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

Some Post-Renaissance Analogues
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2004, All Rights Reserved    


The Enlightenment Reaction to “False Wit”

         Since my purpose is to try, by piecing together fragmented evidence, to set a context that might clarify Shakespeare’s coterie practices, any discussion of post-Renaissance exemplars may seem irrelevant. Still, understanding the reaction that occurred later in the 17th and especially in the 18th century against strained forms of “false wit” may help show how and why runic practice declined—if indeed it did—and for practical purposes got lost and also may clarify how present-day attitudes (and antipathies in particular) have evolved. For one thing, grammars, dictionaries, spellers, and the “rules” of English are all post-Renaissance inventions that tended to curb the licentious, chaotic, personalized writing and printing habits that had helped make runic encoding possible through the Renaissance. (Conversely, numbers-based formalism in verse was also a facilitator, one that is mostly lost in modern times, when “freer,” non-metrical verse is the norm.) Certainly a desire to astound audiences and a flexible alphabetic code system had both empowered the Runegame, and moral suasion against these would have inhibited it. My own initial suspicion in 1979, in fact, was that the Runegame probably did not even survive the transition from scribal into printed practices, but Shakespeare soon proved me absolutely wrong about that guess.

          While some incidents after 1609 serve as analogues for—or suggest the perpetuation of—runic practices, others may help explain how the runes, Shakespeare’s and others’, gradually got lost. Retrospectively it may seem ironic that the Age of Reason in England, known for effective satire and wit, would be unsympathetic to such private playfulness as Q contains. But post-Renaissance satire was conservative, favoring decorum and clear-cut moralizing. The “irrationality” of the game and its “extreme” nature seem to be the likely factors that Enlightenment critics would have disdained. Whether the Age of Reason squelched it entirely, evidence of systematic pruning of “false wit” occurs at intervals along a pathway of public comment that stretches from Ben Jonson to Dr. Johnson.

          The six subjects below, discussed in segments separated by the background colors, include these men:

1. Ben Jonson
2. Samuel Butler
3. John Dryden
4. William Congreve
5. Joseph Addison
6. Dr. Samuel Johnson

          1. Ben Jonson.
Despite his acrostic prefaces and any games they may embed (cf. above), Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson—a far more “classical” poet than Will—implicitly criticizes far-fetched writing practices in An Execration on Vulcan (from Underwoods, 1640). The jargon-filled spiel of Jonson’s persona concurrently helps paint a picture of contemporary predilections by listing some of the rarified and specialized rubrics under which 17th century writers still played conventionally arcane writing games:

          Had I compiled from Amadis de Gaul,
          The Esplandians, Arthurs, Palmerins, and all            30
          The learnèd library of Don Quixote;
          And so some goodlier monster had begot,
          Or spun out riddles, and weaved fifty tomes
          Of logogriphs, and curious palindromes,
          Or pomped for those hard trifles anagrams,                  35
          Or eteostichs, or those finer flammes
          Of eggs, and halberds, cradles, and a hearse,
          A pair of scissors, and a comb in verse;
          Acrostichs, and telestichs, on jump names,
          Thou then hadst had some colour for thy flames,           40
          On such my serious follies…. (Parfitt 182)

          Jonson’s speaker goes on to contemplate—and implicitly decry— “Merlin’s marvels, and his cabal’s loss, / With the chimera of the Rosy-Cross, / Their seals, their characters, hermetic rings, / Their gem of riches, and bright stone, that brings / Invisibility, and strength, and tongues” (43.71-75). The fraternity of Rosicrucians had “produced much writing…from about 1616, and…Jonson knew of them after 1618” (Parfitt 532).

          A major surprise in Jonson’s arcane catalog, even for academic readers, is how thoroughly we’ve lost the terminology of Renaissance “trick” writing. (“Eteostich”—explained earlier here as a Latinate form—has practically disappeared from modern dictionaries, replaced by “chronogram.”) The precision of the terms is instructive for indicating the tediousness of the practices. For example, logogriphs are “a kind of enigma, in which a certain word, and other words that can be formed out of all or any of its letters, are to be guessed from synonyms of them introduced into a set of verses” (OED). Flammes are “conceits”—and in context suggest shaped verse forms or buried pictographic or lexical elements whose presence would turn poems more or less into Easter-egg hunts or needle-ridden haystacks. In telestichs, “the final letters of the various words spell out a word or name” (Parfitt 532). And jump names are those that “exactly correspond.”

