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

Set I, Runes 1-14: Texts and Comments 
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2003, All Rights Reserved        

Proceed to Rune 2
Return to the Index of Set I

Rune 1:
First lines, Set I (Sonnets 1-14)

                         Rune 1

     From fairest creatures we desire increase.
     When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
     Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest,
 4  “Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
     Those hours that with gentle work did frame?”
     Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface.
     Lo, in the orient, when the gracious light
 8  Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
     Is it for fear? To wet a widow’s eye?
     For shame deny that thou bear’st love to any!
     As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
12 When I do count the clock that tells the time.
     O, that you were yourself! But love you are.
     Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck.
     Glosses: 1) increase = improvement, progeny; 3) glass = mirror, drinking glass; 4) spend = pass idly; 5) frame = pass constructively (ME); 7) Lo puns on “Low [in the east]”; orient = dayspring; light = alight (i.e., arise from [a high] bed); 9) Or, “...for fear to wet a widow’s eye [a pudendal pun]?”; 10) any puns on “Annie,” Will’s wife’s name.

     1. Knot from the Stars

     Even from those who are fairest we expect better things—and hope for their progeny.
     When the ravages of forty years attack your face and mind,
     look in your mirror (if not the bottom of your glass) and say to yourself,
  4 “Wasteful loveliness, why do you idle away
     the life you once spent in graciously constructive service?”
     Then don’t let winter’s ragged claw deface you.
     Look: As people with good attitudes toward life are arising at daybreak
  8 ready to listen to the music, why do you mope, downcast and distracted?
     Are you fearful? Trying to making some woman weep? Afraid of lovemaking?
     Shame on you for denying that you love anyone at all!
     However quickly you may waste away, you grow at just that rate
12 at any given point in time—when I’m the one who measures things.
     O, I wish you were more yourself. But really you’re unchanged. You still embody love, and are beloved.
      I don’t divine my findings from the stars.


          Catching a reader/player’s eye in the recomposed text of Rune 1 is the bottom lefthand acrostic string AVON, built using one of the “split W’s” that happen haphazardly—or so we used to think—in the Q verses. About 1979, early in my dealings with the Runes when I was struggling to show incredulous readers that the 154 newfound linestrings Q were authorized, not chimerical, I asked a UTM colleague, a mathematician, to help me figure the odds that this AVON would happen by chance; he calculated the likelihood at about one in six million. Surely, then, AVON is an early and emphatic authorized clue urging in-group readers to search out acrostic wit.

           The string TT, much more likely to be pure happenstance, also caught my eye early because those same initials occur as the signature of Thomas Thorpe, Shakespeare’s previously identified printing agent, on Q’s puzzling dedication page, where all the cryptic business of “Mr. W. H.” happens. (See especially the acrostic wit segments accompanying the runes.) The opening line, I believe, has T.T. in mind, with such puns as “Fair homme, fair-assed curator, Swede [exactly spelled], Sire, ink erase.” Puns proliferate in Q to indicate that Thorpe was as a primarily intended auditor for Q’s gamy subtextual materials. Will’s playfully minded collaborator is often identified as “Swede,” a term I take as a body-type epithet. Here this auditor may be a fair homme, a “fairest“ (and fair-assed) creature/curator.” Concurrent plays (in lines 1-2) include “witty sire, inker, a fee wins, or two...” Much wit occurs in Q razzing T.T. for his money-grubbing entrepreneurialism.

          Rune 1 seems to be a reverie and an apostrophe to an auditor, the unnamed “beautiful friend” of the Sonnets. The poet represents that friend as advancing in age and in a misanthropic if not misogynic mood. The pudendal pun “widow’s eye” lets us read the poet’s question as “Are you afraid of making love to a woman?” (9) and allows us, perhaps, to identify the listener as male, though the “mirror” imagery (3-4) might make us envision a woman. Anyway, the poet encourages the auditor to cheer up, stop moping, and initiate lovemaking—as one of the “fairest creatures” (1)—to insure his own “increase.” Finally the poet asserts his affection for the friend, implying an intimate knowledge “not from the stars” (14). As in many other Q texts, we may envision Southampton, Susanna, and Dr. Hall as possible auditors. Subtextual details about Southy—and the facts of his life history (see Akrigg in the Sources list)—make us think of Southampton. Susanna will work if we read 9 as “Are you afraid? Trying to go against Anne’s wishes?” And the puns “For shame deny that thou bearest love to Annie!” (10) and “O, that you were yourself, but [a] lawyer” (13) lead us to imagine Hall as the primary auditor—with the poet getting in a dig about the relative merits of the medical and legal professions.

