“A Lover’s Complaint” Not Shakespeare’s (2008)

While preparing a performance-lecture on the subject of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I found it necessary to revisit the least admired and read of the poems attributed to our greatest writer. A Lover’s Complaint was included in the first edition of the Sonnets, 1609, and therefore thought to have been written by Shakespeare, not an unreasonable supposition. It is composed of 47 stanzas in rhyme royal, the same measure Shakespeare employed in The Rape of Lucrece. Rhyme royal is a seven-line stanza with the rhyme scheme ABABBCC. 

The poem is a maiden’s tale, told to an old shepherd, of her seduction and abandonment by an irresistible youth. While the subject is conventional, the treatment is original in that the girl is not a lovely young thing. Ironically, she is “the carcass of a beauty spent and done.” If it were Shakespeare’s, one might believe that this character was inspired by his older, and perhaps unloved wife, Anne Hathaway.

A Lovers Complaint is a labored and frequently awkward work in the manner of Spenser, betraying none of the  influences of Lyly’s Euphues, which was all the rage when Shakespeare began writing. Shakespeare certainly followed the fashion in Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Until the early 1960’s, it was thought that Complaint, though it had some familiar echoes, was not Shakespeare’s, but was allowed to stand in the canon nevertheless. About that time, the influential scholar Kenneth Muir argued that the work is authentic, but the weight of his name convinced few if any.

After reading A Lover’s Complaint for the third time in three decades—every ten years is far more than necessary—I decided to see what had been written about it. Google immediately took me to an article by Ron Rosenbaum published in The Spectator on June 12. The article has the headline, “Are Those Shakespeare’s ‘Balls,’” (a bit much, I would think, for even the National Enquirer). This is a reference to eyeballs as used in the poem which Rosenbaum finds laughably preposterous. Though not fond of the usage myself, I doubt that Elizabethans received it the way Rosenbaum does. Shakespeare uses it elsewhere, in Love’s Labours Lost for instance, in Berowne’s description of Rosaline: “A whitely wanton with a velvet brow / With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes”. We must guard against filtering Tudor expressions through 21st century eyeglasses.

Rosenbaum brings us up to date. Jonathan Bate, chief editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s publication arm, has jettisoned the poem from the Shakespeare canon. In doing this he was influenced by Brian Vickers’ 2007 article “William Shakespeare, ‘A Lovers Complaint,’ and John Davies of Hereford”. Vickers maintains that the latter, a minor poet, was the author. This attribution was supported by the textual scholar Harold Love. Katherine Duncan-Jones, editor of the Arden Sonnets and Poems, offered a riposte to Vickers-Love in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement. Rosenbaum quotes the letter in which she poses some good questions.

First, she queries how the author, if not Shakespeare, became so deeply familiar with the Sonnets which were not published until 1609. She is obviously thinking about the eight stanzas of Complaint which describe the physical and intellectual make-up of  Shakespeare’s patron, the earl of Southampton (disguised in the poem as the young seducer), in exactly the same way Shakespeare does. The similarity is uncanny. In sonnet 20, Southampton’s face is such “Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.” In Complaint we find, “That he did in the general bosom reign / Of young, of old; and sexes both enchanted.” Southampton’s good looks attracted everyone.

The truth is that knowledge of the Sonnets is not required to describe Southampton. Only an acquaintance with the young lord is necessary, and he undoubtedly had many acquaintances. As Shakespeare tells us in sonnet 78, “… every alien pen hath got my use / And under thee their poesy disperse.” Once the writing community learned that Shakespeare was the beneficiary of Southampton’s largess, all of the rats went after a piece of the cheese. Thomas Nash dedicated his novel,The Unfortunate Traveller, to Southampton in 1594. But since he did not have the lord’s permission, Nash received nothing and the dedication was later dropped. Gervase Markham was perhaps successful with his The Most Honourable Tragedy of Sir Richard Greville [not a play] in 1595. Christopher Marlowe, the Rival Poet of the Sonnets, was hot on Southampton’s trail when murdered in 1593. I clinch that argument by quoting Hero and Leander: “Some swore he was a man in maid’s attire / For in his looks were all that men desire”. Southampton’s looks and personality captivated everyone who met him.

Secondly, Duncan-Jones asks what motive the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, might have had in including a spurious poem with the Sonnets. No need fishing for a motive. As far as Thorpe knew, the work was Shakespeare’s. He acquired the lot, we learn in his dedication, from William Harvey (“Mr. W. H.”). Harvey was the third husband of Countess Southampton, the young earl’s mother. When the Countess died and Harvey remarried, he and his new wife cleared out the Countess’s personal effects. Among these effects was the poetry under present consideration, which may have been passed on to her by her son, or simply left in a chest or drawer.