          Though Jonson’s public tone seems satiric, I’m not fully convinced that he isn’t playing some version of the very kinds of arcane games he seems to question. For example, these minimalist’s puns are potential in the snippet: “spew in, out, riddle, sand-weaved” (33), “Fulke Sandell, Bard S. see, read lesson dear (…sea-riddle is)…” (37), and “One f--k nefarious sullies” (41). In any case, the suggestion of warp-and-woof structures in “weaved” (33) hints at a possible awareness of such practices as those in Q. The most erudite of Renaissance poets, Jonson is unlikely to’ve been totally outside the coterie loops in which runic practice thrived. He is not above bawdry—as one sees, e.g., in the phallic pun on “thing” in The Alchemist 5.1.24.

         2. Samuel Butler.
The widely-popular Hudibras (1663-78), partly a satire on contemporary literary practice, explains, for one thing, that the “Wild Irish” are of all peoples the most “addicted to…occult Philosophy” and cabalistic learning (cf. 1.1.532 and note) and also has a speaker (with bawdy innuendo) tell of a “strange Riddle of a Lady” who could love only a man who hated her: “He that gets her by heart must say her / The back-way, like a Witche’s prayer” (1.3.335-44). Butler’s satiric allusions to “the Circle of the Arts” (2.3.215) and more generally to the “mystick Learning” of hermeticism, the Gnostics, the Cabala (1.1.523ff.), and the secret society of the Rosicrucians (1.1.539ff.) all show interest in cabalistic art, combined with ridicule of it. The speaker’s extended discussion of oaths and oath-breaking among peers (2.2.102ff.) may address, indirectly, the contractual nature of oathbound allegiance within literate coterie groups. Butler’s satire against hermeticism perhaps portrays Thomas Vaughn but may be more general (Wilders 332). No evidence shows that Butler has Shakespeare’s practices in mind as a direct target.

         3. Dryden.
John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1682), an ironically inverted mock-heroic poem, implies criticism of arcane versifiers. Dryden—whose ostensible interest is to establish a line of succession among the Sons of Ben, the “true” neoclassicists—shows the expiring and infamously bad Irish poet Richard Flecknoe (d. 1678) in the act of choosing as his “worthy successor” the Jonson imitator Thomas Shadwell, one of Dryden’s “little critics.” Near the end of his mantle-passing speech, Flecknoe—as one misguided poet giving the other his charge—addresses Shadwell:

          Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame
          In keen iambics, but mild anagram.
          Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command
          Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
          There thou mayst wings display and altars raise,
          And torture one poor word ten thousand ways. (lines 203-08)
By ironic approval of shaped verses—contrived in such forms as wings and altars—Dryden lumps these with other kinds of tediously ingenious “rackings” of language.

        4. Congreve.
In Love for Love (1695), William Congreve has Valentine—in an exchange with his servant, Jeremy, that ends Act 4—compare the lady Angelica to cryptic writing:

          JERE. What, is the lady gone again, sir? I hope you understood one another before she went.
          VAL. Understood! She is harder to be understood than a piece of Egyptian antiquity or an Irish manuscript; you may pore ’till you spoil your eyes, and not improve your knowledge.
          JERE. I have heard ’em say, sir, they read hard Hebrew books backwards. Maybe you begin to read at the wrong end.
          VAL. They say so of a witch’s prayer, and dreams and Dutch almanacs are to be understood by contraries….

          5. Addison.
Discussed above in the context of a consideration of runic antecedents in Latin, Joseph Addison, especially in his Spectator Nos. 58-61, was an influential voice condemning “trick writing” practices in English (cf. Bond I:244ff.). In his Spectator No. 61 (1711), Addison—like others—mentions “a little Epigram called the Witches Prayer, that fell into Verse when it was read either backward or forward, excepting only, that it Cursed one way and Blessed the other.” Such folklore about “witch’s prayers”—and, incidentally, about a tradition of obscurity in Irish writers that one sees still persisting as late as the time of Yeats—was commonly shared by post-Renaissance writers. As I’ve said, Addison blamed English monks with too little talent and too much time on their hands for reinventing trick writing. Addison says that “true” wit in literature can always be translated into another language, while anything that cannot be translated is false—and that, of course, would include almost all word play.

