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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 IV, Runes 43-56: Texts and Comments 
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2003, All Rights Reserved        

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Rune 53
Eleventh lines, Set IV (Sonnets 43-56)

                         Rune 53
     (Eleventh lines, Set IV: Sonnets 43-56)

     When in dead night, they’re fair, imperfect shade—
     But that so-much of earth and water wrought
     Who ev’n but now come back again assured—
 4  And by their verdict is determinèd,
     For thou nor farther, then, my thoughts canst move
     Within the gentle closure of my breast
     And this my hand against myself uprear,
 8  Which heavily he answers with a groan.
     Shall neigh no dull flesh in his fiery race
     To make some special instant special blest.
     The other, as your bounty doth appear,
12 Die to themselves. Sweet roses, do not so:
     Even in the eyes of all posterity,
     Come daily to the banks, that wen they see.
     Glosses: 1) they’re = roses are (see 12); imperfect shade = thou (see 5), the unnamed listener/muse whom the poet addresses; 2) But = Just, Exactly; 5) For puns on “Far,” “[line] 4”; For thou nor farther... puns, “Farty, onerous art here/hear...”; 7) a mastubatory pun; 8) he = myself (with phallic innuendo); groan puns, “G-row I end,” pointing to Row G, i.e., line 7, just completed; 9) neigh puns on “nay” (v.), i.e., practice negation; 11) The other (ambig.) = roses (see 12), friends you leave there; 14) wen = mound, archaic (and thornlike) W, Will’s initial; wen they see puns on “windy sea,” “’ eye see.”

     53. Sweet Roses, Come

     My flawed and distant friend, roses (emblems of your recurring beauty) even in the dead of night are beautiful—
     just the right mix of earth and water,
     even just now returning assuredly—
  and the precepts that the roses teach influence me to decide
     that now you can move my thoughts no farther
     inside the tender enclosure of my breast
     toward raising this hand of mine against myself
  (an action that my body responds to with a groan).
     Here no droopy nag, no skinbag, shall neigh in his heated race
     to make some special moment especially fine.
     As your endowment becomes plainer, those roses I mentioned
12 expire all alone. Sweet roses, don’t do that:
     So people of every coming age can see,
     show up daily to decorate the hills, displaying thorny stems that look like a runic W.


          A reader/player has to ignore insistent phallic bawdry to arrive at an innocent, lyrical reading of Rune 53, which shows the lonely persona resisting suicide after a recurring resurrection of roses gives him hope: If roses can come back, so can the “bounty” (11) of his beloved auditor/muse, an “imperfect shade.” When the roses threaten to retire into insignificance, the poet invites them back to be as supportive for later generations—that’s us—as they have been to him (12-14).

           But the poem insists on being read as a bawdy joke about “self-abuse.” The “groan,” mentioned when the poet decides not to “uprear this hand against myself” (7-8) expresses bodily disappointment at giving up the male autovice. The imagery of 9-10 also implies masturbation. Even the roses that “come back itchin’” at night (1-3) may “die to themselves” (12) or “come daily” to some “mounds” (see “two the banks” [14]). “Die” suggests a sexual climax, and “a rose” suggests the anus. (Critic Eric Partridge, an expert on Shakespeare’s bawdry, documents these two figurative association as routine in Will’s day.) The phrase also puns on “arose” and “arrows.” Here roses “do knot so / Evening the ‘I’s’ of awl-post-terity” (12-13).

           Other bawdy puns include “Wen bawdy, an ‘O’ come back, a gay anus, furry dent by th’ harrier dick, ‘tis determined for th’ honer (...for the honor of our tartan; method’s sane, fit, modern)...”(3-6); “ver-dict [we’re ‘dicked’]” (4); “genital closure o’ some ‘Y’ barest end to hiss” (6-7); “fit myself up rear,” and “anused missile see up rear” (7).

