Return to Index Page: Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets

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

The Runes and their Characteristics,
including the Hidden Plan in the 1609 Quarto
and an Overview of Various Website Components

Conventional Features of the Runes

         Sequenced below in this link are discussions of the five topics below. By scrolling down through the text, you can begin at any point. The five topical units are differentiated by background color to help you find where each begins.

   I.  Background and Terminology: Rune as a Generic Term
 II.  The Megasonnet Organization Plan and the Lost “First Folio”
III.  The Sets—The 11 Organizational Units of the Quarto—as Discrete Creations
IV.  Some Features of the Sets
 V.   Components of This Website: A Descriptive Rationale

I. Background and Terminology: Rune as a Generic Term

         During 1976-1977 when I was first unearthing the lost coterie game in early English literature that by 1979 led me to discover the hidden cycle in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, recurrent forms of the word “rune” and “to rune” (and puns on the word) in the medieval dream vision Pearl (an elaborately crafted poem that may be by the Gawain poet) suggested early on that the challenging suppressed texts, as “whispered” communications, should themselves be called runes. Thus in my own scheme of nomenclature—which I’m now confident was also a system of reference used in the coteries where private writing was practiced—these lost varieties of witty, gamelike compositions privately buried in early English literary texts became the Runegame.

          The main features for embedding and decoding the runes, as I show in later discussion, were sequence, parallelism, emphasis, numerology, and acrostics.

           The historical silence surrounding the runes suggests that they originated inside oathbound coteries, likely the medieval scriptoria and the courtly circles for which the monks produced libraries of pastime literature. (The movie The Name of the Rose offers one melodramatized illustration of such a scene.) A part of the pleasure in the in-group scriptorium wit, I deduced, must have been the sense of exclusion and manipulation it brought, at the expense of out-group or general readers. Too, literacy itself in the early days was a coterie-defining trait, and the Bard (or OE scop) was a kind of magic-wielder and spell-binder, manipulating the great power of The Word that Biblical texts also acknowledge. (Scop derives from Old Norse and Old High German words meaning “mocking” or “derision” [Random House], as if to underscore the bard’s jocular, condescending superiority.)

       In the 1980s I learned that the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had reached conclusions about Latin verse that were somewhat similar to some of my own, independent deductions and hypotheses. Though his findings were in a narrower sphere and showed more limited artifactual outcomes, he had developed the hypothesis that buried but publicly unacknowledged anagrams and “themewords” persisted in Latin poetry from early times right up into the inscription practices of recent centuries (Starobinski). De Saussure’s papers remained unpublished during his lifetime, and his cautious latter-day editor concluded that the linguist was probably overreaching, finding what he’d gone looking for.

        Originally, a rune—to return to that specific topic—was a character in the futhark (runic) alphabet, a system that was already archaic in Anglo-Saxon times. Runic inscriptions, most common on stones and coffers, could be read multidirectionally. “Rune” is also a common OE and ME verb and noun denoting “whispered” communication, secret, or mystery. In the Renaissance the word persisted as “round,” variously spelled (e.g., “rown[e],” “roun,” “rounde”—with “ruin” a close variant), and it ultimately has come down to us to mean a playful, multi-voiced, technically endless song like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Are You Sleeping, Brother John?” of the sort that has also been called a “catch.”

         The OED shows “rune” used to designate a futhark character in 1690 and to name “an incantation or charm denoted by magic signs” in 1796. My presumption is that through the Renaissance the term enjoyed only guarded coterie usage, probably with a proscription against asserting it in any straightforward way, though playful puns on it would’ve been allowed.

          “Rounds,” like the coterie term “runes,” still imply verse composition, group involvement, ambiguous and cacophonous overlays of perceived meaning, and playfulness often verging on nonsense. Representative puns on “rune” in Q occur in such famous lines as “Rough windes do “shake [a nameplay] the darling buds of Maie” (Sonnet 18.3), “Ruine hath taught me thus to ruminate” (Sonnet 64.11), and “Bare rn’wd [sic] quiers [punning on quires, i.e., measures of paper], where late the sweet birds [cf. Bard S.] sang” (Sonnet 73.4, my emphasis in all 3 instances).

         Shakespeare used “round” overtly as a noun (to mean “coil, circle”), and—in an ironic twist of linguistic development—as an adjective to mean “honest” (as in a “round, unvarnished tale”) and “severe in speech” (as in “I must be round with him”). In his day as in our own, “round” had many possible meanings as noun, adjective, and adverb; “rune” (OED 1690) and “runic” (1662), however, had not officially worked their way back into public English usage, despite their common functional appearances in Old English or Anglo-Saxon.

        As I’ve said, during 1977-79 I deduced from the recomposed Pearl Rune and other less definitive Middle English instances that Runemakers conventionally used five main elements to embed their runes:

1. Sequence in overt texts
2. Parallelism
3. Emphasis
(such as emphatic capitals, italic forms, parentheticals)
4. Numerology
5. Acrostic alignment of letters and spaces (as on a crossword puzzle grid)

       Before 1979 I shifted my attention from Middle English works (i.e., ca. 1150-1500 C.E.) to the earlier OE period and in particular to the Riddles of The Exeter Book. Close in spirit to the original futhark inscriptions, these gnomic compositions are products of a time (ca. A.D. 600-800?) when riddles, acrostics, and anagrams were overtly popular. Some of the Riddles incorporate runic (futhark) characters. Eventually I was able to demonstrate to my own satisfaction how some of the OE Riddles actually bury their own “answers” in embedded codes that become apparent when the texts are stretched onto letter grids to reveal hidden, authorized vertical letter sequences that become codelines to be deciphered. Such alphabetic codes allow multiple readings and show complicated puns, alternating scenarios, and other wit of sorts heretofore unrecognized in the Riddles—which have conventionally been presumed to be designed to evoke simple one-term answers like “knife” or “dog” from would-be “solvers”

        Finding the runic patterns effectively opens up the riddlic genre, changing a typical riddle from a naive-looking folk composition into an elaborately crafted formalistic gem. For example, the riddle that may be rendered “I saw the creature going on its way; it was curiously, wondrously equipped,” yields—from its inherent vertical acrostic code—at least five overlaid “answers,” scenarios rather than single-term solutions: 1) an ice-shrouded ship in bad weather; 2) a glutton with “narrowed” eyes; 3) a slit-eyed rat “eternally intent on all cheese”; 4) an angry wife armed with a knife and threatening to castrate her husband; and 5) a riddle solver with eyes squinted and reeling (Graves, “The Runic Beowulf” 13ff.).

         Though I’ve read papers in 1995 and 1996 on the pre-Shakespearean runes at the annual conference sponsored by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, my findings about runic embeddings in Old and Middle English have yet to be scrutinized and validated by specialists and are available only as self-published monograph titles, and from the summary here. Besides lack of time for publication, my main excuses are my limited expertise in pre-Renaissance English and the fact that, after finding the Shakespearean Runes in 1979, those quickly became my preoccupying vocation.

         In time, perhaps, scholars with expertise in Old and Middle English can evaluate and refine my earlier discoveries. I discuss them on this site as background not only because they are important in themselves and may through the medium of this publication come to light but also, and more importantly, to show that the Shakespearean discoveries occurred within a plausible context, not just out of the blue, and that the patterns in Q are of a piece with those I had found in antecedent literary texts from the Scribal (i.e., Old and Middle English) Period—before the advent of printing in Europe in the late 1400s began to revolutionize the production of reading materials.