           Probably Shakespeare wanted all three auditors to “work.” The rule in the forking-paths system of Q is that one meaning never precludes others.

          In Rune 1 “the gracious”—i.e., the gentlefolk who “alight” from their high beds to hear music (7-8) and enjoy life—are foils to the moping friend. They also suggest an aristocratic, perhaps courtly setting, as does “gentle work” (5).

           “Fairest creatures” (1) may mean the poet’s own verses, which he hopes will thrive. Quite literally we now watch them “increase” as they multiply themselves by two. Another good possibility is to hear the poem as self-addressed. Near or past 40 himself, Will feels the effects of “forty Winters” that “shell, besiege” his brow (2). He wonders why he wastes time on this project, envies the gentry their happiness, does not “bear love to Annie,” and, as himself in the poem, is “low” (13, Q loue, see louelinesse [4]), a condition he doesn’t have to look heavenward to discern (14). The “mirrors” of the poem (3), in one sense these verses, reflect his Prufrockian isolation.

          For all its possibilities, the poem’s language and syntax are easy, with no vague pronouns or shifts in point of view. (Initial runes in the sets—their lines strung out unencumbered “across the top”—may seem simpler than others that are more deeply entangled in the linear web.) Formally, the last line returns to the first, closing the loop of the “round,” by restating “From fairest creatures” negatively, as “Not from the stars….” The poet deals not with heavenly topics but with beautiful people and their problems in a temporal context where we all “count the clock” (12).

          In addition to hints about genteel courtly life, clusters of imagery focus on natural growth and nature’s (or “Winter’s”) “warfare” against it. “Besiege” (2) and “deface” (6) are graphic. Two paired antitheses are “increase” (1, cf. “grow’st” [11]) and “wane” (11), and “spend” (4, as “waste”) and “frame” (5). “Handy face” (6, pun) anticipates “clock that tells the time” (12). The puns “whores” (5) and “Ragged Anne” (6) are distracting. The play “B-row” in Row 2 (the “B-row”) and the altered type bit (“n” for “m”) in 14 are gameboard clues. Line 14 (i.e., Row N) opens with the pun, e.g., “Notice Row N: This tar is doughy....” (See the future link The Texts as Gameboards.)

Sample Puns

(Note: See the Introduction to Subtextual Vocabulary for an index of representative terminology buried as puns in the Q lines.)

          1) Is Rome fair? From fair-assed “creasures,” weedy (witty) Sire, increase; Fair homme, fairest creature, S. (ass)…; we’d fire in crease
          2) When farty “winders” [windy things “wound up,” runes] shell, besiege thy brow; …thy B-row (i.e., the 2nd row of text); S. Hall, Bess, eye, jetty brow
          3) Loo-kin, thy “glazen’d” tail, this ass thou’ve used; the face thou view, Shakespeare [=st, the family name cipher, a “long s” figuratively holding a dagger- or spear-like t by the handle and “shaking” it]
          4) low-lines; loo-lines; why, dust thou’st penned!
          5) Those whores that with genital work didst ram
          6) T’ Hen.; Th’ anal Anne [et] note, windy arse, Ragged Anne deface
          6-7) fecal “O”
          7) Low in thee orient, W., Hen.; when the gray shows light [i.e., at dawn]
          7-8) Low in the orient, W., Hen., the gracious light must eye seek, Tower weariest thou, muses kiss oddly
          8) Muse, I seek to hear; Muse, aye sick, tore W.H.; Muse, I seek Tower; to Harry, W.H., y’ Harry S. (hairy ass), T.T., whom (home) you seek sadly; Ham you seek sadly
          9) Eyesight; I sight sorcerer; Is it, ass, whore-fear? widow’s eye pudendal
        10) For S., Hamnet, Annie, that thou bearest…; deny that thou barest lewd “O,” Annie; knight eyed Tiberius t’ laud; For shame deny that thou bear’st love to Annie!
        11) A sophist ass, thou S. Hall twain [i.e., cut in two]…; thou G-row hissed; thou shall twin, so fast thou growest
        12) W., Hen., eye; W.H., a Knight o’ Cunt
        12-13) this locked Hat. tail Southy t’ eye, meaty
        13) Oathèd you were…; …yourself, but lawyer (but lower, butt-lover)
        14) Nat F., our own, the fitter ass, do eye; Knot [puzzle] from the stars do eye (doughy); Knot form, these tars, do aye my judgment pluck; Knight S. (Nate F.) runty star is….

