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Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets: A Restoration of the Runes
by Roy Neil Graves, Professor of English
The University of Tennessee at Martin

Set II, Runes 15-28: Texts and Comments 
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2003, All Rights Reserved        

Proceed to Rune 17
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Rune 16
Second lines, Set II (Sonnets 15-28)

                      Rune 16

       (Second lines, Set II: Sonnets 15-28)

     Holds in perfection but a little moment:
     Make war upon this bloody tyrant time!
     If it were filled with your most high deserts,
 4  Thou art more lovely, and more temperate,
     And make the earth devour her own. Sweet brood
     Haste thou, the master-mistress of my passion,
      Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse.
 8  So long as youth and thou are of one date,
     Who with his fear is put besides his part?
     Thy beauties’ form, in table of my heart,
      Of public honor and proud titles boast.
12 Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit—
     The dear repose for limbs with trávail tired
     That am debarred the benefit of rest.
      Glosses: 3) it (ambig.) = time (see 2), the earth (see 5); 6) Haste/Hast (Q Haste): the ambiguity triggers contradictory meanings; 7) his = my passion’s (see 6); 10) heart = art, my heart = merd (OED 1477, 1621), i.e., dung (both routine puns in Q); 11) boast (v.) = “may boast,” with Thy beauties’ form (10) its subject.

     16. Stirred by a Painted Beauty

     Perfection retains its form only momentarily—no longer than one can hold one’s breath.
     So fight against time, that bloody tyrant!
     If time were full of all your superlative merits,
  4 you yourself are so much more beautiful, more moderate, than any other temporal creature
     that you would make the jealous earth devour what she might bring forth. Sweet offspring
     are what your should engender quickly—and are what you already encourage here, as the Master-Mistress of my passion,
     which is moved and inspired by an artfully idealized beauty to write these passionate poems.
  8 As long as you and youthfulness live as contemporaries
     what artist, however anxious, could forsake his duty—or lose his lines?
     Your beauties, formally listed in my heart (and art),
     can boast of renown and recognition—partly entitled here in these titles.
12 Your virtues have brought unity and strength to my knotty tribute, and my laborious work on these lines has woven a tapestry of those virtues
     that, like a well-knit hammock, offers a sweet, eternal repository to the overworked limbs
     of this one who—in the process of composition—is shut out from the restfulness of sleep.


           Critics have noted that Sonnets 15-17 (which start Set II in Will’s buried organization plan) take up a new theme, immortality through poetry, while shifting away from the recurring focus of Set I, the need for the muse to marry and procreate. Ostensibly a serious, touching lyric, Rune 16 combines both themes—and also links the motifs of time and duty: Quickly passing time presses both Will and his muse toward their duties. The “most high deserts” (3) and “merit” (12) of “the master-mistress of my passion” (6) have “strongly knit” Will’s own sense of duty (12) to generate the “sweet brood” (5) of the interlinked Q texts, memorials to his friend’s beauty (1, 10). By “hasting” a “sweet brood” (5-6), the listening friend might also keep his (or her?) own life going (8).

           Here in Rune 16, familiar elements reveal new subtleties—especially line 4 (from Sonnet 18) and the term “master-mistress” (6), which, in the visible Sonnets, seems provocatively homoerotic. The term, I believe, denotes (but not exclusively) John and Susanna Hall, Will’s son-in-law and daughter. In one important sense, I believe, Q is an epithalamion cycle honoring the Halls’ marriage in 1607 and wishing them offspring and immortality. Will’s “master mistress”—i.e., his “primary muse”—may be, concurrently, Susanna and the Halls as a couple.

          Details that focus on writing itself include “[my passion’s] verse” (7) and “this…tyrant time” (2), suggesting restrictive meter. Epithets for Will’s verses include “art more lovely” (4), hiding the pun “art moor [black], low-lined”; “sweet brood” (5), punning on “pleasant thought”; and “proud [th’ rude..., with p = archaic th] titles” (11). Linked with these elements are other puns about runic mixes and alignments that include “hoary runes witty be rude” (5), “Stirred- … twice verses” (7-8), “put besides” (9), “strongly knit” (12), and “witted revel tiered” (13). Both the Runes and Will’s “entabled” lefthand acrostics are, in effect, “put besides.” “Merit” (12) puns “my writ.” And “Bene feet of[t] rest” (14) puns, “Fine iambs often stop at line breaks.”