           The jockeyed horse (7-9), a syntactically ambiguous conceit for the poet, allows the puns “neigh” and “Shall an ‘I,’ nodal flesh, end his fiery race?” (9). “Banks” (14)—echoing “that so-much of earth and water wrought” (2)—can mean both fleshly “mounds” and rose beds. “So” (2, 12) puns on “sow,” i.e., “spread seeds.”
           The riddlic last line hinges on a pun in “when,” a key word in the rune (see 1, 3, 14). A “wen” is a mound-like swelling. “Wen” or “wynn” also names Will’s runic initial, an archaic alphabetic character, the futhark “W” shown in the boxed illustration. Shaped like a stemmed thorn, a wen has strained relevance to roses. One play puns “see, Anne stem of a ‘W’ eyed” (5-6; Q code: …c an stm ou e, / W it…), while the ending phrase puns “Wen they [th’ eye] see.” Other “wen” puns include “When...” (1) and “Who euen...” (3). Line 1 puns “Wen-end did knight hear....”

           “Wen” as “swelling” also echoes “bank[s]” (14) and equates with the “nodal flesh in his fierier ass” (9). (Concurrent is the pun “...witty grown [groan], asshole nigh, nodal flesh, anus fire, your ass, Tom [= T.T., Thomas Thorpe, Will’s known printing agent?], aches, O, me...” (8-10), with many variants.

           Will playfully characterizes his muse as a criminal. Linked legalisms imply a “jury of roses” (3-4), anticipating the terms “oather” (a pun), “bounty,” and “appear” (11). The pun “The oather [and] azure-bounded oath eye, peer” (11) hints at a knightly (maybe Rosicrucian) order. A connection seems likely between “roses” and the Earl of Southampton, Will’s only known patron, Henry Wriothesley, pronounced Risley or Rosley: “Rizzy/Rosey,” I propose, may have been a nickname for Southampton.

           Two putative plays on February 10 occur, one in line 7-8 (code fevpreare, W) and the other in the upward acrostic (code FAWB W). (See below) These hint at a composition date of 10 February (‘09?). Line 1 opens with the pun “We ‘9’ did neigh to the air...” and “Why ‘9’ didn’t I jet to harass?,” perhaps adding “09” to the date in the intersecting acrostic. In fact, the whole down/up acrostic suggests a personal scenario: a lost December holiday in Stratford and a return to London by February. The downward codeline WBWA FW AWSTT DEC suggests, e.g., “White [B=8] way, frosted [tongue-tied] December” and “Weighty wife wasted December.” The full upward codeline CEDTTSWAW FAWB W suggests, e.g., “See debts, woe, Feb. 10,” “City,‘tis woe...,” and “See debts, woe of a tenant [code W = 10, B = 8], W.”

           Will’s “date clues” are invariably ambiguous and obfuscatory. Here, e.g., line 8 opens with the contradictory pun “W.H. [Jn. Hall, Henry Wriothesley?], eye July heinous, worse with age, our own (...a rune)....”

           Denigrating jokes about an obese Anne Shakespeare include “Bawdy Hat., Foam Huge of earth and water wrought” (2) and “To make [= mate] of Homme S., pea-shelling is tant [= so, extremely] special, blest” (10). A closing pun, more sober, may be about Hamnet, the dead son, a twin: “...Anne seeks th’ twinned H[amnet?], I see only two paired specks, the dots in this precariously tilting colon.” Will’s mind here links the “peas” of 10 and this trivial pair of specks, grim emblems of his twins.

           Humor about naming the rows alphabetically (with line 1 = the A-row, line 2 the B-row, etc.) occurs in “witty G-row nigh (...nasal)” (in 8, the H-row; line 7 = the G-row) and “Sweet Row F is done, knot’s owning the eyes of all [...Hall, S. Hall]” (12), referring back to line 6 (= the F-row).

           The “Witch Hugh-John (Huchown)” who may be punningly encoded in line 8 (code: heauily he an..., with typographic l looking like an I ) may be the conjectural Chaucerian contemporary whom I call, hypothetically, Huchown (Hugh-John) Massey of the Royal Hall, possibly the Gawain/Pearl poet. A part of the joke may be that Will attributes line 7 to Huchown as the mentor/predecessor’s “nasal, inane oath.” (See below.)

