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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

The Discovery of the Runes—a Lost Coterie Genre


How I Found the Antecedent Runes

          Not only have Shakespeare’s hidden sonnets been unknown until now; so has the very existence of their medieval antecedents—lost products of a set of literate, conventionalized activities that collectively I call the Runegame. The fact is that I approached the Sonnets in 1979, to see if they had “runic” features, only after I had spent some two years piecing together an outline of how the earlier Runegame must have worked, deducing the rules that governed the Runes and ferreting out examples of lost, buried texts in several medieval works. A short summary of that process and of what I deduced about earlier coterie practices will help explain the term “rune” and show how Q, rather than being singular and unlikely, is actually quite conventional—even almost predictable.

          In l976-77, as a doctoral student in English at Ole Miss enrolled in a seminar focusing on the works of the Pearl/Gawain poet, I undertook a long paper that started out as a structural analysis of the medieval dream vision Pearl, an anonymous, amply developed, puzzling Christian allegory about some “buried gem” that eventually appears as a revived Bride of Christ and thus serves Heaven’s purposes. Perhaps late 14th century and thus roughly of Chaucer’s era, Pearl is uniquely recorded in MS. Cotton Nero A.x., a text that I had access to in facsimile. The poem is elaborately stanzaic and shows sophisticated craftsmanship. In the course of doing this seminar project I found—almost but not totally by accident—a previously unknown 21-verse text embedded in the longer Pearl. This buried lyric comprises the 21 ms. lines that start with large, decorative capital letters (see Graves, Hugh John Massey 20, and John Massey Un-hyd 8-12, 27ff.).

        One reason I got intrigued by the form of the poem was a numerologic conundrum: The full text of Pearl has 21 capital letters but only 20 major stanzaic blocks; scholars have routinely dismissed the “extra” capital and the “confused” placement of several other large initial letters as “scribal error”—the customary explanation for thousands of eccentricities and puzzling bobbles in early ms. texts—and have thus in good conscience often amended and regularized these features, noting their presence in footnotes.

          I began my paper with a plan to test the thesis that the formal and numeric aberrations were purposeful rather than accidental—perhaps some kind of numerologic play (since 21 = 3 x 7, vaguely “mystical” numbers) or else a mea culpa gesture by the author/scribe, incorporated conventionally in medieval art to acknowledge that “only God makes perfect works.” The sly tendency of the Pearl poet to say provocative things like “ever the longer the less, the more” also intrigued me. Could that have been a comment on the “stretched” form of the poem, I wondered. Or maybe a pun on the order of “…the lass, the Moor”—applealing slyly to the prurience that later became a subtle aspect of the lure of Shakespeare’s Othello?

          Searching for a “numbers” scheme in Pearl one winter night in the lower recesses of the Ole Miss Library, seated within yards of the wall inscribed with William Faulkner’s famous remark about “enduring and prevailing” and with no clearer motive than to try to understand what the sequential form of the long text might encase, I copied out, in the order in which they occur, the 21 emphatic lines in Pearl. I remember having the vivid conviction as I watched the lines accumulate that I was reading some sort of slow medieval teletype, with progressive coherence and a lyric voice only partly piercing the mist of my own ignorance about the poet’s dialect and purposes. Whether my sketchy Middle English helped or hurt in the process, I’m still not sure.

          That night I shared with my friend and fellow student David Taylor my first findings. From that night I date my on-going fascination with what I have since come to call literary archaeology—the process of unearthing lost treasures in early texts.

           I soon began to understand that the reconstructed 21-line poem, at least on one level of the much-debated allegory, must be the “lost pearl” that the speaker in Pearl laments—a crafted, secular “gem” whose “burial,” as the poet-dreamer comes to see in the poem, eventually serves God’s greater glory even as its sacrificial entombment, a moving gesture of self-effacement, continues to pain the poet. The description in the text of this lost gem as “small” with “smooth sides”—So rounde, so reken in vche araye, / So smal, so smo[th]e her syde[s] were… (Gordon I.5-6)—led me eventually, after much guesswork manipulation, to restore the poem into a symmetrical form that makes it look like a modern crossword puzzle on an alphabetic grid of squares with the dimensions 2l (lines) x 33 (characters)—the medial caesuras in the marginally-justified lines leaving gaps of varying “spaces” toward the center, except in the longest line, 7, which has no gaps (see John Massey Un-hyd 10). The recomposition, I believe, is an authorized form that recreates what the Pearl poet labored over and then intentionally buried inside his longer text about 600 years ago.

           With study I came to see that The Pearl Rune, as I call the buried text, encoded extensive, overlapping messages and wit, including vertical and reverse readings of the alphabetic code. Decipherings will always be incomplete because of the ambiguous, open-ended nature of runic communication, but some messages seemed reasonably clear. For example, the last vertical line allows “Easy [Ici ], we tease ye” and “Easy wit see” (coded ESEEEEEEEEE WEEEE TS 3EE [3=Y]), reversing to “Is too easy" (coded EE3S TEEEEW EEEEEEEEESE). A letter-by-letter reverse from the top right of the rune yields such readings as “Ear and eye toiled in condemnation,” “Forever and always I toiled for Dome [Reason, Truth],” and so on (coded ERE & E Y I [a barred line over the “I” is scribal shorthand for “in”] FOR DEM TYLED… [ME fordeme = condemnation]). “Dame,” too, may mean The Virgin.

           The fuller code, as it continues, admits such self-denigrating messages as “Sire [Lord], may hommes love no sin in the game (or ‘gome,’ man) that cloaks this….” The 21 lines of the Rune can also be read line-by-line from bottom to top, the inverted sequence creating a variant of the original that reminds one of the playful ballade rétrograde described by Deschamps and engaged in by Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-1430) and others of her time (Willard 56). Playfully ambiguous, the puzzle-like text in Pearl, I saw, quite certainly embedded sense and entertainment and was a discovery not of my own crafting, however much I or any reader/player might be involved in creating or recreating its “meaning” once it stood. Here text met game, and a reader/player was at least partly like a player of, say, Monopoly, much controlled by the form, context, and rules of the game, but also—in any one-time pass-through—creating a unique experience not exactly like anybody else’s “controlled” experience. (Of course, any reading of any poem is also this way, too, since “meaning” is subjective.)

          With this “rounde” gem as a paradigm, I began in 1977 to try to reconstruct other such lost compositions in medieval manuscripts, to study them, and to learn how they worked. From them, over several years of experiment and study, I worked backwards, in effect, to rough out the rules for what soon appeared to me to be a widespread coterie activity neither acknowledged nor publicly discussed before, except indirectly in the various speculations about whether medieval writers “hid things in their works” to entertain private readers. Many readers know that some of the early Old English (Anglo-Saxon) compositions are riddles and that, in a cluster of instances, the name Cynewulf—embedded in acrostic and anagrammatic forms in runic (futhark) characters—has been presumed to identify the author of otherwise anonymous works from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon period (i.e., ca. 5th c.-1150 C.E.). But no systematic knowledge of elaborate and predictably patterned coterie gameplaying in early English texts had before 1977 been accumulated, so that what I was finding in Pearl and elsewhere was essentially an unprecedented body of evidence for a startling new discovery about how some early writers, at least, conventionally worked.   RNG 15 May 2003

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