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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: January ::
"A Funeral Elegy"
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0030.  Thursday, 11 January 1996.

From:           Donald W. Foster <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Jan 1996 10:10:07 +0100
Subject:        "A Funeral Elegy"

Re: news of W.S[hakespeare], *A Funeral Elegy* (London: Thorpe, 1612).

Various SHAKSPERians have written to Hardy Cook or directly to me to inquire
about the "new" *Funeral Elegy* that was featured in a Special Session at the
MLA and in subsequent press stories.  Hardy has asked that I provide some
background information, to facilitate discussion of the poem. I won't have room
here to present the old and new evidence for a Shakespeare attribution, but
I'll hit the main points.  Those interested in further information can consult
the next issue of SNL (due out shortly).

"A Funeral Elegy," by W.S., was written in early February 1612 for a
30-year-old murder victim named William Peter. The poem was first brought to
the attention of Shakespeareans in my book, *Elegy by W.S.: A Study in
Attribution* (1989).  After having studied the Elegy for six years without
firmly establishing its authorship, I cautiously presented evidence for and
against Shakespeare's hand in the poem. Wishing to avoid the explosive
publicity that had attended "Shall I die" (and other such momentany flashes in
the Shakespearean pan), I floated my book with as little fanfare as possible.
However, in the past few years additional evidence has been discovered by Rick
Abrams and by myself, evidence that makes it not only safe but necessary to
discuss the Peter elegy as a Shakespeare poem.

The Associated Press story that many of you read was condensed from a somewhat
longer article in the Chicago *Tribune* (30 December, 1A ff.).  As always
happens with press stories, important facts were either omitted or misreported.
 I should begin by crediting the others who spoke about the Elegy at the MLA,
for the Session was not, as the A.P. story implied, a one-man show.  In
presenting the Elegy to the MLA I was joined by Prof. Stephen Booth (Univ. of
California at Berkeley), Prof. Richard Abrams (Univ. of Southern Maine), Prof.
Lars Engle (Univ. of Tulsa), and Prof. Leo Daugherty (Evergreen State College).
 Without the valuable contributions of these other scholars, the Session could
not have gone forward.

The "discovery" of the Elegy is, by now, old news.  I began researching its
background in 1983, and Prof. Abrams began advancing his attributional argument
several years ago.  What makes the poem newsworthy is the compelling case that
can now be made for a firm attribution.  As the SNL article observes, no
significant objection has yet been made to the standing evidence of
Shakespeare's authorship--and much new evidence of Shakespeare's hand has now
come to light.  Attribution of the Elegy to Shakespeare has already led on to
new biographical discoveries about Shakespeare by Prof. Abrams and myself, but
these will have to wait for later presentation.

Coming after *The Tempest* (1610/11), the Elegy (1612) is also valedictory.
Though many readers have found the poem to be over-long and dull, it is deeply
personal, one of the few extant texts in which Shakespeare writes in the first
person. Even those scholars who refuse at first to credit Shakespeare with the
poem will acknowledge that the Elegy is (in Prof. Abrams's words) "one of our
richest repositories of Shakespearean allusion"; though in light of recent
developments, most Shakespeareans are likely to conclude (again, with Prof
Abrams) that those allusions are in fact to the poet's own work. The Elegy also
contains some internal biographical evidence that will prove of interest.  For
example, the poet refers elliptically to a past scandal, "a taste of knowing
shame" (etc.), while offering some hints that this "thankless misconstruction"
may possibly be identical with that "vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow"
mentioned in the Sonnets. The Elegy is not flashy, nor even easy to read--the
verse is highly enjambed and the syntax labored--but it is a fascinating text
nonetheless.

Here is a representative extract, selected for a forthcoming article in the New
York Times:

        For when the world lies wintered in the storms
        Of fearful consummation, and lays down
        Th' unsteady change of his fantastic forms,
        Expecting ever to be overthrown;
175     When the proud height of much affected sin
        Shall ripen to a head, and in that pride
        End in the miseries it did begin
        And fall amidst the glory of his tide;
        Then in a book where every work is writ
180     Shall this man's actions be revealed, to show
        The gainful fruit of well-employed wit,
        Which paid to heaven the debt that it did owe.
        Here shall be reckoned up the constant faith,
        Never untrue, where once he love professed;
185     Which is a miracle in men, one saith,
        Long sought though rarely found, and he is best
          Who can make friendship, in those times of change,
          Admired more for being firm than strange.
        When those weak houses of our brittle flesh
190     Shall ruined be by death, our grace and strength,
        Youth, memory and shape that made us fresh
        Cast down, and utterly decayed at length;
        When all shall turn to dust from whence we came
        And we low-leveled in a narrow grave,
195     What can we leave behind us but a name,...?

If you go to the Elegy looking for the poetic richness of the Sonnets, you'll
be disappointed; but, as Prof. Abrams has shown, the rather plain style of the
Elegy does not by itself constitute an objection to Shakespearean authorship,
since the poet consciously eschews imaginative excess in a memorial poem that
works toward symbolic union with the poet's plain-speaking friend, William
Peter. This may not be the sort of verse that most readers would hope to find
in a "lost" Shakespeare poem, but I am now persuaded that the Elegy is indeed
Shakespeare's, partly for reasons spelled out in my book, and partly for what I
take to be a whole web of conclusive new evidence of Shakespearean authorship.

Don Foster
 

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