Who Was John Soothern?
New Facts Relating to the Identification of the
Mysterious Author of Pandora, 1584
Copyright 1943 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter, October 1943.
We’ll put on those shall praise your excellence,
And set a double varnish on the fame
The Frenchman gave you.
Study of the rare Elizabethan publication, Pandora, containing the four Epytaphes written by Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford, following the death of her only son, has proved worthwhile in bringing to light previously unnoted Shakespearean creative connotations. [Published in the NEWS-LETTER for February, 1943.]
Let us now consider the volume from the point of view of its actual authorship, the writer’s name, “John Soothern,” being generally believed to be an assumed one. The fact that the book was not licensed for publication by the Stationers’ Company lends extra credence to this belief.
“John Soothern” evidently designed his volume as a joint tribute to Edward de Vere, his Countess, and Queen Elizabeth. For the sub-title reads, The Musyque of the beautie of his Mistress Diana, and immediately following Anne Cecil’s laments for her son, Soothern includes another “Epitaph, made by the Queenes Maiestie, at the death of the Princess of Espinoye.” It seems hardly possible that any poet or anthologist who wished to profit by his labors would assume these liberties without some sort of permission. On the other hand, the rarity of “Soothern’s” book might indicate that the edition had been suppressed by order of the Queen or members of the Vere or Cecil families who considered the publication of such personal poems in questionable taste.
Who was “John Soothern”? Although an important contemporary witness to Lord Oxford’s preeminence in scholarship and the arts, and the pioneer exponent of the ode as a poetic form in English literature, an impenetrable mystery has always surrounded his identity.
On the title-page of his volume the name appears as “John Soowthern,” but in a sonnet on page 7 he refers to himself as “Soothern,” repeating this same spelling twice in an epode on page 19, and finally in an elegy to Diana on page 24 states:
“My name, quoth I, is Soothern, and
Madame, let that suffice:
That Soothern which will rayse the Englishe language to the Skies.”
This rather immodest insistence, quite unique among English rhymsters of the period (and paraphrased by this writer directly out of Ronsard) implies that “John Soothern” is a descriptive pen-name assumed by a Frenchman residing in England. That the author of Pandora was a native of the Gallic clime seems apparent from many circumstances, as George Steevens pointed out in the 18th century. [Chetham Society Pub. Vol. 108, pps. 252-3.]
…from his levity, pertness, unbounded vanity, perpetual introduction of French words and phrases, unadopted by contemporary writers of this country, from his French mode of spelling and sounding English, his proper names with French terminations and especially from his calling Ronsard “our old Ronsard of France,” his ability to compose stanzas and quatrains in French language, the epithet rude, which he bestows on us as a people, and his insolent observations at the end of one of his Odes, Non careo patria, Me caret Illa magis, I cannot help supposing this Soothern to have been a native of France, perhaps a refugee, admitted as secretary, a tutor, or for some other purpose, into the family of the Earl of Oxford. Being thus domesticated, he might easily obtain confidential transcripts of the Epitaphs written by the wife of his Patron and Queen Elizabeth. That particular one composed by a British monarch, on a Princess of his own nation, would naturally have struck his vanity as a performance worth being preserved.
This shrewd analysis of Steevens’ is borne out by the fact that Lord Oxford did actually have a personal retainer who was known as “Denys the Frenchman.” We find mention of him first under date of May, 1573, as one of “three of my Lord of Oxford’s men; Danve Wylkyns, John Hannam, and Deny the Frenchman,” who are accused by William Faunt and John Wotton, two of the messengers of the Lord Treasurer’s Office, in a letter to Lord Burghley from Gravesend, of ambushing the said messengers with intent to kill or rob them. [S. P. Dom. Eliz., 91, 36 and Ward p. 91.] This attempted hold-up which took place on the old Gadshill section of the road between Gravesend and Rochester, was likely enough the authentic original of the famous highway robbery which “Shake-speare” staged on the same location some years later with Prince Hal and Falstaff as principals:
Case ye, case ye; on with your visards: there’s money of the King’s coming down the hill; ’tis going to the King’s exchequer.
I Henry IV, II, 2. 50.
