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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 19
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Rune 18
Fourth lines, Set II (Sonnets 15-28)

                           Rune 18

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

     Whereon the stars in secret influence comment
     With means more blessed than my barren rhyme,
     Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts;
 4  And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
     And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood
     With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
     And every fair with his fair doth rehearse;
 8  Then look I death my days should expiate
     Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart
     And pérspective. It is best painter’s art—
     Un-looked for, joy—in that I honor most
12 To witness duty, not to show my wit;
     To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired,
     But day by night and night by day oppressed.
     Glosses: 1) Whereon implies “On your life” (see 3) and “Whereas” and puns “We rune!”; 4) namepuns: Anne S., Hath; phallic pun: “Awl too short? Add 8 [inches]”; 5) burn = may burn, burns; 7) rehearse (ambig.) = repeat stale lines, entomb again (with sexual overtones, since “die” = have sex); 7) with his puns on “witties,” i.e., witticisms; 8) Then look I = Then I anticipate; 9) heart = art (a routine pun); 11) that = what, that which; 12) witness = see, certify.

     18. Best Painter’s Art, My Barren Rhyme

     Whereas the mysterious stars in cryptic dominance comment on your life
     more effectively than my empty verse,
     which hides it, and does not reveal half your attributes;
  4 and whereas summer’s lease runs out too soon;
     and whereas even the deathless phoenix flames with life or loses her vitality
     unpredictably—as fickle as the ways of women are;
     and whereas even the most handsome couples feed each other the same old lines;
  8 therefore I look toward the time when death may purify my life and bring peace
     to one whose vital, complicated diversity deadens his heart—and art—
     and clouds his view of things. It is most artful for me as a painter
     (without expecting happiness) in practicing what I regard as my highest calling
12 to find and report steadfastness in the subject of my portrait, suppressing my own wit;
     to keep my mind active even when the physical work of the day is finished,
     even though what I do at night oppresses me during the day, and even though I carry the burden of my days home with me every evening.


          Varying an old topic, Will’s wonderful, self-deprecating complaint laments the difficulties of the Q project and the tiresome isolation from the honored subject that the work imposes. The poem has a neatly halved, legal-sounding “Given this/Thus this” structure that mimicks what can be called “sonnet logic.” The sonnet conventions, of course, in both the Italian and English patterns, linked topical and formal, numeric divisions. These interplays could be quite varied but always imposed logical and rhetorical order on materials.

          Whether “sincere” or not, the lyric is a moving one in which we seem to hear Will speak. As the Runes go, the diction or syntax of this poem—if we choose to read it “straight”—is not hard.

          A rough equivalent to “Whereas,” the opening “Whereon” starts a personal “Be it resolved” statement—technically an apostrophe because it addresses someone absent. This “Whereas” begins a series of negative points in the first half of the poem (1-7), leading logically to the “Therefore” section (8-14).

           Though his poem divides 7-and-7 rather than 8-and-6 (that is, the traditional octave/sestet split), “sonnet logic” is still at work. I suspect that Will saw each 7th line or “G-row” in Q (with the “A-row” as line 1 and “B-row” as 2) as a potentially meaningful halfway point in any 14-line text, sonnet or rune—a marker in miniature of Q’s governing principle, bifurcation. Proliferating evidence for this notion comes in such puns as “When I consider everything that G-row is” (Sonnet 15.1, Rune 15.1) and “When forty winters shell, besiege thy B-row” (Rune 1.2, in the “B-row” slot). Will’s famous term “Upstart C [-] row” may be related to these “row” puns.

          The opening “Whereon” in Rune 18 most basically means “With respect to your life” (see 3), but it puns, I think, on “We rune,” “W.H., a rune!” and “W.H., error [A-row, a row] knotty.” “W.H.” is the much-discussed muse of the project mentioned on Q’s dedication page. Though often suspected to mean the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, “W.H.” (I propose) is concurrently a pun on “IN. H” and thus on “John Hall,” Will’s son-in-law.

