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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 VII, Runes 85-98: Texts and Comments
Copyright © Roy Neil Graves 2003, All Rights Reserved        

Proceed to Rune 91
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Rune 90
Sixth lines, Sonnets 85-98 (Set VII)

                        Rune 90

     (Sixth lines, Set VII: Sonnets 85-98)

     And, like unlettered clerk, still cry Amen!
     Above a mortal pitch that struck me dead;
     And for that riches, where is my deserving?
 4  Upon thy part I can set down a story
     To set a form upon desirèd change,
     Come in the rearward of a conquered woe,
     Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
 8  When in the least of them my life hath end,
     Therefore—in that I cannot know thy change
     And husband nature’s riches from expense—
     Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
The basest jewel will be well esteemed
     The teeming autumn, big with rich increase
     Of different flowers in odor and in hue.
     Glosses: 1) And like... puns “Anne,...,” “Anne-like, unlettered...”; 3) riches (ironic) is a key theme word; 3-4) puns: “Anne farted richest wares amid a serving,” “ is (...Harry’s) Midas rune (Jew pun, t’ help art...)” etc.; 6) Come in the rearward... suggests a sexual posture (and anal sex); 10) husband (v.) = control wisely, ration; 12) will puns on Will; 14) flowers puns on “flow-ers” (things that emit liquid) and is an eyepun on “slurs.”

     90. The Basest Jewel, Teeming, Rich

     Now, you go on like an uneducated cleric shouting Amen!
     in an unnaturally shrill voice that almost knocked me out cold,
     and for all that surfeit of affirmation, what rewards—what proof of my merit—do I get?
  4 To take your side (are you “parting”?) let me set down a parable
     that will give substance and shape to a change this preacher wishes for,
     a change that follows a surmounted sorrow,
     the victory, sweeter than mere relaxation, being sublime happiness:
  8 When, as a mere mortal and a dabbler, my life ends,
     then—because I cannot follow your development
     and play the pastor by protecting nature’s riches from overexpenditure—
     even while making bawdy comments on your frolicking,
12 the most trivial poem here (and also the least pleasure of living) will seem fully
     as profuse as autumn, ripe with a rich harvest
     of flowers (and slurs!) various in their fragrances and colors.


       The ambiguously identified “unlettered cleric” (1) sets a comic tone. The epithet may refer to the friend, the poet (a self-confessed “poor” writer), or any unrespected admirer of Will’s work. The word “riches” (3), ironically renaming the clerk’s shrill approval, triggers the poem’s main conceit, replete with foil, as Will proceeds to deliver his own little sermon in a “form” (5) that is abstract, convoluted, self-righteous, and moralizing (4-9), but not above “lascivious comments” (11). Finally, the poem, tongue-in-cheek, undercuts both the clerk’s ignorant enthusiasm and the speaker’s pious response.

       “That riches” (3)—echoed in “nature’s riches” (10) and “rich increase” (13)—is a key phrase. Though initially ironic, “riches” in line 10 suggests the muse’s attributes--phallic plenty, with broad innuendo in “husband” and “expense.” Finally (in 13), “riches” suggests autumn’s bounty. “Rich[ness]” (13) connects “jewels” (12) with “flow-ers” (14), both sexual puns. (A “flow-er” is “someone or something that flows.”)

        Contrasting with “bounty” as a conscious foil is the “basest jewel” (12)—”lowliest poem,” but also an appositive for the ignorant clerk’s talk (1-3). Will is finally “in the least of them” (8)—dead (2), at rest (7), his life at an end (8). The poet’s “base jewels” foil the friend’s (and life’s) immutable richness. The witty paradox is that Will’s poems may themselves become infinitely “esteemed,” teeming with multiplicities.

        The “story” that the poet “sets down” (4-14) is richly suggestive of sexual intercourse, with innuendo lurking in such puns and details as “a Moor-tall pitch” (2), “come in the rearward” (6), “a joy above the rest” (7), “husband,” “expense” (10), “Making lascivious come-end to sound his port” (11), “basest jewel” (12), “ass-teamed,” (12-13), and “big with…increase” (13). Thus Will makes “lascivious comments” about the friend’s “sport” (11)—seemingly riotous intercourse. The pun in “riches” (3) on “wry chess” and various combat metaphors (2, 6) expand the motif of “sport.” Q’s “And for that” generates an impolite verb: “Anne farted” (3).“The basest jewel, Will...” (12) is a namepun. And “flowers” (14) puns not just on“flow-ers” but also on “slurs.”

        References to writing and letters begin in the puns “unlettered clerk” and “ ‘A’ men”--who, punningly, are “lettered.” Printing terms occur in “struck” (2), “set down a story” (4), and “set a form” (5); puns on “leaf” and “well” are routine. “Teamed” means “paired” (like Sonnets/Runes), while “increase” (13) puns on “ink-grief,”“in [the] crease,” and “inker aye see.” Lines (or poets) may be “flow-ers,” an “ode-er” writes odes, and “pitch” puns on inkiness. “Change” and “rich” also conjure up bits of economic diction.

        A buried joke is that it may be “Anne” who shows puritanical enthusiasm: “Anne, like unlettered clerk… !” (1). (Sonnets editor Stephen Booth cites a critic who suggests a pun on “Anne” in Q’s And.) In Sonnet 85, which shares a line with Rune 90, a more sober play on family business occurs: “Anne, … still cry, ‘Hamnet’ [Q Amen,/T], O very ‘Hamnet’ [Q Himne t]...” (6-7). Hamnet was Will’s son, the twin who died young. The pun “Anne deserted her H’s, an [w = IN / an] heiress, maid serving...” (3). may remark playfully on Will’s wife’s speech patterns (as in My Fair Lady) and on her giving up the name “Hathaway” to become a Shakespeare.