          More generally, Addison attacks the gamester writers Ancient and Modern who purvey their brands of “false wit”: Shaped verse writers; lipogrammatists or “letter-droppers” (who omit specific alphabetic characters in given compositions); rebus-writers; composers of “echo-poems” (like Butler); poets who write poems varying limited lists of words; anagrammatists; acrostic writers—including those who write “Compound Acrostics, where the principal Letters stand two or three deep,” or where “Verses have not only been edged by a Name at each Extremitys, but have had the same Name running down like a Seam through the Middle of the Poem” (No. 60); chronogram writers; writers whose verses grow from “Bouts Rimez ,” externally prescribed lists of rhyming words that versifiers employ in exact order to show their ingenuity; and, above all, punsters, whose writing “consists in a Jingle of Words” (Bond I:244ff.).

          The criticisms in The Spectator are especially important because they remind us how prevalent such practices—now almost uniformly lost—were through the 17th century in English.

          Addison’s example from Hudibras of echo poems includes a play on “Bruin” (cf. Biron, Berown) and/or “Ruin” that makes one think a conscious runic joke may be embedded—especially because any runic subtext of a poem is functionally like an echo to the main text, and because Edmund Spenser introduces the conceit of the “echo” in the refrain of Epithalamion , a work embedding a covert subtext (see Graves, “Two Newfound Poems…”).

          6. Dr. Johnson.
The best known criticisms of “false wit” and of Shakespeare’s flaws (and virtues) generally come from Dr. Samuel Johnson, the literary taste-maker of his age in London—and particularly from his Preface to Shakespeare (1765), where he condemns Will’s puns (or “quibbles”), and his Life of Cowley (1779), attacking “metaphysical” wit contingent on far-fetched linkages. We cannot know whether these commentaries proceed with any specific knowledge of the existence of the runes (or similar coterie works), since any writer who was or ever had been “in the coterie” would have been under constraints not to go too far towards candor. Probably Dr. Johnson was at least vaguely aware of coterie literary practice; certainly he’d have disliked anything verging on the arcane, since his preference was always for “general” nature and truth. In any case, Johnson’s views address far-fetched, “discordant” literary gameplaying, public or private, and remind us—as Addison’s commentaries do—how many esoteric, gamelike patterns persisted in literature, patterns appealing to a private reader’s eye, wit, and skill at ratiocination.

          In the Preface, Johnson degrades aspects that we can now see as absolutely strategic in the Runes: Will’s love affair with word plays, fascination with double entendre, and wildly zig-zagging swings from “seriousness” to “low wit”:

A quibble [i.e., a pun] is to Shakespeare what luminous vapors are to the traveler: he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever [he is writing about seriously]…, let a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career or stoop from his elevation. A quibble…gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. (Abrams I:2413)

Similarly, the “false wit” that Johnson condemns in Abraham Cowley (and others like him) is congruent with what we now find in the Runes. Johnson says that these poets’ “thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just [exact, proper]; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.” Defining “wit” oxymoronically as “a kind of discordia concors [or ‘harmonious discord’], a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike,” Johnson, in a famous passage, condemns writers who take witty practices to the extreme: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader…is seldom pleased” (Abrams I:2419).

          It is neatly hypothetical, then—if surely erroneous—to imagine the demise of mechanistic gameplaying in verse composition as occurring on some day before before the end of the 18th century. Coleridge’s concept of “organic” form, following August Wilhelm Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1808-1809) and articulated in particular in Lectures on Shakespeare, established an alternative to the “mechanic form” that had controlled writers’ practices in English. This freer conception of poetry, which deemphasized meter, lineation, genre, and numbers-based formalism, was progressively integrated into 19th and 20th century practice and signalled the end of the period when “numbers” was automatically a synonym for writing in verse.


Post-Enlightenment and Modern Analogues

          Literary gameplaying for private readers or for specialized groups with arcane interests didn’t die, of course, with neoclassicism and rationalism. One of the best-known hoaxes in English letters, in fact, occurred when Dr. Johnson’s contemporary James Macpherson (1736-96), a Scotsman, published several books (1761-65, partly concurrent with a stint in colonial West Florida!) that purportedly translated ancient Gaelic works by a 3rd century Irish bard, Ossian. Though Dr. Johnson and others challenged their validity and though, after Macpherson’s death, an expert panel concluded the works were spurious, the Ossianic forgeries proved popular and influential in the Romantic era.

          Contemporaneously, the teenage genius Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) tried to pawn off his “Rowley Poems” as works copied from 15th-century English manuscripts, intriguing such Romantics as Horace Walpole, Keats, and Coleridge—and later gaining the high regard of the Pre-Raphaelites (Chernow and Vallasi).

