The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1602  Monday, 8 July 2002

From:           Edmund Taft <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 07 Jul 2002 13:02:07 -0400
Subject:        Identity of W.S.

Bruce Young has written a spirited and cogent defense of the essential
orthodoxy of _A Funeral Elegy_, stressing two main arguments: (1) the
religious references in the poem, which seem to establish the author's
religious faith; and (2) Bruce's paraphrase of lines 561ff, which, as he
sees it, posits hope as weak only for now -- it will be affirmed later
on in heaven. I have no problem accepting Bruce's position as one
interpretive pole or terminus in the ongoing debate about this poem, but
I think there's another pole or terminus still to explore.

The elegy is a poetic form particularly constrained by conventions and
by audience expectations. The author better fulfill those expectations,
or at least seem to, if he wants to be paid his commission. The
Christian audience would expect that the poet would

        1. express sorrow at the passing of the deceased
        2. praise the achievements/life of the deceased
        3. offer Christian consolation (the "consolatio"), usually with
references to Christ, life everlasting in heaven, and so on.

_A Funeral Elegy_ contains the three elements listed above, but the poet
goes about his business in a rather unorthodox way. Interestingly, he
minimizes religious references at the end of the poem, where the
consolatio should be, and maximizes them, instead, in the long part of
the poem leading up to the anticipated ending. By doing so, he makes all
-- or almost all -- of the references point down, not up. That is, the
references are used to support the excellence of Peter's life, not the
afterlife to come.  For example, there are two references to Christ in
the main body of the poem, but the first is used to show that, like the
Apostle Peter, this Peter was a good friend. The second reference to
Christ, which mentions His death, is employed to dispute ignorant public
opinion, which often thinks that how a person dies is a sign of how he
lived his life. Note, in both cases, what is left out: no emphasis on
the glorious life to come, which is what the audience would expect. Such
references should signal the start of the consolatio, but they do not do
so in this poem.

The same is true for the author's reference to the Day of Doom, which
would be a perfect entry to a rhapsodic consolation. Instead, the poet
only uses the judgment day as an occasion to assert the blameless nature
of his friend's life on earth. To be fair, there is one reference to the
life to come that is striking:

        "Such honor, O thou youth untimely lost,
        Thou didst deserve and hast; for though thy soul
        Hath took her flight to a diviner coast,
        Yet here on earth thy fame lives ever whole. . . (197-200).

The poet quickly points this reference downward ("Yet here on earth. .
."), and it seems as much classical as Christian ("diviner coast" =
heaven?), but it is in the poem. Perhaps that clinches Bruce's position,
but these lines need to balanced against

        "So he that dies but once, but doubly lives,
        Once in his proper self, then in his name" (495-96).

Perhaps the poet means to add " on earth" after "lives." But in any
case, the omission of eternal life is telling.

I think a pious Christian reader could read the first 536 lines in one
of two ways. First, she could simply note the references and be pleased
by them. Second, she could note the references, each time thinking that
the consolatio is about to begin, and become increasingly frustrated by
the poet's continual refusal to gratify her expectations. In short, the
references are problematical, and they don't necessarily establish
beyond doubt that the poet believes in an orthodox Christian afterlife.
In this poem, even a reference to the saints in heaven (391ff) leads
only to a discussion of how they, like William Peter, suffered torture
and affliction.

As a result, my impression is of a poet who spends a long time praising
William Peter's life because that is the ground on which he feels

Bruce's explication of lines 561-69 stresses that the poet's hope is
weak for now only because his friend is gone. Someday, the poet's hope
will be gratified in heaven.  I'm not sure if anyone can paraphrase
lines 561-69 accurately, but if Bruce is right, one still has to ask,
"What kind of hope is that?" Religious hope should depend mainly on
faith, not on time and circumstances. In fact, dire circumstances should
make religious hope stronger, not weaker, shouldn't it? I conclude that
the poet's hope is simply weak, as he himself says.

And there's an additional problem. The poet confesses that his hope may
be no more than a reaction to his feelings of anxiety. His "deep unrest"
may be prompting him to embrace popular religious opinion.  This
admission is particularly damning in that public opinion is not
something the poet admires earlier in the poem when he defends his
friend (and himself!) from public ridicule.

Overall, this is a poor consolatio indeed. In fact, it's almost not a
consolatio at all. Compare it to, say, Surrey's final lines on the death
of Wyatt, written in 1542, and about as orthodox in form and content as
you can get:

        "But to the heavens that simple soul is fled,
        Which left with such as covet Christ to know
        Witness of faith that never shall be dead,
        Sent for our health, but not received so.
        Thus for our guilt this jewel have we lost;
        The earth his bones, the heavens posssess his ghost.
                                ( "Wyatt resteth here", ll.33-38)

It's hard to believe that the _Funeral Elegy_ poet could not have
written something similar if he had wanted to. The poet denies the
audience exactly this expected and traditional kind of ending. In fact,
he even denies references to Christ and the saints that DO occur earlier
in the poem!

The ambiguity and lack of clarity of lines 561-569 is striking.  I
offered one paraphrase, and then Sean offered another, and then Bruce
offered a third. I emailed Bruce a copy of Bevington's paraphrase, and
Bruce could accept it generally, but not completely.  No one understands
what the poet means on a first reading or a second or a third.  Why is

It seems to me that there are two possibilities: (1) the poet simply
loses control at the crucial moment when consolation is to be offered;
(2) the poet is sending a thinly veiled message: he does not believe in
life after death; literally, it is nonsense, and this sad truth is
mirrored in the impossible grammar and syntax of lines 561-569. It would
be folly to insist on the second suggestion, but I offer it as an
intriguing possibility.

I'll end by suggesting that a picture emerges of the poet who wrote _A
Funeral Elegy_:

1. The poet admires William Peter and William Peter's faith.
2. The poet admires the life of Christ and sees it as exemplary.
3. The poet admires Christian ethics and Christain morality.
4. Both the poet and Peter have suffered from the malice and envy of
5. The poet admires good manners, good graces, and gentle deportment.
6. The poet strongly suspects that there may not be an afterlife.

What can we call this? Semi-atheism? Faith riddled by doubt? Perhaps the
latter is more accurate, and so I'm happy to modify my use of the word
"atheistic," which so troubled Bruce.  But the fact remains that,
rightly or wrongly, I see this poem as more unorthodox and more full of
doubt than Bruce does.

Best wishes to all,
--Ed Taft

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