           Despite such deductions, the listening “you” and honoree of the poem (3) and of Q remains ambiguously anonymous. My guess is that Will wanted him (or her) to stay that way, allowing different intimate readers to imagine themselves as the poet’s special muse.

          The duplicitous poet here typically goes against his own advice, showing his “strength’s abundance” (9) even while resolving not to be witty (12). Ironically, too, the poet hides the life of his subject (3)—in just the ways he says he does—partly by stressing his own inadequacies and unrewarded woes. Such contradictory wit meshes with the Renaissance ideal of sprezzatura—which covers various kinds of “suppressed design,” hidden intentions and craftiness.

           My editorial title, atop the paraphrase above, stresses the fact that images about poetry and painting merge in Rune 18. Dramatizing, writing, and rune-making are also interlinked topics.

          The figure of a painterly art that “holds a mirror up to nature” (see 10-12) is one chief element, prepared for by phrases about “hiding…life” and “showing…parts” (3). Bawdry about unrevealed “parts” reminds us that a portrait artist with his usual frontal focus hides the subject’s backside—thus losing “half the parts.” (The Runes, if you will, are the Sonnets’ “backside.”) The unnamed subject whom Will “honor[s] most” (11) shows “duty” that the painterly artist “witnesses” (12). The friend’s implied “duty” (12), like the poet’s own, contrasts with the mutations and fickleness the poet catalogs (4-7). Weakened “perspective” (10), a painter’s term, links with “unlooked for” (11) and “to witness” (12). Other fitting “art” terms are “hides” (3) “show” (3, 12), “work” (13), “shifting,”“false,” “fashion” (6), and “fair” (7). One coy theme is that since his verse mode has failed to “reveal life” (2-3), Will has turned to “means more blessed than my barren rhyme” (2) to show reality (3)—to painting rather than poetry (10).

           Terms such as “parts,” “shows” (3), “shifting change,” “rehearse” (6-7), and “perspective” (10) point to Will’s role as dramatist. (Even his “painter’s” monologue implies a situation, characters, and a setting.) Line 1 may gesture toward the painted “heavens” covering The Globe’s forestage. Since Will works daily (see 13-14) behind the scenes with plays, the pun “O-pressed” becomes a shorthand cipher for “stressed by the ‘wooden “O”,’ Will’s famous term for The Globe theatre itself. The terminal “bitty opera …” also puns on “work.” At the open-roofed Globe, day is indeed night, and night is day (see 14).

          “Secret influence (...insolence)” is a pun about cabalistic practice, and the opening pun “We rune” (in a line about astrology and an “inner flow” of secret talk) points to other puns about coterie wit. “Summer’s leaf” (4) means “metricist’s [= ‘adder’s’] page.” One reading of the line is that Will feels “oppressed” (see 14)—a printer’s pun—to meet a deadline. “My day’s fold” (8) may be a folio, a creased sheet. “Hides” (3) suggests parchments. And “harried oather hears it” (7-8) puns, “A stressed-out coterie reader detects what I’m saying.”

          Another punning variant of line 1 is this: “‘We runed!’ hissed arse in secret insolence. See, amend! (See homme-end.)” The pun “Midas’ asshole” lurks in 8.

          Probably, in the palimpsest of Will’s mind, “phoenix” (5) means both a constellation (OED 1674) and a date palm (1601)—and thus echoes both “stars” (1) and “a date” (4). “A date” puns “A.D. 8.”      
          Since the syntax of 9-12 is fluid, any edited reduction gains one sense by losing others. This fact always applies in the Runes—and in the apparent Sonnets—for the irreducibility of any Q text is a basic part of its “runic” character. So many editions of the Sonnets exist because no one who reads them carefully in their original form is ever satisfied with anybody else’s reduction. Now, at last, we understand that each line in Q is not just a verse but a component of a letterstring game. Each reader/player must, in effect, be his or her own editor. As in any game, any playthrough will generate a variant different from all the times before.

