Reason No. 26 to Believe that Oxford was “Shakespeare”: L’Envoy to “Narcissus” by Thomas Edwards in 1595

Reason No. 26 adding to the circumstantial evidence that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare” involves a strange little poem published in London…

The 1882 Roxburghe Club limited edition of "Cephalus and Procris" and "Narcissus" (1595)

More than two decades ago I was in the microfilm room at a college library looking through a thick volume printed for the Roxburghe Club of London in 1882.  The volume featured an Elizabethan book of two narrative poems, Cephalus and Procris and Narcissus, translated from Ovid by the otherwise unknown Thomas Edwards.  It was registered in 1593 and printed in 1595, just after “Shakespeare” made his debut on the dedications of Venus and Adonis of 1593 and Lucrece of 1594 to the Earl of Southampton.

Attached to Narcissus was an “envoy” or postscript in several stanzas of verse, identifying major poets by characters in their works: “Collyn Clout” for Spenser; “Rosamond” for Daniel; “Leander” for Marlowe; and “Adon”  [Adonis of “Venus and Adonis”] signifying Shakespeare.

This was followed immediately atop the next page, as “L’Envoy” continued, by reference to a poet “in purple robes distained … whose power floweth far” with his “bewitching pen” and “golden art” that should make him “the only object and the star” of England’s writers.

So who was this poet said to be the best of all?

I turned to the Appendix to see what various scholars had to say – and to my surprise, one identified “the star” as Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford while another said “the star” must be a further description of Shakespeare…

Leaning back at the microfilm machine, I mused: If these two scholars of the late nineteenth century had been in the same room, one identifying Oxford and the other pointing to Shakespeare, wouldn’t it have occurred to them that maybe they were both talking about the same man?  If so, they’d have solved the authorship question then and there!

Here in modernized English is the stanza praising Shakespeare as “Adon” followed by the stanzas praising the poet who “should have been … the only object and the star”:

Adon deafly masking through

Stately troupes rich conceited,

Showed he well deserved to,

Love’s delight on him to gaze,

And had not love herself entreated,

Other nymphs had sent him bays.

Blackfriars Playhouse: Oxford acquired the sublease and transferred it to John Lyly, his secretary and stage manager

Eke in purple robes distained,

Amidst the Center of this clime,

I have heard say doth remain

One whose power floweth far,

That should have been of our rhyme

The only object and the star.

Blackfriars Playhouse

Well could his bewitching pen

Done the Muses’ objects to us;

Although he differs much from men

Tilting under Frieries,

Yet his golden art might woo us

To have honored him with bays.

[The stanza about “Adon” and the two stanzas to “one whose power floweth far” both end with “bays” – perhaps intended as a way for readers to link all three stanzas praising a single poet.]

In the Appendix notes, Roxburghe Club editor W.E. Buckley reported how one scholar identified Oxford and the other pointed to Shakespeare:

Edward Dowden (1843-1913)

“If ‘purple robes’ may mean a Nobleman’s robes, it gives some colour to the conjecture of Professor [Edward] Dowden, that Vere, Earl of Oxford, may have been intended, ‘as his reputation stood high as a Poet and Patron of Poets …

“Dr. B. Nicholson is of opinion that these two stanza must be connected with the preceding one in which Adon, that is, Shakspere, is described.”

Buckley noted that The Arte of English Poesie had named Oxford “first among the crew of courtly makers” and that Edmund Spenser had written a dedicatory sonnet to the earl in The Faire Queen of 1590 “in which he speaks of ‘the love that thou didst bear To th’Heliconian Nymphs, and they to thee.’  His ‘power flowed far’ as he was Lord High Chamberlain of England.  He had contributed to The Paradise of Dainty Devices, signing E.O. or E. Ox. [1576] and to The Phoenix Nest in 1593.  One of his poems is a vision of a Fair Maid (‘clad all in color of a Nun and covered with a Vail’) who complains of love and gets Echo answers of ‘Vere.’  In another (referred to by Edwards?), Oxford represents himself as ‘wearing black and tawny’ and [having] ‘no bays’ …”

[Prior to John Thomas Looney’s identification of Edward de Vere as “Shakespeare” in 1920, orthodox scholars felt free to mention him in a positive light without worrying about giving any ground to Oxfordians in the authorship debate; that is, they tended to be honest and straightforward – unlike much of what we see today!]

And here in the midst of these notes came another surprise from Editor Buckley, referring to the English literary antiquary Thomas Coxeter (1689-1747): “He [Oxford] was said by Coxeter to have translated Ovid, which would connect him with Narcissus, but no one has ever seen his Ovid.”

[We might wonder which Ovid works Oxford was “said to have translated,” given that his maternal uncle Arthur Golding is credited with the 1567 Latin-to-English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that became Shakespeare’s most beloved classical source.)

The street fighting in "Romeo and Juliet" is a mirror image of the "tilting" at Blackfriars involving Oxford's men

An important contribution to work on the Narcissus L’Envoy was done by Dr. Roger Stritmatter in an article printed in the Fall 2006 (70) issue of Cahiers Elisabethains, a leading French journal of Elizabethan studies, and reprinted in the Winter 2007 edition of Shakespeare Matters, the newsletter of The Shakespeare Fellowship, under the title “Tilting Under Frieries”: Narcissus (1595) and the Affair at Blackfriars.

Stritmatter introduced new evidence that “allows definitive identification of the phrase ‘tilting under Frieries’ as reference to a notorious series of Blackfriars street fights (1582-85) involving Oxford’s retainers.”  The fighting, in which Oxford was wounded and lamed for life, “left an indelible impression in the popular imagination of the era,” he writes, citing a series of documents (transcribed by Alan Nelson  for his Oxford biography Monstrous Adversary) confirming that Oxford’s men in spring 1582 were definitely “tilting under frieries” at Blackfriars.

“The significance of this finding, identifying Oxford as the poet with the ‘bewitching pen’ who ‘should have been’ – but cannot be – the ‘only object and the star’ of the chorus of the Elizabethan poets, should not be underestimated,” Stritmatter observes.

“Without doubt, the 1582-83 Oxford-Knyvet affair at Blackfriars was the most striking instance of ’tilting under Frieries’ during the thirty-seven years of Elizabeth’s reign that informed the imagery and diction of Edwardes’ enigmatic poem.  Before the fray had ended, a literary peer of the realm had been lamed for life, and followers of both factions wounded or killed.  The concealed poet of ‘bewitching pen’ and ‘golden art’ – whose men were in 1582 notoriously ’tilting under frieries’ – is none other than the still controversial Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).”

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