       When in 1979 I leapfrogged forward some one thousand years from the Anglo-Saxon Riddles to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I knew more or less what I was looking for, but I admit that I was skeptical. My front-end guess was that the runes were a scribal activity which mechanical printing would have soon helped to kill—by disallowing the witty manipulations of jot-and-tittle detail that hand-written mss. had given authors and (no doubt) mischievous scribes chances to indulge in. (Chaucer in one short poem berates Adam, a scribe of his, for tampering with the details of his works [Robinson 534].)

          Nonetheless, I noted that Q had suspicious features, some of which paralleled those in the earlier manuscripts I had studied: a mysterious provenance; knotty substance; textual “errors,” seeming disorder, and technical disarray; bad lines by a good poet; puns galore; and coyness in the implied relationship between author and audience that might suggest coterie writing. I assumed that if Shakespeare were a practicing Runemaster, he—like his predecessors the Pearl poet and the Exeter Book Riddler—would use sequence, parallelism, emphasis, numerology, and acrostics, and that he would be somehow adapting these conventions to his own higher purposes just as he adapted others—meter, rhyme, the sonnet cycle, and “standard” conceits and posturings. What looked like errors, I assumed, might actually be private humor, in-jokes, and clues to the coterie. And emphatic elements (such as the oversized capitals initiating the 154 first-lines in Q) would likely be coterie guideposts.

          I also knew that Love’s Labor’s Lost has been presumed to be a coterie work with arcane humor and allusions addressed to an unknown in-group (see, e.g., Harrison 395-96), perhaps the same courtly group among whom some or all of the Sonnets first circulated, a group likely to have included Will’s unnamed patron and perhaps having something to do with the so-called School of Night, involving Raleigh and others. (Contemporaries whispered that the School had committed sacrilege by spelling God backwards, and the like.) Most of all, whoever the in-group was, the readership of a coterie work could be expected to approach that work looking for and assuming the presence of buried meaning and wit, rather than being skeptical about its existence, and any authorial clues would presume a willingly participating reader/player—just as any imaginative work of literature assumes the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” to use Coleridge’s famous phrase. Thus I had to suspend disbelief and try to think like an insider.

        My first working theory was that an authorized private game in Q might employ the most obvious series of parallel, emphatic elements—just the 154 first-lines in the cycle, with their oversized printed capitals. But I doubted that these first-lines would comprise a single 154-line text. Reading this parallel linestring in sequence, I did detect what appeared to be a coherent statement, one that seemed to reach a kind of close or hiatus at its 14th line (see Rune 1). Applying the expectation of numerological neatness, I soon saw that the formula 14 x 11 = 154 summarized the most obvious way to subdivide Q’s emphatic-letter string.

        Trial-and-error analysis soon showed that the ten other 14-line strings comprising first-line groupings—i.e., Runes 15, 29, 43, and so on—also seemed to cohere. Then I began to find what appeared to be sequences of coherent meaning not just in consecutive first lines in Q, but also in second-line and third-line groupings and so on. In each case—that of the second-line string, and the third-lines, and so on—I simply chopped the 154 line units into 11 segments of 14 lines, exactly as they occur elsewhere inside various components of this site. Thus an astounding overall number scheme in Q re-invented itself. A typical text, of course, did not suddenly just fall out simply as a clear statement; routinely I’d find that three- or four-line groupings “made sense” and then I’d hit a syntactic or lexical snarl. Such challenges to the runeplayer, I found, were a routine part of the game, and trying to negotiate the best path through each of the 14-line regroupings so as to follow its main line of thought was my first objective, my first “test” as player.

        Several decades after I first restored the Runes in Q to their authorized forms, I find it hard to recreate the steps of that reconstruction process. In one sense, the mathematics of the scheme made it an automatic reassemblage. But much residual distrust of the materials persisted, so that I had to wait years to be absolutely sure that in every case some path would allow me a way though the textual thickets, a way to be sure that the line groupings were in every case meaningful.

           My understanding of the Runes thus came gradually, and much of what I understand now didn’t jell in my thinking until the mid-1980s, even after I was confident that the 154 divisions I’d initially made in the materials were the right ones. Particularly, it took me a long time imagine how Will “had done it.” For years I pictured some complex paper-swapping system whereby the poet would’ve inserted a line in a sonnet and concurrently made it fit, elsewhere, in a rune. (To work out tedious acrostic alignments and gameboard elements, he may well have worked that way, at some stage, in some or all of his texts.) Finding the sample of his (cramped) handwriting in the unfinished More text was, as I show later, a breakthrough. Too, the problems of Set VIII and its “extra line” gave me headaches after I had worked my way that far into the materials—reading the Runes in Q to detect their sense, editing them individually with punctuation that best guided a reader seeking meaning in them, and checking them for paraphrasability.

           I understood that Q’s Megasonnet pattern emulates the form of a giant sonnet with 154 syllables several years before I was able to postulate the exact arrangement of the “sets” and the look of the holograph manuscript that had circulated in the late 1590s for private readers close to Shakespeare—housing some sets, at least, probably the last two and maybe more, maybe all of them.


II. The Megasonnet Organization Plan and the Lost “First Folio”

No, it was builded far from accident…. (Sonnet 124.5)
Save thou my rows I knit (…aye knit to Howard mild) (pun, Sonnet 109.14)

      The lack of organization or thematic progression in Q has caused much scholarly head-scratching, sometimes to the extent that “improved” reorderings of the Sonnets have been proposed—always assuming Q to be pirated and the text unauthorized (see Rollins II:74ff.). The precedent for reordering goes back at least to 1640. Booth, who remains skeptical and noncommittal about whether the order in Q is “the order in which Shakespeare would have wanted them read,” says, “As one reads the sonnets in their 1609 sequence, one feels their continuity as both urgent and wanting; the 1609 sequence regularly feels purposeful and as regularly seems to have just barely failed of its purpose” (545-46).

        The form, order, and underlying plan in Q that this book shows, then, should at last let us deal confidently with Q as Will’s own arrangement. The poet “of tall building, and of goodly pride” (Sonnet 80.12) has erected an edifice that still shows thematic randomness, an upshot of the constraints of concurrent composition, but that looks rigidly girded, not ramshackle, after infrared scanning reveals the silhouette of its structural framework—an architecture of numbers, both simple and ingenious, that prescribes in precise ways the authorized division of materials and even the page arrangements one would have observed in his holographic manuscript. Since historical evidence is missing, the validity of my argument must be judged by evaluating the quality of what it reveals: impressive inventiveness, an apt and witty sprezzatura or suppressed design that has formal beauty, an orderly plan in a work that has seemed chaotic, a delightful sense of structure where none has been seen before, and 154 lost artifacts that without the hypothesis cannot be shown to exist—when we can see now that they do. Thus, by its cornucopic fruits, we know the hidden plan.

       In brief, this Ur-text structure would have had Shakespeare writing his 154 poems on 11 large double-page leaves, with each spread housing one set of 14 numbers, the apparent sonnets, laid out in 4 horizontal rows of texts in a 4-4-4-2 arrangement that wittily mirrored the sonnet’s own structure of 3 quatrains and a couplet. Other sections of this site recreate these 11 sets in a reduced-size format, using the printed sonnets from Q. (Of course we have no other forms of the sonnets to go by. My assumption is that Shakespeare prepared his final text for the printer with the printed form[s] in mind, imagining future readers encountering the Q materials thereafter in print, not script.)

