W. S. "A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter." Read by Harry Hill. Dir. Paul Hawkins. Text Ed. Donald W. Foster. Montreal: Concordia University, 1996.
Sean Lawrence
University of British Columbia

Lawrence, Sean. "Review of A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 14.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_law2.html>.

  1. Donald Foster has initiated one of the few successful efforts to ascribe a "new" poem to Shakespeare. Foster has argued convincingly that the initials "W.S.," which serve as signature on an obscure poem from 1612, entitled "A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter," stand for "William Shakespeare." Foster amasses an impressive array of internal and external evidence for this ascription in his 1989 monograph, Elegy for W. S.: A Study in Attribution, though concluding modestly that "there is simply no way of knowing with certainty" (7). Since the publication of his monograph, however, he has subjected the text to more vigorous quantitative studies, particularly with the aid of the SHAXICON lexical database that provides a means of tracking Shakespeare's use of rare words through the canon and allows Foster to compare the elegy to contemporary texts contained within the Vassar Text Archive. On the whole, Foster's originality does not lie in the discovery of new bibliographical detail but rather in computer assisted applications of standard bibliographic procedures to vast numbers of texts. This is not to underestimate the importance of Foster's contribution. On the contrary, his application of established analytic strategies to extensive databases introduces a new rigour to bibliographical studies; moreover, such breadth allows for more subtle analyses than have hitherto been possible. His methods seem vindicated by the acceptance of "A Funeral Elegy" into recent and forthcoming editions of the complete works of Shakespeare compiled by David Bevington, G. Blakemore Evans, and Stephen Greenblatt. That these tools are not only reliable, but also broadly applicable across historical periods, was powerfully demonstrated by Foster's correct ascription of the anonymously published political satire on the American presidential election, Primary Colors, to journalist Joe Klein. In his confession and apology, published by Newsweek, even Klein had to admit that Foster had developed "a pretty good program" (76).

  2. One of the most interesting, and (to a non-bibliographical scholar) accessible events in the debate over "A Funeral Elegy" was the release of a compact disk of the poem, read by Professor Harry Hill of Concordia University. Hill's effort represents the first recording ever made of this poem. The CD liner reprints the complete text, as edited by Foster who claims that "this is the first public reading of 'A Funeral Elegy' since it was received by the murdered man's brother John Peter in 1612." Moreover, both Foster and Rick Abrams (who chaired a panel of the Shakespeare Association of America on the "Funeral Elegy" in 1994 and who endorses the poem on the liner) claim that, in Abrams's words, "one thrills, in reading the Elegy to think that, at long last, Shakespeare speaks."

  3. There have been other attempts to identify particular works or characters with Shakespeare's authorial voice: Prospero's epilogue and the poet of the sonnets both come immediately to mind; nevertheless, the Shakespeare who created any number of "persons" in his plays and even, it is sometimes argued, in his sonnets, should be equally capable of creating a persona bearing his own initials. While it must be emphasized that the liner comments made by Foster and Abrams are endorsements rather than critical apparatus, the hyperbole of the liner remains an unfortunate departure from Foster's modesty elsewhere. His recent article, for instance, rejects the elegy as "an aesthetically satisfying poem" (107) and builds its thesis almost entirely from rigorous textual and linguistic evidence.

  4. One hopes that the quantitative rigour of Foster's methods will not lead him to overestimate his conclusions. There are still possible alternative contenders for the authorship of the poem. Foster's form of comparison has been criticized on the grounds that the texts of the Vassar Text Archive are not lemmatized (Gillespie). SHAXICON can find identical sets of letters, in other words, but cannot tell the part of speech constituted by the set of letters. It can count occurrences of (say) "killed," but cannot tell if it is being used as a participle. Foster's methods are innovative and exciting, but not infallible. There is a great deal more work to be done on this poem, and on computer-aided bibliographical studies generally.

  5. The grandiose claims of the cover make it doubly unfortunate that the poet of the "Funeral Elegy" says so little that marks off his voice as original. The poem as a whole consists of a large number of Renaissance commonplaces. The following is typical:
  6. And as much glory is it to be good For private persons, in their private home, As those descended from illustrious blood In public view of greatness, whence they come. (133-136)

    I would by no means contend that these lines are not touching, or that they don't resonate; however, they express a theme common to a whole tradition of pastoral and other literature -- Wyatt's satires and Montaigne's essays for example. The poet writes that "I . . . by feeling it have prov'd / My country's thankless misconstruction cast / Upon by name and credit" (137-140). According to Laurence Stone, "When an Englishman in the early seventeenth century said, 'my country' he meant 'my county'" and thus the poet here expresses an alienation from his rural community (106). This comment is not interesting because it is a unique example of such alienation in the Renaissance, but because the authorship claim places it in the mouth of William Shakespeare. It might be more accurate to describe the passionate, unique and individual "voice" as a function of the cultural discourse that surrounds Shakespeare instead of saying that this poem represents a unique recording of authorial genius. Interest in the elegy seems to be a product of its association with a particular historical figure. Once one considers, even hypothetically, that this poem might be Shakespeare's, it assumes signification as well as significance. Read this text as an anonymous Renaissance poem (if at all possible anymore), and it fades back into insignificance. Perhaps this is the effect to which Foster alludes when he concludes his recent article by claiming that "what one gains by determining the authorship of a text is a motivation and a context for reading it, interpreting it, and debating it critically" (1092).

  7. If one accepts a definition of the author as "a standard level of quality," this recording, unlike Foster's bibliographic and quantitative studies, does not contribute to a positive attribution to Shakespeare (Foucault 128). However, the recording is an extremely worthwhile project regardless of how one views the controversy surrounding its text. Harry Hill's rendition of this hitherto obscure Renaissance poem is excellent. The poem, which seems to lack coherence when read silently, is driven by a passionate intensity in this reading, more often denouncing detractors (often the deceased's, but mostly the poet's) than lamenting. While one still wonders whether the quality of this rendition is owed to the aesthetic properties of "The Funeral Elegy" or, alternatively, to Hill who performs a rendition so brilliant that it compensates for a second-rate poem, this recording may help to extend the poem to new audiences, and will certainly contribute to its study. One cannot fault either accomplishment.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996)