The Art of English Poetry: Re-Posting Reason 15 Why Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere received a prominent place in an anonymous work The Arte of English Poesie (1589), regarded as the central text of Elizabethan courtly politics. His position in the world of letters had already been stated unequivocally in 1586, when William Webbe declared in A Discourse of English Poetry:

“The Arte of English Poesie” – 1589

“I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honourable and noble Lords and Gentlemen in Her Majesty’s Court, which, in the rare devices of poetry have been, and yet are, most skillful; among whom the Right Honourable Earl of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest.”

Now, three years later in 1589, another overview (this one by an unnamed author) is published by Richard Field, formerly of Stratford-upon-Avon and a Protestant printer close to William Cecil Lord Burghley. Field will issue Venus and Adonis of 1593 and Lucrece of 1594, both dedicated by “William Shakespeare” to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Modern scholars have attributed The Arte to George Puttenham, but others believe the author was Oxford’s friend Lord John Lumley; Richard M. Waugaman has set forth a case for Oxford’s own authorship.  [See Brief Chronicles, the online journal of the Shakespeare Fellowship, and Waugaman’s own online site The Oxfreudian.]

Partly the book may represent Oxford’s “eloquent pleading for the Queen’s commission for his writing the pro-Tudor ‘Shakespeare’ history plays,” Waugaman suggests, noting it “champions the persuasive power of poesy historical, while emphasizing that it [poetry or drama] is all the more instructive if it is not slavishly factual.”

The Arte is dedicated to Burghley, Oxford’s father-in-law and former guardian, but it’s actually addressed to Elizabeth herself. It emphasizes the importance of deception, disguise and anonymity.  The unnamed author says that many members of the nobility or gentry “have no courage to write & if they have, yet are they loath to be a known of their skill.  So as I know very many notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a Gentleman to seem learned and to show himself amorous of any good Art.”

A page from “The Arte” showing the Elizabethans’ interest in structure, form, shape, architectural form and so on

He proceeds to name names: “And in her Majesty’s time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtly makers, Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford, Thomas Lord of Bukhurst, when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Master Edward Dyer, Master Fulke Greville, Gascoigne, Britton, Turberville and a great many other learned Gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for envy, but to avoid tediousness, and who have deserved no little commendation.”

The author of Arte knew he was putting a spotlight on Oxford and his literary work. Moreover, on the very next page the anonymous author of The Arte names just a few playwrights: “For Tragedy Lord Buckhurst and Master Edward Ferrys do deserve the highest praise: the Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of Her Majesty’s Chapel for Comedy and Enterlude.”

[Edwards had been in charge of the Children of the Chapel from 1561 until he died in 1566, a period when Oxford {age eleven to sixteen} was studying with private tutors and receiving honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford.  Edwards is credited with writing two plays:  Damon and Pithias, the first English “tragical comedy,” set in the court of Dionysius and performed for Elizabeth’s court in 1565; and Palamon and Arcyte, a “lost” play based on Chaucer’s A Knight’s Tale — and regarded as a possible source for The Two Noble Kinsman attributed to Shakespeare and Fletcher — performed for the Queen at Oxford in 1566.

[A decade later several poems by Oxford appeared in The Paradise of Dainty Devices, an anthology that claims Edwards had compiled it before his death in 1566 – in which case, if true, it’s possible that Oxford’s poems were written no later than his sixteenth year; although he could have added to them any time up to 1576, since he himself probably caused the anthology to be published].

An excerpt of one of Oxford’s poems from Paradise was reprinted in Arte of 1589, wherein the anonymous author wrote: “Edward, Earl of Oxford, a most noble and learned gentleman, made in this figure of response an emblem of Desire, otherwise called Cupid, which for excellency and wit I set down some of the verses” — using the following example of an Oxford poem, in the form of a dialogue:

When wert thou born desire?

In pomp and prime of May,

By whom sweet boy wert thou begot?

By good conceit men say,

Tell me who was thy nurse?

Fresh youth in sugared joy.

What was thy meat and daily food?

Sad sighs with great annoy.

What hadst thou then to drink?

Unfeigned lovers tears.

What cradle wert thou rocked in?

In hope devoid of fears.

Arte speaks of a poet as a “dissembler” motivated by “a secret intent not appearing by the words.” The author offers the example of four lines referring to Queen Elizabeth – not by name, but in words that “any simple judgment might easily perceive” to be referring to her:

Elizabeth I of England

When Princes serve, and Realms obey,

And greatest of Britain kings begot:

She came abroad even yesterday,

When such as saw her knew her not.

It was common practice to write on two levels at once:

“And the rest followeth, meaning her Majesty’s person, which we would seem to hide leaving her name unspoken, to the intent the reader should guess at it: nevertheless upon the matter did so manifestly disclose it, as any simple judgment might easily perceive by whom it was meant, that is by Lady Elizabeth, Queen of England and daughter to King Henry the Eighth, and therein resteth the dissimulation.”

In this same year of 1589 Richard Field would also publish the second edition of the English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, credited in 1567 to Oxford’s uncle Arthur Golding. Here at the end of the tumultuous decade of the 1580s, Oxford was about to leave public life and become something of a recluse. Was he using Field’s press to make a final appearance as an identified poet?  Was he withdrawing from the world while preparing to use the same publisher-printer under the “Shakespeare” just four years later?

[This post has become No. 29 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford]

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