“The Second Burden of a Former Child” – Sonnet 59 of The Living Record of Henry Earl of Southampton

THE PRISON YEARS
DAY THIRTY-THREE IN THE TOWER

EXECUTION DRAWS NEARER

Sonnet 59
Labouring for Invention
The Second Burden of a Former Child

12 March 1601

While waiting for Elizabeth [actually Robert Cecil] to make her decision about the fate of their royal son [or waiting for him to agree to give up his claim to the throne], Oxford continues to record the days of Southampton’s life in this diary.  He refers to his “invention” of the Sonnets – an “invention” he introduced when publicly dedicating Venus and Adonis to him as “the first heir of my invention” or his invented name “William Shakespeare.”  Now that same “invention” has been extended to his method of communicating to posterity through the poetry of the Sonnets; and he is “laboring for invention” by giving his son rebirth in this womb or “living record” of the private verses.  His diary is itself the “second burthen” (new burden of childbirth or re-creation) of a “former child,” i.e., of a son who was once his but who was taken from him by the Queen and never acknowledged as the rightful heir to the throne.

1- If there be nothing new, but that which is
2- Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
3- Which, lab’ring for invention, bear amiss
4- The second burthen of a former child!

5- Oh that record could with a backward look,
6- Even of five hundred courses of the Sunne,
7 – Show me your image in some antique book,
8 – Since mind at first in character was done,

9 – That I might see what the old world could say
10 – To this composed wonder of your frame;
11 – Whether we are mended, or where better they
12 – Or whether revolution be the same.

13 – Oh sure I am the wits of former days
14 – To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

1 IF THERE BEEN NOTHING NEW BUT THAT WHICH IS
Proverbial and biblical; “if there is nothing new under the sun,” echoing the royal sun; i.e., there is nothing new under the royal son; “For as the Sun is daily new and old,/ So is my love still telling what is told” – Sonnet 76, lines 13-14

2 HATH BEEN BEFORE, HOW ARE OUR BRAINS BEGUILED,
BEGUILED = cheated; “Thou dost beguile the world” – Sonnet 3, line 4

3 WHICH, LABORING FOR INVENTION, BEAR AMISS
LABORING FOR INVENTION
= The image of Oxford’s brain giving birth or rebirth to his son in these sonnets, using his “invention” explained in Sonnet 76 and demonstrated in Sonnet 105.

“Only, if your Honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised; and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour.  But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it shall yield me still so bad a harvest” – Dedication of Venus and Adonis to Southampton, 1593

“My very good Lord.  I have labored so much as I could possibly to advance Her Majesty’s customs of tin” – Oxford to Burghley, April 9, 1595

BEAR = give birth to; bear the burden of; BEAR AMISS = bear a son consigned by the Queen to the status of a royal bastard; “suggests ‘miscarry’” – Booth; “Myself corrupting salving thy amiss” – Sonnet 35, line 7, referring to his son’s role in the Rebellion

4 THE SECOND BURTHEN OF A FORMER CHILD!
BURTHEN
= burden; SECOND BURTHEN OF A FORMER CHILD = the second birth of you, and responsibility for you, in this secret diary; (“give birth a second time to a child that lived before” – Booth, citing the “primary” sense); Oxford is using the Sonnets in order to give “rebirth” to his son and to grow him in the “womb” of his diary written according to the dwindling time of the life of his mother the Queen; he is replacing Elizabeth’s womb with this one; “My first burthen, coming before his time, must needs be a blind whelp, the second brought forth after his time must needs be a monster, the one I sent to a noble man to nurse, who with great love brought him up, for a year” – John Lyly, 1580, dedicating Euphues his England to Oxford

FORMER CHILD = “But out alack, he was but one hour mine,/ The region cloud hath masked him from me now” – Sonnet 33, lines 11-12; to Southampton, referring to these private verses: “Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find/ Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain” – Sonnet 77, lines 10-11

5 OH THAT RECORD COULD WITH A BACKWARD LOOK,
RECORD
= the true record of your life in the Sonnets (oh, that it could look all the way back in time); “The living record of your memory” – Sonnet 55, line 8, referring to the record of his son’s life in these verses; “For thy records, and what we see, doth lie” – Sonnet 123, line 11, referring to the records of Time, i.e., historical records, that fail to tell the truth