          Theatrical puns include “Ill-[at]tired, / The Tham’ed [...damned] Bard” (13-14) and the idea of “losing one’s lines” (9). Vaguely “medical” diction (of potential interest to Dr. Hall) includes “toes” (pun 7), “part,” “heart,” “knit,” “sore limbs,” “repose,” “rest,” and “My cure (a pun), ‘tis bloody to hear” (pun 2). Other elements suggest cooking: “filled,” “desserts,” “devour,” “sweet,” “stirred,” “date,” and “table.” One culinary pun is “Admit you taste rune-jelly. Can I?” (12).

          First-to-last the poem hides playful sacrilege. (The so-called School of Night, a known coterie including Sir Walter Raleigh, was in the 1590s accused of the sacrilege of spelling “God” backwards, yielding “dog.”) Will’s punning imperative “Hold sin perfection but a little moment” (1) helps explain his botched endword (Q14), where (I think) Will and Thomas Thorpe, his printer-agent, have collaborated to accomplish a mutilated “rest” that looks like “rel” (plus a letter-remnant) and thus suggests “religion.” Puns in 13-14 include “The Damned Bard, he benefits religion” and “Teary, debted, empty Bard Theban, I sit over hell.” (Connotatively, Thebes suggests riddles and pagan deities.) References to the poet’s “Passion” (6) and to “…a Pontius, bloody tyrant t’ see” (2) amplify such wit, as do the plays “Most High” (3) and “sweet be Rood [the Cross]” (5). “Painted Body” (7) suggests the nude Christ in Renaissance Crucifixion scenes, and “one date” (8) suggests “A.D. 1.” Other “biblical” puns include “arose one day” (8); “For- [Four-]Men table” (10), suggesting The Last Supper; “proud title’s boast” (11), suggesting the epithet “King of the Jews”; “less be Host” (11); “strongly knit” (12), hinting at Christ’s seamless garment; and “repose for limbs with Travail tired” (13), suggesting Christ’s tomb.

          Amid various other jokes, “Holds in” (1) may refer to a sucked-in waist that age “explodes.” “Moist...deserts” is an oxymoron. “Deserts” triggers the words “temperate” and “earth” (3-5), and high deserts contrasts with “moor lowly and ... temperate.” Line 8 puns, “So long, ass, you thin, dead whores wounded.” (“Solon gas...” might be a Greek pun, suggesting a sage’s rarified output, and thus the Q texts.) Scatology lurks in such puns as “Ass-turd buy, a painted beauty” (7). Line 5 suggests manuring a field. Plays on Southy (i.e., Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton, occur in the initial elements “So…/Who…/Thy…” (8-10) and So…/Who with hi …” (8-9).

