The discovery that the Earl of Southampton wrote a “verse letter” to Queen Elizabeth from the Tower, after being convicted of treason on 19 February 1601 and sentenced to death, sheds light on various aspects of the Monument theory of Shakespeare’s sonnets — perhaps the most important aspect being a view of the Sonnets as a genuine historical document in the same way that the Southampton Tower Poem is not only a literary work, but, simultaneously, part of the contemporary biographical record.
Within this view is the idea that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford created the Sonnets to contain a DOUBLE IMAGE: on the one hand, the individual sonnets are romantic love poems; on the other hand, Oxford was recording high-stakes events (for posterity) by means of addressing Southampton (the fair youth) and Elizabeth (the dark lady) in a series of thinly disguised “verse-letters” such as the one Southampton wrote to the Queen. Equally important is that both Oxford and Southampton were writing within the same real-life context of time and circumstance: the plight of the younger earl in the Tower, where he suffered the “disgrace” and “shame” of a traitor who initially faced execution and then lifelong imprisonment as a dead man in the eyes of the law.
[The Shakespeare verses arranged to correspond with the 1601-1603 context are the Fair Youth Sonnets 27-126 and the Dark Lady Sonnets 127-152]
This method of writing on two levels at once is similar to the art of double-image drawing. Take, for example, the familiar picture that depicts both an Old Hag and a Young Woman. Whether we see one or the other image depends on our prior assumptions — basically, what we’ve been told about the picture before viewing it. If we’ve been told it’s a picture of the Old Hag, that is the image we’ll see; and we’ll go right on seeing her forever, unless our perspective changes. Meanwhile, of course, the Young Woman is also right there in front of us.
The picture itself never changes; that always stays the same. What can change, however, is the perspective of an individual viewer. When we look at the drawing from a different angle, based on new information, the Old Hag suddenly disappears and the Young Woman replaces her — as if by magic.
The trick of double-image drawing is that the artist uses every line in service of both images at once; and Oxford reveals in Sonnet 76 that he’s doing the same thing, except that instead of every line he’s using “every word” to create his double image:
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name…
A major difference between the Southampton Tower Poem and the Shakespeare sonnets is that we already know the real-life “context” of the former. We know a lot about who, where, what, when and even how and why. In the case of the Sonnets, however, we were never given the real-life context; in fact, scholars have been saddled with the wrong author! Therefore the very same words (related to the law, crime, prison, etc.) in the lines of the Sonnets have been overlooked or dismissed as metaphorical and no more.
Some significant words in the Southampton poem that are also used in the Sonnets include: Blood, Buried, Cancel, Condemned, Crimes, Dead, Die, Faults, Favor, Grave, Grief, Ill, Liberty, Loss, Mercy, Offenses, Pardon, Power, Princes, Prison, Sorrow, Stain, Tears, Tombs. In Southampton’s poem these words fit snugly into the real-life context of his death sentence and, therefore, their meaning is literal and even obvious to us. But the very same words in the Sonnets, viewed within the context of romantic love poems, tend to be ignored:
Sonnet 63: When hours have drained his blood
Sonnet 31: Thou art the grave where buried love doth live
Sonnet 30: And weep afresh love’s long-since cancelled woe
Sonnet 99: The Lily I condemned for thy hand
Sonnet 120: To weigh how once I suffered in your crime
Sonnet 68: Before the golden tresses of the dead
Sonnet 68: When beauty lived and died as flowers do now
Sonnet 35: All men make faults
Sonnet 28: And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger
Sonnet 34: And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds
Sonnet 58: The imprisoned absence of your liberty
Sonnet 34: Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss
Sonnet 145: Straight in her heart did mercy come
Sonnet 34: The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief/ to him that bears the strong offense’s cross.
Sonnet 58: To you it doth belong/ yourself to pardon of self-doing crime
Sonnet 94: They that have power to hurt, and will do none
Sonnet 133: Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward/ but then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail
Sonnet 28: But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer
Sonnet 33: Clouds and eclipses stain both Moon and Sunne
Sonnet 34: Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheeds
Sonnet 83: When others would give life and bring a tomb
To repeat my view as expressed in The Monument: Oxford’s writing of the Sonnets uses a double image, which, on a level that usually goes uncrecognized, is equivalent to Southampton’s use of poetry for political pleading.
The Sonnets also contain a “double image” in terms of authorship. On the one hand, Oxford himself is the speaker; on the other hand, readers holding the traditional or orthodox viewpoint are under the impression that “Shakespeare” is the speaker. Oxford reveals this double-image of authorship, speaking of both himself and his pen name in Sonnet 83:
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.
(In the traditional view, the two poets must be Shakespeare and some “rival” such as Raleigh or Chapman or Essex. I must report that even most Oxfordians remain trapped within this context of the double-image of authorship; that is, they view the speaker as Oxford in relation to a real-life “rival poet” rather than to his pen name “Shakespeare.” The actual double-image of authorship, with Oxford-”Shakespeare” as the two poets, is still difficult for many Oxfordians to see. In my opinion, of course!)
I’ll be following up with more posts covering other aspects of this remarkable discovery, including the overwhelming evidence that the attribution to Southampton is correct. As stated in the first blog post on the Southampton Tower Poem, it was found by Lara Crowley, assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University, and reported (with text of the poem) in the Winter 2011 edition of English Literary Renaissance. Professor Crowley’s article includes her transcription of the text discovered in the miscellany Manuscript Stowe 962 in the British Library. The poem is not in Southampton’s handwriting, but apparently it was copied from the original or as he dictated it in his Tower prison room.