Copyright 1964 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Autumn 1964.
MR. GEOFFREY ASHE, in his article on Sir John Haringlon and the Authorship Question (p. 9), refers to Oxford’s Echo Verses, and what he has to say has prompted me to set down on paper, here and now, some thoughts which have long been in my mind concerning the relationship of these verses to A Lover’s Complaint—a “doubtful” poem of Shakespeare’s. Since Oxford’s poem is almost unknown to anyone but Oxfordians, it will be convenient to reprint the first few lines:
Sitting alone upon my thought in melancholy mood,
In sight of sea, and at my back an ancient hoary wood,
I saw a fair young lady come, her secret fears to wail,
All clad in colour of a nun, and covered with a veil;
Yet (for the day was calm and clear) I might discern her face,
As one might see a damask rose hid under crystal glass.
Three times, with her soft hand, full hard on her left side she knocks,
And sighed so sore as might have moved some pity in the rocks
From sighs and shedding amber tears into sweet song she brake,
And thus the echo answered her every to word she spake….
In the Rawlinson MS. at the Bodleian, these lines are headed “Verses made by the Earle of Oxforde” and followed by a subheading, “Ann Vavesor’s Echo”, so it is doubtful whether the next verses, beginning;
“Oh heavens, who was the first that bred in me this fever? Vere,” are by Oxford at all, though the conclusion is
And I that knew this lady well,
Said Lord how great a miracle,
To her how echo told the truth,
As true as Phoebus’ oracle.
J. Thomas Looney (Shakespeare Identified), pointed out a striking parallel in Venus and Adonis (Stanzas 138-142), beginning”
And now she beats her heart whereat it groans,
That all the neighbour caves, as seeming troubled,
Make verbal repetition of her moans ….
I will quote no more, but merely add that it is not just a question of there being an echo in both, as some critics have made out. The resemblance to be found in A Lover’s Complaint, however, goes much deeper. It is not confined to a few stanzas and a few verbal parallels, but extends beyond these to the total situation.
A Lover’s Complaint is the most neglected of the Works of Shakespeare, assuming that it is his! It was first published in 1609, by Thomas Thorpe, under the same cover as the Sonnets; but has seldom been reprinted. Dr. G. B. Harrison, however, restored it to its proper position in his Penguin edition of the Sonnets, first published in 1939, and in his Introduction, he writes:
“Of A Lover’s Complaint nothing is known. It appeared first as an appendix to the Sonnets without comment or introduction. Some critics do not believe that Shakespeare wrote it.”
Yet, as far as external evidence is concerned, we know almost as much about it as the Sonnets themselves, which, with two exceptions (published in The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599), were first published by the same man, at the same time, and in the same book!
The only reason for rejecting A Lover’s Complaint is that it is not considered good enough for Shakespeare. It begins:
From off a hill whose concave womb reworded
A plaintful story from a sist’ring vale
My spirits t’attend this double voice accorded,
And down I laid to list the sad tun’d tale,
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale
Tearing of papers, breaking rings a twain,
Storming her world with sorrows, wind and rain.
Upon her head a plaited hive of straw,
Which fortified her visage from the sun,
Whereon the thought might think sometime it saw
The carcase of a beauty spent and done,
Time had not scythed all that youth begun
Nor youth all quit, but spite of heaven’s fell rage,
Some beauty peep’d through lattice of seared age.
Presently an old “reverend mail” appears on the scene, sits down beside the lady, and encourages her to tell her story, which she proceeds to do, in some detail, for the rest of the poem. It is a sad tale of seduction and betrayal and includes another story, told to her by her seducer, which she now repeats, in the first person, to the old man. Meanwhile the author of the poem remains a passive and unnoticed eavesdropper.
This is a much longer and more elaborate poem than Oxford’s lyric, which does not contain a story, within a story, within a story; but the actual situation presented by the poet is almost identical, apart from the introduction of the old man, who has the technical function of a confidant. Even the notion of a veiled beauty, resembling a rose seen through glass, finds its counterpart in:
Some beauty peep’d through lattice of seared age.
Incidentally, the lady of A Lover’s Complaint is not old, according to her own story—it is just that her face has been disfigured by sorrow.
This is a narrative poem and it is impossible to say whether, or to what extent, it contains biographical or auto-biographical elements. There is no hint that the author is to be identified with the beautiful, but heartless and, indeed, odious young man of the story, as presented by his victim; but the literary parallel with the Echo Verses is undeniable, and that is all I am concerned with here.
Is A Lover’s Complaint good enough for Shakespeare? It is cynical, but so is Shakespeare at times. Certainly, it is not a masterpiece. It is immature, but it does contain links with the mature Shakespeare, and therein lies its significance from the Oxfordian point of view, for it may turn out to be, itself, the missing link between the generally accepted works of Shakespeare and the early acknowledged poems of Edward de Vere, most of which were written in the 1570’s. The Echo Verses themselves were not published in Oxford’s lifetime, but the tedious, sing-song, fourteen syllable metre of the opening lines was fashionable in the seventies, it was an unfortunate heritage. Ann Vavasour bore a son to Oxford in March, 1581—as a result of which they were both sent to the Tower—but there is no hint of this in the Echo Verses, which may have been written much earlier. The lady’s complaint here is of unrequited love.