          Overall, it may be true that the Romantic and Victorian eras, with all their emphasis on idealism and serious feeling, lacked something of the playful wit that is requisite for the Runegame to thrive broadly. Yet the spirits of Edward Lear (1812-1888) and Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) are pervasively playful. Walt Whitman (1819-1892), an American variant of the Romantic poet, may have even tried his hand at riddles and acrostics, despite his apparent “seriousness” (cf. below). And Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), dour enough certainly, seems not above bawdy embeddings (cf. below).

          Some modern varieties of literate gameplaying may also parallel the practices of the runic coteries. The tendency of avant-garde moderns to form “schools” (e.g., the Imagists, Vorticists, Inklings, Algonquin Round Table, Bloomsbury Group, and Fugitives) or veer toward arcane, anti-bourgeois modes (as Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Stevens did) generates at least a likely climate for literate leg-pulling, incidental or widespread, with spurious or tongue-in-cheek art sometimes being foisted on a gullible public ready to take it seriously because it is new and different and flows from what sparkle like authoritative wellsprings. Further, the irreducible ambiguity of modern art—including visual punning and riddles like those in the works of M. C. Escher (1898-1970) and “forking paths” contexts created by such writers as Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)—often puts consumers of art effectively in the positions of runeplayers, unable to tell for sure where a reader stands in relation to the artist’s ambiguous tone.

          Robert Frost’s warning “Look out I don’t spoof you”—a phrase a college teacher of mine once quoted—has always rung in my mind. At least one critic, writing as I recall sometime back in The Explicator, has heard in Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” the voice of Santa Claus, on “the darkest evening of the year,” out with a “little horse” instead of reindeer. And I’m personally not sure yet that that the “long two-pointed ladder” in the opening line of “After Apple-Picking” isn’t a conventional runic clue pointing to the paired letterstring columns that frame that poem along its right- and lefthand perimeters and might be read as playful phonic codelines.

          Less conjecturally, the eclectic (and less than comprehensive) sampling below of modern “runic” activity shows that the gamy, duplicitous spirit among artists has, in quite diverse forms, survived both the rationalistic condemnation of the 18th century and the propensities of “serious” Romanticism in the 19th century.

          The fifteen short discussions below treat this range of topics:

  1. Black spirituals and quilt patterns
  2. Walt Whitman
  3. Emily Dickinson
  4. Henry James
  5. Thomas Hardy
  6. Raymond Roussel
  7. John Peale Bishop
  8. Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Sylvia Plath
10. Allen Ginsburg
11. Al Hirschfeld
12. Campus graffiti
13. Personalized license plates
14. The “Rune of Hospitality”
15. Websites and E-mail addresses

         1. Black spirituals and quilt patterns.
The need for coded communication before Emancipation in the American South triggered a range of conscious art that whites would typically take one way and coterie insiders—that is, black slaves—another. Songs like “I’ll Fly Away” or “This Train Am Bound for Glory,” for example, ostensibly comment on death and heavenly release while also speaking seditiously to the in-group about hopes and possibilities of temporal freedom. Some black folk narratives, with recurring “trickster” figures, have shown similarly artful capabilities for fooling ingenuous listeners. According to public reports early in 1999 in a PBS documentary and other popular media and on an Oprah show, blacks may also have used conventional quilt-block patterns (such as Log Cabin, Drunkard’s Path, and Flying Geese) in the Underground Railroad as parts of an elaborate code system; quilts would be hung outside, and symbolism in the designs would carry secret messages about safety, danger, and modes of proceeding to those trying to escape northward (Tobin and Dobard).

       2. Walt Whitman
. A poet who might seem unlikely to perpetrate tricksterism in his verses, given his ostensibly serious idealism, Walt Whitman (1819-92) nonetheless writes “A Riddle Song” (Whitman 365), a teasing text encoding a previously undiscovered acrostic that ambiguously aligns “…A NUT,” offering various “solutions” to the vague riddle the text poses. The reverse initial-letter acrostic code ATHORHHHHWHHHHTTHA OOIIC B IIWWW C OW A NUT suggests decipherings such as “Authority wise be: You saw a nut,” “Author hewed, this be hickory-nut,” “Authority wise be you, see ‘O’ [round?], a nut [i.e., a puzzle to ‘crack’],” “…this be you, weakened,” and “…this be (Thisby eye…) you, cunt.” Whitman elsewhere speaks of the “inmost lore of poets” (in “To Get the Final Lilt of Songs” [394]) and, like Melville and Yeats, is fascinated with “masks.” His late poems, especially, seem preoccupied with “the unexpressed,” with things “rounded,” with “unseen buds, infinite, hidden.” His poem “Shakspere-Bacon’s Cipher” (407) ends, “A mystic cipher waits infolded” (cf. Graves, “Walt Whitman,” Explicator).

