The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.443 Monday, 5 October 2015
Date: October 4, 2015 at 7:51:28 PM EDT
Ian Steere replied to the Jim Carroll / Don Foster conjecture that the Sonnet Dedication initials ‘W.H.’ misprints an intended ‘W.SH.’:
> Why would Thorpe . . . accept so misleading a misprint
> in the most important part of his introductory address?
That’s a good question. Foster rightly noted that an ‘S’ can only partially account for the text. The only space within any line is on the wrong side of the ‘H.’ to indicate a misprint and since spaces are intended (by someone) it’s hard to accept that the self-conscious publisher’s seemingly careful address could be so noticeably botched without being corrected (Foster appeals to a drunken compositor). With no compelling reason to infer a misprint (other than the wish) the slight, non-analogous examples of other instances of misprinted initials stack the odds against the supposition.
> Foster’s mooted identification of Shakespeare with WH
> leads to strains of interpretation elsewhere in Thorpe’s
> foreword. Its references to “our ever-living poet” then
> become unreasonably clumsy in their otherwise natural
> evoking of the literary immortality of the author.
I agree. Foster’s necessarily added hypotheses only weaken the primary guess and his arguments against more ready and usual inferences don’t hold up to close reading; they’re meant for uncritical readers.
> [The author’s personal history] also allows an ability
> (as yet unmatched by other theories) to explain all
> the peculiarities of Thorpe’s foreword to the sonnets
> without resort to letter manipulation or linguistic strain.
Yet one theory (as I recall) allows Thorpe’s dedication irrespective of author, addressee, or their story, when T.T. needed only the sonnets he ventured to publish. When a theory works without the baggage, no matter how unwelcome, it should stay in the game.
Jim Carroll observes:
> Shakespeare’s sonnets have been misinterpreted for
> years, and it was not until Donald Foster’s magisterial
> 1987 essay . . . did anyone realize that the sonnets were
> not addressed to a person whose initials were “W.H.”;
> rather, “W.H.” is a misprint for “W.SH.”, and Thorpe was
> merely praising Shakespeare himself. However, these
> facts are ignored even today by true believers who insist
> that there must be some real person to whom the sonnets
> are addressed.
Foster’s article is available free on Jstor; that’s a fact, but I don’t see any others here, unless magisterial ain’t what it used to be. Apparently, insistence cuts multiple ways when it comes to the Sonnets. I’ve never nursed a belief but I’m not opposed to a biographical, homo-erotic foundation for the series. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.
I got to thinking about one pet notion—discandiedly adopted, as it were—as if it actually applies. We all know, and Foster mentions the case, that Sidney Lee proposed stationer William Hall as the ‘begetter,’ or procurer of the sonnets. I haven’t read or thought much about it for years; how does the proposition work with Thorpe’s dedication? I’ll compare it to some of Foster’s tale.
First, we shouldn’t forget that Thorpe presumably wrote the dedication; his choices may have been influenced by reasons unknowable, but I assume he was trying to be witty and that he may have had little knowledge of the sonnets beyond their text and (perhaps) their re-ordering (which seems certain to some extent). It is entirely unreasonable to suppose that he benefitted from his own reading in the same ways as might interested readers using modern tools. His responses may have been less analytical than one could suppose.
‘W.H. ALL.HAPPINESSE.’ invites one to close up the only separated words in the text—I don’t know why, but that appeals to me. William Hall, if he was addressed, would know best. ‘All happiness . . .’ reduces to ‘Happiness . . .’ conveniently, on the QT, with no loss, and no need to chase up the dedication genre.
