Just One Sonnet Unlocks the True Story…

The real-life story of the Sonnets has always been “hiding in plain sight,” as they say, in the form of Sonnet 107, which most scholars believe to be expressing the author’s exhilaration over King James’ release of Henry Lord Southampton on April 10, 1603 from the Tower of London, after he had spent twenty-six months in the prison and had been “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.”

The Fair Youth: in real life, Henry Lord Southampton, shown here in the Tower 1601-1603

The Fair Youth Henry Lord Southampton, shown here in the Tower 1601-1603

Queen Elizabeth I, who died on March 24, 1603, when Southampton was still in the Tower and King James of Scotland succeeded her

The Dark Lady Elizabeth I, who died on March 24, 1603, when James of Scotland succeeded her

The poet refers to the death of Elizabeth (“the mortal Moon”) and to the accession of King James, who is now on his way to London amid “Olives” of “peace” as opposed to civil war around the throne.  “My love looks fresh,” he writes of Southampton, who is still “the world’s fresh ornament” as he had been in Sonnet 1; and the author records this in his “monument” of the Sonnets so it may exist for the eyes of posterity.

Sonnet 107

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal Moone hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad Augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims Olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spite of him I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent

And the Author, please…

Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, who died a year later on June 24, 1604, who had adopted the pen name "Shakespeare" as a means of publicly supporting Southampton in the struggle to control the royal succession...

Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, who had adopted the pen name "Shakespeare" to publicly support Southampton in the struggle to control the royal succession...

Sonnet 107 is the bittersweet climax of the real-life story that unfolded behind the scenes from the night of Feb 8, 1601, when Southampton was imprisoned, until his release twenty-six months later on April 10, 1603.

Here is an extraordinary chorus of critics all identifying Sonnet 107 in this context — without, of course, realizing the full scope of what their conclusion means:

1848: Unidentified researcher “J. R.” first assigns Sonnet 107 to 1603.

Gerald Massey, 1866: “We may rest assured that (the Poet of the Sonnets) was one of the first to greet his ‘dear boy,’ over whose errors he had grieved … He had loved him as a father loves a son; he had warned him, and prayed for him, and fought in soul against ‘Fortune’ on his behalf, and he now welcomed him from the gloom of a prison on his way to a palace and the smile of a monarch.”

“Sonnet 107 will show us that, in spite of the dramatic method adopted by Shakespeare in writing of the Earl, he did find a call for secure congratulation when James had restored the Earl to his liberty.  There can be no mistake, doubt, or misgiving here!  This sonnet contains evidence beyond question – proof positive and unimpeachable – that the man addressed by Shakespeare in his personal sonnets has been condemned in the first instance to death, and afterwards to imprisonment for life, and escaped his doom through the death of the Queen.

“It tells us that the Poet had been filled with fears for the fate of his friend, and that his instinct, as well as the presentiment of the world in general, had foreshadowed the worst for the Earl, as it dreamed on things to come.  He sadly feared the life of his friend – the Poet’s lease of his true love – was forfeited, if not to immediate death, to a ‘confined doom,’ or a definite, a life-long imprisonment.  The painful uncertainty is over now.  The Queen is dead – the ‘Mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured.’  Cynthia was one of Elizabeth’s most popular poetical names…

“Those who had prophesied the worst can now laugh at their own fears and mock their unfulfilled preictions.  The new King calls the Earl from a prison to a seat of honor … Our Poet evidently hopes that the Earl’s life will share in this new dawn of gladness and promised peace of the nation.  He can exult over death this time.  It is his turn to triumph now.  And his friend shall find a monument in his verse which shall exist when the crests of tyrants have crumbled and their brass-mounted tombs have passed from sight … The sonnet carries double.  It blends the Poet’s private feeling for his friend with the public fear for the death of the Queen.  The ‘Augurs’ had contemplated that event with mournful forebodings, and prophesied changes and disasters … But it has passed over happily for the nation as joyfully for the Poet.”

– Shakespeare’s Sonnets Never Before Interpreted, pp 79 and 311-313

Sidney Lee, 1898: “Sonnet 107 … makes references that cannot be mistaken to three events that took place in 1603 – to Queen Elizabeth’s death, to the accession of James I, and to the release of the Earl of Southampton, who had been in prison since he was convicted in 1601 of complicity in the rebellion of the Earl of Essex … Elizabeth’s crown had been passed, without civil war, to the Scottish King, and thus the revolution that had been foretold as the inevitable consequence of Elizabeth’s demise was happily averted …

“There was hardly a verse-writer who mourned her loss that did not typify it, moreover, as the eclipse of a heavenly body … At the same time James was constantly said to have entered on his inheritance ‘not with an olive branch in his hand, but with a whole forest of olives round about him, for he brought not peace to this kingdom alone’ but to all Europe …

