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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

Reading the Sonnets Anew,
with Suggestions for Further Study

         It’s startling to understand that almost all of the “irrelevant” subtextual plays in the Runes also lurk in the Sonnet texts, in exactly the same lines; exceptions include the puns that occur at line junctures, where the Sonnets may create new plays of their own that are not much explored in this exposition of the project.

          One extended example may illustrate how the newfound information that the Runes reveal can be applied to the Sonnets themselves, to help us understand them better.

           Editor Stephen Booth, in discussing at length the extreme case of Sonnet 112 (Booth 362-72), finds it an “unsatisfactory” text that houses “two incomprehensible passages” in particular. While trying to make sense of it he expresses the hope, as I’ve said elsewhere, that he will not “seem to be a crazy advocate of crazy interpretations” (371). Readers who can see on the Set VIII leaf, the tag-end position of Sonnet 112 in the set will have some modest new advantages in trying to puzzle out the poem. Partly they will gain sympathy for the text because they sense that choppiness is a peculiar threat in any of the 14th—the terminal—groupings in sets, where the lines must not only cohere in some fashion as a discrete sonnet text but individually must also “resolve” 14 different runes.

       Hearing egregious puns of a sort that Booth has no clues about and thus cannot explore may also help make some gains toward understanding Sonnet 112: e.g., “steel’d sensor” (8), or—in other words—“pen”; “Adder’s sense [sins]” (10) as a comment about a “numbers man’s sly activity”; and “dis-pense” (12) as another “pen” pun. “Censor” (OED 1599) means critic or “fault-finder” and thus anticipates “cryttick” neatly (11). Another playful, pre-Runes idea inaccessible to Booth is the notion that the two empty rectangular spaces adjacent to Sonnet 112 at bottom right and left on Leaf VIII may wittily equate with the “impressions” or “abysms” (1, 9) that the poet says are “filled,” respectively, with the auditor’s “loue and pittie” (1). The puns in loue (cf. low, sunk) and pittie (i.e., sunken, pit-like) help cultivate this newly-apparent pictographic joke; and the pun on “ore” as metallic substance that might be changed or transmuted (8) also helps us decipher the poem. “Ore” has strained associations with “impressions” and “abysms,” which are mine-like, and also with “steel’d” (8) and “well” (3); “sense ore” tends to equate the “mine” with the poet’s own brain, as do lines 1-2, where “th’ impression” is one that has been “stamp’d upon my brow (B-row, burrow).” The opening “mine” pun “You’re ‘low’ and ‘pitty’…” (1) has comic and bawdy overtones, complemented by suggestive phallic and pudendal plays—e.g., “steel’d sensor see, hangs” (8); “who calls me ‘well’…” (3); and “…so, strongly in, my ‘pee’ your pussy bred” (13).

          Further, the lurking metaphor in the poem of a grave—an “impression” or “abysm” that might be “o’er-green’d,” as the poem says—also undergirds the cryptic text, and the terminal play “th’ ink sordid” or “th’ ink soured head (sour, dead)” helps a bit at a crucially paradoxical spot in the poem. Q’s thinkes y’are dead also puns “the ink asserted.” The pun “Thought, my steel’d offense o’er [above], changes…” (8) reiterates the idea in line 2 that the poet’s forehead has been branded, because the pun comments on an attack with a metal weapon, in a “high” portion of the body.

         In short, Sonnet 112 is indeed hard, and reading it for its wit—pushing its details harder for meaning than we ever have before—helps us make sense of it. But we have to read it more playfully than we’ve formerly been willing or able to, sensing that some of its puns allude to the game at hand and even to the poem’s position on the (now imaginable) set leaf.
Booth seems almost to have such a reader as me in mind when he expresses the fear that his long study of Sonnet 112 will lead to readings that “do exactly what I insist on not doing: seize on overtones, suggestions, auras, reminders, and puns and—reading the poems as puzzles, clever devices for hiding their real meaning—reduce the poems to coded assertions…” (371).

