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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 VII, Runes 85-98: Texts and Comments
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2003, All Rights Reserved        

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Rune 85
First lines, Sonnets 85-98 (Set VII)

                         Rune 85
     (First lines, Set VII: Sonnets 85-98)

     My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still.
     Was it the proud full sail of his? Great Verse,
     Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing.
 4  When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
     Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault;
     Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now.
     Some glory in their birth, some in their skill;
 8  But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
     So shall I live, supposing thou art true:
     They that have power to hurt, and will do none.
     How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame!
Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness.
     How like a winter hath my absence been
     From you. Have I been absent in the spring?
1) her may mean “herself”; still may mean a distillation apparatus (an alembic); 2) it = this inspiration; his alludes to “my...muse” in 1, suggesting “my ship” and its “captain” while punning on “hiss”; Great Verse, playfully, is like the name of a vessel; 3) art means both “are” (v.) and “craft” (n.), linked to My...muse in 1 and art true in 9; 4) set me light suggests “throw me over,” “regard me lightly,” and “reveal me (in print)”; 5) fault, as a nautical pun, = salt and puns on “assault”; 7) birth is a nautical pun on berth; skill echoes art (3, 9); 10) will is a namepun on Will.

  85. How Like a Winter

     My inspiration keeps herself as quiet as a genteel lady in public, so that her inspiring breath no longer moves me along.
     Was that once what kept me under way, filling a captain’s sails to billowing? Great Verse,
     goodbye. Your value is beyond what I’m worthy enough to have.
  4 When you feel inclined to set me ashore or throw me over—freeing me from the burden of this gusty pursuit—or to show me up in public for what I am,
     say that you left me behind because of some flaw of mine;
     further, if you intend to despise me, do it now.
     Some are arrogant about their ancestry—their “berth” in life’s passage—and some about their prowess.
  8 But even if you do the worst thing possible by leaving,
     I’ll go on, always believing that you’re one of those faithful and true
     who have the power to hurt but choose not to—and who see that Will himself hurts no one.
     How sweet and lovely you treat the one you shame as we separate. And how you are able to mask your own faults.
12 Some say your flaw is your youth; some say you’re careless or loose.
     It has seemed like winter while I’ve been away
     from you. Has it really been springtime?


       While some first-line texts in the 11 sets of Q seem predictably easier than the others, this allusive textual assemblage may leave us floundering. Its riddlic nature illustrates a tendency of many of the Runes to press a reader/play to “solve” the text.

       Sonnets editor Stephen Booth notes that an engraving printed by Henrie Denham in The Newe Jewell of Health (1576) depicts Alchymya (i.e., Alchemy) holding an alembic—a “still” for transmuting things. Booth thinks that this print may be on the poet’s mind when Will puns here about his “tongue-tied Muse” who “in manners holds her still.” Elsewhere, in Sonnet 119.2, Shakespeare speaks of Lymbecks—i.e., “alembics.” Denham’s Alchemy—who does look “mute” and perhaps “mannered”—appears in front of a ledge-like railing before an open sky as if she might be onboard ship, with windy clouds behind her, and a sun and moon that might suggest contrasting seasons (see 13-14). Thus the suggestions (in 1-4) of setting sail—and even the pun on “some salt” in 5, echoed in 3, 12—may all take their cues from this illustration.

        As Booth also notes, alchemy and medicine overlapped in Will’s day. I deduce, then, that the coy alchemical allusion may be aimed partly at Dr. John Hall, the poet’s literate son-in-law, a physician. Further, the nautical diction might have been conceived with the idea in mind of perking up the ears of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, Will’s only known literary patron and a man with naval experience.

        In any case, main image clusters here are about sailing—starting with toung-tide (1), a strained pun on “two-inch tide”—and about archery.

        The poem makes new starts at lines 7 (which echoes line 1 by rhyming with it) and 12. Lines 13-14 are somewhat like a couplet close to a this blank verse sonnet.

        Will’s apostrophe (i.e., a verse address to an abstract or absent auditor) is both to “great verse” and to the unnamed, absent friend, identified through metonymy with poetry because he (or she?) is its inspiring “Muse” (1). (The gender of the muse seems an issue in 1-2, where her and his seem in conflict. Such vague pronouns are typical of the runic genre as Q exemplifies it.) The diction of the poem keeps a self-conscious focus on the theme of separation between poet and muse: Terms in the poem include “Farewell” (3); “set me light” (4); “forsake me” (5); “steal thyself away” (8); “the shame” (11), a reference to the friend’s departure; “thy fault” (12, see 5), with a pun on “division” or gap; and “absence” and “absent” (13-14).

        This mist-shrouded scene, I believe, is meant to sketch a poet left stranded on the shore (if not thrown overboard in the harbor) as a bark called Great Verse puts out to sea; the first part of the poem, especially, insists on the conceit of seagoing. A figurative metonymy not beyond Will’s range of wit is the pun “thou didst forsake me for foam salty (...some salt)” (5), meaning either salty water or, just possibly, a sailor (salt = sailor OED 1840). The poem ties the friend to the image of the departing Ship of Verse, with its “proud full sail” (2), using such a complement of language as “glory” (7), “true” (9), “power” (10), “sweet and lovely” (11)—and “wantonness” (12), which might be like a fickle wind. Covertly, Q’s terms fome wantonesse (12; cf. “...wa-n-to-n-esse”) embeds the “nautical” directive “Foam[y], weigh into Anne S. ( ass)!” And even the business of “winter” and “spring” (13-14) may have to do with seasonal winds.