Sample Puns

         1) Hold sin perfection, but a little m’ “O” meant; Hall, descend, pierce X [acrostic], John; peer-sex join, bawdy little moment
         1-2) Tommy, cure rape, Auntie’s (Auntie S.) bloody; mint may cure—a pun —this bloody tear
         2) time meter
         2-3) lewd eyed, eye rune, T.T., eye messy Tower
         3 ) Aye fit [stanza] we refilled with your most high deserts; deserts barren places; your moist, high, jetty farts
         4) Moor; More [cf. the unpublished play]; Thou are more lowly and more red; O, you lion dim (you limned hymn), horrid; T’ Howard, m’ whore, lowly Anne
         4-5) Tanned Make [Mate]; m’ “O” red (read) empowered Anne
         5) Anne, ma[t]e; Sue; he rowns, witty (wet, rune sweet) be Rood; Row N is witty, broad [Row N, 14, is in fact the narrowest one]
         6) Halved thou the Master/Mistress; Passion (biblical)
         7) a pain t’ Ed. be oddity; O, eye severe, see
         6-8) pay, ass, t’ own ass-turd, buy a painted beauty
         8) Endow a runed [line] 8; Sue—long a—Sue t’ Anne did whore; Anne, thou a rough wand ate
         8-9) often Ed. ate W.H., O, with his ears put beside Scheisse-part; his ass hairy is puta beside…
         9-10) I spot Bess, Odyssey’s party, bawdy ass fore, meant t’ bless my art; shy Sparta beauties form
       10) Thy butt is sore, man (sermon), type less merd
       10-11) …my end t’ a bull oft, my “ear” tough, public hone, O, your end prowed
       11) peer-ode tittles
       11-12) Randy, “prowed,” teatless, bossed [having protuberances], Tom
       12) Tom “errata’d” hymn, yet you taste rune
       12-13) wrongly can Ed. that ear repose, sorely ms. witty, Row A [i.e., line 1] ill t’ eye read
       13) tirade [cf. tirret]; ill-attired
       13-14) Earl, eye ms., witty travail [at]tired, that am de Bard
       14) T’ Hat., I’m De Bard; That I’m deep, hard; Theban, eye fits [stanzas] real; eye fit of rel[igion?]; That Ham[net? …let?], debarred the benefit of rest; Th., Tom, debarred Theban eyesight of rel[igion?]; dip, a ready Bene, sit. The last “t” here is apparently “filed” by the “Ed.” to make a play on “religion” and underscore the “Theban” wit, and line 3 alludes to that change: “If it [‘time,’ i.e., meter] were filed with your Most High deserts [your misty ‘differ t’s’].” The missing “t” and “differed ‘s’” are parts of an authorized, minuscule joke that Editor Thorpe executed; the play on “T’s” echoes “TT,” while “st” is the poet’s name-cipher.

Acrostic Wit

         The downward emphatic acrostic codeHMIT AHSS WT[I?]OT TT—suggests, e.g., such readings as “Hymned asses widowed T.T.,” “‘Emit S’s’ [i.e., hiss, fart]—widow t’ T.T.,” “Amid asses, W. taught T.T.,” “Him I tease—you saw it,” “Hem it as you sew it, T.T. [a bookbinding joke?],” “Emit a hiss, Wyatt [the early sonneteer]”, “Hymn I (to Jesu) taught T.T.,” “Hymn eye t’ Jesu witty,”and “Hymn eye, T., S’s, W[ill] taught T.T.” (The acrostic continues the wit about the altered “st” in 16.14.)

         The string SW (reversing Will’s initials), a compass-point direction, suggests both “Sue” (a short for Susanna, Will’s daughter’s name) and Anne Shakespeare (with W = IN = phonic Anne). Anywhere in Q, the letterstring TT suggests Thomas Thorpe, Will’s printing agent and the “T.T.” of Q’s perverse frontmatter. AHSSW is a strained form of “Jesu” (and of “Ah, so...,” “I saw,” and Esau), with “ass” a concurrent suggestion.

         The upward reverse acrostic letterstring—TT TOT WS SHAT I MH—may be read, e.g., as “T.T. taught W.S. ‘Shit I may’,” “Titty taut was Ass Hat-I-may,” “T.T. taught W.S.’s Hattie-May [cf. Hath-a-way, with ‘M’ and upside-down ‘W’],” “T.T. (Two T’s) is (ha!) Tommy,” “T.T., tot wise, shat; I may itch,” “…eye m’ ladder [=H],” “Tot wise what; I may,” “T.T. taught W.S. shitty May,” “T.T. taught W.S. shit-homage [phonic H],” “...shitty image,”and “Titty taut, W.S. is hot, 1 May.”

         Much buried wit in Q exploits the poet’s playful interchanges with Thorpe. “Time” in Q (e.g., textual line 2) is always a potential pun on “Tommy.”

Proceed to Rune 17
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