“A Matter of Style”: An Oxfordian Challenge

Posted By on January 3, 2010

Fowler TPThis blog is the second entry in my “Unsung Heroes” Series: it is dedicated to William Plumer Fowler (1901-1993) — poet, lawyer, and Shakespearean heretic.

From its inception in 1920, the case for Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespearean canon has been supported by stylistic analysis of the poetry and prose surviving under de Vere’s own name.

In Shakespeare Identified, Looney describes how he was first drawn to de Vere as a possible disguised Shakespeare by noticing some distinctly “Shakespearean” characteristics in Oxford’s “If Women Could be Fair” lyric.   This was the starting point for Looney’s attempt to excavate de Vere’s forgotten reputation as one of the most celebrated lyric poets of the early Elizabethan period.  Later Looney draws attention to a number of surprising connections between de Vere’s surviving poetry and the imagery and diction of the Shakespearean plays.

Looney’s approach to the question of style was impressionistic and made no claim to being exhaustive.

Over the years other scholars continued to explore the possibility that style might provide further corroboration of Looney’s theory; Charles Wisner Barrel’s 1947 Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly article, “Proof that Shakespeare’s Though and Imagery Dominate Oxford’s Own Statement of Creative Principles,” was one landmark study that advanced the case by, for the first time, considering Oxford’s prose instead of  his poetry, as a baseline for stylistic comparison.  

The list of lexical concurrencies reproduced by Joseph Sobran (1996) seventy-five years later is far more complete and, in an empirical sense at least, more persuasive than Looney’s was in demonstrating the poetic and linguistic affinity of between de Vere and Shakespeare.

Starting in 1987  however, the  argument that de Vere’s style is consistent with Shakespeare’s was challenged by Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza in a series of articles based on the work of a Claremont McKenna “Stylometric Clinic.” The Clinic, which released results over a period of years in articles co-authored by Elliott and Valenza, compared de Vere’s extant poetry with Shakespeare’s by means of an ostensibly “objective” series of computer tests ( a bibliography of these publications, along with some of the Oxfordian challenges to Elliott and Valenza, is forthcoming on the site).

By far the most persuasive stylistic arguments in favor of de Vere’s authorship, however, are found in William Plumer Fowler’s massive 1986 book, Shakespeare Identified in Oxford’s Letters.

Instead of focusing on Oxford’s poetry,  which consists of at most a couple of dozen juvenile poems, many of them song lyrics, Fowler focused on 37 of de Vere’s surviving letters, which span over forty years and together comprise a sample of over 12,000 words.  A poet and lawyer without formal training in linguistics, and working in the days before computers had radically simplified such an undertaking, Fowler devoted more than fifteen years to exhaustively analyzing the linguistic correspondences connecting “Shakespeare” to Oxford’s extant letters.

A graduate of Roxbury Latin School, Dartmouth College, and Harvard Law School, Fowler was a  life-long “student-scholar” of the works of the poet-dramatist. He served for 12 years as the president of The Shakespeare Club of Boston. By the time he finished his task in 1986, Fowler was legally blind and 85 years old.

Even Oxfordian scholars, let alone their critics, have yet to pay Fowler his due. His  book received almost no publicity, and was eclipsed in the public eye by the high tech but dubious conclusions of the Claremont Clinic, which made no effort to rebut Fowler’s work, and instead followed the (prudent) path of entirely ignoring it (and Oxford’s letters).

Fowler’s book may with justice be described as the most neglected and — ultimately– revelatory of all contributions to the canon of Oxfordian criticism.  The present writer has repeatedly challenged both Oxfordians and their critics (specifically, Terry Ross and David Kathman) to prove that the linguistic correspondences documented in Fowler’s 909 page book are “coincidental” expressions of a generic Elizabethan idiom. This could easily be accomplished by running some control samples on comparable bodies of Elizabethan prose correspondence, of which many are available.

Apparently, however, advocates of the orthodox view of authorship lack the confidence in their own beliefs to undertake this challenge.

Absent such disproof, the present writer is satisfied that the evidence assembled by Fowler goes very far to justify the author’s optimistic conclusion that the letters

effectively corroborate, through the consistency and distinctiveness of their correspondences to Shakespeare, Mr. Looney’s 1920 conclusion, in telling E.  Vere’s story ‘to the yet unknowing world,’ even as Horatio would have spoken…They are far more than just Oxford’s letters, they are Shakespeare’s letters.

(XXXV)

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively

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