        Another scenario that grows from an allusion to Artemis (Diana)—that bow-equipped goddess of the hunt—invites us to consider the poet’s departure as an arrow shaft speeding from its bow. “Proud full sail” (2) in this sense means the full arc of a well-shot arrow, and “disbowed [Q dispode] to set me light” (4) likens Will himself to a shot arrow. As an arcing “arrow,” the poet later might land in “some fault” (5). “Wilt” (6) punningly suggests drooping feathers; “berth” (as “sheath”) and “skill” (7) set up a dichotomy between the sheathed and the shot shaft; the further puns “th’ arrow berth” and “th’ air skill” intrude; the pun “steel thyself away” (8) is congruent with the image of an arrow being shot; “true” (9) implies “on target”; and “have power to hurt” (10) fits a weapon.

        The strongest (if slyest) clue that the poet’s riddle alludes to bow-shooting lies in the fact that “absent” (13, 14) puns on “absinthe,” which is wormwood or Artemisia (OED 1548): Artemis is Diana the huntress, whose enduring stereotype shows her “in the spring” (see 14 here) bathing, when luckless Actaeon happens upon her. “Eye bene Absinthe in the spring” thus puns, “Note well Diana in her bath,” underscoring the allusion. Other details tied to the bathing incident include being tongue-tied (1); “stealing oneself away” (8); “having power to hurt” (10); and the phrase “sweet and lovely…shame” (11). “Absinthe in the spring” also jokes about bitter water.

        The bladder- and organ-shaped alembics in Denham’s engraving are ripe with broad implications. And a shot arrow is at root a phallic conceit.

        The Q texts often seem to play with various forms of the name of the patron Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, plausibly Southy and Harry. (Southampton is one candidate for the slot of “Mr. W.H.,” a name that occurs in Q’s puzzling dedication, signed “T.T.”) Several initial clusters here encode “Southy”—e.g., SAy tha (5), SO... / THey (9-10), and SO... / HO[w]... / TH[ey] (12-10, up)—while even more covert plays on “Wriothesley” (pronounced something like “Rozley” or “Rizley”) occur in the second column vertical string (3-9) and its intersection with the first four words of line 9 to form rAVAHOV / SO shall I liue. Too, the second vertical column (14-9) read upward from the bottom to the same intersection generates ROOOH / O shall I liue....

        More “direct” jokes aimed at Southy include the plays “Weigh, Southy, proud full sail” (2), “Foamy Southy’s old, his youth foam(y),” (12) and “thou didst forsake me for some salt [i.e., a sailor?]” (5).

          Several initial “SO’s” concurrently may signal plays on “Sue,” Susanna, Mrs. John Hall. Examples include “Sue may glory in th’ heir-birth” (7) and “Sue, S. Hall, eye, [a]live, Sue...” (9).

