Posted By Roger Stritmatter on December 1, 2013
To read this series from the start, please begin here.
In one of his last postings to the Waugh Spectator Blog Tom Reedy does his best to help the beleaguered Oxfraudians recover from the numerous humiliating episodes preserved in the transcript of those exchanges. Professor May, Reedy insists
does not attribute [“My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is”] to Oxford; he says that he believes the case is stronger for Oxford than for Dyer.
And in fact in the 1975 article he stops short of attributing it to Oxford, only suggesting that Oxford has a claim at least as strong–and in his opinion stronger–than Dyer. I’d give it 50-50 odds for either author.
“If it is by Oxford,” continues Reedy, ”it is the best thing he ever wrote, but it is not Shakespearean in either expression or style.”
Reedy makes four primary claims here. One involves a reasonably accurate summary of Stephen May’s lukewarm attribution in his 1975 RES article. The second is his own conclusion, somewhat at odds with May’s “stronger” case for Oxford, that there is a “50-50 odds” for either author of “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is.” The third is that the poem, if by Oxford “is the best thing he ever wrote.” Finally, claims Reedy, “My Mind to me a Kingdom Is” is “not Shakespearean in either expression or style.”
We shall take these claims one by one and examine them as required to evaluate their credibility.
As we have already seen, Reedy’s final claim was contested as early as 1853 by none other than Shakespeare Allusion Book Editor Ingleby, to whom the idea expressed in the poem is quintessentially, quote-unquote, “Shakespeare’s.”
Further inquiry will reveal how justified Ingleby’s res gestae opinion was, but before we explore in detail the numerous thematic, idiomatic, and stylistic links between the poem and the Shakespearean oeuvre, let us revisit, for the sake of clarity, May’s original argument identifying the poem as most probably Oxford’s.
May’s attribution is based exclusively on his analysis of the variants of this poem as they appear in three early modern manuscript sources, the Rawlinson MS, Harvard MS.1015, and B.M. MS. Harleian 7392.
It is important to recognize, in other words, that May declines to consider questions of a stylistic nature in offering his lukewarm endorsement of Oxford’s authorship of the poem. This, as we shall see, is an important limitation of his argument, for had he stepped outside his narrowly defined role as an examiner of manuscript evidence he could have fortified his initial conclusion, as Robert Detobel among others has suggested, with much stronger warrants.
May’s skepticism of the Dyer attribution begins with his observations about the poor state of the Rawlinson text, which attributes “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” to Dyer (spelled “Dier” in the manuscript). The manuscript’s text of the poem “contains at least seven errors in forty-eight lines, scarcely argu[ing] for immediate descent from the author’s original.” It also contains other readily documented attribution errors, including erroneously assigning a text of Spenser’s Amoretti Sonnet viii (f.5v) to Dyer.
The two other manuscript sources containing versions of “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” offer conflicting attributions. Harvard MS.1015, apparently in the handwriting of Antyne Batman, describes the poem as “a sonnet, said to be first written by the L. Ver.”
B.M. MS. Harleian 7392 (ff. 73v-74), somewhat enigmatically, subscribes the poem “FINIS Ball.” Diligent research by Robert Detobel and Kurt Kreiler – author of a recent German edition of Oxford’s poems – has been unable to identify “Ball,” although another manuscript (Coningsbye MS. 7392) lists five poems under this name, one of them (“Who Taught Thee First Alas to Sigh”) ascribed in the Rawlinson manuscript to de Vere and accepted by May (37) as his.
Intriguingly, another of the five “Ball” poems in the Coningsbye manuscript is an otherwise anonymous song (“When Griping Griefs”) printed both in Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576) (along with several lyrics attributed to Oxford) and in Romeo and Juliet (4.5.123-5).
These circumstances thus tend to confirm the probability that Oxford, not Dyer, is the author of “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is.” Just as importantly, they also suggest – via the enigmatic “Ball” – a “Shakespearean” association to Oxford in the manuscript tradition.
This manuscript tradition association between Oxford and “Shakespeare” is confirmed by other potent examples that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and its internet proxies would do well to consider closely. There is, for instance, the MSS containing, in the words of James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, “the earliest copy of any of Shakespeare’s writings known to exist,” namely Folger MSS. 1.1112, also known as the Anne Cornwallis Daybook.
This book, which bears a legend (apparently of 18th or 19th century origin), stamped in gold on the spine, “MSS POEMS BY VERE, EARL OF OXFORD &c.,” contains the Shakespearean lyric alluded to by Halliwell-Phillips. “When As Thine Eye hath chose the Dame”[i] was later published ascribed to “Shakespeare” in the 1599 Passionate Pilgrim. Like the Shakespeare poem, most of the others in the volume are un-ascribed, but one of them is Oxford’s echo poem, sometimes attributed (rather flimsily) to his lover Anne Vavasour.