          3. Emily Dickinson
(1830-86) embedded some 500 poem-like compositions, at least, in her letters (cf. Shurr; Graves, “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” Explicator)—“hidden verses” that are not included in the definitive T. H. Johnson edition of her poems. The occurrence of these “poems” probably does not mean that she was intentionally duplicitous but rather than her thoughts almost automatically found expression in the ballad stanza (hymn or common meter) that she used routinely in her verse. ” My further suggestion (which I’ve not previously commented on in public) is that much playful bawdry, however consciously it was contrived, lurks in Dickinson’s innocent-looking texts: e.g., “I love to sate, lap the males, / and lick the valley-sup…”; “A root of even essence, / a rush of cock, an eel…, / the male-formed tons probe ably, / a ‘kneesy’ morning’s ride,” and so on. “A narrow fellow in the grass” (as phallic wit) and “Pink, small, and punctual” (as pudendal double entendre) offer other examples of patterns that I think may be widespread in her work, either conscious instances of bawdry or vaguely subconscious constructs—with the former being more likely, in my view. (Dickinson’s late handwriting began to use separately spaced letters, as if on an acrostic grid; and the customary dashes—her routine punctuation marks in the more finished poems—would have made convenient “spacers” if indeed she were working to embed implicit vertical acrostic alignments inside her short texts.) But herein lies another book.

         4. Henry James.
It took over a half century for scholars to begin to ferret out the conundrum in Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), where a ghost, in effect, tells a ghost story. The story has not only riddlic but also coterie features, especially since one must not only detect the mystery itself but must first deduce that a mystery exists. In short, though some critics want to read the story in strictly psychological terms, James seems to be pulling a reader’s leg. As editor Willen suggests (xi-xii), James’s story, which has a narrative frame, is craftily constructed to equate its narrator, Douglas, with the character Miles, who dies at the end of the narrative—a technical impossibility. Carvel Collins, in a 1955 Explicator article, was first to advance the formula Douglas = Miles (cf. Willen viii), and other essayists now included in Willen’s assemblage of discussions have since explored the theory.

         Before discovering ca. 1961-62 that the first edition of Willen’s casebook had preempted my argument as an original finding, I had deduced independently that James means us to equate Douglas with Miles: He not only underscores several clear parallels between the two young men, he even has his narrator pun about his own descent from heaven: “I was at Trinity, and I found her [the governess] at home on my coming down the second summer…” (cf. Willen 5, my emphasis). These bad puns about heaven, I believe, may be minuscule contributions of my own to this body of abstruse lore—a field that others had mined rather thoroughly before I found the vein.

          5. Thomas Hardy
. In his poem “The Convergence of the Twain” (1912), Thomas Hardy compares the union of the Titanic and the iceberg to an ironic marriage. In the tradition of “shaped verse” or the eyepoem, each tercet stanza looks like a sinking ship—and also shows a witty “union” of two short lines into one longer one, so that the poem is not only pictographic but doubly exemplifies “imitative form” that echoes Hardy’s topic. (Hardy uses the phrase “intimate welding,” appropriate to such a merger.) But the genuinely covert joke lurks in the last line—“And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres”: The two “hemispheres” may be labia or buttocks, shaken by the ramrod motion of sex (cf. Graves, “Hardy’s ‘The Convergence of the Twain’,” Explicator). Thus bawdy punning undercuts an ostensible “serious” poem.

        6. Raymond Roussel.
Some of the homophonic ciphers of Roussel (1877-1933) that he explicates in How I Wrote Certain of My Books recall Shakespeare’s heavily elided puns in the Runes. As one method of generating ideas to write about, Roussel “would take a randomly chosen phrase and transform it into a string of homophonic words: ‘Tu n’en aura pas’ (‘you won’t have any’) would become ‘Dune en or a pas’ (‘golden dune bearing footprints’).” At this stage “the fortuitous character of the extracted second phrase would make the basis for a story.” Roussel's Nouvelles Impressions has been called “a logical puzzle, something like three-dimensional chess” (Sante 16). This mode loosely parallels “automatic writing,” which has fascinated Yeats and other moderns, though in some senses the tedious craftiness of Q moves away from happenstance or randomness, I think, and toward jot-and-tittle selection of elements for effect.