       In the original oversized holographic booklet, a total of 22 pages would have housed all the texts. The individual page arrangements would have made both poet and any original inner-circle readers aware of form—and, surprisingly, of a good deal of meaning—that has not been detectable in Q. Particularly this “First Folio” arrangement gives the cycle not only an ingenious overall structure but also 11 functional subdivisions of equal size and shape, each with a certain independence.

         The 1609 Quarto, a small format book with an average of 2 and l/2 sonnet texts per page and 5 per spread, shows none of these features (cf., e.g., the page facsimiles in Booth). If—as evidence now suggests—Shakespeare supervised the publication, the obfuscation and suppression of inherent formal order in the published book was surely his choice. His decision to publish a small book was practical (since quartos were cheaper than folios), conventional (since sonnets cycles usually were little books), and perhaps intentionally protective of the text’s coterie features (since the large-spread arrangement would have revealed its buried read-across-the-leaf patterns fairly readily).

        Though moderns are suspicious of “numbers” and “numerology,” Renaissance writers weren’t. Each sonnet in Q is itself an untitled “number” headed with a numeral. (Notably, Sonnet 116 is “misnumbered” as 119—as if the 6 were altered by being flipped over—in a sonnet that warns against “altering” one’s affection “when it alteration finds” and that concludes with a suggestive hint: “…this [may] be error, and upon me proved.”) In Will’s day, skill at “numbers” meant metrical competence, and a rigidly prescriptive number system defines the sonnet form itself. Further, A. Kent Hieatt’s modern discovery of the complex lost number scheme in Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion shows a plan somewhat like Q’s, both structural and substantive, in a roughly contemporary English poem (see Hieatt 3ff., and Graves, “Two Newfound Poems”). While the numbers that Hieatt found in Spenser show thematic relevance by alluding to the calendar and its subdivisions, those in Q allude to the defining numerological features of the sonnet itself, a case of particular form controlling form overall. Further, Renaissance aesthetics favored sprezzatura or “suppressed design”—artfully hidden and often painstaking interior stratagems that allowed a creative work to appear “natural,” even haphazard, when, in fact, much calculation had gone into its crafting.

           What then could have been more appropriate or formally satisfying than for Shakespeare to impose, sub rosa and in a form that until this day has lain undetected, the sonnet’s own scheme of numbers on the larger structure of his cycle, and concurrently on its subsections?

          What form did the hypothetical holograph take, and how did it encase Will’s numerological plan? We can, I propose, imagine the individual spreads in the Ur-text as “folio” sheets, with pages more or less the size of those used in printing the King James Bible (1611) or the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623). The spread would’ve been roughly 22 (wide) x 17 inches—a common traditional size 4 times as large as the modern 8 l/2 x 11 inch sheet (see Art of the Printed Book, Webster’s 3rd)—with each page roughly 11 (wide) x 17 inches. Six such folio leaves—stacked, folded, and sewn along the spine, would have combined to create a thin 24-page booklet; Set I would have occupied pp. 2-3 (after a blank page or title page); Set II would have been on pp. 4-5; Set III on pp. 6-7; and so on, through Set XI, on pp. 22-23. The back page would likely have been blank. Chute helps us envision this book in her comment about one of the poet’s dramatic manuscripts: “Shakespeare’s original [play] script…seems to have been used [by the company] just as it was, except that the loose sheets were stitched together and enclosed in some kind of wrapper. Any kind of wrapper would do, from a medieval manuscript to an expired law paper, just so that it was capable of standing hard wear” (158).

         If (as I believe) Shakespeare thought of the Q texts as his magnum opus and best chance for posthumous fame, the holographic Sonnets or some of their sets might have been more finely bound to circulate among early coterie readers.

          Imagining the holograph of the finished Q texts and the value of its loss as a literary artifact, one can be grateful that, substantively, the half of Q that has disappeared for 400 years is still recoverable verbatim.

           The key that allowed me to envision the holograph was the handscripted text of the incomplete play Sir Thomas More, particularly the three sheets (147 lines) of this text in “Hand D” that seem most likely of any existing textual sample to represent Shakespeare’s handwriting (see Thompson, with facsimile pages). Regarding the More handwriting sample, editor G. B. Harrison says, “…[M]ost scholars who have examined the evidence [showing that Shakespeare penned ‘Hand D’] agree on a verdict of ‘most probable’” (1658). In any case, even if Shakespeare did not pen the three pages of More, the script size that I postulate as the medium Shakespeare used in the “First Folio” format of the Sonnets/Runes would have been well within his range of use. Fourteen actual-size lines of blank verse in the More hand show the surprisingly small block of space one sonnet would have taken up:

A block of 14 consecutive blank verse lines
in what has been been expertly identified as Will’s cramped hand.
The sample, selected randomly from the More ms.,
shows how much space a handscripted sonnet might have occupied.

       The maximum width of any line in Hand D is about 5 and l/2 inches, but almost all lines are shorter, and many of the lines are in the range of 4 to 4 and l/2 inches wide. The poet/scribe could easily have squeezed a line horizontally here and there as needed, the way writers do to make handwritten lines fit between margins, or else “doubled up” the line endings as the Q typesetter does occasionally (see, e.g., Sonnets 28.13-14, 99.2-3, 102.1-2, etc.).

         For anyone interested in lab-testing my hypothesis, photocopies of the block above can be set in 4 rows in a 4-4-4-2 arrangement on a sheet of paper 22 wide x 17 inches high to create a fairly good replica of one of the eleven sets in the lost First Folio, Will’s holograph text. The text will be meaningless, but the look of the holographic set can be approximated.

Above I’m holding a reconstructed facsimile mock-up showing
one spread in the original Sonnets holograph, as I’ve deduced it.
Standing in for each “sonnet” is a 14-line block of text from the More ms.
(No handscripted ms. of the 1609 Quarto materials is extant.)
The right page arrangement on the spread mirrors the left,
and each spread, with its 4-4-4-2 arrangement, mimicks the sonnet form.

Below is a reduced-sized facsimile spread
approximating how Set I would have looked
scripted in Will’s nearly minuscule hand.
To recreate the spread, I’ve taken random 14-line blocks of text from the More ms., cut in an indention where the couplet lines occur, and added by hand the enlarged initial capitals, the sonnet numbers 1-14, and the Roman numeral I. designating the set.

This arrangement works using actual-sized script from More on a folio spread measuring approximately 22 inches (wide) x 17 inches (high)—
the size of four horizontally laid sheets of 8 and 1/2 inch x 11 inch typing paper. The pages would have been roughly the size of those in the King James Bible (1611).

Had Will published the Sonnets in this layout,
the horizontally arranged Runes would have been fairly easy to detect:
A reader could have read across the page, linking first lines with first, second with second, and so on through the fourteenth lines.

         So far as I know, scholars have always regarded 154, the number of sonnets in Q, as totally arbitrary, one of many haphazard-looking aspects in the work.

