Spencer was 614 lines long, compared to Peter’s 578-line elegy. This similarity in length, combined with a curious sameness and flatness of content, and the speed with which the Peter elegy was ground out (nineteen days from Peter’s death to publisher’s registration) suggests to Vickers that both elegies “belong to the traditional genre of eulogistic or epidictic rhetoric…offered as…consolations for the surviving family and friends.”
After making a good case for Wastell, but perhaps inadvertently throwing the barn door wide open to rival claimants with any set of initials, Vickers concluded: “…no kudos attaches to identifying an obscure (headmaster) with the authorship of anything, while identifying Shakespeare’s hand would be the great prize. I regret that Foster’s well-considered avoidance of an absolute claim for Shakespeare’s authorship has been overwhelmed by Richard Abrams’s enthusiastic but indiscriminate advocacy.”
Richard Abrams’ response (3/22/96) seemed patterned after second-rate college debaters everywhere. He accused his opponent of “errors, misrepresentations and inconsistencies,” hurled a few insults, and claimed victory. He hinted darkly of new, still unrevealed, and “more compelling reasons to accept the Elegy as Shakespeare’s….Until the new evidence is before him, Vickers should probably try to keep his foot out of his mouth.”
Foster made his own short but vicious riposte (TLS,3/29/96, p.17). He accused Vickers of “advanc(ing) his case with an inattention to facts that would not be tolerated in an undergraduate student.” He then quoted lines from:
-an elegy by Michael Drayton
-a 1627 elegy by Wastell (?) stolen from Drayton’s elegy (and from all the other elegy writers on the block), and
-some lines from W.S’s elegy that are supposed to show W.S.’s vast superiority.
OK folks, here’s a snap quiz I have prepared (kind of like a Benezet test): I will quote lines from the three elegies Foster quotes above, but I won’t tell you which elegy they are from. You be the judge of their relative quality, and whether or not they come from the same collective elegy cookie-cutter:
Canst thou depart and be forgotten so,
As if thou hadst not been at all? O no,
But in despite of death the world shall see
That Muse which much graced was by thee.
Can black Oblivion utterly out-brave
And set thee up above thy silent grave?
When those weak houses of our brittle flesh
Shall ruin’d be by death, our grace and strength,
Youth, memory and shape that made us fresh
Cast down, and utterly decay’d at length;
When all shall turn to dust from whence we came
And we low-level’d in a narrow grave,
What can we leave behind us but a name?
Foster stated, “In its prosody, diction, syntax and thought, Wastell’s original work is as unlike A Funeral Elegy as can be.” Like Abrams, he referred to unrevealed “new evidence” which has shifted the balance of evidence decisively. He talked of “the recent groundswell of support for a Shakespearean attribution… (and) emerging consensus that Shakespeare wrote this strange and challenging poem.”
But like a harbinger of more grief to come, on the same page was a letter from Katherine Duncan-Jones, of Somerville College, Oxford, stating her belief that this “dreary poem” was probably written by some member of the Devonshire gentry. She proposed William Strode or one of Thomas Stukeley’s many brothers.
Brian Vickers returned for a final mop-up on 4/12/96. He commiserated with Foster and Abrams: “It is not surprising that they are upset, given that they have wagered their whole professional reputation on the claims for Shakespeare’s authorship, and stand to lose a lot once it is generally discredited.” But he added, “In fact they are guilty not only of arrogance but of pervasive dishonesty.” He detailed Foster’s methods of tiptoeing through the computer data, discarding any tests that disproved his thesis.
Then he addressed what is to me the crux of the problem: “Foster and Abrams…represent that recently emergent type of scholar who performs elaborate analyses of poetic language by using concordances and other electronic resources rather than by reading poems. But what do machines know about literary conventions, genre, rhetoric, or figurative language?….In all the thirteen years he has been working on this poem, Foster seems never to have noticed…that both the epistle, in which the author describes his inexperience in writing poetry, and the modesty topos, as used with such banality in the poem itself, would alone be enough to exclude Shakespeare from consideration, with a lifetime’s work of unequalled range and variety behind him….The parallels that I see between (the 1613 Peter Elegy and the 1627 Elegy for Baron Spencer), and the difference that many more people see between either of them and Shakespeare, are in fact so gross as to defeat computerized statistics; the scale is too large; it only needs a normal reader with some powers of judgment to tell the difference.”
He describes Foster’s odd dilemma: “Foster was doubtful about pressing the identification, since the poem’s language was not so figurative or filled with word-play as is characteristic of Shakespeare. Then emerged his Svengali, Richard Abrams, who said in an interview: ‘where I came in…was to notice that the poem avoids the language of the imagination because, in the poet’s mind, imagination is strangely implicated in the murder of his friend. Shakespeare was deliberately writing this way.'” In other words, Shakespeare arbitrarily decided to write a banal poem because he felt like it. That’s why it’s bad, folks; just take my word for it. How can anyone argue with such nonsense? Foster accepted Abrams’ rationale, and danced out on this treacherous limb. Stephen Greenblatt of the University of California plans to include the poem in his forthcoming edition of Shakespeare’s works.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to see how Foster and Abrams can summon up the chutzpah to return to the vaudeville stage of the TLS, where further literary brickbats and rotten tomatoes are sure to greet them.