        Other puns add gamelike texture in routine fashion: “A pun: ‘Thy Partisan Set’ do own, ass, Tory...”(4) is one of a number of puns in Q that play around with “naming the sets”in Will’s scheme. “T’ Ovid, a sore (...ass, whore) may be undesired” (5) and “a jib Ovid hears, too, in Antilles” (7-8) seem to be linked, allusive plays. Hearing the first as “Ovid eyes oar, maybe undesired” makes both puns “nautical.” Another incidental pun in the lettercode is this: “I can now take note, his hanging does bane denote; erase our hate” (9-10).

        Closing puns may have in mind Will’s son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, a likely projected auditor for the hidden wit of Q during the years of the poet’s retirement in Stratford: e.g., “The teeming ode-homme, big, witty, here I teach John [code in] series / of different slurs in ode, or runed anew.” An “...O, runed anew” means a “round” and thus a “rune, runed....” The final phrase “in new” also puns on “In HeLL” (with the four minims of w yielding VV, which, tipped over to the right, encode LL) and thus on “John Hall.”

           The diction of the text is relatively straightforward. Husband (10) means “control wisely, ration.”

Sample Puns

           1) Handily Colonel T.T. our dick lower (lore) kissed; Handily kernel T.T. read; Anne…cry “Amen!”; see a lark; seal ark; seal her kissed till, Shakespeare’ll see her hymen; our guest tills wry hymen; cellar key still see rhyming
           1-2) till, Crimean, ape of a Moor tall
           2) A boom, o’er tall pitch, that Shakespeare ruse committed; pit (Pete) shitted fit; oar
           3) Anne farted (deserted) riches; …fart a rich sewer is, mighty; Anne deferred, Hat-er-I teaches W., Harry’s mighty syringe (siren); W.H., a wry smitty, is erring; where is Midas earring? my Dis (deaf) earring
           3-4) Syrian Jew
           4) A pun, thy Partisan Set; see Anne S., Anne [et], Down, assed whore! Tory; onus
           4-5) Ed’d own a storied “O”; the Y part I see, Anne, fetid O—“W” (Wen), nest, “O” red; thy part, I, see and set down as too red; parti-; to write o’ fetus whore may be undesired
           5) t’ Ovid a sore may be undesired
           5-6) see Angus omen there reared, oaf, ass uncured; encored [i.e., repeated]; inch, semen there rue, hard oaf
           6-7) Come in the rearward of a cunt, queer dew (duo) wherein “I” ’d find ass a joy above the rest (rift); See omen, the rare, warty African, queer dowry eye, knight          
a son quired, worry aye, night sends, eye Job, Ovid, Harry S., too
           7) W., Harry, Knight, sinned (sins); W.H. Rhine eyed; finned; a boat; raft; a jib Ovid hears
           7-8) there stew ninety, leaf-to-stem; Himmel I see Hath. end; toasty hymn, my leaf (malaise) attend
           8-9) W., Hen., in the leaf, tough theme, my leaf hath end: Harry S.
           9) T’ Harry is Orient hiatus an ode; thatch; Attic Anne—O, take note, high change; take notice, hanging does bane denote
           9-10) O runed Hat. aye, see Anne-knot, naughty, see itch-engine
           9-11) hitch engined husband, Nate, your ass-riches fair homme expends, making lascivious comments on thy sport (...thy ass-port)
         10) ex-pen [i.e., former writer] see; Nate, your ass rich is from Rome
         10-11) your Asser eyed Jesus, Rome, expanse see, my king laughs; expend sesame, making laughs aye
         11) Sumac in jellies see; Seam aching, lass, see “I” vicious come in t’ sun thy sport (t’ “son” this port)
         11-12) come in t’ sandiest port, Thebes to you (Jew) well will be
         12) Thebes, east o’ Jew-hell, will Palestine (Philistine) aid; The base Shakespeare eye, Will, Will (Willobie) be Will Shakespeare teamed timid
         13) The demon god, human, big, wide, here aye cankers; the region sea erase
         13-14) The teaming ode, human pig-wit, hear, I teach John series of different slurs, Anne ode orient [i.e., dayspring] in hue
         14) Oaf, desiring t’ slur synod, our Indian hew; Andean; John H.—you; snotty “O” runed John-Hugh

Acrostic Wit

          The emphatic downward acrostic code—AAAV TC WWTA ([M?]TTO—incorporates a lefthand parenthesis mark that may stand for “C” or “I.” (Ambiguously, the initial M may also function in the code.) Given these permutations, the code suggests, e.g., “A wit cut Act II,” “Ate cud, ass, too,” “Odd queue taste, too,” and “ ‘Out t’ sea,’ weighty motto” or “...wet, eye sea motto.”

           The upward (reverse) code—OTT( [M] AT WWCT VAAA or OTT [M](AT WWCT VAAA (with two possible orders)—suggests, e.g.,“Oats, m’ 8 [phallic?] wicked weigh,” “Odd, my 8, wick t’weigh,”“Autumn see, a twist weigh,” and “Autumn seat West weigh.” The last reading might mean,“Contemplate the retirement home over in Stratford.”

           Other decodings include some that direct their wit toward “T.T.”—Thomas Thorpe, Will’s known printing agent, the signer of Q’s frontmatter: e.g., “O, T.T., ms. eyed wicked. Why?” and/or “O, T.T., m’ seat (seed) waste away.” Any W (and especially any WW) in the acrostic code may also represent Roman numeral meanings and/or pictographic “fangs.” Thus the codeline may mean “O, titty-cat fangs [pictographic VV] see, too.” Since Southampton’s Tower companion is known to have been a cat, any catty wit may have Southy in mind as a focal member of the potential audience.

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