         My own view is that Booth’s warning here about how one should not approach the poem is a fairly good comment on how one should (has to, really) deal with it; certainly his comment includes a pretty good description of many of the Runes: “puzzles, clever devices for hiding their real meaning, …coded assertions.” It is unavoidable, given the interlocked character of Sonnets and Runes, that both sets of texts share these same features. But we could not have known that until now, when finding the Runes allows intelligent revaluation of the Sonnets.

        A reader, I propose, who is ready to approach the poem as at least partly a “puzzle” and a “coded assertion” can hear something like the following in the text of Sonnet 112, where the pun on “Well” echoes “Will” and concurrently suggests “inkwell”:

          Sonnet 112: An Interpretive Paraphrase     

    Your love and pity fill the gaping hole
     that common gossip gouged into my forehead, leaving an impression on my mind.
     What do I care who calls me “Well” or ill
 4   if you invigorate my bad, admit my good?
     You are everything to me, and I must keep on
     facing up to what you say about me, bad or good,
     with no one else mattering to me, and me to no one else.
 8  In order that my steel “censor,” my pen, changes rightly (choosing right over wrong),
     I discard into that deep chasm that I mentioned earlier—my mind, really—all concern
     of what any others say, so that my sly perceptions and capability with “numbers”
     are unheard by critic and flatterer alike.
12 Notice how in what appears to be inertia I still produce (especially coterie) writings.
    You are so strongly a vital and seminal force in my efforts in this my work, and you look so beneficially manly to me,
    that, compared with my view of you, everyone else in the world who sees you as one who is alive is just observing, as it were, a dead man.


         This exploration of one of the sonnet texts illustrates several points:

           First, good editors have found the Sonnets themselves knotty, sometimes nearly indecipherable, so the perverse difficulties in some of the Runes are not unprecedented. (The various “problems” in the Sonnets— along with drifts in language and usage since 1609—have of course made it conventionally expedient for modern editors not just to adjust their texts with new punctuations, spellings, and routine, sometimes conventionalized emendations, but also to add explanatory glosses and notes and expansive commentaries.)

          Further, modern editors of the Sonnets may resist punning or playful approaches that actually might help to enlighten the texts, to cut the knots, and they may prefer not to see the poems as puzzles or ciphers because that might seem to “demean” them, given our modern preference to dichotomize poem and game.

           Finally, approaches like those I suggest toward the Runes also help with reading the Sonnets; and the meaning of the Sonnets—certainly not all serious—is clearer once we have the total picture of the Quarto texts and know about the intrinsic set-leaf arrangements and the puns in Q relevant to them.

           A fuller study of how Runegame elements spill over into the texts of the Sonnets—with their different combinations and sequences—moves beyond my range here. In my preoccupation with the Runes for several decades, I have of necessity had to ignore the Sonnets, if only to try to retain some semblance of sanity. As James Joyce and Stephen Booth have suggested, the Q materials can beckon us all toward madness. In dealing with them, we have to find means of saving our souls from the bottomless pits their crafty engines dig.

Suggestions for Further Investigations

         My experience with Q, as I’ve tried to make clear, leads me to deduce jot-and-tittle authorization and the involvement of a sympathetic printer or printers who executed Will’s tediously detailed intentions on the basis of a printing deal worked out (probably) in 1606 as Will began to anticipate retirement and reunion with his (growing) family back in Stratford. Readers who approach the Q materials partly to test that hypothesis can see whether is makes the most sense of what we see or whether some other imagined scenario fits better.

          The approaches suggested in these background links for trying to decode authorized wit cover many but certainly not all of Q’s potentialities. Finding topically allusive materials remains one of the intriguing challenges, now that we have new—if kaleidoscopically shifting—lenses through which to scan some of what occupied the poet’s mind near the end of his career.