The Countess was a well educated woman as we can judge from her correspondence, unlike the vast majority of Elizabethan women who were illiterate. She would have appreciated Shakespeare’s writing; she may have even inspired sonnets 1-17 which encourage her son to marry. Harvey, with good reason, thought he might be able to sell the collection to Thorpe who was undoubtedly delighted to get them. No one challenges the authenticity of the Sonnets. But Thorpe’s blind belief that Complaint was Shakespeare’s is not a guarantee that it is. A. L. Rowse, Shakespeare scholar and foremost authority on the Tudor period, believes it is Shakespeare’s, an early opus written to qualify for Southampton’s favor. But, as we shall see, it was written by one of the rats.

Third, Duncan-Jones queries, in relation to Thorpe’s publishing Complaint, “Why should he risk the wrath of the pre-eminent player-poet playwright?” How does she know that Thorpe did not incur wrath? How is it that the Sonnets, written by the most popular author of the day, had only one edition when Venus and Adonis had ten? The quarto was surely withdrawn from the bookstalls. The sonnets were personal in nature, many scandalous if made public. It is unthinkable that the latter were among the “sugr’d sonnets” in private circulation mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598. Since Shakespeare, Southampton, and Emilia Lanier (the “Dark Lady” of the Sonnets) were all public figures, they would have been humiliated by the publication of the volume. It is not unreasonable to believe, furthermore, that Harvey was well aware of the sonnets’ volatility and asked Thorpe to keep his name out of it, thus the initials “W. H.” Surely Thorpe incurred a triple wrath and the withdrawn copies likely burned. It would be almost a hundred years before the Sonnets were published again.

For the third time in as many articles on Shakespeare authorship questions, I must repeat myself. The only way to determine authorship is through a study of versification and style, versification being the more important because stylistic devices can be imitated. Indeed, every Tudor poet drew on the common stock referenced by the classical Latin authors and catalogued by Thomas Wilson in his Arte of Rhetorick. Evidently Donald Foster did not know this when he joyously announced that hendiadys was “a thumbprint” for Shakespeare in A Funeral Elegy.

Versification, unlike stylistic devices, cannot be imitated. It is instinctive and unique to every writer. One gets a grasp of a writer’s versification by scanning his work. His method of versification is revealed in his use of substitution, that is, how he uses the trochee—a foot with accent on the first syllable (the opposite of an iamb)—and the spondee—a foot in which the two syllables have equal stress—as rhythmical substitutes for the iamb. The last thing we want is an invertebrate procession of iambs as in Gorboduc, The Spanish Tragedy, and other pre-Shakespearean plays.

Enjambment and the feminine ending are also extremely important considerations. In enjambment, the meaning overflows from one line to the next. The feminine ending is an 11th, hypermetrical syllable at the end of a decasyllabic line which adds flexibility to the verse.  Also regarding the meter (not to be confused with rhythm), we want to know if a writer is using trisyllabic feet, doggerel, alexandrines, or other measures.

What constitutes Shakespeare’s method of substitution? First, he uses the trochee in the initial and medial positions, in other words, in the first foot of a line, or following an internal pause often noted by a comma. He does not use the trochee in the second, fourth, or fifth foot. In these positions the trochee does not produce a harmonious result. It may be added that a trochee in the fifth foot destroys the finite quality of the iambic line—it is like suddenly throwing the car in reverse.

Shakespeare uses the spondee in the second, third or fourth foot. Like an orchestra which does not like a weak downbeat, he does not use the spondee in the first foot. By contrast, George Peele is addicted to using the spondee in the first foot. This is one of the many ways in which these two writers can be differentiated.

Shakespeare uses the trochee and spondee sparingly. As might be expected, Marlowe, setting the pattern for Shakespeare, also uses substitutions sparingly and eschews the spondee in the first foot. Overuse of the trochee produces a spasmodic feel (which is more apparent in scanning than in reading aloud). Overuse of the spondee flattens the rhythm as in the endlessly droning A Funeral Elegy where there is a spondee in almost every line, sometimes more than one. In addition to his weak spondaic downbeats, Peele’s overuses the trochee, the overall character of his versification is spasmodic and could never be confused with Shakespeare or Marlowe.

Scansion is a time-consuming business. I confess I have not devoted as much time to A Lovers Complaint as I would have liked. But I am satisfied I have done enough to arrive at factually-based conclusions.

