Critiquing the Critique – 3

The Kositsky-Stritmatter critique of the Monument theory of the Sonnets continues, stating that the monument’s numerical design “depends on the one structural innovation of moving the first break from sonnet 17 to sonnet 26.”

My reply is that there has never been such a perceived “break” after Sonnets 1-17 in the first place, at least not in terms of structure; instead those seventeen verses are viewed simply as all of a piece, all dealing with the single subject of marriage and procreation.

The real innovation of the Monument theory is the break between sonnets 26 and 27, which creates a one-hundred-sonnet central sequence flanked by two smaller sequences of twenty-six sonnets apiece.  The critique continues:

The Tower of London - Where Southampton is "like a jewel hung in ghastly night" facing execution for high treason

The Tower of London - Where Southampton is "like a jewel hung in ghastly night" facing execution for high treason

“Whittemore’s justification for the innovation is that the sonnets can be mapped onto a chronological framework which accords with the events of the Essex Rebellion and the imprisonment and liberation of the Earl of Southampton. Within this schema, Sonnet 27 represents the February 8, 1601 imprisonment of Southampton.”


The continued reference to “the innovation” is again misleading.  In any case, number 27 begins the one-hundred-sonnet central sequence and, yes, it is Oxford’s response to the imprisonment of Southampton, his royal son by Queen Elizabeth.

“Unfortunately, this superficially attractive schema suffers from a number of obvious defects. First, Whittemore is forced to entirely disregard the discrete nature of the marriage sonnets (1-17) as a group.”

Not so.  The structure presented by the Monument theory includes 1-17 as the so-called marriage sonnets, urging Southampton to bow to the pressure upon him to marry Lord Burghley’s granddaugher Elizabeth Vere (who may or may not have been Oxford’s biological daughter).

The Monument theory agrees with scholars who suggest that the seventeen sonnets reflect Southampton’s age of seventeen in 1591, i.e., there is one for each year of his life up to then.  The theory also poses that the next nine sonnets up to number 26 are arranged to reflect the next nine years of Southampton’s life up to age twenty-six in 1600.

“Second and more important, although Whittemore’s prose is engaging and the story dramatic, the evidence in 27 that allegedly connects it to Whittemore’s historical narrative simply evaporates on close inspection. This is in no discernible way a sonnet about an arrest or imprisonment, but a lyrical meditation by the poet, who has been traveling and in his evening rest imagines the continuation of his physical journey to the addressee.”

The authors refer to “the poet” as if they do not agree that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford is writing these sonnets to Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton.  Referring to Oxford as “the poet” apparently serves their purpose here by moving us away from any specific reality.

How do they know that this abstract poet has been traveling?  Oxford refers to his limbs that are “weary with TOIL” and “with TRAVAIL tired,” but “travail” can mean “work” as easily as “travel.”

For the sake of argument, however, let’s say Oxford was in fact traveling.  Where?  When?  Why?  What’s the reality?  There is no answer except the statement that Sonnet 27 — in which Oxford envisions Southampton as “a jewel hung in ghastly night” — is in no discernible way about the younger man’s arrest and imprisonment in the Tower.

If the subject matter revolves around his traveling, why does he express such profound grief?  Why is he “looking on darkness, which the blind do see”?  Why is it “ghastly” night?

Katherine Duncan-Jones writes that Sonnet 27 “is the first of a series of five sonnets in which the poet meditates on his friend.”  I suggest a quiet reading of these five sonnets, up to number 31, within the context that Oxford is writing to his royal son who now faces virtually certain execution.  Now the outpouring of emotional darkness begins to make sense:  “disgrace … outcast state … precious friends hid in death’s dateless night … losses … sorrows … Thou art the grave where buried love doth live…”

In my view, Oxford probably had been at Whitehall Palace on the day of the Essex rebellion, trying to help his son, and returned on horseback that night to his Hackney home several miles away.  Then, in the darkness of his room, trying to settle down and sleep, he envisioned Southampton as a prisoner in the Tower “like a jewel hung in ghastly night.”

I must stop here and continue again soon…

Published in: Uncategorized on August 12, 2009 at 4:15 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m enjoying this debate, though I side with the Monument’s interpretation. I love sonnet 27 and suspect there’s a double meaning to the word “hung.” Oxford wouldn’t have known if Essex or Southampton would get the prayed-for axe instead of the rope. I’m sure he had seen Southwell and others hanged and cut-open alive. That image of Southampton being hanged must have been a very real and terrifying one to him.

    • Thanks, Lee. You’re right — he must have had the image of Southampton being “hung” for treason, as at least two of the conspirators were, on Tower Hill. In this context it’s a powerful image, all right. In most any other context, it would seem “over the top,” I’d say.
      Best, Hank

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