           Though I’m confident that the general compass path I set in the exposition of this project is headed right, my own blind spots and biases may have conspired to distort my navigations here, at least in certain individual zigs and zags. I trust other men and women, more learned specialists, to compensate eventually and to correct many details I’m wrong about. Much more artifactually based study of Renaissance coterie activity and hermetic practices in the arts—and of the medieval antecedents for such practices—is needed. Though my hypothesis is that the Q forms reflect details that Will imagined, jot-and-tittle, in print, the experiences of earlier coterie readers who saw some or all of the Q texts in the holographic forms of oversized spreads would have been somewhat different, and so scholars with expertise in the letterforms of Shakespeare’s handwriting might add a perspective that I lack. (In preparing the Q materials for print, Will may well have obliterated some of the earlier, scribal details that the First Folio version[s] of some of the sets or of the whole cycle might have shown.)

           Fuller studies of how the Q lines reflect the realities of Will’s London and of his company may also yield interesting results.

           In earlier versions of this project, and in a paper presented in 2002 at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies conference, I’ve tried to explore interesting materials in the 3-page More fragment. Previously I’ve also tried to analyze selected samples of textual materials from Shakespeare’s plays where content suggests aspects of some coterie game at work. The topics need to be pursued, and as time allows I hope to post materials on them as links to this site. Surely Will’s pun “Thou shouldst print More, not let that copy die” (Rune 14.11) alludes partly to the unfinished play of Sir Thomas More that he had a hand in—the one that gives us what is probably the only textual sample of his (nearly minuscule) hand. Probably the directive has Thomas Thorpe particularly in mind.

           The pun “Rune has taught me thus to ruminate” (67.8) suggests in a large and general way how seminal the act of Rune-writing must have seemed to the poet, given its tendency to instigate and rationalize the implausibly far-fetched wit and “new” diction that pours in debris-strewn torrents from (but also into) the brilliant poet’s mind. Without exaggeration, Will’s attempt to meet the expectations of the Runes shaped the Sonnets as we have heretofore known them—their form, sequence, diction, ambiguous tone, and “problems.” Surely the same habit of mind came in various measures to inform his dramatic works, too.

           Surely the Runes must also be credited at least partly with contributing to the cornucopic word-formation that we see operating in the works of literary artists, including Shakespeare, during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. By encouraging multi-lingual puns and seemingly even conjuring them into being, the Runes must have often spurred creativity in fruitful brains. Thus an examination of the subtextual capacity of Q (and of similar runic texts) for word-creation may in itself be an extensive, interesting, and potentially productive undertaking.

         No doubt objectors will claim that, in some or many or even all cases, I’m “making this up.” I admit that I have collaborated in Will’s creative process, just as a player “makes up” the actions in a game of cards, within the confines of how the game works but without having made up the Game itself—and much as any reader supplies “meaning” that differs somewhat from ideas the writer might have “intended” or contemplated. But my divergences from Will’s nearly infinite body of materials—from what he thought about, what registered at least passingly in his nearly infinite mind—are surely not statistically very great, given the incredible quickness, concurrency, and capaciousness that his “great mind most kingly” has proven itself capable of. Given that, and given his own love of puns, wordplay, and “low” and allusive materials, there appear to me to be few instances inside the Quarto framework where my comparatively conventional mind is likely to have outdone the Master and been even more tediously inventive than he. In those few case—including anachronisms that scholars are sure to pick at as evidence of my proneness to error, and already have when I’ve made early attempts to explain my findings—I’ll consent to take credit for adding to his game, just as he imagined future players would go on doing until the end of time.

           I fear myself that quite the obverse may be true, and that I may scarcely have yet done justice to the Bard in trying with pick and shovel to mine the deep cache of this long lost El Dorado.

         Modern modes of reading into what’s hidden in certain kinds of art—X-ray and other techniques for internal imaging—now allow us to see palimpsest-like underpaintings on rare antique canvases without destroying the covering layers that we value and have already studied carefully. Probing literary texts of any era for their hidden craftsmanship and textures has the same advantage, since lost artfulness can reappear without any physical damage to the surface work.

          Both in the case of paintings and of writings thus reexamined, however, what we find underneath always forces us to reconsider what we’ve seen all along—to reexamine the nature of what we are viewing and to rethink the process by which it came to assume the ostensible shape that has so long intrigued us and, in time, has lured us to look more deeply under its tantalizing surface and into its heart.

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