Acrostic Wit

          Each first-line rune, because of initial-letter capitalization patterns in the typography of Q, has a double vertical column of emphatic capitals and thus a more complex acrostic codeline system than successive runes in the set (i.e., here in Set I, e.g., Runes 2-14). Effectively each of the first-line runes in the sets (i.e., Runes 1, 15, 29, etc.) offers four basic permutations: down/down; down/up; up/up; and up/down. In actual fact the four starting points, two at the bottom and two at the top, allow not just 4 but rather 8 codeline variants in all the first-line runes. (From each of the two top starting points begin a down/down and a down/up variant; from each of the two bottom starting points begin an up/up and an up/down variant.)

          I’ve come to call the “loop” (i.e., the down/up and up/down) readings “hairpins.” The two parallel vertical letterstring lines—especially in their up/up and down/down variants) also suggest “ladders,” itself a play on “letters.” While no one of the letterstring codes is primary, the down/down code seems visually dominant—especially so here in Rune 1 because of the emphatic AVON.

          The letterstring RVONHHOVS here (down from the top in the second column) is one of many plays in Q on “rune[s],” with variants round[s], rown[s], and so on being equivalent terms.

          Here and in later instances I can offer only sample decodings of the codelines, and other players are free to find what they will. The possibilities are both authorially manipulated (i.e., tendentiously directed) and concurrently almost open-ended in every case. Topical plays, especially, are tantalizing and slippery, and others may find many that I’ve missed.

          The down/down codeline, splitting the VV’s in 2 and 12, is FVL V TTL MI FAVON RVON HHOV SO SVT O. Sample readings include, e.g., “Fuel, you title m’ fon [silly] Rune. How so, O, Southy, O!” “Fully title my sawn (fon, i.e., silly) Rune…,” “Fool, you tittle [the crossing of a T] miss, Avon runes, O…,” and “Fully you title ms. ‘Avon Runes’….”

          The up/up reverse of this same code is O TV SO S VOHHN OVR NOVA F IM LTT V LVF—with decodings that include, e.g., “‘O’ to Sue (to [pur]sue) is “O, two Sues you honor, our Nova [1877, from L., cf. ‘Knot from the Stars do I hymn…’ (1.14)], Femme (…Fame, Same, of Hymn), Little Wife,” “O, two saw Sue’s honor…,” “…O you rune of a fame (femme), little wife (use),” “Ought you (O, to; O, two) so swoon over Anne ova? Fie, my little wife!” “O, two verses, O’s, you honor now; I fame (eye some) little verse,” “…our new half-hymn, let 5 love,“ “…our Nova of Hamlet you love (...leaf, leave),” “…Anne, ova of Hamlet, vulva…,” and “Hamlet 5 love.”

          The insistent string NOV, which occurs twice, once as NOVR, invites us to hear the line as a dateline, with “S = 5” and “V = 5.” The up/up codeline OT VS OS V OHH NOV R NOV AFI M LTT V LVF suggests, e.g., “Ode, use [‘O’ would use…] ’05, 5 o’ Nov[r].—or Nov[a].—affirm—let 5 leave.”

Proceed to Rune 2
Return to the Index of Set I

Link: Rune 1 as an Easy Sample Text
Future link: The Runes as Gameboard Texts

Return to Index Page: Shakespeare’s Lost Sonnets