          The truth is that this “last number” in Q was chosen, indeed calculated, with great care. Had Shakespeare stopped his cycle at No. 140, readers before now would surely have detected the overt association not only with the number 14 but also with the conventional “sonnet dimensions,” which can be expressed as an easy equation: 14 lines x 10 syllables = 140 syllables per “normal” sonnet. Less overt is the implicit equation “14 lines x 11 syllables = 154 syllables.” That is to say, a perfectly regular Shakespearean sonnet with “weak” or “feminine” line-endings (and thus with the longest lines conventionally possible) would contain 154 syllables, the exact number of sonnets in Shakespeare’s cycle. Because “syllable” since the Middle Ages has meant “the least portion or detail of speech or writing (or of something expressed or expressible in speech or writing)” (OED), one now sees how ingeniously fitting it is for Shakespeare to have chosen a jam-packed sonnet of 154 syllables as the numerological paradigm for the structure of his cycle—with each sonnet in Q acting like a single syllable in a Giant Sonnet scheme. Choosing the most expansive shape possible—the one with the most “syllabic” utterances allowed by convention without breaking the boundaries of the form licentiously—lets Will write a jam-packed book while avoiding a numerological closing point, 140, that might have been too easily detectable outside the coterie.

         The numbers box below, a pictographic numerological conceit, shows the authorized organizational plan for the Q cycle that prescribes not only its overall “sonnet dimensions” but also its division into 11 sets. Each Arabic number in the figure represents one of the 154 numbered sonnet texts in Q—each working like one syllable in the whole construct—and each Roman numeral is a rubric for one set of poems. (Though technically these Roman numerals are editorial additions, they are implicit in the Q structure.) Both the overall design and each set unit (with 14 components) display numerologic parallels with the sonnet form itself.

Shakespeare’s Lost Megasonnet:
The Organization Plan of the 1609 Quarto Texts
Copyright 1984 © Roy Neil Graves, All rights reserved.


          This arrangement was a privately useful construct, an aspect of suppressed design that even in the original authorized arrangement would have been implicit, not overt. Thus the graphic conceit above may never have been observed before except in the privacy of the author’s closet—or of his head. The plan shows how a fixed numeric order governs the arrangement of an apparently random cycle.

          Careful readers who proceed here will observe authorized, individualizing features emerging within the 11 separate sets, shown above as vertical columns of numbers that most readily represent the visible Sonnets—but that also stand inherently for the hidden Runes.

         Easy illustrations of such discreteness in the sets occur in Set I, which houses poems urging “marriage and increase,” and in Sets X-XI, the Dark Lady groups. In the numbers box above, these last two sets form a witty coda, a kind of vertical couplet tag. Maybe the feminine (or “weak”) line endings of a hypothetical sonnet with 154 syllables suggested to Will something feminine and perverse—formally aberrational, a weak afterthought. (Sonnet 20, the only text in Q whose 14 lines all have “feminine” endings and thus the only one crafted to house 154 syllables, is the famous “Master-Mistress” text; it opens, “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted” and uses “woman”/“women”/“mistress” seven times. Sonnet 87 also plays consciously with “weak” endings—it has 10 of them ending in “-ing,” along with two others, so that only two lines have masculine endings. I don’t know for sure that Shakespeare would’ve used the metaphoric term “feminine ending” to describe an instance in which the last syllable was unstressed or “weak,” but it seems likely that he might have.) In any case, the Megasonnet shows a wittily perverse, thematically discrete “upright couplet” that both turns and caps the cycle’s content, violating what has come before, much the way a couplet in an English sonnet often modifies what has been said earlier. Part of Will’s witty formal perversity is that the Megasonnet has to be “read” left-to-right, so its “couplet” lines aren’t horizontal at the bottom, where they would normally rest in a “real” sonnet; rather, they stand upright, like two legs positioned on a “ground” and ready to walk off (cf. Sonnet 130.12: “My Mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground”).

        This site considers the separate entities of the 11 sets, showing how each set, itself an analogue for the sonnet form, reveals structural beauty and wit based on numbers. I adopt the conventional term “set” quite deliberately to designate the medial formal unit in Q’s design: sonnets, sets, and sequence (or cycle). Here a set is a composition group of 14 apparent poems that would have been synoptically arranged on one spread in the holograph Folio. The word “set,” as Booth notes, occurs in Sonnet 15.10—notably, in the first sonnet of Set II—and also in 16.6, 60.9, and 89.6. Certain puns hint that the term may be authorized: e.g., “Sense seldom coming in ‘The Long Year [Longer, Languor] Set’, / Like stones of worth…” (Sonnet 52.6-7); and “Ay me, but yet thou might’st my Set [Q seate, with a “long s”] IV bare” (No. 41.9)—the latter a pun that occurs just before Set IV opens. (Perhaps the “Longer Set” means Set VIII, with its “extra” line of text in No. 99.) Though “leaf” (cf. “leaf”/“leave”/“leaves,” frequent in Q, and cf. L. folium ) also has some textual authority as a designation for a composition group, “leaf” suggests “page” to modern readers.

        An incidental question about the holograph page arrangements in the sets is whether the couplet pairs of texts would have been centered, split, staggered, blocked left, or indented and pushed right. I presume that for symmetry’s sake they would have been centered so that the left page of the spread mirrored the right. If the two holograph pages of each set did mirror each other as the poet penned them, then all the images and conceits in Q that are concerned with “glasses” now seem likely to encode lost significance—meaning that the poet conceived of but we have not understood. This seems doubly true because the first such example of mirror imagery that occurs in the Q cycle, “Look in thy glass…” (Sonnet 3.1), occurs at the precise point where the top righthand page of Set I begins to “mirror” the left. Other examples of the “glass” conceit—e.g., in Set II (Sonnet 22.1), Set VI (No. 77.1), and Set IX (No. 126.1-2)—tend to support the conclusion that the poet was conscious of the relevance of mirror imagery to his arrangement of materials on the page, as do such puns as “Saw (Save…) thou mirrors innate…?” (Sonnet 109.14). If Q or some sets of it circulated in ms., Will’s first in-group readers might have picked up on the relevance. Working backwards, the “mirror” clues help reassure a recompositor that a symmetrical spread arrangement is right. Here as in many places elsewhere in Q, Will’s content alludes, sotto voce, to the formal process of building his original text and of laying the poems out on the page. (The “mirror” conceit also alludes to the twinned relationship of Sonnets and Runes.)

          In two instances in Q, an extra-long line spills over into the bottom right-hand corner of the set spread, where there’s extra room to “draw my furrows longer” (Sonnet 28.14) or for a “proud art” to “go wide” (Sonnet 140.14). Such details, showing self-consciousness as an attenuated line comes into being, also offer backhanded, reassuring clues for a recompositor seeking to verify the arrangement he’s deduced. Perhaps these empty corners also originally gave the poet a place to pen the Roman numeral set number, or even to inscribe some other notation (such as a humorous or serious “set title”) that was necessarily omitted in Q, whose format had no gaps. Thus one can imagine the inscription “Set II: The [This?] Inconstancy Set” (see the pun in Sonnet 15.9)—or “Set IV: The Long Year Set” (see Sonnet 52.6)—in its appropriate bottom corner. Similarly, the deprecating pun “The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear [bare], / End of this book…” (Sonnet 77.3-4) may be a joking reference to the two empty bottom corners on the sheet—or to the endsheets, page 24 in the Folio and its righthand companion, the “vacant” inside back cover. For Shakespeare to imagine a bifurcated tabula rasa as an ironic, comically denigrating conceit for the twin halves of the auditor’s brain—as the “mind’s imprint”—would not have been beyond him. One’s own relative mental vacuity in the face of such wit as the Q texts afford helps to illustrate the aptness of the conceit.

