“The Living Record” – 22 – Mind the Gap!

Sonnet 104 has done more than any other verse to play havoc with attempts to date the Sonnets and to blind us to the correct time frame of Sonnets 1 to 126.  When this long opening series is viewed as a chronological diary of Southampton’s life, it first appears that Oxford recorded in Sonnet 104 that just three years have passed since he first laid eyes on the younger earl:

Three Winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow Autumn turned,
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April perfumes in three hot JUnes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh which yet are green.

Stratfordian and Oxfordian commentators alike have figured that the “three years” cannot be dated any later than 1596, i.e., no later than three years after “Shakespeare” had dedicated Venus and Adonis to Southampton in 1593, by which time the two must have met.   Such was the thinking of the great Shakespearean scholar E.K. Chambers in 1930; and such was also the thinking of the distinguished Oxfordian researcher Gerald H. Rendall in his Personal Clues in Shakespeare Poems and Sonnets of 1934.

Calling Sonnet 104 “a controlling landmark” for dating the verses, Rendall concluded there must be a significant “gap” in Oxford’s chronicle — of no less than seven years! — from Sonnet 104 in the spring of 1596 to Sonnet 107 in the spring of 1603.

“All who allow that ‘the mortal Moon’s eclipse’ [in Sonnet 107] signifies the passing of the great Queen in March 1603 must admit the existence of some such break,” wrote Rendall, who also called this lapse of seven years within Oxford’s diary an “intermission.”

Whether a gap, a break, or an intermission, to many critics it was an embarrassment — to the point that some went off seeking new candidates (such as William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke) to replace Southampton as the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.  Otherwise how do we explain that Shakespeare (or Oxford as “Shakespeare”), having professed such profound love “without end” to Southampton in his 1594 dedication of Lucrece, could stop writing to him for a period of seven years?

How could he avoid writing to or about Southampton during his 1601-1603 imprisonment in the Tower, only to burst back in Sonnet 107 to celebrate his liberation by King James on April 10, 1603?  Isn’t this the height of insincerity?  Of hypocrisy?

Moreover “Shakespeare” was such a brilliant “storyteller” that he surely would have avoided such a gap if only for the sake of his narrative or dramatic structure.  One of my premises was that Oxford had ultimately fashioned the “monument” of the Sonnets into a single, unified masterwork of literature, containing a coherent recorded story.   So if  Southampton’s liberation was the high point, how could Oxford have failed to anticipate, to prepare for, and to lead up to that dramatic climax?

How could he have failed to write to or about the younger earl [especially if Southampton was his and Elizabeth’s unacknowledged royal son] while the latter languished in the Tower for two years?

How could Oxford fail to record Southampton’s arrest on the night of February 8, 1601 for his co-leadership of the failed Essex Rebellion?

In terms of Oxford’s emotional responses and artistic impulses alike, such a lapse made no sense.   If he wanted to express Southampton’s liberation in Sonnet 107 with any dramatic effectiveness, wouldn’t Oxford have to place him in confinement inside the Tower fortress beforehand?

Given these questions, I decided to ignore the conventional wisdom that Sonnet 104 indicates a lapse of three years and, instead, I started “back down the ladder of time” with the premise that Southampton must still be in the Tower prior to Sonnet 107, i.e., he must still be imprisoned in Sonnets 106, 105, 104, 103… And if I keep going back downward in number and time, I thought, I’ll eventually find the starting point of the “prison years” when Southampton was arrested and taken to the Tower and then convicted of high treason and sentenced to die…

I had three general criteria for sonnets that appeared to be covering Southampton’s imprisonment: the presence of (1) “dark” words expressing bleakness and pain, reflecting her Majesty’s negative imperial view of him as well as Oxford’s own fears for their son, who was blackened by disgrace;  (2) the presence of prison language; and (3) legal terminology reflecting the trial of Essex and Southampton on February 19, 1601 and the sentencing of them to be hanged, drawn and quartered…

Sonnet 106: wasted time … Ladies dead
Sonnet 105: never kept seat in one
Sonnet 104: three winters cold … beauty’s summer dead
Sonnet 103: poverty … disgrace
Sonnet 102: weak … sweets grown common
Sonnet 101: Both truth and beauty on my love depend…
(Which can be seen as a cry of desperation: “Both Oxford and Elizabeth depend on my royal son.”)
Sonnet 100: Where art thou, Muse … Dark’ning thy power…
Sonnet 99: condemned … stolen … fearfully … shame … despair … death
Sonnet 98: absent … Yet seemed it Winter, and you away … your shadow
Sonnet 97: How like a Winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen?
What old December’s bareness everywhere!

Here I noted Sonnet 97 as a possible “dating marker” within the chronology; and later I would realize that “pleasure” referred to “Her Majesty’s pleasure” or command and that “fleeting” was then slang for “imprisoned,” echoing the Fleet Prison...

Meanwhile there was still a long way to go back down…

Published in: Uncategorized on February 12, 2009 at 7:57 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Dear Hank,

    You’ve got a very understandable approach here. I wonder whether the ‘love,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘beauty’ schema can just be substituted into the Sonnets’ language. The references seem to appear throughout. If that decoding brings the historical picture into focus, you aren’t arguing any more. You’re demonstrating. The working backward idea is also very appealing, somewhat like checking one’s subtraction by adding the result and the subtractor to make up the original sum.

    With best wishes,

    Bill

    • Hi Bill –

      Good to hear from you. Well, you’re right, I’m trying ultimately to demonstrate the “consistency” of this language as it produces a kind of “double image” — nonfiction dressed as fiction. One point is that these words such as “love” are used frequently in the Shakespeare plays of royal history, within the same context as the author’s contemporary political history that he’s recording. But this consistency is not a limitation; for example I’ve had some discussion with Bill Boyle, creator of the Shakespeare Adventure website, about the various meanings and usages of “love” during the Elizabethan age, and it meant everything from romantic love to friendship to loyalty and service to the monarch. Oxford’s early sonnet to Elizabeth in the “Shakespearean” form, circa 1573, ends with the following line, in which he is speaking to himself:

      Love then thy choice wherein such choice doth bind

      And here “love” has all the above mentioned variety, i.e., service, loyalty, truth-telling, etc., but, somehow, the focus on a (fictional) romantic love triangle in the Sonnets causes readers to completely overlook those other meanings within the context of royal politics. I’ve compared it to how we view those “double image” pictures — birds in the sky and also fish in the water; both images are there, but we tend to see only what we expect to see. (And often what we want to see.

      The consistency is also necessary in order to create the resulting variety; as when Fortune and Nature and Heaven and Moon all relate to the Queen; but, to stress the point, the many variations of each individual word still exist and need not be ignored.

      I like your final thought. To me a vital key to the Sonnets is the single “fixed point” provided by Sonnet 107 in connection with Elizabeth’s death (and the succession of James) on March 24, 1603 and Southampton’s release from the Tower on April 10, 1603. (Look at John Kerrigan’s edition and see his arguments that nail this time frame, even though, as in all matters relating to the Sonnets, critics keep pointing to several other possible datings.) I think the time frame has been obvious since it was first suggested in 1849. I think Oxford put that sonnet there as a clear marker that also serves as an “anchor” for that ladder from which we can work backwards down the calendar. For the whole thing to open up, gloriously so, into a full rich account of contemporary history and biography, that single simple anchor is necessary.

      But I have a sneaky suspicion that many readers would prefer not to find any such definite key to the real story; the psychology is fascinating.

      All Best to you, too –

      Hank


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