Tuesday 19 December 2006

On 'the' in maybe Shakespeare

A correspondent has asked whether I have any views about whether Shakespeare wrote the Denbigh poems - or Danielle poems, as they're sometimes called. The little word 'the' turns out to be rather important.

These are two poems found in a collection of verses in Welsh, English and Latin mainly praising Sir John Salusbury and his family; they're in the library of Christ Church College, Oxford (Christ Church Mss 183 and 184). Poems XXI and XXII in Ms 184 are written in the same hand, which is different from any other hand in the collection. At the end of each poem is a signature in a different hand: finis quoth Danielle - 'finish said Danielle' - hence the name 'Danielle poems'. There are seventeen six-line verses in the two poems, in the manner of Venus and Adonis. Internal references to various personalities suggest that the poems were written between late 1593 and early 1594.

You can catch the flavour of the language from these extracts - the opening and closing stanzas of the first poem:

Sweet mvses come & lend your helpinge handes
to Rule my penne which quakinge standes to write
ffeare bides me stay but hope doth egge me on
to putt in practize what's my hartes delight
ffayne would I write so 'twere without offence
I'le venter once my mvse goe packe thee hence
... ...
And I'le intreat dianas trayne to stand
to lend ye help with all their siluer stringes
The nimphes shall dance with Salusbury hand in hand
treadinge the measures on the pleasant plaines
And thus in myddest of all his mirth & glee
I'le take my leaue of courteus Salusbury

John Salusbury inherited estates at Lleweni, near Denbigh, in North Wales, and married Ursula Stanley (a daughter of Lord Derby). He developed an interest in poetry while at Oxford and at Lleweni built up a literary circle. Nobody knows where Shakespeare was, in the early 1590s, but several people have argued that he visited Lleweni, and that these poems were written as a kind of 'thank-you for having me'. And one of them, John Idris Jones, having spotted several parallels between lines in the poem and lines in works known to be by Shakespeare, asked me whether I thought there was a strong linguistic case for or against authorship.

A full 'forensic' linguistic analysis - orthography, grammar, vocabulary, stanza structure, and so on - would be a huge job, and probably pointless, as without corresponding studies of other likely contenders for authorship it wouldn't be possible to draw any firm conclusions. Still, I thought a lexical analysis, which can be done quite quickly, might be illuminating. So I took the 274 content words in the poems (i.e. excluding grammatical words like 'of') and used the advanced search facility of the online edition of Shakespeare's Words (www.shakespeareswords.com) to see whether they were all within Shakespeare's range in the works attributed to him before 1595 - and 266 of them were (97 per cent). So that's reassuring for the pro-Shakespeareans - though not a conclusive argument, of course, as the words might turn up in other authors of the time as well.

The best evidence in forensic stylistics always comes from identifying linguistic habits which the author would not be conscious of - not words like 'delight' and 'mirth', which we might deliberately choose, but those grammatical constructions which we never think twice about (unless we're linguists). For instance, some people say and write ‘while I was walking to town’ and others say ‘whilst I was walking to town’. Personally, I never say or write ‘whilst’. It's not a usage that appeals to me. So if a text appeared with that usage in it, it could not possibly be by me, regardless of what else was in it.

Is there anything in the Danielle poems like that? I believe there is. In Shakespeare’s time, both ‘in midst of’ and ‘in the midst’ of were used. Spenser, for instance, has several examples of in midst – indeed, he is the first recorded user of it, in 1590. But Shakespeare always uses ‘in the midst (of)’ - 13 times, in fact (if we include King Edward III. I'll list them at the end of this post. Even in those places where he needed to drop a syllable, he went for i’th’ midst of and not in midst of. But the Danielle poet (see the final stanza above) uses in myddest of.

There are many examples of Shakespeare using a construction sometimes with and sometimes without a definite or indefinite article (eg at least vs at the least). But he never drops the the in in the midst. Well, with only 13 instances to go on, this is hardly conclusive. But it does raise a very large question-mark in my mind. Little words sometimes carry a great weight of stylistic responsibility.

The Danielle poems deserve further linguistic study, so I'll write up my analysis in full, when I get a moment, include a complete text, and put it on my website so that others can draw their own conclusions. In the meantime, the arguments will surely rumble on.

Shakespeare's uses of in the midst (of):

Antony and Cleopatra
III.x.11 [SCARUS] Whom leprosy o'ertake! – i'th'midst o'th'fight,
IV.xiv.31 [MARDIAN] Then in the midst a tearing groan did break
The Comedy of Errors
I.i.104 [EGEON] Our helpful ship was splitted in the midst;
I.i.97 [MENENIUS] I'th'midst o'th'body, idle and unactive,
III.ii.28.1 [FIRST SENATOR] Cleave in the midst and perish.
King Edward III
III.ii.66 [THIRD FRENCHMAN] And in the midst our nation's glittering host;
V.i.139 [SALISBURY] And in the midst, like to a slender point
Henry VI Part 3
V.iii.3 [EDWARD] But, in the midst of this bright-shining day,
The Rape of Lucrece
344 But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,
III.iv.10 [MACBETH] Both sides are even. Here I'll sit i'the midst.
A Midsummeer Night's Dream
V.i.96 [THESEUS] Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Richard III
V.iii.296 [KING RICHARD] Our archers shall be placed in the midst;
The Taming of the Shrew
V.i.133 [KATHERINA] What, in the midst of the street?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Does not the 97% point pretty confidently in the direction of Shakespeare being the author of the 'Denbigh Poem' in the Salusbury Christ Church MS?

Given the 'Love's Martyr' connection with Shakespeare (that 'The Phoenix and the Turtle' was first published in this volume of 1601) - which shows some friendship link between John Salusbury, his wife Ursula (nee Stanley/Derby)- then does not the argument that Shakespeare created the 'Denbigh Poem' become even stronger?

The poem is in handwriting in the Christ Church Salusbury volume. It is writing that occurs in no place else in the volume; a very distinctive small, bold, clear hand. The paper it's written on is extremely high-quality. Would this not be consistent with Shakespeare having handwritten this poem himself and passed it on to the Salusbury couple, after having enjoyed a holiday at their house (at Christmas 1593/4).

All this needs further study.

John Idris Jones
Borthwen, Ruthin, Denbs LL15 1DA
July 2008