           The more important point, of course, is that the holographic page forms allow each set to be a visual analogue of the sonnet itself, with 3 quatrains—the 3 rows linking 4 textual units each—and an indented terminal couplet—the bottom pair of sonnets—like the couplets in Q as published, which are indented. Parallels with octave and sestet can even be imagined, just as readily as they can be by looking at a printed sonnet text.

        Since each rune draws one line from each of the overt sonnets in a given set, in some sense each rune epitomizes or recapitulates the subject matter of the whole set or at least traverses its terrain in a kind of fast-forward way; any thematic development or ranging within the set thus has its effect on the sequential content of each separate runic regrouping that occurs within the set.

        Further discussion of punning commentary within the textual elements of the sets on the page arrangements and placements of materials that the set spreads depict occurs elsewhere on this site. Some of it comes as background on each of the 11 sets.

III. The Sets—The 11 Organizational Units of the Quarto—as Discrete Creations

        As I’ve suggested, subject matter in some sets—notably in Set I and in Sets X-XI—shows coherence and offers internal evidence for authorization of the Megasonnet plan, with its implicit divisions. Elsewhere (see Graves, “Suppressed Design”) and again below I briefly canvass some “prior sightings of the sets” by certain critics, including thematic unity and clustered groupings that conform at least roughly to the sets that now emerge. However, my perception is that the substantive materials of individual sets are not, for the most part, compartmentalized and that, despite my own editorial “set titles,” the whole of Q before Set X shows Will ranging rather freely among various recurring themes and topics. Quite reasonably, some adjacent sets might even be expected to show more continuity than disparity, just as Sets X and XI do.

         My point in this section is that internally the sets show some evidences of separateness, and that some earlier critics have unknowingly detected certain topical groupings that—as we can see now—signal substantive discreteness inside (and divisions between) some of the sets.

          Convincing evidence for the authorized integrity of the individual sets occurs not only in the puns in individual texts about their placement on the page, but also in the nature of the forms of certain opening and of terminal units, overt sonnets or parts thereof. An underlying assumption in this exposition is a rhetorical commonplace: Beginnings and endings of units of writing (such as paragraphs, essays, sets of poems, sonnets) are apt to call forth something emphatic from the writer or scribe. Without attention to substance or content, the sonnet itself offers formal examples—including the oversized initials (as seen in Q) that traditionally initiate sonnet texts, and the couplet rhymes and frequently observed couplet indentions (as in Q) that round them off. In short, some sets behave formally—especially as they open and close—like the discrete rhetorical units that in fact they are.

         Sometimes formal and substantive signals unite to mark the stops and starts of subsections within the Megasonnet. The most apparent “argument from content” begins with the bifurcation of subject matter that occurs precisely as Set IX closes and Set X (Sonnet 127ff.) starts. Here the odd “empty couplet” hiatus of No. 126.13-14 (ending Set IX) conspires with an absolute turn in subject matter, toward the Dark Lady materials, to convince us that we have witnessed a terminus—actually the end of a section of text comprising the whole of Sets I-IX—and the start of something new, a section now perceptible as 2 linked, terminal sets of 14 sonnets each—Set X (Sonnets 127-140) and Set XI (Sonnets 141-154). Akrigg (p. 204), further, finds a thematically consistent unit to occur in Nos. 127-141, a group closely congruent with Set X, as we now see.

       The most notable instance in Q where the couplet pair on the set spread shows discrete subject matter occurs in Q’s last numbers, Sonnets 153-154, which are conventionalized lyrics about Cupid and Diana. Here, in effect, not only the set but the whole cycle gains a “couplet close.” Further, Set II ends with two sonnets that seem to “form a single poem” (Muir 45; see Booth 546). And Sonnets 40-42, closing Set III, are also linked “by topic” (Booth 546).

          Below is a brief catalog of some formal and substantive elements that point to the rhetorical separateness of the sets themselves; these elements are either formal realities that are obvious on the set spreads or are substantive features that critics, unaware of Q’s hidden design, have previously observed. I also include here some textual puns about the positioning of particular numbers on the page. Some sets gain discreteness, or at least passive or latent cohesion, the same way “negative space” in art emerges as a recognizable entity—by being positioned between two sets that show discrete identities or have observable borders. Though not every set shows a clear beginning and ending point, much evidence besides numerological “rightness” shows that the sets do have individual characters and borders:


IV. Some Features of the Sets

           Set I (Nos. 1-14): The set shows a thematic focus on “marriage and increase.” Though critics sometimes emphasize substantive unity in Sonnets 1-17 or 1-18, Muir, Landry, and C. Knox Pooler have all concluded that the first 14 sonnets form a discrete thematic group, with No. 15 beginning something new. Pooler has suggested that 15 is the first to treat the theme of immortalizing the poet’s friend through art. Muir finds consistency in the first 17 numbers but notes that “in the last three sonnets of this group there is a change” as the theme of immortality through “the permanence of great poetry” takes over and that of encouragement to marry fades (Muir 45; Landry 144, citing Pooler’s Arden edition).

          Set II (Nos. 15-28): The set begins with a new theme, “immortality through verse” (see just above) and ends with 2 poems that are like one text (see Muir, Booth, above)—and also with an extra-long line (No. 28.14) that in the holograph would’ve spilled out into white space to “draw my furrows longer,” as 28.13 puns. This elongation is consistent with the conclusion that Will, used to working inside a constricted right margin, is licentiously conscious of running outside it as he pens his closing lines. Such a “flourish” is an appropriate rhetorical gesture to round off the set.

          Set III (Nos. 29-42): The set is sandwiched between the emphatic pair (Nos. 27-28) and the new subject matter at No. 43ff. (see below). Booth finds Nos. 40-42—now seen as a unitary pair that closes the set at the bottom of the spread—to be “linked…by topic” (546).

          Set IV (Nos. 43-56): Sensing a new thematic emphasis here on Will’s absence from the primary auditor, Muir (p. 62) sees Sonnet 43 as introducing a new group and finds thematic coherence in Nos. 43-58, while Rowse (p. 167) sees significant connections among the sonnets “from 43 to 55” and guesses they were written when Will was touring or otherwise away from London. Perhaps, I’ve suggested, Shakespeare meant to call this the “Long Year (Languor) Set.”

         The rather odd line “To side this title is impannelled” (Sonnet 46.9)—occurring in a “title” that is positioned top right in the outside “panel” or column on the spread—has as one of its meanings “This text is set in a panel to [the] side” (cf. OED panel = “slip of parchment” 1440, “distinct portion of some surface, etc., usu. contained in a frame or border” 1489, or “a list…” 1575). The phrase “outward part” and the pun “my art’s right [of] th’ air inward” in the same title (No. 46.13-14) also playfully suggest 1) “marginal segment” and 2) an artful lyric placed to the right of its neighboring “air.” Another pun about page arrangement in this set (and others) occurs nearby: “My leaf being made of 4, with 2 alone, / Sinks [cf. ‘S. inks’] down to death, O-pressed [cf. ‘rune-written’]…” (No. 45.7-8). Writing at the top of his spread, Will comments on how he arranges his “leaf”—an analogue, in fact, for any sonnet text—in groups of 4s and 2s, always moving downward.

           Set V (Nos. 57-70): The interconnectedness of Nos. 71-72 or 71-74 (see just below) suggests a possible terminus at No. 70.

