Never before Imprinted:
By G. Eld for T.T. 1609
THESE. INSVING. SONNETS.
Mr W.H. ALL. HAPPINESS.
AND. THAT. ETERNITIE.
OVR. EVER.LIVING. POET.
It seems presumptuous to propose yet another interpretation to this Dedication, as T.T. (presumably the publisher Thomas Thorpe), seems decided to thwart our attempts. For reasons that we may try to guess, Thorpe created this riddle, which must however have a solution, if only we can find it.
Starting with the title: SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS: As we know, the book contains a series of 154 sonnets which, according to this title, had been written by somebody calling himself SHAKE-SPEARE. Academia has therefore concluded that the author was William Shakespeare of Stratford.
However, the Dedication (1609), says the sonnets were written by OUR.EVER.LIVING.POET. An ever-living poet is meant to be a dead poet and William Shakespeare did not die until 1616; therefore, this SHAKE-SPEARE must be another Shakespeare. The use of the hyphenated name also suggests a pseudonym, which means we need to find a famous poet, dead, but ever-living (because famous), who may have used the alias of SHAKE-SPEARE, and who therefore has at least a reasonable chance of being also the author of other works published under the same hyphenated name: for example, six out of the nine Quartos, including King Lear, published between 1603 and 1608, and later attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford.
Luckily, my candidate, Christopher Marlowe, could be said to be “ever- living," as he was officially dead and famous, and nevertheless (in my opinion) still alive in 1609. Since I personally believe many of the sonnets point directly at Marlowe’s predicament in, and after, 1593, I am persuaded that the EVER.LIVING.POET, Christopher Marlowe alias SHAKE-SPEAR, was the author of the sonnets (as well as the 36 plays in the First Folio).
In his dedication Thomas Thorpe appears to be doing two things: a) Dedicating the sonnets to “the only begetter” Mr WH; and b) Wishing the best of luck to some adventurer on his setting forth. I shall deal with a) here, and leave b) for another day.
So, who is Mr W.H. and what does Thorpe mean by calling him “the only begetter”?
In theory, the “begetter,” Mr WH, should be the author of these sonnets, but in this case the author already has an alias: Shake-speare. It would have been perverse on the part of Thomas Thorpe to give two different aliases to the poet in the same book. So we must look for another possible meaning for the word “begetter.” The OED gives us “Begetter: 4 (fig and transit): To call into being." So not necessarily the author, nor the inspirer, but someone so essential to bring about the act of creation, that the author is bound to recognize this person as the only/real originator of such act.
The rhetorical device of adding the word only emphasizes this. If Thorpe had been referring to the author he could have said so: To the author; but no, he uses the ambiguous word begetter and emphasizes its ambiguity by adding a rhetorical only. The idea that this only has something to do with the sonnets being all by the same hand is not convincing. The begetter of all these sonnets might have been the author, but the only begetter is the person who caused the sonnets to exist; he is the only reason why the sonnets were written at all.
Shakespeare uses this rhetorical device in Henry V (IV, 8):
Come, go we in procession to the village.
And be it death proclaimed through our host
To boast of this or take the praise from God
Which is his only.
According to this, King Henry obtained the victory at Agincourt, but only God caused the victory to happen. God was, therefore, the only begetter of the victory, and all praise was due to him.
So, Mr W.H is someone inextricably connected with the creation of the sonnets, and his identity is being masked, probably on purpose. Apparently Mr W.H does not wish to be identified either with the sonnets, or with the ever-living poet, which may be understandable if the poet was the embarrassingly ever-living, Christopher Marlowe.
And here we come up against the fact that the 154 sonnets are definitely not all dedicated to, or written for, the same person. There is no way we can defend the possibility that Mr W.H is the Dark Lady, for example. But what about the redundant word INSVING? Why did Thorpe not write simply: TO THE ONLY BEGETTER OF THESE SONNETS?
Agreed, all 154 sonnets are in a way ensuing, but the word is redundant, so I propose that the unnecessary word INSVING means that the sonnets dedicated to Mr WH are only the first seventeen sonnets, those immediately ensuing the dedication page, all seventeen of which clearly constitute an item, or “collection,” in themselves. (OED: To ensue, 4, intr: to be immediately subsequent, etc.1485). The word ensuing is the origin of the expression en-suite, implying immediacy.
So, Mr WH could be the only begetter of the ensuing first seventeen sonnets, perhaps because it was on account of Mr WH that the sonnets were written at all. These first seventeen sonnets are dedicated to a young man, encouraging him to marry and beget children; it has been suggested that the occasion was the said young man’s seventeenth birthday.