        7. John Peale Bishop.
Bishop’s “A Recollection” (1934)—a pretty, innocent-looking Italian sonnet by this poet of gentlemanly demeanor, a 1917 Princeton graduate who in late life was briefly affiliated with the Library of Congress—embeds the emphatic initial-letter acrostic FUCK YOUH ALF ASS (Bishop 71-72), an inherent wordstring scarcely likely to have created itself. Ostensibly “a response to Titian’s “Danaë,” the lushly metered text engulfs one in a sensuous texture of “red hair / Unbound and bronzed” and “Young breasts, slim flanks and golden quarries.” Finding the acrostic message, one reconsiders the author’s meaning when he says, “All loveliness demands our courtesies. / Since she was dead I praised her as I could / Silently, among the Barberini bees” (ll. 12-14). One asks, too, whether Allen Tate—whose personal memoir prefaces Bishop’s Collected Poems—and other cronies weren’t likely to’ve been in on Bishop’s game: Bishop was friends, e.g., with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and MacLeish in Paris in the late 1920s and had tangential connections with the Algonquin Round Table group. His subtextual bit of authorized deconstructionism—which should in time encourage revisionist views of a decidedly minor poet—renders the entire volume suspect, just as the Runes turn the Sonnets inside out. In both cases, as it happens, the authors mock Petrarchan conventions.

      “Metamorphoses of M” (Bishop 20) provides an example of how one can find and decipher other, less overt acrostics lurking elsewhere in Bishop’s volume. On the surface an apostrophe to a virginal female who has “lain / A thousand nights upon my bed,” this poem encodes the acrostic comment “I, naked (…in Kate), wasted jism today (…y’ ass empty, I witty; …yes, empty, I wait aye)” (code I NKIHT WA(TTAT YAASM TIWTTA). Using the lefthand parenthesis mark as phonic “C,” I’ve concluded, is an inherited convention in runic practice that dates to the Renaissance if not earlier (cf. Graves, “Bishop’s ‘A Recollection’,” Explicator).

         8. Vladimir Nabokov.
The ending of Nabokov’s story “The Vane Sisters,” written in English in 1951, is a riddle or mystery worth examining: The initial letters of the last paragraph spell out the “answer”—“IciclEs by cyntHia, meter from mE, sybil.” Though nothing in the story overtly points a reader toward the buried materials, the immediate context of the last two paragraphs houses such clues as “I set myself to reread my dream—backward, diagonally, up, down—trying to unravel something Cynthia-like in it, something strange and suggestive that must be there,” and “her inept acrostics…formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost” (Nabokov 631). The last comment, indeed, might describe the Runes generally. So far as I know, no one has yet explored Nabokov’s acrostic series for its potentialities if set in the form of an alphabetic grid and then read as a letterbox code that might house “backward” and “diagonal” readings; the embedded clues (perhaps red herrings) hint that a reader/player might well undertake such an approach.

         9. Sylvia Plath.
“Metaphors” (1960), Plath’s unrhymed, non-metrical poem, is nine lines long and has “nine syllables” (the phrase occurs in line 1) per line. It uses syllabics (formal syllable counting as a structural mode in verse) and numerical form in a riddlic if not radically obscure way to link its subject, the persona’s pregnancy, to its form. Only careful readers will unriddle the text, and the clue “9” is key in figuring it out. The poem is a relatively easy example of riddling in modern verse. (My students tend to see all of modern poetry as somehow arcane, much like coterie compositions written for other poets and academicians.) The pattern of syllabics or syllable counting, which many other modern poets have adapted off and on, shows how “numbers” have persisted as a formal element, even in what “reads” like free verse because it is not overtly governed by recurring accents. Syllable-counting is for the eye, not the ear, and thus remains a kind of sprezzatura or “suppressed design” appealing to poets who want to distinguish their works from “mere prose.” The haiku, a syllable-counting form borrowed from oriental practice and popular in 20th century verse, allows strict numeric form to operate unheard.

         10. Allen Ginsburg. In “The Rune” (1977), from Contest of the Bards, Ginsburg incorporates vaguely Old English manipulations of caesuras and adds a series of short lines toward the right to create a 3-columned arrangement that invites reading downward as well as across.