A memorandum in the Lord Treasurer’s hand, among the Cecil papers and evidently dating from the time of this attempt upon Burghley’s messengers, indicates that Lord Oxford had interceded on behalf of “Denny the French boy and others” who were punished by the Lord Treasurer for their participation in this desperate exploit.
Again, in a letter from Sir Francis Vere to Sir Robert Cecil, dated November 17, 1605, we find “Denys a Frenchman” named as one of Oxford’s retainers (together with Sir Roger Williams, the well-proven original of Captain Fluellen in Henry V) who accompanied the Earl on a visit to Paris when Sir Francis Vere “was very young.” [Cal. MSS. of the Marquess of Salisbury, Vol. 17.] This was apparently during 1575, at which time Sir Francis would have been about fifteen years of age.
There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Earl of Oxford had a Frenchman among his personal followers of the same indiscreet, swashbuckling temperament that “John Soothern” displays in Pandora.
This “Denys” or Denis may also have been one of the four personal attendants in Oxford’s household that Lord Burghley mentions in a letter to Sir Christopher Hatton, dated March, 1583 [Nicolas, Life of Hatton, p. 321 and Ward. p. 232]:
“One of them waiteth upon his wife my daughter, another is in my house upon his daughter Bess, a third is a kind of tumbling boy, and the fourth is a son of a brother of Sir John Cutts. . .”
It should also be observed that the Bard gives Orlando, the hero of As You Like It, a personal attendant named Dennis.
All circumstances considered, Oxford’s “Denys the Frenchman” appears to be the most likely original of “John Soothern” that has ever been put forward.
Within a year or so of the surreptitious publication of Pandora with its dedicatory odes “To the ryght honourable the Earl of Oxenford, & c.,” it appears that “Denys the Frenchman” left England for the Lowlands, evidently in the train of Lord Oxford when the Earl headed an expedition to Flushing in September, 1585. And from this time onward, the young compatriot of Ronsard seems to have followed an active military career which won him the respect and liking of the English notables with whom he served for many years. In the records and correspondence relating to the Lowlands campaigns he is referred to as “Denys the Frenchman” and also under his full name and rank as Captain Morrys Denys. Among the Queen’s “Officers of Flushing” printed in a “‘List of Officers and Soldiers in the Low Countries for Two Years Ended 11 October 1588,” we find “Captain Denys, Gentleman Porter,” associated with Sir William Russell, the English Governor of Flushing. Again, in the roll of Captains of the Horse Bands, the name of Morrys Denys appears with that of Sir William Russell. Russell had won great fame as a cavalry leader at the Battle of Zutphen in 1586 when Sir Philip Sidney lost his life. It is further significant to observe that both Russell and Denys accompanied the playwright Earl of Oxford on certain stages of his travels through France and Italy in 1575-76. Russell’s personal association with Oxford and also with the Earl’s French retainer should be worthy the attention of Dr. Leslie Hotson, author of I, William Shakespeare, in view of the great and abiding influence which Hotson asserts members of the Russell family exerted upon William Shakspere of Stratford.
As one of the Queen’s officers, Captain Denys undoubtedly returned to England occasionally during his long service in the armies of the Earl of Oxford, Lord Willoughby, Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Vere. But he does not seem to have attempted further literary ventures after the failure of Pandora to win him fame and fortune. He lives in the later records of the Elizabethan Age solely as an able soldier who finally died in action at the siege of Ostend. This occurred during the early days of January, 1602. His passing is commented upon by Sir William Browne in letters to Sir Robert Sidney, reproduced in the Calendar of Mss. of Lord De L’ Isle and Dudley. From the same source we learn that Captain Denys’ chief under-officer at Ostend had been one “Lieut. Poynts.” The latter name will ring familiarly in the ears of all admirers of the Henry IV plays.
The above facts indicate clearly enough that Lord Oxford’s French retainer, Captain Morrys Denys, was really a man of parts and that he could have been on terms of sufficiently intimate acquaintance with the poet Earl’s menage to have secured access to the Countess of Oxford’s writings and a copy of Queen Elizabeth’s verses on the death of the Princess Espinoye—just as the mysterious “John Soothern” must perforce have been. Lord Oxford evidently not only gave Captain Denys his start in life, but backed his rise to military preferment in the Lowlands.