          Set VI (Nos. 71-84): Booth (p. 546) finds Nos. 71-72 topically interrelated, and Muir detects a coherent group in Sonnets 71-74—now seen as strung across the top of the set spread—as the poet “anticipates his own death, urging his friend not to grieve….” (p. 68).

          Set VII (Nos. 85-98): Closes just before the aberrational 15-line “forward violate,” No. 99.

          Set VIII (Nos. 99-112): Opens with a “forward violate” that “[No.] 99 did hide” (pun 99.1)—a formally “disruptive preface” that violates and disrupts the order of things—with “forward” suggesting “presumptuous, immodest” (OED 1561). The frontal position of the uniquely long text triggers the bifurcation in the set. (See elsewhere, Notes on Set VIII.)

          Set IX (Nos. 113-126): Ends with a uniquely perverse “empty couplet” (No. 126.13-14) in a poem that speaks of a female who “renders” the auditor—in various witty ways anticipating the upcoming “couplet” sets, X-XI. Though editors usually ignore the empty parentheses, judging the poem “incomplete” and assuming that Q’s form reflects an unauthorized editorial effort to regularize a truncated text, we now see from the emphatic position of 126 how the two “empty” lines might wittily anticipate the two upcoming sets. Knowing that Q is playful, we also see these “quietuses two” as potentially illustrative of the two “holes,” right and left, at the bottom of the set spread, and as more certainly echoic of the pun “And here Quietuses two render thee [i.e., draw your picture, cut you like a knife]!” (Sonnet 126.12). The paradoxical irony is complex, since two quietuses that are “not heard” are said to be “drawn”—that is, pictured for the eye to see. (See notes on Set IX, for discussion of what these pictographs may be “drawing.”) Sonnet 126 is, in effect, antiphonal and compensatory to Sonnet 99: An extra-long text starts one set, and a truncated one closes the next.

          Set X (Nos. 127-140): This first of 2 “vertical couplet” sets about the Perverse Mistress opens with new subject matter and ends with the flourish of an extra-long line (140.14) that holographically would have run out into the white space while punning about “…art go[ing] wide.” Booth (p. 546) finds topical links among separate pairs in Sonnets 132-136, at the heart of the set. Akrigg (p. 204) detects in Nos. 127-141 a consistency of implicit allusions to Shakespeare’s dramatic works that he interprets as evidence for the time of composition of this group of sonnets.

           Set XI (Nos. 141-154): The set is substantively paired with Set X and closes with a couple of conventionally allusive texts—now seen as blocked on the bottom of the spread—that forsake Dark Lady material and suggest an ultimate terminal couplet for both the set and the cycle. Akrigg (p. 204) senses some kind of substantive difference in 142-154 from the block 127-41.


      Imagining Will at work on his holograph and hearing lost puns about page positions, leaf arrangement, and “going wide” outside the margins, we begin to note anew the plethora of references in the Q lines to writing, pencils, “antic” pens, ink, blackness and vacancy, quills and feathers, books, papers, leaves, forms, frames and racks and other terms suggesting printing, errors, marks, blots, lines, “returns,” “rows”/rose, “rn’wd quiers [cf. quires]” (Q’s spelling, 73.4), notes, sides, bindings—and even such puns as “creasures” (suggesting either parchment or the gutter of a book) in “creatures” or “ink erase/inker aye see” in “increase” (see 1.1). Indeed, all the details and puns about writing, scribal activity, and printing in Q now tend to come to the fore, so that a reader with the image of the holograph and its scribe in mind finds it hard not to see something of a governing theme in these recurring conceits, especially as they join with diction about meter (including “time”), feet, muses, songs and hymns, rhyme, tiresome work with an uncertain outcome, “rival” poets, fame and immortality accomplished through writing, and other details suggesting the very activity the poet engages in as, playing the scribe, he writes his poems. From the first line onward—where the “fairest creatures” that the poet hopes will “increase” are in one, primal sense his own poems—the act of writing is very much a main theme in the Sonnets. As the real identity of the dominant “Perverse Mss./Mysteries” emerges in the last two sets, it will become clearer that Will’s own writing project is his main subject—and that even the “rival poet” he playfully “fears” is in a primary sense himself, the writer of the “competing” poems that are antagonists to the Sonnets—the Runes.

         “Improbable couplements” (see Booth 165) make up a recurring topic in Q, and we can now see the close relationship between this theme and the very makeup of Q. Booth notes the topic in Sonnets 20 and 21, themselves an unlikely juxtaposed pair, and he also comments that “Sonnet 138 is an exercise in logically improbable, unnatural, and uncomfortable unions that are also indivisible; the poem repeatedly points out the logical necessity of making distinctions, and it makes those distinctions impossible” (165, 477, my emphasis).

          A further deduction that grows out of the new findings about Q is that its lines offer more comedy, playfulness, cleverness, wit, and gamesmanship than we have wanted to acknowledge. Like Booth, we all have resisted turning the poems into puzzles and games. I confess to trying myself to deal “seriously” with the texts. But I believe we must embrace Q as a comic cycle. The poems on “Will and his will” are not embarrassing deviants but are rather main-line exemplars of one kind of punning entertainment the poet was about as he carried out his plan. The tone of Q, whatever its serious import, is at bottom playful and ironic.

V. Components of This Website: A Descriptive Rationale

      Organizing and formatting materials in the original ms. on which this web site is based was problematic, especially because I concluded that readers needed a synoptic arrangement to let them explore each runic text fully without page-shifting, but the journalistic approach that such an arrangement dictated—squeezing materials into page slots of uniform sizes—threatened a Procrustean bed effect and in some cases created tension between how much comment was needed and how much was allowed in the page spaces. In any cases, my compromises about organization respected readers’ needs to work from the jot-and-tittle details in the Q verses and to be able concurrently to refer to the original Sonnets (nearby on the preceding set spread), even while focusing mainly on the Runes.

        While posting materials in this electronic format has allowed more freedom and variations in lengths in the commentaries, residual elements here sometimes reflect the original formatting—and its limitations. (For example, commentaries on the later runes in the cycle tend to be shorter, and the list of puns in the lines tends to get longer, especially as I—a reader/player myself—became more and more sensitive to punning possibilities and what seemed to be recurring patterns.)

          This segment of the introduction, as I’ve said elsewhere, allows sequential or piecemeal reading.

          Brief descriptions of the some main segments of this site might help orient readers here:

       1. The Set Spreads. Opening each of the 11 sets of Runes, in a reduced format that uses the printed sonnet texts as they occur in Q, is the “First Folio” page arrangement of the set. (The hand-scripted artifact that I’ve described earlier—in effect the “Ur-Q”—is of course hypothetical and is not known to be physically extant.) By reading “across” on each of these spreads—linking sequences of first lines, then second lines, then third, and so on—one recreates the 14 runes in that set. The editorial set “titles,” typically drawn from authorized materials in the set itself, are undogmatic, a first-gamer’s prerogative, and can be disregarded at will; I offer them partly as individualizing mnemonic features and also because there’s evidence that Will toyed not only with the term “set” but also with attributed “titles” that might playfully name them. Again, I make no claim that the set rubrics are authorized.

       In all materials here, any line references to the Sonnets rather than the Runes will make that fact specifically clear by means of a citation such as, e.g., Sonnet 74.13. Otherwise, text-and-line references (e.g., 74.13) routinely refer to the Runes, not the Sonnets.