         11. Hirschfeld’s drawings.
According to a PBS special which aired in 1999, it’s now an open secret that drawings by famed illustrator Al Hirschfeld routinely and systematically hide curvaceous forms of the letterstring NINA, his daughter’s name, in their linear textures. A numeric code after the artist’s signature conventionally tallies just how many “Nina’s” hide in a given drawing. (Hirschfeld started the practice privately and added this “numbers” feature later at the request of certain sharp-eyed sleuthers, to help them achieve authorized closure.) Though the coterie element is now diminished by the artist’s candor about the practice, most viewers over many decades, included attentive admirers, have probably responded to the drawings ingenuously. Meanwhile, insiders have enjoyed being among those “in the know” as one mark of their urbane sophistication, New York style.

          12. Campus graffiti.
When someone at UT-Martin scratched the cipher below onto a restroom wall in the 1980s, my teenage son confirmed the suspicion of this aging outsider that the acrostic device was a coterie sign for “Led Zeppelin”—not quite Columbus’s signature, but of the same order and mirroring the same arcane impulses:


         13. Personalized auto license plates. “Messages” encoded in vanity license plates seen commonly on United States highways use letters (with some numbers) in essentially runic ways: The character-string is the code the observer is to decipher. These, essentially, continue the patterns of such old saws as “U R 2 Sweet 2 B 4-gotten” and (a Southern roadside favorite) “Jesus Is Coming, R-U Ready?”

        14. The “Rune of Hospitality.” Under headings like “Mysterious Doings,” “Unlocking the Middle Ages” (with The Key to “The Name of the Rose”), and “Classics of Western Tomfoolery” (including Guillaume Chequespierre and the Oise Salon), the spring 1987 catalog of Cahill & Company, New York, offered leisured readers books and other “literate” items for purchase; and Cahill catalogs from roughly the same era (my copies have lost their dates) advertised illustrated broadside prints of “The Rune of Hospitality,” with a “text from the Gaelic.” The print is listed as “by the Cuala Press” of Dublin, described as “founded in 1903” by William Butler Yeats’ sisters and run by his daughter, a colorist who is said to supervise the hand-tinting of the broadsides. (“Cuala Press,” construed as a runic codeline, puns “Seal [Quail, Quill] appears,” “See, you ‘awl’ a peeress,” “Cue, ‘awl,’ appears,” “Koala Bears,” “See you a leper-ass,” and so on; in reverse the letterstring sserP alauC suggests, e.g., “surplus,” “syrupy alias,” “Asser plays [palace],” and “Sir, pee a louse.”)

      The “Rune of Hospitality”—the text of which is not represented in the ad as a copyrighted piece—not only uses the generic label “rune” but has coterie features that I’ve discovered in earlier “runes,” including those in Q: It harbors acrostic embeddings not publicly mentioned in the catalog or in materials that I’m familiar with, though what I’ve found independently, backdoor fashion, may be common in-group knowledge in coterie circles.

        Anyway, friends in Martin who have a copy of the Rune on their dining room wall tell me they never knew that the text embeds in its 2nd-column acrostic the sequence “RUNE.” For emphasis below I’ve put that string in oversized boldface and have also italicized what appear likely to be (more or less alternating-line) puns on rune(s) —one of which is reversed:

                      RUNE OF HOSPITALITY

DRINK IN THE DRIN KING PLACE,                               3
HE BLESSED MYSELF AND MY HOUSE,                     6
OFTEN, OFTEN, OFTEN,                                                    9
                                              —an old Gaelic Rune—

               Other subtextual, coterie materials include such puns on “I foster injurious terrain” (1, F=S); “I put foot in the eating place” (2); “Daring cunt hid” (3); “Muse, ascend, hell is t’ end in chapels” (4); “I indent, helpless ed., name of that rune” (5); “My cat aligned my dear runes”; “My cat-land (Caitlin) mother wants” (7); “Ended Hell our kiss, aiding hearse on” (8); “Her Son coughed enough t’ end often” (8-9); “Ghosty Christ I need, (innate) history injures Jews (…Jew, I see)” (10, 12). And so on.

        In the spirit of reader-berating private wit, amid a text that seems pious and homiletic, are the vertical acrostics IID MAHM (lst. col., cf. “I’d maim,” “Item I hymn”); SPISD (3rd col., cf. “ass pissed,” “spiced,” “spy sad”); AUNIBCSS (4th col, cf. “Eye you an abyss”); WTKCILA (5th col, cf. “Wit key see, ill aye”); and A FIISTHH GOES (7th col, cf. “a feisty ghost”). Perhaps the entire acrostic letterbox generates a vertical (top-to-bottom, left-to-right) code.

