The Sonnets Revisited

Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Edward de Vere

It has been said that Shakespeare was first and foremost a poet and secondly a dramatist (A Companion to Shakespeare Studies-Cambridge University Press viz: George Rylands: “Shakespeare as a Poet”). Yet by the standards of other 16th century poets Shakespeare has in many respects been over-rated by critics and intellectuals for reasons which I will delineate in due course. Shakespeare’s poetry is largely epithetical, habitually repetitive in terms of themes or style, epigrammatic, in parts platitudinal and in other minute ways symbolic, euphuistic and metaphorical. Only a very small part of it is relevant to our time and a small percentage has a unique quality in terms of style and narrative content. Elizabethan poetry does age over time and becomes unfashionable or anachronistic. Only a small percentage of the population enjoys or appreciates a farming lifestyle of shepherds tending their flocks or youth disdaining sexual indulgence through to sexual ravishment in Tuscany. In my view his imaginative and historical dramas far exceed his rather tedious poetic style, indeed his best poetry can be found in his dramas partly because theatre lends itself to short, brilliant bursts of dialogue or soliloquy that evince a strong and definite emotional response from its’ audience rather than the poetic epics which tend to drag on endlessly repeating the same old personal expression of rejected and unrequited love, or the joys and tragedies of the poet’s personal experience. Shakespeare’s poetry in the dramas is extremely immersive and evokes a powerful emotional response from the participants through the spoken word, the narratives of his dramas are simple and easily assimilated into the imagination of the crowd. While his volumes of poetry such as Venus & Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, A Lover’s Complaint, The Passionate Pilgrim etc, were intended for an educated and enlightened group of well-heeled aristocrats and merchants who were acquainted with classical literature and who were well-read.

For the early part of his career as a poet Shakespeare emulated the courtier poets of his time such as Spenser, Gascoigne and Fletcher attempting to match or exceed them in proficiency and technique but without any real success. In the second part of his poetic career Shakespeare matched his skill, since he was undoubtedly provocative and competitive, with poets such as Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Chapman, Jonson and Daniel, but yet again failing to exceed them although occasionally matching them. In the last and final phase of his career as a poet he floundered in his attempts to master or absorb the metaphysical styles of Donne and Marvel (ie: The Phoenix & the Turtle was one such attempt). With little hope or chance of real success, given his age and lack of experience he finally died leaving The Sonnets which were pirated and printed after his death in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe. In these we detect his “swan song” of a vulnerable and decrepit man unable to come to terms with his mortality, besotted by youth, suffering still from unrequited love, betrayed by his mistress, and acutely aware of the inevitable passage of TIME!

Though sycophantic academics have identified him wrongly as a man of his time, he himself finally realised he was out of time being far too long immured by the euphuistic movement he failed to plough new furrows; “far from the maddening crowd” and his true identity was best lost forever. As a paid propagandist for the Elizabethan Age his secret existence followed him to his grave and only recently has doubt been cast on his role in theatrical and poetic circles in London and abroad. His accolades are in reality undeserved wherein the reality of the so-called William Shakespeare (aka: Edward de Vere) was that being extremely privileged, very wealthy, and well-connected. But his own self-assurance through most of his life was such that he failed to lift the veil or remove the mask on the greatest literary myth ever foisted on the whole of humanity, even today. As a result we have been obliged to swallow in its’ entirety the idea that a relatively modest man of meagre standing, with little or no education from the rural Stratford-upon-Avon (Will Shagspere), indeed like the proverbial legend of Dick Whittington, left his bucolic existence as well as his wife and three children, and then overnight rose to the heights of literary excellence in the twinkling of an eye within the plague-ridden suburbs of London! This clichéd myth was already a popular theme played out in the dramas of the time in London and the provinces. It still exists today, having been exported to the United States, whereby most Americans believe in the American Dream that just about anyone, regardless of their status through hard work, diligence and self-belief can rise to the status of President. 

The waves portrayed by the artist Walter Crane

In particular I found Sonnet #60 to have major faults or errors, for example in the opening line:

“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore”.

