“Phaeton” Sonnet Not Shakespeare’s (2006, 2015)

According to E. K. Chambers, “Some anonymous poems have been attributed to Shakespeare. The only one worth consideration is a sonnet prefixed to John Florio’s Second Fruits (1591), which was put forward by W. Minto, Characteristics of English Poets (1885), 371.”[1] There are a number of reasons for rejecting this attribution. But first let us review the poem. 

Phaethon to his Friend Florio.

Sweet friend, whose name agrees with thy increase,
How fit a rival art thou of the Spring!
For when each branch hath left his flourishing,
And green-locked Summer’s shady pleasures cease,
She makes the Winter’s storms repose in peace
And spends her franchise on each living thing:
The daisies sprout, the little birds do sing;
Herbs, gums, and plants do vaunt of their release.
So that when all our English wits lay dead
(Except the Laurel that is ever green),
Thou with thy fruits our barrenness o’erspread
And set thy flowery pleasance to be seen.
Such fruits, such flow’rets of morality,
Were ne’er before brought out of Italy.

Chambers concludes, “I do not find the conjecture [Minto’s] very convincing, although the sonnet has merit.” Chambers’ pronouncement is only that. He rejects the attribution without offering any supporting evidence. This is one of innumerable instances, unfortunately, where an eminent Shakespearean scholar—Malone and Fleay did this routinely—asks the reader to accept his judgment just because he is an eminent scholar. Such statements prove nothing but the arrogance of the writers.

To arrive at a considered opinion, an analysis of the work is necessary, and this begins with scanning the poem. To keep it simple I have reduced the number of accents to two: 1 for weak, 2 for strong.

Phaeton to his Friend Florio

2          2         1           2      1      2     1     1       1      2

1        Sweet friend, | whose name | a grees | with thy  | in crease,     A

1     2   1  2   1   1        2    1      1       2

2        How fit | a ri | val art | thou of  | the Spring!                                     B

2       2       2        2          1      2      1      2      1     2

3         For when | each branch |  hath left | his flour | ish ing,           B
1         2       2           2     2           2     1     2      1        2

4        And | green-locked | Sum mer’s | sha dy | pleas ures cease,    A
2      2         1     2     1         2         1   2       1    2

5        She makes | the Win | ter’s storms | re pose | in peace            A
1         2      1    2      1       1       1     2      1    2

6        And spends | her fran | chise on | each liv | ing thing:              B
1    2     1          2      1     1     1    2        1   2

7        The dai | sies sprout,  | the  lit | tle birds | do sing;                             B
2        2         1        2        1     2       1     1     1     2

8        Herbs, gums, | and plants | do vaunt |of  their | re lease.                   A
2    2         1      2    1      2      1       2     1     2

9        So that  | when all | our Eng | lish wits | lay dead                    D
1    2     1     2      1     1     1  2   1      2

10      (Ex cept | the  Lau | rel that  | is e | ver green),                          E
2      1       1     2        1    2     1     2       1          2

11      Thou with | thy fruits | our bar | ren ness |o’er spread             D
1    2      1     2      1    2        1      1    1   2

12      And set | thy flowe |ry pleas | ance to | be seen.                       E
2        2         2    2       1     1      1      1   1 2

13      Such fruits, | such flow’ | rets  of  |  mor  al | i ty,                              F
1       2      1    2          1         2    1   2   1   2

14      Were ne’er | be fore | brought out | of  It | a ly.                                  F

The results of scansion indicate that the chances of Shakespeare having written this work are between zero and none.

First, the rhyme scheme in all of Shakespeare’s sonnets is A, B, A, B, C, D, C, D, E, F, E, F, GG, with one exception[2]. It is Shakespeare’s particular form, different from the Petrarchan sonnet, and that is why it is known as the Shakespearean sonnet. “Phaeton” is not in this form. It has couplets at 2-3, 4-5, and 6-7, where couplets do not belong, as well as 13-14 where the couplet is necessary. Since the work is not in the Shakespearean sonnet form, it is hardly illogical to conclude that he did not write it.

Second, there are three trochees in “Phaeton,” two in the fourth foot of lines 2 and  4, the other in the first foot of line 11. The trochees in lines 2 and 4 are not applied in the Shakespearean manner. Shakespeare uses the initial and medial trochee. He does not use trochees in the second, fourth or fifth foot.