Halliwell Phillips, who purchased the manuscript at the 1844 Bright sale, dated the Cornwallis manuscript to the 1580s. He noted that “the writing [of the manuscript] is very early; I very much doubt if any portion of the volume was written so late as 1590….the MS. formerly belonged to Anne Cornwallis, and has her autograph, so that its descent from Vere, Earl of Oxford, is clearly deducible.” He further commented that the poem constituted “the only specimen of any of Shakespeare’s writings I have seen which was written in the 16th century.”[ii]
As Ruth Loyd Miller has subsequently observed, Halliwell-Phillips’ chronology is confirmed by the fact that many of the poems contained in the volume are in the handwriting of Queen’s Men actor John Bentley, who died in 1585. Miller speculates that the manuscript originated at Fisher’s Folly, which was purchased from Oxford by Anne Cornwallis’s father circa 1589.[iii]
Most strikingly, following the customary logic used by Stephen May in favoring the attribution of “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” to Oxford, namely that the more textually reliable manuscript is more likely to be closer to the author’s original, we should note that to Halliwell Phillips the Cornwallis manuscript “offers a…better arrangement of the stanzas” and “a far superior text”[iv] compared to the version of the lyric published in 1599 in The Passionate Pilgrim.
This digression has served to establish an important link in the chain of evidence associating the Earl of Oxford with “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” – namely that a constellation of manuscript evidence ties Oxford closely to a number of poems that are either by “Shakespeare” or have significant Shakespearean associations.
Two points remain to be emphasized about the attribution of “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is.”
First, if the poem is by Oxford it destroys in one fell swoop the Stratfordian argument that Oxford was a bad poet.
This was of course the context in which the poem was put into evidence in the Waugh debate, and it explains why both Mr. Reedy and Mr. Leadbetter have steadfastly resisted the attribution to Oxford. As May himself acknowledges, “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,” has always been among the best loved poems of the English language.
Accordingly, when the subject was broached in the discussion on Waugh’s blog, Leadbetter proceeded to “argue” using the tried and true “buckshot” approach. Not only did he demand immediate gratification in the form of proof of the poem’s Shakespearean associations, but he simultaneously insisted that the traditional attribution to Dyer is the correct one! This is called winning at any cost.
Then, in these memorable words, Leadbetter attempted to enlist Professor May – the originator of the view that Oxford, not Dyer, is the poem’s author! – as his authority:
Steve May does NOT now favour Oxford for the same reason I do not favour Oxford. It’s too good. No one (apart from the usual suspects) attributes it to Oxford today. (emphasis original).
Now, since May’s original study attributing the poem to Oxford was made in 1975 it was of course, theoretically, possible that he had subsequently changed his mind. But when asked for his evidence supporting his claim of May’s changed opinion, Leadbetter tried to change the subject.
Unfortunately for Leadbetter, May had very recently communicated to Richard Waugaman that his view of the matter had not changed. A July 2, 2013 email to Waugaman clarifies May’s present conviction without mentioning Leadbetter’s facetious claim that the poem is “too good” to be by Oxford:
The case for Oxford is, I believe, still better than Dyer’s. The Dyer attribution was made by a student of St. John’s C., Cambridge in an anthology with many incorrect attributions. The nod to Oxford was made by the London clergyman Stephen Batman and is more detailed.
There are only two possible interpretations of this contradictory evidence. One is that Mr. Leadbetter was lying when he said that May “does NOT now favour Oxford” as the author of “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” (or, more generously, had badly misinterpreted May’s remarks). The other is that May in fact told Mr. Leadbetter something different in November than he had told Dr. Waugaman in July, but then would not follow through by publicly supporting Leadbetter’s embarrassing antics on the Spectator blog.
Since May has not responded to my 11/28 email requesting clarification, the matter cannot on present evidence be fully resolved.
Note added 12/5: I have now received reply from Professor May, who states: “no, I haven’t changed my mind about “My mind.” The scale is tipped slightly in Oxford’s favor as author in my opinion.” The conclusion from this is that Mr. Leadbetter did not misunderstand anything May had written to him: he just lied.
It is now clear that May’s 2013 opinion has not varied from the one he published in 1975: of the three manuscript attributions of the poem, the Rawlinson attribution to Dyer is, in his opinion, the weakest.
In our next blog entry, we shall see how thoroughly this opinion can be corroborated from the internal evidence of Oxford’s other poetry – as well as cross-examine Mr. Reedy’s blithe contention that “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” is exceptional among Oxford’s surviving lyrics. I would like to thank Robert Detobel for his inestimable assistance in preparing this series of blog entries.