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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Funeral Elegy
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0102. Saturday, 10 February 1996.

(1)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Friday, 09 Feb 1996 08:27:33 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Funeral Elegy

(2)     From:   David Joseph Kathman <
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        Date:   Saturday, 10 Feb 1996 00:41:48 +0100
        Subj:   Funeral Elegy


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Friday, 09 Feb 1996 08:27:33 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Funeral Elegy

Terry Ross is correct when he suggests that *A Funeral Elegy* is stylistically
very Shakespearean, and Rick Abrams will be summarizing those stylistic
similarities in a forthcoming issue of the TLS. The enjambment is very
Shakespearean in quantity and dexterity. And much of the vocabulary and word
usage is Shakespearean -- no doubt.

Just looking at the first lines, I find verbs like "rase out" (11) and
"pattern out" (16) are used by Shakespeare. Of course, he hadn't used
"short-lived" (12) since LLL -- if I'm reading the concordance correctly.

But the line "Sith as that ever he maintained the same?" (8) troubles me. If
this line is Shakespeare's, this is the first time in his undoubted writing
that he's used "Sith as that."  (Correct me if I'm wrong.)  Abbott notes the
"as that" construction (para. 108), but quotes Spenser rather than Shakespeare
as an example. All in all, line 8 seems lame -- to my ear.

Of course, the ascription of the poem to Shakespeare will not rest on one line
or, indeed, on a series of separate lines. But there is the bad Hemingway
contest in which writers who admire Hemingway, and know his style well attempt
to imitate his style. "Sith as that ever he maintained the same?" doesn't sound
like a very successful attempt to imitate Shakespeare's style -- even if it was
Shakespeare at the pen!

Yours, Bill Godshalk

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Joseph Kathman <
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Date:           Saturday, 10 Feb 1996 00:41:48 +0100
Subject:        Funeral Elegy

If I may, I'd like to contribute my two cents to the discussion on the Funeral
Elegy.  Unfortunately, many people seem to be getting their information from
news reports, which are necessarily sketchy and almost invariably include
omissions and distortions.  To someone who has only read the New York Times
article and similar accounts, Don Foster's confidence may seem excessive, and
his latest SHAKSPER post ("our problem is not, 'Why doesn't Richard Kennedy
LIKE this poem?' but rather, why didn't Shakespeare write it more in keeping
with Richard Kennedy's (and, indeed, my own) sense of aesthetic value?") may
seem like hubris.  I don't think anybody, least of all Don, is claiming that
this is a great poem, and the reaction many people have upon first reading the
poem ("*Shakespeare* wrote *this*?!?) is entirely reasonable.  Nevertheless,
the evidence that Shakespeare did in fact write this poem is surprisingly broad
and surprisingly persuasive -- the Elegy closely matches Shakespeare's late
work in many, many ways and differs from the work of other contemporary poets
in equally many ways; numerous rhetorical and grammatical quirks which are
virtually unique to Shakespeare among English poets are found in the Elegy; the
author of the Elegy knew Shakespeare's works inside and out and borrowed
heavily from them; and so on.  I won't go into all this evidence here -- much
of it can be found in Don Foster's book, *Elegy by W.S.: A Study in
Attribution*, though some of the most compelling evidence, including that of
SHAXICON, have come to light since the book was written.  In the spirit of
debate, I thought I'd give my reaction to some of the criticisms I've seen, and
mention some factors that should at least be part of the discussion.

* The Elegy, whoever the author may have been, was written quickly. William
Peter was murdered on January 25, 1612, and the Elegy was entered in the
Stationer's Register by Thomas Thorpe on February 13, just nineteen days later.
 Even without allowing time for news of the murder to reach the poet and/or for
the manuscript to reach London, that's pretty quick for a 579-line poem,
especially one as complex as the Funeral Elegy. Terry Ross points out some of
the poem's good points, and Don Foster makes a very good case in his book that
the Elegy is more complex, both rhetorically and stylistically, than it might
appear at first glance.

* Most Elizabethan and Jacobean elegies, even those written by accomplished
poets, tended to be unmemorable and filled with cliches; in this context, the
Funeral Elegy is actually pretty good and unusually complex.  I hope Don Foster
doesn't mind if I quote from his book: "As an elegaic poet W.S. has few
competitors for the laurel.  John Donne is perhaps the only contemporary who
can boast to have surpassed W.S.'s achievement in an elegaic poem of more than
two hundred lines.  The verse of W.S. seems almost effortless beside the
funereal labors of such noted poets as George Chapman, John Davies, or Thomas
Heywood, and beyond comparison with the doggerel of such hacks as George Wither
and Joshua Sylvester.  With the possible exception of Shakespeare and one or
two others, W.S.'s Elegy would add to the reputation of any Jacobean poet able
to claim it as his own."  I'm not saying this proves anything, but the literary
context in which the Elegy was written is at least a relevant factor to be
considered in any discussion of its authorship.

* Bill Godshalk wonders why, if Shakespeare was the author, his full name
didn't appear on the title page as a selling point.  But as Don Foster points
out, the quarto of the Elegy has all the hallmarks of being privately printed,
financed probably by the author and not intended for public sale. The subject
was an untitled provincial gentleman of no apparent interest to London
bookbuyers (other published elegies were virtually without exception written
for knights or earls who were famous and/or whose families were likely
patrons); the name of the publisher (Thorpe) does not appear on the title page
or elsewhere; neither is there the address of a bookseller, as in virtually all
books offered for public sale.

* The news stories have tended to emphasize the computer aspect, and have
sometimes given the impression that a "computer study" is the basis of Foster's
claim for Shakespeare's authorship of the Elegy.  This spin is not too
surprising given the media's general fascination with computers, especially
when they're used in the humanities, but in fact the bulk of the evidence and
arguments have nothing to do with computers; unless I'm mistaken, all the
counting, word lists, etc. for Don's book were done manually (it was published
in 1989 but written a few years earlier). It's true that SHAXICON has
supplemented this evidence in important ways, but it's just one part of a
complex web of evidence.  Several people have reminded us that computers have
no emotions and cannot judge beauty.  This is true, of course, but nobody is
trying to use a computer for that. People's esthetic judgements of a poem are
valuable and useful, and always have to be considered in a case like this.
Such judgements are obviously subjective, though, and other kinds of evidence,
both internal and external, also have to be looked at in any attribution study.
 In the case of the Funeral Elegy, the other evidence is pretty persuasive, and
there are a number of factors -- haste, the general dreariness (even among good
poets) of the genre to which the Elegy belongs, plus what Richard Abrams argues
is a deliberately anti-imaginative quality to the poem -- which you have to
take into account when reading it.

Anyone is free to believe or not believe that Shakespeare wrote the Elegy, but
I don't think you can just dismiss the case for his authorship as casually as
some people have been doing.  I hope people will look at all the evidence in
all its astonishing detail, and get an idea of the literary context in which
the poem was written, before treating the Elegy too harshly.

Dave Kathman

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