Regarding this latter circumstance, cynics who have attempted to explore the crabbed black-letter mazes of Pandora may believe that Oxford gladly sponsored his temperamental servant’s military ambitions in order to keep Denys from committing further literary indiscretions.
Nevertheless, the identification of this spirited Frenchman as the real “John Soothern” adds another vital figure to the group that made up the early Oxford-Shakespeare circle.
Both Pandora and its author are harshly criticized in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), one of the contemporary studies of Elizabethan poetry which states categorically that Lord Oxford ranked “first” among the poets of his era.
In the Arte, “Soothern” is significantly described—without being named—as a “minion” or pampered favorite who attempts translations of Ronsard,
. . . of the hymns of Pyndarus and of Anacreon’s odes . . . and applieth them to the honour of a great noble man in England (wherein I commend his reverent mind and dutie) but doth so impudently rob the French Poet (Ronsard) both of his praise and also of his French terms, that I cannot so much pitie him as be angry with him for his injurious dealing. . .
Thus, while it seems inevitable that Oxford himself may have taken a hand in suppressing his retainer’s exhibition in bad taste, the laudatory references that the irrepressible Frenchman filched from Ronsard to apply to his master are now worthy of reproduction as supplementary evidence that Oxford was known to his personal associates as a man of outstanding genius in the arts.
Muses, you have had of your father,
Only the particular favor,
To keep from the reeve infernal:
And therefore my wantons come sing,
Upon your most best speaking string,
His name that doth cherish you all.
Come Nymphs while I have a desire,
To strike on a well sounding lyre,
Of our virtues Dever the name.
Dever, that hath given him in part:
The love, the war, honour, and art,
And with them an eternal Fame.
Come Nymphs, your puissance is divine:
And to those that you show no favour,
Quickly they are deprived of honour,
And slaves to the chains Cossitine.
Amongst our well renowned men,
Dever merits a silver pen,
Eternally to write his honour,
And I in a well polisht verse,
Can set up in our Universe,
A Fame, to endure forever…
For who marketh better than he,
The seven turning flames of the Sky:
Or hath read more of the antique,
Hath greater knowledge in the tongues:
Or understands sooner the sound,
Of the learner to love Music.
Or else who hath a fairer grace
In the Centaurian art of Thrace,
Half-horse, half-man, and with less pain,
Doth bring the Courser indomitable,
To yield to the raynes of his bridle:
Vaulting, on the edge of a plain.
And it pleases me to say too,
(With a lovange, I protest true)
That in England we cannot see,
Anything like Dever, but he.
Only himself he must resemble,
Virtues so much in him assemble.
There are several other references to Dever’s affinity to the Muses and his proficiency in the arts, but those given above seem most striking, despite the crude doggerel in which they are expressed.
In line two of the Epode quoted, Soothern says: “Dever merits a silver pen.”
In 1594, one W. H., identified as Sir William Harbert, ascribes a “silver pen” to “Shakespeare.” [The Shakespeare Allusion Book. Vol. 1. p. 14.]
“For who marketh better than he,
The seven turning flames of the Sky:”
This is a reference to Oxford’s interest in astrology or astronomy, the “seven turning flames of the sky” being the seven principal planets. Lord Oxford appears to have been one of the most interested patrons of Dr. John Dee, foremost of Elizabethan astrologers, according to a statement in A Compendious Rehearsal, the book which Dee published in 1592 to clear himself of charges of sorcery. In this work, Dee makes prominent mention of “the honourable the Earl of Oxford, his favourable letters, anno 1570.”
The foremost scholars of the age then gave serious consideration to astrology. Oxford’s interest in the subject is one more testimonial to the catholicity of his education.
Coincidently, it should be noted that “Shakespeare” studs his writings so generously with astrological allusions and metaphors that it would require a bulky monograph to record and analyze them.
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck:
And yet methinks I have astronomy.
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality.
The Bard even utilizes astrological terms for comedy effect, as in II Henry IV when Falstaff kisses Doll Tearsheet and Prince Hal remarks:
“Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction! What says the almanac to that?”
“And look,” adds Pointz, “whether the fiery Trigon, his man, be not lisping to his master’s old tables, his note-book. . .”
The Prince’s sally derives point from the fact that Saturn and Venus are never conjoined.