Strictly speaking it contains an extra syllable which technically some analysts have judged that the word “towards” is actually monosyllabic ie: t’wards, although it is written as a bi-syllabic word which to the layman is confusing or ambiguous. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory it is called a “catch”, that is an unstressed syllable. However, in Sonnet #60 (which numerically is synonymous with 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour etc) I have been obliged to re-write entire lines in a form more relevant and meaningful to draw out the actual meaning or intention of the poet. Similar references to numbers can be found in Spenser’s “Amoretti”. The words “make towards” in the first line are in my view rather clumsy since W.S. clearly emulated Arthur Goldings’ own translation from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which describe the movement of the waves analogous to the passage of time and technically how waves as they roll towards the shoreline succeed each other, simultaneously pushing backwards and rolling forwards. Spoken by Pythagoras it proceeds as follows:

“In all the world there is not that that standeth at a stay. Things ebb and flow: and every shape is made to pass away. The time itself continually is fleeting like a brook nor lightsome time can tarry still. But look as every wave drives other forth, and that that comes behind both thrusteth and is thrust itself: even the times by kind.”

This philosophical sentiment is also found in the aphorism; “No man can step in the same river twice”. Now, if anyone who has watched this phenomenon and I have personally on Chesil beach in Dorset will appreciate it is a difficult thing to describe, especially in 14 lines of poetry and still exact its’ subtle meaning. However, I was curious to see how this could be arranged in the form of iambic pentameters. The poet could have substituted any number of adjectival words to fully describe the sequential crashing of waves, their assault onto a pebbled beach for example:

Like as the waves assault the shingled shore,
Like as the waves bombard the tattered shore,
Like as the waves o’erwhelm the passive shore,
Like as the waves erode the solemn shore,
Like as the waves engulf the temporal shore,
Like as the waves molest the weed-strewn shore,

My entire revision of Sonnet 60 proceeds as follows:

In my view any one of the above would have been more descriptive and relevant that the use of “make towards” or “pebbled” and thereby avoiding the extra syllable which is rather clumsy and inadequate. The whole issue of tidal thrust or perpetuity of flow is not adequately expressed and fails miserably in describing the dynamic movement found in waves. Why Shakespeare chose the term “make towards” to me is a mystery. Furthermore, the use of the word “Nativity”, while understandable in an astrological sense would in a modern contextual association make an indirect allusion to the Biblical story of Christ’s birth or bring to mind; “being born of the ocean”. The question is was that the poet’s intention? The following is Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s attempt to describe the movement of the ocean waves:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate after the death of William Wordsworth in 1850 and remained in that role for 42 years, the longest serving poet laureate. By this time he had produced popular early work such as ‘Mariana’, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and ‘Locksley Hall’, and begun working on ‘In Memoriam’, an elegy for his friend Arthur Hallam, who died in 1833; this great poem was eventually published in the same year that he became Laureate. Tennyson is best known for his haunting narratives and emotionally charged lyrics, but also celebrated for his stirring poem of the Crimean War, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. He was the pre-eminent poet of the Victorian age, and was created a baron in 1884.

‘Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame’
– ‘The Coming of Arthur’

The second part of Kate Bush’s ‘The Hounds of Love’ album takes its title from the first poem of Tennyson’s ‘The Idylls of the King’, ‘the ninth wave’.

Kate Bush uses ‘the ninth wave’, inspired by ‘The Coming of Arthur’, as well Aivazovsky’s iconic 1850 painting ‘The ninth wave’ which shows a group of people shipwrecked at sea, as a metaphor for the final wave before drowning, a moment which becomes the anchor of the album and provides its framing narrative. Bush’s referencing to ‘the ninth wave’ doesn’t stop there, during her most recent tour ‘Before the Dawn’ she dropped confetti inscribed with this quotation from ‘The Coming of Arthur’ in Tennyson’s handwriting. Bush’s use of ‘The Coming of Arthur’ has gone on to influence pop generally, such as in ‘Waves’ by the Dutch singer Mr Probz, as ‘wave after wave’ became an iconic phrase.