Sample Puns

          1) Mighty “O,” you in jet eyed; muffin man arse-holed is, hearsed ill; muffed; John (join) m’ Anne, arse holed, share ass, till; you Seine may near, shoaled sheriff
          1-2) loose, eye titty, help her out; loose Southy period, full of ale’s high, secret verve
          2) We sight the parodies, you’ll fail; Waist; Waste; Weigh, Southy, proud full sail; office; great war (were, weir) see; peer owed fool Phyllis his great verve
          2-3) greedy, visceral thou art; hies greedy Vere, several, t’ Howard; eye Tower’s fare, will Tower T.T. owe?
          3) Pharaoh held Howard; Farewell t’ Howard, too dear…; toad a river may possess; …for my pussy-inch; hard, heart; Sorry Will, thou art Tudor, eyesore my posies; Feral th’ O; aye ruled Howard, odorous whore
          3-4) engine; if in June thou shalt…set me light…; send Jew into house, Hall t’ bed; arid (a red) “O,” odd “ear,” fore (sore) m’ pussy’s sanguine; Farewell t’ Howard Tudor if o’er my pussy-ass inch W.H.; toad, I reform y’ pussy
          4) I’ve potty to set me light; W., Hen., thou…; you, S. Hall, “To be” deaf post, to set me light; tough Anne [et] mellowed; dive, boat tossed me light
          4-5) Sodom legates eye; too, set, Miletus eye; Miletus aided th’ O; to see Tom, Elijah decided; to set meal, I get Southy, T. T., O you didst forsake me for some salt [sea; sailor?]; foam-salt
          5) Sated; out, eyed, of thesaurus aye came Eve or some salt; Southy, T.T., how did Shakespeare [ft] source ache; Monsieur S., Homme, is alt (faulty)
          5-6) some sultan had me, W.H., in tow; some faulty hen; T.T., Hen hate; mewn, thou wilt; Will, ’tis your rune, O; sore foe, my evil T.T.
          5-7) T.T. innate, mewn, thou will tease, ever an awesome glory
in tow, well-deserving O
          6-7) ’tis Eve, in awesome glory; Tommy, W.H., entoweled, aye swear Anne awesome; aver in O some eagle, Orion, th’ air, bird, if omen’d, Harry S. kill; Sue, my glory, John, th’ heir—birthsome in their skill
          7) foam in th’ arse kill; berth
          7-8) eye liberty, doughty war, fit to…
          8) Beauty odd, whore Shakespeare toast; heal thyself; fit tough tilde seals away
          8-9) teal thistle see, aye wise, awfully loose
          9) Social, alive, ass, you pose (puff) in jet; Sue, S. Hall, aye live, if you pussy inch t’ Howard true
          9-10) sing t’ Howard rude, hated, half-poor turd
        10) porter t’ Anne dwelled Onan
        10-11) eye Lydian Aeneas, Wita (wet and lovely); tanned Will, twin-Aeneas, witty and lovely; poor turd, Anne dwelled on one house witty and lowly; The hated have power to hurt Anne, Will do none (how sweet and lovely); know Sweden, dull of ladies’ “O’s”; will duenna house wit and love?
        11) fame; House we’d end; do stomach the shame; House we attend, Anne, lowly dost thou make this home; lovely dust; lowly dust thou maketh, S., Ham[net]
        11-12) famous homme [suggesting Tristan] faith, Isolde eyes; dost thou make the famous homme Phidias hold his youth? does T.T., homme, ache, the famous homme fades; dost thou make this a maze, homme?
        12) Foam; Sue, my fey thistle; Sue, ms. eye, this old (thistled) aye; Phidias old is youthsome, wanton ass; Southy’s old, his youth, foam
        12-13) mew one tone, F, howl like a winter at hymn; you Antony see howl; silly cue (queue) entereth
        13) Howl eye, quainter; How will “I,” cunt, err; Howl, acquaint her, Hath-my-absence [cf. …-away] be Annie; Howell; wind-wrath; wrath o’ May be seen (fancy)
        13-14) see bane, sorrow move aye; hymn may be fancy bane of Rome; you heavy bane eye, base intent hiss, peer, in [the key of?] G; eye cue in turd
        14) Fair homme, you have aye been absinthe in the spring [i.e., bitterness in the well]; Ben; Fair O, mirror eye, be neb of end, inspiring [contrast line 1, about lack of inspiration]; bee-nap offend; spring coil, “round,” cf. “winder” [pun 13]; bane, abyss end, tennis appearing; of Rome, you a fabian ape scent

Acrostic Wit

          The downward acrostic code is, as always in first-line runes, “double” because of Q’s pattern of emphatic initials, creating a “ladder” with two side supports. The closing pun encoded as HOOOR is insistent in the full code (in its down/down permutation)—i.e., MV[V] FV[V] STS BST HS HF YAA HAHOV O HOOOR. With F=S, conventionally, this form of the code suggests, e.g., “Muse of S., ’tis Bess. This have ye: Half o’ her [i.e., half the Q texts only, Sonnets, not Runes].” Another variant reading (of many possible) is “Move you [Mew few (i.e., Isolate, Coop up, a few of)] Shakespeare’s best, his half ye have o’er [ye half o’ whore].”

          Deducibly, one has “half o’ her” because Q’s Sonnets but not her Runes are apparent.“Bess” may mean Will’s granddaughter Elizabeth Hall (b. Feb. 1608) or his queen before 1603.

          Part of the joke also seems to be about “halving” the W to make “VV,” with possible Roman numeral plays such as these samples: “1010—if 10, Shakespeare’s best ladders [pictographic H = a “ladder” = a vertical acrostic rune] half ye—half a whore,” and/or “Hymn 5 of 5, Shakespeare’s best hiss halve ye, half-a-hour (...heavy hour).”

          The reverse of this same codeROOOHOV OH AH A A YF HS HT SB ST S[V]V F[V]VM—is one of two up/up forms, this one starting from the bottom inside position. Readings of this codeline include, e.g., “Rough is it sub-Shakespeare. Sue, fume”; “Rough, O, I halve a shit; as beasts, you fume”; “…ass be Shakespeare’s, you [5, 10] fume”; and “Roof, O, I visit, as Bess t’ Sue fume.” The last reading may mean Sue’s Bess has dirty diapers when Will sees them in Stratford.       

          The full acrostic code can also be read in various other ways including “hairpin” variants (i.e., down/up and up/down), each with a different starting position. Two of these codes are reverses of the other two.

          One can also generate four additional inherent codelines by reading “across” the rungs of the ladder, starting from different positions. The most obvious form—MY... VVA... FA... VVH... SA... TH... SO...—starts at top left and suggests, e.g., “My wife always hath Sue...” and “My wife, Away, is Hath...,” with a nameplay on “Hathaway.”

          Trying to decide exactly which acrostic codeline forms the author manipulated to generate consciously embedded meanings (or potentiality for meanings) is one of a reader/player’s conundrums.

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