         The reversed alphabetic string of the last line encodes these possibilities, including phallic bawdry:

          Easy you guess Rune-art. See it innate, Sir, see it.
          Issue guess: Regenerate Satan, aye desire sate.
          He’s huge, Sir, again hard, “seeding” I desire, his 8 [inches].

        Similarly the opening line suggests “Read my image” (RIID M AHMGG), while its alphabetic reverse offers such potentialities as these:

          An artist , I reign aye, our tease awes aye.
          In Artsy Region, artist aye was I (…our tease eye, weigh [and] sigh).
          Inert, say you’re again hard, saucy!

          The first line reverses to suggest “Near ’tis: eye region arid, saucy,” “An artist eye, raging artist awes aye,” and so, and many other crafty subtextual potentialities lurk. Thus, without impugning any current employees at Cuala Press or the Cahill Company or attributing expeditious roles to them, one detects lost “Gaelic” leg-pulling and coterie activity here. One’s knowledge of Yeats’ dabblings in arcane lore makes one suspicious about the true origins of such materials.


        15. Websites and e-mail names. Ingeniously playful alphabetic strings that generate wit and encoded phonic “messages” occur endlessly in various forms of the web addresses and e-mail monikers that we moderns devise for ourselves. A favorite of mine is the name of the web site that a Nashville transgendered woman maintains, according to a report in Nashville Scene (21 Aug. 2003, 24): <>. As the reporter in the Scene article suggests, if you try saying it out loud, you hear the cryptic letterstring speak: “I wike you wike you are.”


         The modern interest in word games persists—in acrostics, palindromes (such as “Able was I ere I saw Elba”), and witty letter manipulations. Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and “find the word in the letterbox” games all thrive. Coincidental alignments that I find in crossword puzzles make me think that some modern puzzle makers may still routinely perpetrate runic tricks on their consumers, enjoying the semi-overt ways they can parade “low” wit, without any sure way to attribute the materials to conscious craftsmanship. Strings of emphatic capitals—such as the boldfaced first-letter highlights in magazines and the opening string of capital letters in sections of books—still allow in-group editorial manipulation, exactly as they did in the medieval scriptoria when such emphatic letters, with the appearance of random decorativeness, could be manipulated to “communicate.”

          The language code, of course, will play its own “automatic” games. (Maybe this is partly what Yeats meant by “automatic” writing.) Every STOP sign reads POTS in reverse. The UT-Martin athletic center, dubbed (for short) the ELAM CENTER after the benefactors who helped fund it, proclaims (again in reverse) in bold capitals on its facade RET NEC MALE. Not quite “red-neck male,” but close. As I discovered while looking through the rearview mirror of my truck at a decal decorating the back window of the camper top, the name of my son’s alma mater, Wesleyan, spells out in reverse his parents’ names—Neil, Sue—in a pretty convincing hillbilly nasal: NAYEL[,] SEW.

          Our individually lackadaisical reactions in modern times to such rumored esoterica as “back-masking” in the record business, subliminally autosuggestive advertising in films, “satanic” devices in the Proctor and Gamble (moon and stars) logo, ritually-sacrificed cows in Texas fields, the Kennedy assassination “conspiracy,” UFO kidnappings, Elvis sightings, and so on—our typically skeptical or detached reactions to such merely-possible realities—should help us envision how citizens of earlier and presumably less enlightened times could have gone on about their business while runic practices in the arts persisted, with or without “verification,” around them.

          Omertà , the code of silence, can operate as effectively among relatively closed groups of literati as it does among such diverse, vestigial in-groups as Masonic Orders, college fraternities, and underworld organizations. Perpetuating motives include the urges to control, to display superiority to, or to denigrate those outside (and, traditionally, women in particular); the pleasure of exclusiveness along with the sense of importance that that may bring; and the satisfaction that comes with obtaining especially meritorious status and regard among one’s peers when one does something clever.

          One of the effective and practical safeguards against the betrayal of coterie groups has always been the fact that insiders have little to gain and very much to lose—notably, the regard of peers—by revealing coterie secrets. Even more powerful safeguards of in-group lore include the pervasive lack of interest among outsiders in any body of arcane trivia not of their own (or of their own in-group’s) making and, concurrently, the difficulty of cracking it or “proving it”—sometimes a seemingly pyrrhic victory, even if it’s possible.

          While much ambiguous modern art is surely devoid of conscious tricksterism, all of the modern instances wherein we, the general reading public, have been consciously duped by witty writers have certainly not yet been exposed.

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