         2. Introductory Notes on the Sets. I’ve discussed (just above) some features of the sets. In addition, a separate introduction to each set occurs in a prefatory note that I’ve placed at the front of the set. Here I consider formal and thematic aspects and unique features of the set including special game elements, acrostics, and problematic challenges. Many sets seem to lack clearly delineated topics, and most deal with a group of recurring ideas about the writing activity itself, the moody relationship between poet and auditor, art as memorial, Will’s recognition of the paradoxes of his project and self-imposed situation, and so on.

        3. The Runes. As the illustrations elsewhere on this site show, the first rune in each set always takes up more space than the other 13 because its initial capitals in the printed form of Q are bigger—a feature whose special fallout effects I assume Will—with his all-attentive mind—would have envisioned.

        Originally, in the book ms. version of these materials, I treated the B variants in Set VIII as separate, add-on sequences and gave them abbreviated attention to avoid a certain repetition. This approach, however, had the effect of casting the B variants as secondary, inferior, even parasite texts. Thus on this website I have tried to give both A and B variants in Set VIII equal billing. Some of my original focus on the A variants, however, may be apparent here, especially in the commentaries. The fact is that sometimes the A variant seems a better text, and sometimes not. The overriding rule in Q is that, where a bifurcation occurs, neither options rules out or overrides the other.

        I’ve settled on developing these components for each rune:

             A. A Paste-up Text. My assumption is that the 14 Q lines, unedited, show the exactly authorized details that Will anticipated and worked out in collaboration with his printing agent, Thomas Thorpe. Readers can see how each rune emerges “horizontally” by referring back to the set spread that houses and automatically generates it. The authorized system of parallelism that’s implicit in each set makes the restoration of any runic text a mechanical rather than a volitional process—even in the special case of Set VIII, with its A and B variants.

              B. An Edited Text, with Line Glosses. Using modernized punctuation and (mostly American) spelling, I try as first editor to make sense of the poem—by definition an interpretive enterprise. Because most texts are already knotty, I seldom select “open” punctuation that would allow the broadest ranges of meanings. Editors of the Sonnets have traditionally had to deal with the same dilemma, though the Runes seem to me intentionally even more obfuscatory than the Sonnets are—more teasing, gamelike, and difficult to reduce to linearity. Booth’s decision to use minimal punctuation as he edits the Sonnets seems admirable because it reduces editorial intrusion, but here as elsewhere his paradigm cannot be mine. For my role, as I see it, is to point the texts with clear road-markers so a first-time meanderer will not get hopelessly lost.“Open” or minimal punctuation would tend to trigger too many forking-paths effects and thus defeat the goal of moving directly toward some kind of understanding of what a string of lines may “mean.” Given the nearly absolute ambiguity of the runic linestrings, I offer my edited versions undogmatically, routinely sensing and regretting the loss of options I don’t or cannot choose because other choices rule them out.

         My line glosses add options, clarifications, and puns that amplify or even in many cases run counter to the sense I’m trying to follow and point up—thus helping keep alive the gamy spirit of the texts. Since vague pronoun reference is a routine riddlic aspect in the Runes, I often try to clarify pronouns in the glosses. While I try to stay close to details of the Q lines, sometimes punning forms of terms in Q seem to allow more meaning and wit to flow than stricter readings.

          As editor I’m not a purist, and I can’t claim any kind of consistency, except that I do try to keep each text as “seriously” meaningful as I can—not reducing it to its lowest level of joking or to its most specific potential for conveying personal commentary about the poet. In this sense, I think, I follow the precedent of previous editors of the Sonnets. I might even be accused myself of “pushing the ‘low’ wit into the footnotes,” almost conventionally. Anyway, reader/players who dislike my editorial choices can start from scratch with the paste-up string and devise their own versions. Improving on what I offer is not unlikely and can legitimately be a part of what other gamesters in future years and ages aim for.

         Altogether, I probably make fewer changes in Q’s wordforms than editors of the Sonnets usually do. I make no real emendations (in the sense of “correcting” Q’s “error”) but—as I say—do sometimes regard puns as primary forms, for purposes of construing a given text.

                C. An Editorially Titled Paraphrase. This interpretive, line-by-line restatement of the sense of the text—as I have decided to construe and edit it—intends both to clarify meaning and often to make implicit ideas explicit by turning vague pronouns into nouns, for example, or by expanding an implied scenario or naming a putative auditor. A main purpose here is to demonstrate coherence in the rune and thus show that the text, however knotty and even at first glance incoherent, is tediously authorized to convey at least some kind of sequential meaning or associated series of ideas whose logic and musings the mind can follow—often with difficulty.

           In most cases the title adapts a key element from the language of the text; its purpose is to help readers remember it and distinguish it from others. (Some runic first lines may be too closely associated in readers’ minds with given sonnets to be of much use as a rune title.) Given the multiplex nature of a runic text, any proposed title for it is unlikely to be a broad enough aegis for all the elements of the poem to snuggle under. (The same would be true for proposed sonnet titles, too.) I link the attributed titles not with the edited text but rather with the paraphrase, where my own wording and not Will’s is operative. A given title is not bracketed because, like the rest of the paraphrase, it’s clearly an editorial amplification and not part of the authorized text.

               D. Comments. In this section I try to clarify the meaning of each rune with brief interpretive discussion, moving beyond restatement into areas of critical analysis that show routinely elaborate self-consciousness in diction and sentence structure, and tediously careful structural and motific craftsmanship in the runic assemblages. Though the comments typically continue lines of thought established in the edited and paraphrased texts, they also may explore alternate possibilities. Most often a comment concerns itself with formal features and rhetorical strategies that include elements of coherence such as parallelism and repetition; thematic focuses; the implicit dramatic situation, including speaker, listener, and other characters in the scenario; patterns of diction and imagery (including puns that cluster with overt words); and patterns of puns that suggest covert concerns and witty, often bawdy meanings. I confess to being influenced in these comments by my background in New Criticism or formalism, which focuses on explication of the text and particularly looks at components that add rhetorical coherence and figurative texture.

           Comments also explore Will’s diction to try to unearth puns and other humorous aspects that seem relevant to overt the themes and motifs in a given text, examining intrusive incidental humor, especially bawdry.

         Since the comments are overtly interpretive, I use terms acknowledging subjectivity (such as “perhaps”) sparingly—to signal strongly conjectural possibilities. Almost every comment might honestly begin, “Although the text is knotty and the implied statement and situation can be variously interpreted….” To save space I mostly omit such qualifiers.

         Not every comment takes up parallel aspects. In fact, I assume that the comments may work cumulatively to help orient readers about how the Runes work; thus I’m apt to pick an element in a give text that might be typical of many others—but not to discuss exactly the same aspect in all those other texts. There’s always much more to say about a text than one has room for. In the practical evolution of this project, my fit-the-page comments (in the book form of the ms.) whittled down versions of earlier drafts of commentary that were much longer and more detailed; this redidual fact may explain what at times emerges as a gnomic, notelike style. I’ve tried to “load every rift with ore.” In rewriting the comments for publication in The Norris [Tennessee] Bulletin during the period 2001-2004, I usually tried to expand the comments to make them somewhat more accessible to general readers. Here I tend to adapt the Bulletin materials rather than those I devised earlier. Still, the comment sections here remain notelike.