Sample Puns

          1-2) W.H.-error, on this tar sin, secreting fluency, come into witty man-ass, more blessed then my barren rim; We rune, the stars in secret insolence comment with means moor, blessed
          2) Witty means; my [row] B err in rhyme; maybe a runer, I’m witched ass (S.); marble-assed Hen. may be a rune
          3) Which idea's your leaf, Anne…? snotty Hall, see, you’re part ass; Witch, hideous, you’re alive, Anne, Dis-hue is (the line suggests corpulence, frigidity, dim-wittedness)
          4) Anne S. (Anne dies)—O mercy, I see Hath.
          4-5) Hall, too short, add 8, and burn thee long, lewd
          5) Anne be “urn”; Anne barren; long live Divine X [acrostic]; O, in 9 [= ix] I n’er be lewd; annexing her blood
          6) With shifting change, ass’s awl see, Whoa! S. Hall few omens fashion; false women’s savon [soap, rebuke]
          6-7) false woman is safe, hie Onan 7 Endure ye S., Harry, witty is S., Harry; Endeavor, ye fair wits; rear see; farted Harry here, see          
          7-8) Here Satan looked at Hamn’t; Midas S. Hall’d expiate
          8) Then look, idiots, how m’ ideas fold (sold)
          9) in jest, sapient Anne see, weak in (week-end) Scheisse; dance weakens high-sown (hyphen-) art
          9-10) See weak and shy Sue near t’ Anne; weak in ass, high-sowing hardened peer’s pissed “I”; his honer, 10’d (tanned) peer
        10) And dapper, specked Ovid is beast painter, sir
        10-11) ’tis beast, panther, certain
        11) Unlooked-for John, that “I,” honer moist
        12) To wit; Tow-head, an ass, do tie; not too few (to Sue) my wit; maid
        12-13) fumed torque, my mind (my undoing)
        13) To whore came ye men, t’ W., Hen, bawdy is whore-kiss; sex paired; knight; Anne; I get by, depressed; Ex-peer Ed.         
        14) O-pressed (i.e., rune printed); knight, buy (by) dapper Shakespeare; bitty opera fit [stanza]; “O” pressed (cf. the “Wooden ‘O’,” The Globe). The poet’s X’s (e.g., 5, 8, 13) play on “acrostics.”

Acrostic Wit

          The emphatic lefthand acrostic codeline embodies 5 “W’s” (Will’s own initial) and 11 “V’s.” I deduce from long practice that in the Runegame a V can be both a numeric “5” and a chameleon-like pictograph representing, e.g., sharp fangs, sagging breasts (here linked with WAV, suggesting “wife,” and the pun “T-T”) or shriveled testicles, and so on. Since “T.T.” routinely plays on “Thomas Thorpe,” Q’s printing agent, Will seems here to overlay wifely jokes with some that would have perked up Thorpe’s eyes and ears.           

          Numeric puns in Q’s acrostic lines also invite fool’s-errand quests for buried numbers or “dates”: Here, e.g., “V” can mean 5; TW = TWAV = 2; B = 8; T = 7; and AT = AAWAT = AVTT = 8 (or “aught”?).           

          The downward acrostic
codeline—WWW AAWAT WAV TT B—suggests, e.g., “Fangs [pictographic], odd wife, T.T. be,” “Woe, what woe, T.T. be,” “Wayward wife T.T. be,” “Fangs, aught, wave, T.T. be […8, ate],” “Fangs, a weight wife, T.T. be,” “Hathaway [anagram AT-AA-WWW-WAV] t’ tup,” “VV VV VV Hathaway titties [i.e., TT = T’s = T.T.’s] be,” and “Weighty wife t’ tup.”
          The reverse (upward) acrostic code—BTTVAWTAWAAWWW—may be interpreted, e.g., as “Betty Twat-a-way,” “Bitty twat, ‘O’, awe,” “Betty vowed awe alway,” “Betaught I woe,” “Bit two (a witty way) VVVVVV [fangs],” “Be towed away. W,” and “Ate twat away, eye VVVVVV [= teeth].”

Proceed to Rune 19
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