“‘The drops of this most balmy time,’ in this same sonnet, 107, is an echo of another current strain of fancy.  James came to England in a springtide of rarely rivaled clemency, which was reckoned of the happiest augury … One source of grief alone was acknowledged: Southampton was still a prisoner in the Tower, ‘supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.’  All men, wrote Manningham, the diarist, on the day following the Queen’s death, wished him liberty.  The wish was fulfilled quickly.  On April 10, 1603, his prison gates were opened by ‘a warrant from the king’ … It is improbable that Shakespeare remained silent.  ‘My love looks fresh,’ he wrote, in the concluding lines of Sonnet 107, and he repeated the conventional promise that he had so often made before, that his friend should live in his ‘poor rhyme,’ ‘when tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.’”

A Life of William Shakespeare, pp. 147-150

Garrett Mattingly, 1933: “Critics have generally agreed that, of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, 107 offers the most hope for dating by internal evidence.  Since Massey first argued the point in 1866 a number of distinguished scholars … have supported the view that this sonnet refers to the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James I… That Elizabeth is meant by ‘the mortal moon’ there can be no reasonable doubt.  All her life she had been Cynthia … In a general way it has always been clear that the events of the spring of 1603 do satisfy the conditions … The further such an inquiry is pushed, the more striking becomes the evidence that the second quatrain of the sonnet expresses exactly the state of mind of most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries … and the stronger becomes the conviction that, of all the public events of Shakespeare’s lifetime, these are the most likely to find an echo in the sonnets.

“To the average Elizabethan Englishman, at least, the greatest crisis of Elizabeth’s reign was that which marked its close.  To him, the certainty and security of the succession to the throne came first … No one had forgotten the Wars of the Roses, and the corollary of a disputed succession was civil war … A dread of civil war explains more than half of England’s loyalty to the Tudors.  And, as the century drew to a close, men perceived that the last of the Tudors would die without issue, and nothing settled … But James was a foreigner, and lawyers were found to argue that if birth in a foreign kingdom and status as the subject of a foreign crown could bar claimants from the inheritance of land in England (as under the law it did), then surely such birth barred succession to the throne…

“(The) real danger of a disputed succession … was widely appreciated and formed the basis of the gloomiest prophecies.  Shakespeare could not have been ignorant of it or indifferent to it.  His plays … do show a keen interest in dynastic questions … Indeed, few people either in England or in Scotland expected James to accede peaceably … It is rather to the peaceable union with the enemy, Scotland, and to the apparently permanent relief from danger of civil war that the phrase ‘olives of endless age’ is to be applied; but James’s accession extinguished the last sparks of trouble in Ireland, and peace with Spain, too, was seen in the offing.  Hostilities with Spain were suspended on James I’s accession, for he held that, as in his capacity of King of Scotland he was not at war with that power, he could not be at war with her as King of England…

“The more one closely examines the events of the spring of 1603, as they were seen by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the more consistent do they appear with the language of Sonnet 107, even in its slightest details, and the more likely does it seem that these events would have impressed the poet deeply enough to find a record in the sonnets.  Nor do the allusions in the sonnet seem appropriate to any other sequence of public events during Shakespeare’s lifetime.”

PLMA, XLVIII, 1933, pp. 705-721

Alfred Harbage, 1950: “All that we know certainly of Sonnets 107, 123 and 124 is that they were published in 1609 …Their style – by which is meant here their music and the condensation and integration of their language – suggests to me that they were written late rather than early in Shakespeare’s career … The early months of 1603 were among the blackest in English history: there was fear of Tyrone in Ireland, and of masterless men and malcontents in England: the Queen was dying and her successor unnamed; forty thousand Catholics were said to be ready to rise in arms if the successor should be James … Then, as if by miracle, the crisis passed, and James ascended the English throne in an almost hysterical outburst of national joy … the astrological and historical background of 1603 was appropriate for the allusions in Sonnet 107 … If we can speak of such a thing as a season of imagery, this was the season of heavenly bodies, setting, rising, eclipsed, etc., and the season of olives of endless age.

“The moon had always been Elizabeth’s symbol.  She had been Cynthia herself, or, as in Shakespeare, Cynthia’s ‘imperial vot’ress.’  In the elegiac chorus of 1603, she is Luna, Delia, Cynthia, Phoebe, Belphoebe (all the moon), or else the setting sun … In the presence of Death, Elizabeth qualified poetically as a tyrant … (Shakespeare’s) voice is missing among the poetic eulogists of Elizabeth and James in the ‘Wonderful Year’ (1603).  The tone (of Sonnets 107, 123 and 124) … suggests to me a man quite willing to ‘sit out’ the public excitements over a change in administration.”