         While almost no individual runic text offers conclusive evidence of specific autobiographical information, I try to use various texts to illustrate how Will encodes personal wit that his contemporary coterie readers—especially John Hall (and perhaps Susanna Hall, too), Thomas Thorpe, and Southampton—might have picked up on and tried to wrest humor and meaning from. Much of this topical humor would have been clearer to them than it is to us, since they would have been aware of the situations it referred to.

        As the cycle of texts progressed in the original ms. format of this publication and my exploration of puns in the lines (see just below) becomes more detailed, my available space for interpretive commentary diminished, given that I was using a synoptic arrangement of materials on facing pages, and each spread offered a fixed amount of page space. That feature and slightly changing emphasis may be residually apparent in these posted materials.

          In writing materials for The Norris Bulletin I have considered the needs of general readers and repeated materials from text to text that, in a sequential book format, might have been left unrepeated—particularly because exposition and commentary is less and less needed as readers move along and become used to detecting subtle patterns of form and meaning for themselves. The materials on this site are also sometimes repetitive, making basic facts accessible to a reader on the spot.

          The problems of organizing and presenting such materials for diverse readers have kept me humble, and I beg readers’ indulgences as they pursue a clear understanding of the findings I try to clarify.

                E. Sample Puns. Will’s is a punning game, to an extent that has continued to surprise me as I’ve been pulled deeper into its playful components over two decades. This section of studying a given text, or playing with it, offers an array of samples from each rune—and, as I’ve just said, progressively more of them as the book proceeds. These subtextual puns lie embedded in the letterstrings of the Q lines and also occur predictably at the points where two runic lines link. (Such linkages in the Sonnets, of course, might generate another elaborate set of puns not explored here.) Mostly I don’t note nearly overt puns in Q—whole words that simply carry two or more meanings; for a discussion of such terms—some not automatically obvious—see Booth’s line notes and my own textual glosses. But “subtextual” does not mean “in the Runes,” since the puns are in the lines themselves and are “subtextual” because many lurk under the level of easy detectability, drawing elements from several words or using the language code in gamy ways. Admittedly, some subtextual puns quickly become conventionally detectable in the Runes. Given Will’s great mind and high degree of crafty self-consciousness, it seems likely that the types of puns I record were in various measures authorized and controlled, or at least recognized by the author as the lines emerged from his cornucopic, encyclopedic brain and facile pen. By manipulating vowels and consonant frames, early Runemasters would have gained skill in creating codelines that are more productive of overlaid syntactic potentialities than random letterstrings would be. The fact that ordinary language allows puns is the raw material for such manipulation, just as the random occurrence of iambs in English allows a poet to generate iambic meter. (Sections elsewhere in this site explore the topic of reading texts and their components for puns.)

           In one section of this site, I’ve tried to index representative subtextual terms, a veritable “thesaurus” of buried allusions. Thus terms can be studied, perhaps in thematic associations, and tested for possible authorization. No single pun, of course, is by itself fully convincing, but recurrent ones may gain credence.

          The ultimate goal of the punning, subtextual aspect of Will’s game seems to be to encourage reader/players to find not only striking single words but full, syntactic “messages” and comments—the more arcane or witty, the better. Typically a key word (e.g., “boa” or “Bermuda”) will signal a search for a syntactic frame. Where Will’s inventiveness stops and ours begins, of course, is not a sharp line that can be drawn in the shifting runic sands; but the superiority of his brain over ours means we are likely to credit him as originator when something really laughable or wondrous spills out, as it often does. Puns that retain meter or cadence along with witty sense feel especially convincing. Often Q’s punning, as I detect and illustrate its capabilities, verges on playful jibberish, with the language code itself seeming almost automatically to spew forth humor bordering on jabberwocky and nonsense. Will, given his craftiness and self-consciousness, surely heard and encouraged these outpourings, at least in a generally on-going way.

               F. Acrostic Wit. In discussions of this topic I offer samplings of one special variant of embedded puns, the vertical acrostic first-letter codeline that converges in a rune when its horizontal lines are recomposed. This lettercode works to house “meanings” in generally the same way that the linepun letterstrings do, but the 14-letter acrostics (28-letter in the case of initial runes in each set) are separate little punning games, yielding overlapping messages and scenarios. The fruitful wit that spurts forth during explorations of these acrostics suggests conscious, purposeful manipulation to make them so fecund, though staking out the limits of genuine communication is at best an iffy venture for a reader/player.

           The goal of this game component seems to be to detect—or devise?—the “best” reading.

           Each acrostic codeline contains its implicit reverse, with the two together yielding two “hairpin” permutations of the code: down/up and up/down. (The first rune in each set multiplies such combinations: down 1 / up 2; down 1 / down 2; up 1 / down 2; and up 1 / up 2.) Limited space typically does not allow sample decodings of all the potential codes. Readers can expand the process at will with decipherings of their own.

         I’ve indexed the terminology in the acrostic strings right along with other subtextual puns. Vocabulary in line puns and the acrostics overlaps greatly but also varies, since the acrostics rely more heavily on such plays as TT (cf. “titty,” “tidy,” Thomas Thorpe), BB (cf. “baby”), WS (Will’s initials) and other short words easily encoded and sometimes not exactly “usual” in the sequences used to spell out whole words. While encoding puns in the lines, Will was combining words, but in these acrostics he was combining individual letters. Thus emergent letterstrings such as AVON or NOV or WIT in the runic acrostics bear the clear mark of authorization, not happenstance.

          The acrostics seem to house “name” and “date” plays, but intentional or automatic obfuscation and ambiguity make these hard to pin down. Elements in the rune itself often allude to the acrostic “edgewit,” and the jokes of the acrostic sometimes seem to pursue in various ways the wit of the text. The elongated shape of the acrostic line itself gives it ready pictographic implications—as a line, string, phallus, “ladder,” snake, skinny object, whip, stick, and so on.

          “Ladder,” I surmise, must have been a consciously attributed rubric for the acrostic codelines, given the fact that the vertical letterstring “goes up and down” and that “ladder” pun on “letter” and even the frenchified “l’ adder,” suggesting “the snake” and, concurrently,“one who adds on”—a “numbers man.” I believe, too, that H was a pictographic sign for such an acrostic “ladder.”

          Acrostics in the visible Sonnets are another topic. I’ve not spent enough time with them to make a judgment about whether these strings are intended to be game elements, but I’m almost certain that every initial-letter acrostic in the 154 Sonnets is crafted to encode or at least suggest wit, just the way the initial letterstrings in the 154 Runes do. Exploration of that topic will have to be another day’s work.

          Hereafter (and in the index) I use “X” as a shorthand reference to the acrostic: e.g., 13X means the acrostic letterstring in Rune 13.

           4. An Index to Subtextual Vocabulary. This long, alphabetized list is an index of terms that seem to occur as puns in the Q lines and at run-on points where runic lines join (see item E, above), and also in the acrostic codelines. (See the introduction to the index.) These include a range of mostly italicized neologisms and foreign terms, listed separately at the end. Link: Index to Subtextual Vocabulary.

           5. An Index to First Lines. This list allows access to the Runes based on their opening lines—all components of the 11 first-sonnet texts in the sets. Link: Index to First Lines.

          6. An Index to Editorial Titles. Readers who recall individual editorial titles may find this list useful for locating particular texts. The listing of editorial titles in the table of contents—grouped by sets in numerical order, 1-154—offers another kind of topical catalog that may help readers find individual texts or gain overviews of thematic content and sequential progression in the primary materials of the cycle. Link: Index to Editorial Titles.

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