A Lover’s Complaint is totally lacking in rhythmical consistency. Sixteen stanzas are relentlessly iambic—no substitutions. In the remaining stanzas, substitutions are employed haphazardly, sometimes bunched together. While trochees are mainly used to the benefit of the rhythm in the first foot, they are overworked and therefore not Shakespeare’s. There is at least one example of a trochee in the fifth foot (line 7, stanza 9). Spondees are used infrequently making little impact on the rhythm .

Anyone who has ever studied Shakespeare’s use of enjambment and the feminine ending knows that his employment of them never stopped accelerating. In The Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare has 14% enjambments (Feuillerat, 70). In Complaint there are 36 enjambments or roughly 1%. Another contrast, in the first 500 lines of Hero and Leander (looking it over quickly) Marlowe has about a dozen enjambments, even less than Complaint; his versification is preponderantly end-stopped, one of the ways in which he can be distinguished from Shakespeare.

Around the time of The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare has roughly 18% feminine endings. By the time of The Winter’s Tale he was reaching 33%. In A Lover’s Complaint there are 29 feminine endings in 329 lines, or about 9%. On the basis of the differences in the use of enjambments and feminine endings alone, I have no doubt whatever that Shakespeare is not the author of the pastoral; he could not have gone backward in his use of the weapons of flexibility. Thus, Rosenbaum is correct in his belief that Complaint, if Shakespeare’s—which it is not— is an early work, while Duncan-Jones is mistaken in believing it to be late Shakespeare.

There are other grounds for believing that A Lovers Complaint is not Shakespeare’s. In Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and Sonnets we do not find trisyllabic feet, an outmoded hand-me-down from Chaucer. In Complaint there are at least four trisyllabic feet: in the first foot of line 1, stanza 7; in the first foot of line 3, stanza 7; in the second foot of line1, stanza 29; and in the fourth foot, line 3, stanza 38. The well-informed devil’s advocate will argue that Shakespeare uses trisyllabic feet in his plays.

The rejoinder is that Shakespeare (and Marlowe) was in the avant garde of versifiers, establishing a purified rhythm that would be the envy of every poet. Why would he be imitating the herky-jerky rhythm of Chaucer? The logical conclusion is that if trisyllabic feet occur in the plays, those plays were  written by others, Shakespeare revising them and sometimes allowing old material to stand. This also accounts for the variety of styles and hailstorm of inferior verse in his plays.

No need to speculate, for example, why the Duke’s speech at the end of III, ii, in Measure for Measure is written in octosyllabic verse: it is the remnant of an old play. Everyone knows that Shakespeare used old plays as source material, but few if any know exactly what he did with them. Once Dover Wilson’s theory of Continuous Copy is conceded (which it was not), all becomes clear. One would have thought that an excellent prosodist like George C. Wright (Shakespeares Metrical Art) would have figured all this out. But Wright, like many, mistakenly believes that every word in the canon was written by Shakespeare.

In A Lover’s Complaint there are some images that might suggest Shakespeare. The jilted woman’s hat is a “hive”; she is the “carcass” of beauty; age shows on her face like a “lattice”; her torn love letters find “sepulchres” in the mud of the stream. But the images are few and they are of a sort that does not require genius. We also find the legal term “fee-simple,” but legal terms, though dear to Shakespeare, were used by many poets. There is only one conceit, cherished by Rosenbaum, that could be mistaken for the master: “O father! What a hell of witchcraft lies / In the small orb of one particular tear”. But even poetasters can have a rare happy idea. In the end, the stylistic resemblances to Shakespeare in A Lovers Complaint are superficial and no proof that he wrote it, because the author, whoever he is, is betrayed by his versification.

So, if Shakespeare did not write this work, who did? Well, it was not Marlowe or Peele. At the moment, John Davies, Vickers’ candidate, is as good as any. Though without an understanding of Davies’ versification (and I have no intention of analyzing it), I would not support the attribution.

In the same article, Rosenbaum informs us that Bate has not only withdrawn Complaint from the canon, he has added “To the Queen,” an 18-line dog pile of doggerel composed of 3, 3 ½, and 4 foot lines. So far from Shakespeare, this “poem” may just as well have been written by a bootblack at Windsor palace. Though structurally similar, it’s not even as good as “Jack be nimble / Jack be quick / Jack jump over the candlestick”.

Rosenbaum regrets that Americans have not weighed into the Complaint debate. He also laments that he has not heard from an independent scholar (defined, in my view, as an individual free from the waxworks known as the Shakespeare Establishment). Since I am both, perhaps this article will cheer him up.