‘Drifting away
Wave after wave, wave after wave
I’m slowly drifting (drifting away)
And it feels like I’m drowning
Pulling against the stream
Pulling against the wave’ – ‘Waves’
‘Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame’
– ‘The Coming of Arthur’

However, what if it’s possible to read ‘The Idylls of the King’ as having more than a passing influence on Bush’s album? The promotional photography for both the tour, ‘Before the Dawn’, and the original album ‘Hounds of Love’, both feature Bush floating amongst flowers wearing a life jacket, in what fans have noted, is a pose that self-consciously echoes that of Shakespeare’s ‘Ophelia’, but perhaps it also echoes that of Tennyson’s ‘Elaine’ in ‘Lancelot and Elaine’ from ‘The Idylls of the King’.

Miranda – The tempest *oil on canvas *100.4 x 137.8 cm *signed b.r.: J.W. Waterhouse / 1916

‘And Lancelot answered nothing, but he went,
And at the inrunning of a little brook
Sat by the river in a cove, and watched
The high reed wave, and lifted up his eyes
And saw the barge that brought her moving down,
Far-off, a blot upon the stream, and said
Low in himself, “Ah simple heart and sweet,
Ye loved me, damsel, surely with a love
Far tenderer than my Queen’s. Pray for thy soul?
Ay, that will I. Farewell too–now at last–
Farewell, fair lily.’
– ‘Lancelot and Elaine’

If Bush’s songs do reference the fates of Elaine and Ophelia, both popular figures during the Tennysonian or Pre-Raphelite period, then it also sees the water that envelopes them as a feminine space, containing possibilities for power (a power on display in the song ‘Waking the Witch’, for example), and rebirth, as in ‘Morning Fog’. In ‘The Idylls of the King’ water is also a realm that is guarded by and controlled by the feminine.

And there was no gate like it under heaven.
For barefoot on the keystone, which was lined
And rippled like an ever-fleeting wave,
The Lady of the Lake stood: all her dress
Wept from her sides as water flowing away’
– ‘Gareth and Lynette’

The Lady of Shalott

Bush’s command in the title track ‘Hounds of Love’ to ‘Take your shoes off and throw them in a lake!’ therefore becomes a command that links the first part of the album to the second part, a command that demands the acceptance of the power of the feminine, which both the listener and the subject must give themselves up to in the album’s second part. Throwing the accoutrements of life into a ‘lake’ is, of course, an act taken directly from the death of King Arthur, where he asks Sir Bevidere to throw his sword ‘Excalibur’ into the lake, an indication that he is letting go of his own grip on life.

‘Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
Among the bulrush beds, and clutched the sword,
And strongly wheeled and threw it. The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.
So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:
But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
And lightly went the other to the King.’
– ‘The Passing of Arthur’

That the final and twelfth track of the album, ‘Morning Fog’ references the last and twelfth poem of the ‘The Idylls of the King’, ‘The Passing of Arthur’, will therefore come as no surprise. The song’s lyrics read:

‘The light
Begin to bleed
Begin to breathe
Begin to speak
D’you know what?
I love you better now

I am falling
Like a stone
Like a storm
Being born again
Into the sweet morning fog’
– ‘Morning Fog’

The Death of Arthur is described by Tennyson:

‘Last, as by some one deathbed after wail
Of suffering, silence follows, or through death
Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore,
Save for some whisper of the seething seas,
A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle: but no man was moving there;
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,
And rolling far along the gloomy shores
The voice of days of old and days to be.

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere,
And whiter than the mist that all day long
Had held the field of battle was the King’
– ‘The Passing of Arthur’

The morning fog and the last ‘wan wave’ are described as arriving whilst Arthur dies, and at the end of the poem, he, like Elaine, is pushed out on a boat into the middle of the lake, and the ‘new year’ is born.

‘he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year.’
– ‘The Passing of Arthur’

The magical sword Excalibur returns to the stone
The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,