“The fiery Trigon” refers to Falstaff’s servant Bardolph, who is making the most of his time with Falstaff’s old love, the hostess of the Boar’s Head. In the language of astrology, the Trigon represents the triangle. (.A good quip in the sense that Pointz uses it.) A “fiery Trigon” develops when the three upper planets meet in a fiery sign, signifying rage and contention to follow.
These are but one or two of a hundred equally interesting examples of the effective use to which “Shake-speare” puts his keen understanding of the ancient “science” of astrology. In fact, it is the Bard, above all writers, who has said the last word, astrologically:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
“John Soothern’s” references to Lord Oxford’s love of “antique” literature and of his “knowledge in the tongues” and understanding of music can all be verified from numerous sources, including the statements in books dedicated to the Earl by Arthur Golding, Thomas Twyne, Anthony Munday, John Farmer and others.
We have previously noted the parallel between “Soothern’s” tribute to Oxford’s horsemanship and the Kings tribute to the Norman’ gentleman who was “incorpsed and demi-natural” with his charger in Hamlet. [Feb. 1943. NEWS-LETTER.]
There is another contemporary word picture of the literary Earl as a youthful performer in the lists, written in Latin by Giles Fletcher, uncle of John Fletcher, the dramatist, and translated by B. M. Ward, which should be inserted here. Many persons may see in Fletcher’s lines of 1571-72 an early presentment of the real-life “Shake- speare” in action:
. . . he controls his foaming steed with a light rein, and armed with a long spear rides to the encounter. Fearlessly he settles himself in the saddle, gracefully bending his body this way and that. Now he circles round; now with spurred heel he rouses his charger. The gallant animal with fiery energy collects himself, and flying quicker than the wind, beats the ground with his hoofs, and again is pulled up short as the reins control him.
Bravo, valiant youth! ‘Tis thus that martial spirits pass through their apprenticeship in war. Thus do yearling bulls try the feel of each other’s horns. Thus too do goats not yet expert in fighting begin to butt one against the other, and soon venture to draw blood with their horns.
The country sees in thee both a leader preeminent in war, and a skilful man-at-arms. Thy valour puts forth leaves, and begins to bear fruit, and glory already ripens in thy earliest deeds. [Eclogue. In nuptias clarissimi D. Edouardi Vere. Hatfield MSS. (Cal. XIII. 109) and Ward pps. 60-61.
And now, one final observation concerning the ties, both personal and literary, that have been found to bind with telling effect the names of Morrys Denys, “John Soothern,” Edward de Vere and “William Shake-speare.”
In his book, The French Renaissance in England (1910), Sir Sidney Lee remarks:
The poetaster Soothern introduced the word (ode) and the form into the English language in 1584 when he published his volume of crude imitations of Ronsard.
If it is true that Lord Oxford’s personal retainer introduced the word ode into the English language, then it is equally true that “William Shake-speare” was the first playwright to give this word wide currency, for he uses it in two of his early comedies. In As You Like It, Rosalind tells Orlando:
“There is a man haunts the forest, that abuses our young plants with carving Rosalind on their bark; hangs odes upon hawthorns and elegies upon brambles. . .”
Also in Love’s Labors Lost, Dumain announces:
“Once more I’ll read the ode that
I have writ. . .”
[Murray’s New English Dictionary quotes these lines from L. L. L. with the date of composition given as 1588, as the first appearance of the word ode in English.]
Thereupon, this character in the Bard’s comedy proceeds to read the opening movement of a correctly scanned ode—so vastly superior to any of the crude examples of “mingle-mangle” which Oxford’s French swashbuckler had tried to inflict upon the public in 1584 that conclusions regarding the present-day rarity of the volume become inevitable. Oxford, as the real “Shake-speare,” simply couldn’t tolerate his retainer’s bad taste and so had as much of the evidence of it destroyed as possible. At the same time, as a constructive critic, he dashed off a proper ode to show the poor fellow who had tried to honor him how a real lyric of this type should be done.
As everyone who knows “Shake-speare” must be familiar with the haunting melody of Dumain’s ode, we will merely set down the opening lines:
On a day—alack the day!—Love, whose month is every May,
Spied a blossom passing fair
Playing in the wanton air. . .
Charles Wisner Barrell