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol.1, no. 2, April 1950, 57-63

G. P. V. Akrigg, 1968: “H. C. Beeching … declared ‘the only sonnet that can be dated with absolute certainty from internal evidence (107) belongs to 1603.’  Dover Wilson … has continued to recognize that Sonnet 107 dates from 1603 … Re-reading Sonnet 107 in another connection … I had a sudden complete conviction that the sonnet belonged to 1603, almost as if it had the date visibly branded upon it … This is what Shakespeare had to say to Southampton upon his release from imprisonment:

“I myself in my fears had thought, like everybody else, that the future held nothing for you beyond continued confinement in the Tower.  But now Queen Elizabeth, so often likened to Cynthia, the virgin goddess of the moon, has finally been eclipsed by death.  Since she had no acknowledged heir, pessimists had feared that her passing would bring a disastrous civil war, but now even they mock their earlier dismal prophecy.  With the peaceful accession of King James, feelings of uncertainty give way to feelings of security.  Our new King, dedicated to peace, brings us an unending era of peace and prosperity.  The refreshing showers of this pleasant spring give new vigor to my love for you.  Poor though my verse may be, it forces death to submit to me.  I shall attain a literary immortality denied to the inarticulate masses.  And this poetry of mine will provide you with a monument which will keep you remembered when elaborate tombs, like that to be raised for our late tyrannic Queen, have disappeared.”

Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, pp 254-255

Robert Giroux, 1982: “This sonnet (107) could not have been written before 24 March 1603, the date of Queen Elizabeth’s death, for a good reason: the word ‘tyrant’ was risky to put on paper at any time during her reign, and mortally dangerous if coupled with a reference to her.  It is generally agreed that ‘mortal Moon’ refers to Elizabeth … (‘Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.  Ripeness is all” – King Lear, 5.2.9-11) Men must endure their deaths, even as their births; ripeness is all there is.  ‘Endure’ can of course mean survive, but the O. E. D. also defines it as ‘to suffer without resistance, to submit to, to undergo,’ and that is how Shakespeare uses the word in both places.  By ‘the mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured,’ Shakespeare means that, as a mortal, the Queen has undergone death.  ‘Her eclipse’ instead of ‘an eclipse … further emphasizes a permanent rather than a temporary state…

“There is nothing anywhere else in the sonnets like the mastery and freedom of the first quatrain (of 107) … This single sentence, one marvelous breath, could only have been written by a poet in the fullness of his powers … Other historical allusions in this sonnet place the poem solidly in 1603 … At Southampton’s trial, it had been remarked how youthful he still looked.  On his release from the Tower in April 1603, he was in his twenty-ninth year (‘my love looks fresh’ – line 9)”

The Story of Q, pp. 191-198

John Kerrigan, 1986: “[In Sonnet 107] the present events are realized so vividly that they can be read as topical allusions … (Any) dating of the poet’s change of heart can be linked to the public events described in lines 5-9, as either written at the time or, less likely, retrospectively set in that context.  And this means that, if the allusions are unlocked, they probably date the poem, and certainly set a terminus a quo for its composition…

“A considerable outburst of anxious astrology and prediction … preceded the Queen’s death.  As her health worsened and the political picture remained obscure, foreboding grew.  Much was at stake.  Elizabeth had announced no successor, and both Catholics and Puritans feared the accession of a ruler less sympathetic to their religious liberty than the moderate Protestant Queen had been.  More than a dozen claimants maintained their right to the throne … and the people anticipated either invasion from abroad or civil strife of the kind which laid the country waste during the Wars of the Roses, before Tudor settlement…

“In the light of the secondary sense of My love looks fresh it is remarkable that one of the first acts of the newly-crowned King [well before the coronation] was to release the Earl of Southampton, often thought the addressee of Sonnets 1-126, from the prison in which he had languished ever since his participation in the ill-fated Essex Rebellion of 1601.  If Wriothesley was indeed, to some emotional extent, the you and thou and love of 1-126, both he and the poet’s affection for him would have been refreshed and renewed by the events of 1603… On the basis of allusions, in short, 1603 seems the obvious date – with all which that implies for the dating of the sequence …”

–   The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, Penguin, pp. 313-320

G. Blakemore Evans, 1996: “The majority of recent critics strongly favours 1603 as the most likely date.  Indeed, the case for 1603 (or a little later) is so brilliantly presented by Kerrigan that one is dangerously tempted to cry ‘Q. E. D.’” – The Sonnets, pp. 216-217

Published in: Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 9:07 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Well this installment proved me absolutely wrong, which I was glad to see. Very convincing. Nevertheless I was thinking about the problems that arise when the concept of a cipher has to be explained for the first time every time (such as in blog posts). Maybe it would be better to sidestep that and instead concentrate on all the historical information of de Vere you’ve unearthed. And also strike home the relationship between the cipher and heraldry, especially regarding family mottos. That seems so essential.


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