The associated phrases aren’t problematic for a Hall Monitor. Where Foster wants to reconcile Thorpe to Shakespeare’s and others’ general literary usage, response to the sonnets alone is all that’s necessary. Foster fails to acknowledge the original and common meaning of beget, which is ‘procure’ or ‘obtain.’ In that sense, Thorpe himself was a sonnet-begetter. If he was citing another’s procurement, authorship had nothing to do with begetter. From what I read, as if I understand it, the phrase beget or procure is found in the authorities not just because these words are synonymous but to suggest of beget the Latin meaning of conciliare amicitiam, a conciliatory purpose. In context, a double meaning is likely: ‘To the begetter (What a guy!) ; happiness and that eternity promised by the poet.’
Rather than mess with Foster’s “strained interpretations,” I accept that Thorpe’s first sonnet begins to make things clear: ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauties Rose might neuer die’. The first seventeen sonnets do promise a means to eternal life. There is no suggestion that the individual will live on; that is constantly denied. But the next-best thing is—by having a son—to confer a kind of eternity on oneself: 7, 14: Vnlok’d on diest vnlesse thou get a sonne. 11, 14: ‘That beauty still may liue in thine or thee.’ 17, 13 – 14: But were some childe of yours aliue that time, / You should liue twise in it, and in my rime.’
No one (other than Dim & Jon) would presume to insist on literal (by the card) definitions, poetry being what it is. Beauty lives so long as the kid ain’t ugly (some resemble a neighbor) and provided the kid has a kid, etc. Yet ‘never die,’ ‘diest unless,’ ‘still may live,’ and ‘live twice, and in my rhyme’ unequivocally “promise” a qualified “that eternity”; not eternal life, but a plain old ‘make me a gammer’ exhortation.
Thorpe seems then with “begetter” both to thank W.H. for the copy-text and to wish him posterity-wise good fortune. Right or wrong, that’s a pretty sharp maneuver.
Foster identifies ‘our ever-living poet’ with God. Adjunk argument in bad cases is seldom convincing and this is no exception. Jim insists again on a theological absolute to ignore the poet. But Thorpe surely got his phrase from the sonnets. The series noticeably progresses through concepts involving the author and the power of his pen:
55: Not marble, nor the guilded monument . . . shall out-liue this powerful rime . . .
63: His beautie shall in these blacke lines be seen, / And they shall liue, and he in them still greene.
81: Your name from hence immortal life shall haue,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must dye . . .
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall ore-read . . .
You still shall liue (such virtue hath my Pen) . . .
123: No! Time . . .
Thy registers and thee I both defie . . .
This I doe vow and this shall euer be,
I will be true despight thy syeth and thee.
107: My loue looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spight of him Ile liue in this poore rime . . .
So far, so good. It’s interesting to note this self-fulfilling prophecy; in a world of changing language, the constancy and dominance of English rests in part on the works of Shakespeare. His powerful rhyme relied nevertheless on the likes of Thorpe to keep the ball rolling. Yet the publisher needn’t have seen more than the sonnets themselves, despite their racy ways, to recognize their worth to all posterity and, potentially, to his pocketbook.
Just as no one except Foster needs “a god in this fight,” we should recognize the possibility that Mr. W. H. is external to the eternal story, but a savior anyhow. I notice that Ira Zinman sees a normative value in the Hall hypothesis; intuitively, you just can’t leave it out. But even if it is mistaken it serves the purpose of pointing up the complexity (lousy, multiple fixes) of narratives including the W.H. Queen for a Day.
Donald Foster’s account is surely mistaken but we could note the reason it got some play, a reason he barely mentions; speaking of only begetter: “we may consider it an ordinary advertisement to the reader that all the ensuing sonnets belong to Master William Shakespeare and that they were printed with his consent or at his request” (50). That’s what Shakespearians like to hear and Survey; the same-o, same-o M.O. is repeated in bad scholarship because a priori is bad scholarship’s bad boy. If W. SH. Is agreed on, the Sonnets were authorized; that’s the whole idea. Foster stepped in it with “Elegy,” but claims that Shakespeare was close to the printed texts (LC, Lear, etc.) usually get better mileage, never mind the nitrous oxide and hydrogen sulfide, chemist to chemist.
Gerald E. Downs