Third, “Phaeton” is overloaded with spondees. There are ten in fourteen lines. There is one in lines 1, 5, 8, and 9, two in lines 3, 4, 13. Shakespeare is very sparing of trochees and spondees. Furthermore, the spondees in the first foot of lines 1, 3, 5, 8, and 9 are not applied in the Shakespearean manner. As an orchestra which does not like a weak downbeat, Shakespeare never uses a spondee in the first foot of a line except in the case of an enjambment.

It may be added that lines 3, 4, and13 are the sort of Frankenstein’s monsters not found in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Lines 3 and 13 begin with double spondees, while line 4 begins with a truncated foot, followed by a double spondee, a trochee, and concludes with a trisyllabic foot.

Fourth, to say as Chambers does, that the work in question “has merit” is saying a great deal. Every poet of the period has references to the seasons, daisies sprouting, and little birds singing. If anything, the imagery of “Phaeton” is trite. “Herbs” and “plants” is a tautology. It is true that Shakespeare himself could fall into this trap, as he wrote plays in haste, but such lapses are rare. We would expect him to be more careful in a laudatory poem written to a friend.

Fifth, Shakespeare would not sign himself “Phaeton.” Phaëthon is one of Ovid’s best stories, charged with exciting detail. Phaeton, the half-mortal son of Apollo, wants to drive his father’s fiery chariot (the sun). Ignoring his father’s warnings of a potentially disastrous ride, Phaeton, visions of glory in his head, stubbornly forges ahead. The chariot ride develops as predicted by Apollo and Phaeton plunges to his death into the sea. The character of mythology is impulsive, headstrong, dreams of glory, and will not listen to sound advice. Everything we know about Shakespeare leads us to conclude that he was the very opposite of Phaeton—thoughtful, humble and cautious. It stretches credulity to the breaking point to suppose that Shakespeare would identify with Phaeton.

Sixth, though we are in uncharted waters, there is no evidence of any connection between Shakespeare and John Florio as early as 1591. Florio (1545-1625) was the English-born son of Michelangelo Florio an Italian Protestant refugee. After graduation from Oxford, he completed two Italian grammars, Florio his Firste Fruites (1578) and Florio’s Second Fruites (1591) to which “Phaeton” is attached. These were followed by his Italian-English diction­ary A World of Words (1598), and a translation of Montaigne’s Essais (1603).[3]

Shakespeare knew Florio. In 1591 Florio was ap­pointed tutor to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron and subject of the Sonnets. But we do not know when Shakespeare met Southampton. He may not have met him until well after Florio’s book was published. The well-informed devil’s advocate might claim that, as an actor in Lord Strange’s company, Shakespeare visited Titchfield, Southampton’s main residence, while on tour before 1591. That is entirely possible since the town of Southampton was a stop as touring records indicate. But the argument is strictly academic since it is clear that on literary grounds Shakespeare is not the author of “Phaeton.”

Who signs himself Phaeton? Though Shakespeare would not identify with Ovid’s character, the identification would fit perfectly with one of the self-destructive University Wits. Moreover, there may very well be an Oxford connection between Florio and George Peele, both of whom attended that university in the late 1570’s. Nash, Greene, and Marlowe attended Cambridge, and though Greene was incorporated M.A. at Oxford in 1588, Florio would have been long gone by then. So of the four, Peele would be the most likely one to have a relationship with Florio.

There is a strong case for Peele which I unhesitatingly propose. He has a penchant for beginning lines with spondees. In his An Introduction to the Study of the Shakespeare Canon (432), Robertson points out that in just the first act of David and Bethsabe Peele begins 46 lines with spondees such as “Proud lust.” Peele frequently uses trisyllabic feet which were archaic by the 1590’s. He has lines with the first foot truncated. He does not adhere to iambic pentameter, writing lines of six, seven, and even eight feet. Peele’s use of substitution is totally unlike Marlowe’s whose metrical system is very close to Shakespeare’s. Peele frequently falls into tautology, and has many references to Apollo and Phaeton in his works.

Who is the “Laurel” that is “ever green”? Spenser is a likely candidate since he was held in the highest esteem by the poets of the time.

There is one certainty here. Shakespeare did not write the “Phaeton” sonnet.

[Thanks to Prof. Lisa Ruddick for her input into the prosody of the sonnet.]

[1] E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, I, 555.

[2] Except “sonnet” numbered 126 which has 12 lines. It is not a sonnet but rather a sextet of rhyming couplets, AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, FF. However, it is indubitably Shakespeare’s since it is one thematically and stylistically with the entire collection.

[3] Oscar James Campbell, The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, 234.