6 EVEN OF FIVE HUNDRED COURSES OF THE SUNNE,
FIVE HUNDRED COURSES OF THE SUN
= referring to the five hundred years of the Oxford earldom, when his official blood lineage began in England; the royal past of England from 1066; THE SUNNE = linking his royal son to the blood lineage of past kings; “Even so my Sunne one early morn did shine” – Sonnet 33, line 9; “Making a couplement of proud compare/ With Sunne and Moone” – Sonnet 21, lines 5-6, i.e., Southampton and Elizabeth; “And scarcely greet me with that sunne, thine eye” – Sonnet 49, line 6; “Clouds and eclipses stain both Moone and Sunne” – Sonnet 35, line 3, i.e., both mother and son; “And crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight” – Sonnet 60, line 7; “The mortal Moone hath her eclipse endured” – Sonnet 107, line 5; “My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the Sunne” – Sonnet 130, line 1; “And truly not the morning Sun of Heaven/ Better becomes the gray cheeks of the East” – Sonnet 132, line 5

7 SHOW ME YOUR IMAGE IN SOME ANTIQUE BOOK,
Giving evidence of you in some old account or written account of the past; YOUR IMAGE = your royal image; “The image of the King … your most royal image” – 2 Henry IV, 5.3.79, 89

8 SINCE MIND AT FIRST IN CHARACTER WAS DONE:
MIND = the mind of humankind; IN CHARACTER = in the form of written words on the page; “What’s in the brain that Ink may character,/ Which hath not figur’d to thee my true spirit?” – Sonnet 108, lines 1-2, to Southampton; DONE = expressed, written down

9 THAT I MIGHT SEE WHAT THE OLD WORLD COULD SAY
THE OLD WORLD
= the realm of old England, in history

10 TO THIS COMPOSED WONDER OF YOUR FRAME:
To these sonnets, in which I compose the “wonder” or royal blood of you; “His head by nature framed to wear a crown” – 3 Henry VI, 4.6.72; WONDER = miracle; “won” playing on “one” for Southampton, as in the “wondrous excellence” and “wondrous scope” of Sonnet 105, marking Elizabeth’s death, followed by their amazement and marveling at the fact of Southampton’s forthcoming release amid the accession of James: “For we which now behold these present days,/ Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise” – Sonnet 106, lines 13-14

11 WHETHER WE ARE MENDED, OR WHERE BETTER THEY,
Whether we have done you more justice and where they would have written a better account of your life; WE = the royal “we” used in the opening of the diary: “From fairest creatures we desire increase” – Sonnet 1, line 1

12 OR WHETHER REVOLUTION BE THE SAME.
REVOLUTION
= the cycle of the sun and planets; echoing the Rebellion or revolt; “For as the Sun is daily new and old,/ So is my love still telling what is told” – Sonnet 76, lines 13-14; THE SAME = without change; echoing Elizabeth’s motto Semper Eadem or Ever the Same, inserted as “Why write I still all one, ever the same” of Sonnet 76, line 5

13 OH SURE I AM THE WITS OF FORMER DAYS
OH = O = Oxford; I AM = “I am that I am” – Sonnet 121, line 9; THE WITS = the wise writers or contemporary historians (of the past); ironically in the 1580s Oxford was leader of a group of writers known later as the University Wits, who have been regarded as the immediate “forerunners” or “predecessors” of Shakespeare

14 TO SUBJECTS WORSE HAVE GIVEN ADMIRING PRAISE.
SUBJECTS
= topics; servants of the monarch; TO SUBJECTS WORSE = to lesser subjects of a monarch; i.e., Southampton is a subject of the Queen; in the eyes of the law he is a traitor, but other “subjects” praised by writers have been much worse

(It is interesting that this particular sonnet is placed in correspondence with the 33rd day of Southampton’s imprisonment, given that it reflects the age of Christ at His death on the Cross.  Sonnet 59 alludes to Southampton’s birth in 1574  along with Sonnet 33: “Even so my Sunne one early morn did shine…”)

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