Posted By Roger Stritmatter on November 30, 2013
Yesterday’s preliminary remarks about the evolution of knowledge and the ever-present scholarly temptation to rewrite history through ad hoc reasoning to protect deeply cherished premises are, regrettably, a necessary prelude to the most recent chapter in a bizarre history of increasingly ad hoc, ad homimen, blather issuing from the spiffy, expensive new Oxfraud.com website under the patronage of its invisible corporate sponsors. The site boasts its own facebook page featuring a regular barrage of insights from Oxfraud followers, but lists no organizational sponsorship, raising intriguing questions about both funding and motivation.
I promise. In due time we shall return to the very specific question of “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” and its relationship to the Shakespearean question, but first we must consider the larger context inevitably implicated in any attempt to clarify the relationship of this sophisticated, deeply stoic poem to the authorship question, as well as the role of the new Oxfraud site in the evolving discourse of authorship studies on the web.
Blog readers are already apprised of the contretemps that broke out a few weeks ago at The Spectator when Alexander Waugh, the grandson and literary executor of the British novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1963). Currently editing the ten volume Oxford University Press edition of his grandfather’s collected works), not only announced that he was (and had been for some time) an Oxfordian, but had made an original discovery of an anagram in William Covell’s 1595 Polimanteia that identified Oxford as the real author of the Shakespearean canon.
The ensuing discussion on Waugh’s Spectator blog has ballooned over the past several weeks to include, at most recent count, 694 comments by more than a dozen regular discussants, among them Oxfraud’s Mike Leadbetter, writing under the avatar “Sicinius.”
Some days ago Leadbetter launched in on the popular oxmeme that the Earl of Oxford couldn’t have been “Shakespeare” because he was a wretched poet. As he put the argument in a conspicuously circular manner that, per his usual m.o., failed to demonstrate the point at issue:
[Oxford] appears to be a mediocre poet and a writer of dull prose because he actually is a mediocre poet and a writer of dull prose. There are no other possible options. (emphasis original).
Apparently, the reader who did not already agree with Leadbetter’s conclusion that “Oxford appears to be a mediocre poet” was just flat out of luck, at least in this conversation.
Leadbetter followed this up with a character analysis, apparently based on one of de Vere’s most famous lyrics, “If Women Could be Fair“: “Oxford’s actions and his poetry reveal as nasty a misogynist as you could find anywhere in the 16c.”
Leaving aside for the moment this amateur stab at psychoanalysis and what it reveals about the underlying ethics of the Birthplace Trust’s online campaign to discredit Oxford and the Oxfordians, there is a serious question here. Is it true that Oxford is “a mediocre poet” and a “writer of dull prose”? Clearly, such judgments involve an irreducible element of subjectivity, but if we step outside the narrow world of the Oxfraudians, what will we find?
Apparently the idea that Oxford is such a bad poet is a recent discovery of Mr. Leadbetter and the Oxfraud team (building, it is true, on views apparently first espoused by Stephen May as early as his 1980 edition of Oxford’s extant lyrics).[i]
In the first post in this series, we encountered the concept of “ad hoc” reasoning — which takes place when one side in a dispute alters its evaluation of certain factual or allegedly factual matters in order to avoid dealing with their embarrassing implications. Review of the reception of Oxford’s reputation as a lyric poet shows that this revisionist doctrine flies in the face of more than three hundred years of sober appreciation of Oxford’s position as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the courtier poets of the Elizabethan age.
As summarized by the non-partisan Luminarium website:
Both William Webbe (A Discourse of English Poetrie, 1586) and George Puttenham (The Arte of English Poetrie, 1589) ranked him first among Elizabeth’s courtier poets, and some two dozen poems are signed or ascribed to De Vere in manuscript or published form. De Vere’s poetry first appeared in the 1576 publication of The Paradise of Dainty Devices, then in The Arte of English Poetrie (1589), The Phoenix Nest (1593), England’s Helicon (1600) and England’s Parnassus (1600). In 1622, Henry Peacham (The Complete Gentleman) would list De Vere as first among the poets of the Elizabethan period.
More specifically, Webbe refers to Oxford as follows: “I may not omit the deserved commendations of many honorable and noble Lords, and Gentlemen, in her Majesty’s Court, which in the rare devices of Poetry, have been and yet are most excellent skillful, among whom, the right honorable Earle of Oxford may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent among the rest.”
The phrase “most excellent among the rest” would seem to be unambiguous, and yet Mr. Leadbetter blithely assures his Spectator readers that “no one actually and definitively called Oxford a good poet in his lifetime.”
Does Leadbetter have some special Oxfraudian meaning for the convenient weasel phrase, “actually and definitively”?
As difficult as it might seem to believe, things get even worse for the Leadbetter group when one expands the inquiry to ask how Oxford’s literary reputation fared after his lifetime.
The high opinion of his poetic accomplishments continued to be shared by the leading lights of 19th century criticism whose opinions are preserved.
In his 1874 Worthies of the Fuller Memorial Library series – the first published collection of Oxford’s poetry ever made – Alexander Grosart expressed the conviction that Oxford’s poems were “not without touches of the ‘true singer’ and there is an atmosphere of graciousness and culture about them that is grateful.”
To W.J. Courthope Oxford’s “studied concinnity of style is remarkable,” and— obliquely comparing Oxford to Falstaff! – Courthope remarks that “he was not only witty in himself, but the cause of wit in others.”[ii]
Looney in “Shakespeare” Identified was still able in 1920 to cite Sir Sidney Lee’s “res gestae” opinion in the Dictionary of National Biography: “despite his violent and perverse temper, his eccentric taste in dress, and his reckless waste of substance,” Oxford
evinced a genuine taste in music and wrote verses of much lyric beauty…a sufficient number of his poems is extant to corroborate Webbe’s comment, that he was the best of the courtier poets of the early days of Queen Elizabeth and that ‘in the rare devices of poetry he may challenge to himself the title of the most excellent amongst the rest’.[iii]
Such candor, however, came to a screeching halt after the publication of Looney’s book. Continued in part III.
[i] Stephen May. “The Poems of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex,” Studies In Philology. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1980. May’s comments on this and other topics will be cited at length in subsequent blog entries. At present we merely note that May’s negative judgments on Oxford’s poetry appear to be the first salvo in an ongoing controversy, more recently carried forward and typified in the extremist judgments of Mr. Leadbetter & Co.
[ii] W.J. Courthope, A History of English Poetry. London: Macmillan & Co., 197, 312-13.
[iii] Sir Sidney Lee, “17th Earl of Oxford,” Dictionary of National Biography, 112. Needless to say, these res gestae comments of Lee, written in the late 19th century, have been superseded in more recent entries on Oxford written after Looney’s book.