Sample Puns

           1) When John died, negated th’ heir fair; W.H., anent odd (A.D.) nadir of Harry, imp errs; When into Eden, I jet th’ air—if I rhyme, perfect is hate; Nine dead [cf. The Muses]; evade; of hate; shat; peer, f--ks hate; Harry have I reimbursed
           1-2) W., Hen., indeed Knight Harry S., Harry, imperfect S.H. eyed; fey début
           2) Bawdy Hat., Foam Huge of earth and water wrought; so Muses erred, Hindu eider wrought; foe-mush
           2-3) seer, earthy Anne-daughter wrought W.H.
           3) come back aye, gay Annie, ass, you’re “it”; beauty know, Wickham back again
           3-4) never Eden; in “O” come package Annie, ass, you reddened; a gay anus furry (sir, bite here); W.H; VV-heaven, butt, an “O” come back; azure reddened
           4) bite ’er “V,” her dick tease; “I’s” dead remained; debit Harry where dick teased Ed; I sedate her, m’ Annie
           4-5) differed honer (honor), farter
           5-6) the enemy thought, askance, t’ move within…
           6) the Gentile lover; clover; Gentile heckles you raise
           6-7) erase my bare fit and this, my hand aging
the genital clothes you raise, my bare-assed Anne did hiss, my Anne, a gay Anne Shakespeare, my fell (missal) vapor, a ruse heavy lying
           7) hand handwriting, authorization; again, fit, muffle February
           7-9) age, eye nasty my cell, February 10, achieve I lean (line, alien) sewers, witty G-row [i.e., line 7, just completed], nasal, inane; Again, Shakespeare ms.-elf, uprear a witch! Heavily he answers with a G-Row nasal
           8) John [W = IN], High Jew alien swears with a groan; Witch-heavy line swears with a groan
           8-9) Witch Hugh-John (Huchown) swears witty G-row nasal, inane; Anne swears; with a groan, S. Hall, neigh an ode
           8-10) S. Hall, nay! Node you’ll flash, anus fiery raise to make some special instant special blest
           9) noodle; S.Hall neigh in ode’ll slay Venus’s eerie race, fierce, witty
         10) Tommy, kiss hommes’ pees; Home’s pea-shelling St. Anne tough pea-shell blessed; Two may kiss; Two ma[t]es’ home of peace—eye all, John, Shakespeare, Anne, ’tis peace aye, all blest
         11-12) Theatre azure, bound to [Mt.] Ida (bound t’ idiot appeared); Th’ ether azure be untied; tied oath a pair
         12) Dido the hymns leaves, sweeter office
         12-13) Die (sexual); Row F is done (dun), aught, faux-event he eyes, awful; offal, poor, Shakespeare he writ, why? Sweet Wriothes, do not fawn
         13) eye ass of Hall, posterity
         13-14) Evening th’ “I” soft, awl post ready, come
         14) Come, delight o’ Thebans, kiss that wen they see (that wind icy); Anne, see, kiss th’ twin t[oo] hazy [suggesting Hamnet]; See, homme, delight o’ Thebans, kissed Hath-way and thief; Theban, sick ass, thought W.H. a native (a knight heavy)

Acrostic Wit

         The downward acrostic code—WBWA FW AWSTT DEC—suggests, e.g., “White [B=8] way, frosted [tongue-tied] December,” “Wight [Weighty], wife wasted December,” “Wight, waive woes tied t’ December,” and “Weight, wife, W. owes t’ December (W. hosted ease).”

         The upward codeline—CEDTTSWAW FAWB W—may mean, e.g., “See debts, woe, Feb. 10 [reiterating the date above at 7-8],” “City, T.T., Sue awe…,” “Sede t’ tease wove I, webby W.,” “Sedate Sue, a wife, I whip. W.,” “City, ’tis woe, foe be W.,” “…of ‘O’ [The Globe?] be W.,” “Said T.T., Sue a foe be [as a coterie member?],” and /or “…Sue a wife, I wait.”

         Materials here and above (in the comments) suggest February 10, 1609, as a possible date for this post-Christmas text, with the poet commenting on being in Stratford (perhaps through January) and having lost time on his project. An encoded date, if consciously embedded, might label the time of revision or of original composition. (I suspect that, as Will prepared the text for publication, Q was thoroughly revised in the years just before it came out.)

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