There are two favourite candidates for the role, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Southampton was already an earl on his seventeenth birthday, in 1590, so that calling him Mr W.H, even at that time, would be impertinent and incorrect. Also, had the sonnets been written by Marlowe in 1590, Thorpe could not have published them in 1609 under the name of Shake-speare without spilling a lot of beans.
Whereas, William Herbert was seventeen in 1597, before he had succeeded to the earldom, so he was at that time plain Mr W.H. As it happens, in 1597, William Herbert had entered in negotiations with Lord Burghley to marry Bridget De Vere, Lord Burghley’s granddaughter and the Earl of Oxford’s second daughter. The negotiations were unsuccessful, as Herbert seems to have demanded that the full dowry be paid in advance. Although Lord Burghley was trying to marry his granddaughters into the aristocracy, it seems that Herbert made excessive difficulties and the marriage did not take place.
Focusing on William Herbert as Mr WH, let us imagine that in 1597, Marlowe (perhaps prompted by the boy’s mother, Mary Sidney) wrote those seventeen sonnets to William, encouraging him to marry Bridget De Vere. The boy was the reason why the sonnets were written. The event of his seventeenth birthday “called the sonnets into being”; had it not been for this anniversary, the sonnets would not have been written.
So maybe, in 1597, the author dedicated the seventeen sonnets to William Herbert with the words:
TO THE ONLY BEGETTER OF THESE SONNETS: Mr W.H. ALL HAPPINESS AND ETERNITIE.
The sonnets insistently advise the youth to marry and beget children in order to obtain happiness and “eternity” (immortality); thus, Mr WH would be immortalized both in the poet’s rhyme and in the life of his descendants:
“But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme.” (Sonnet 17)
Another indication that this may be the case is the reference that Francis Meres makes in his pedantic Palladis Tamia 1, published in 1598 (so within a year after William Herbert’s birthday on April 8, 1597). In his work, Meres refers to Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets.” Now, it would be difficult to think of the bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets as “sugared.” In those 154 sonnets we find lines of love, envy, despair, regret, disappointment, etc.; in other words, Shake-speare's sonnets encompass the whole gamut of human emotions.
Whereas the first seventeen sonnets could well be described as “sugared.” The author is writing them for a young man of whom he is obviously fond, to be read during a private party, probably a family gathering, on occasion of his birthday and in reference to the marriage prospects about which he is making such difficulties. This seems to be confirmed by Meres’s clarification: his sugared sonnets among his private friends. Indeed, if the sonnets were NEVER BEFORE IMPRINTED, a private reading, possibly at Wilton House, in April of the previous year, was the only chance for anyone like Meres to have been acquainted with their “sugared” contents.
Eventually, Herbert seems to have rejected the sonnets as well as the proposed bride, so perhaps Marlowe left the batch (possibly with its dedication) either to Thorpe or to Edward Blount (or to Mary Sidney), who waited for the first opportunity to publish them.
Obviously, if a powerful man like Pembroke did not wish to be connected with the sonnets, Thorpe had to make his identification difficult (but eventually not impossible), and, just as the best place to hide a man is in a multitude, the best place to “hide” seventeen sonnets is among over one hundred sonnets dedicated to various people.
Pembroke must have been furious when the sonnets were published, especially because I suspect there are several, later, sonnets dedicated to the same man.2
Thorpe’s book seems to have disappeared shortly after publication. Daryl Pinksen quotes3 Kenneth Muir (1979) on this subject: “But as very few copies are extant, it seems possible that the volume was suppressed; (…) the publisher would not have withdrawn a profitable volume because of complaints from the author, but he would doubtless have succumbed to pressure from a member of the aristocracy.”
And now I would need to tie this first part of the Dedication to the second. Who is the well-wishing adventurer, setting forth?
With the reader’s permission I will deal, as I said, with this second part in a separate instalment.
© Isabel Gortázar, December 2010
Isabel Gortázar is an independent scholar, specializing in Shakespeare and Marlowe studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Marlowe Society (UK) and a founding member of the International Marlowe Society. She divides her time between London and Bilbao, Spain.
who wrote shakespeare's sonnets?emmerichdevere
1Meres, Francis. 1598. Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury.
2See Gortázar, Isabel: Tamburlaine's Sonnets
3Pinksen, Daryl. 2008. Marlowe's Ghost. p. 202.