Requiem for an elegy Essay: Attributing the 1612 "A Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare is folly for a very good reason: It's too bad.


The attribution to William Shakespeare of an obscure, rambling, disorganized Elizabethan elegy on the basis of a computer study of word choice made front page news in January. So the controversy is being taken seriously -- more so than the poem itself deserves.

And the attribution, made by Vassar College Professor Donald Foster, is sure to be the source of more contention when the World Shakespeare Congress holds its annual meeting, beginning Thursday, in Los Angeles.

In seeking to prove that this obscure 17th-century funeral elegy was written by Shakespeare, Mr. Foster seems to have missed one critical step. He forgot to read the poem.

Judged on its merits, "A Funeral Elegy" deserves to remain in the microfilm oblivion from which it has been rescued, temporarily at least.

It is 578 unendurably dull lines long; its syntax is tortured; its sentiments are cliched; and its metaphors, few as they are, fall flat.

The only external evidence connecting this 1612 elegy to Shakespeare is that its unknown author is identified as "W.S." and that it was published by Thomas Thorp, who had printed Shakespeare's "Sonnets" three years earlier.

But in a study of the poem -- first pursued with 3-by-5 cards and later with a computer program of Mr. Foster's own design -- that began 13 years ago when he was a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Mr. Foster has collected hundreds of pages of internal evidence that, he claims, puts Shakespeare's authorship beyond challenge.

The future of "A Funeral Elegy" is still in doubt. A powerful new contender for authorship has emerged in Simon Wastell, a 17th-century curate, plagiarist and would-be poet. And this week's meeting of the World Shakespeare Congress -- where Mr. Foster is scheduled to present his evidence again -- is not likely to resolve matters.

Mr. Foster's statistical tabulation of the language of the poem in relation to Shakespeare's works and those of others is impressive: He has sifted through dozens of authors and millions of words in the period 1570-1630, amassing enough evidence to feel justified in asserting that W.S. is William Shakespeare.

It used to be that attribution studies, deciding who wrote what in cases of shared or anonymous authorship, created less heat and more light. The scholars conducted themselves like accountants. They collected information about what is called "internal evidence," linguistic practices such as the sort of colloquial and contractive forms Shakespeare tended to use.

In this manner, they demonstrated Shakespeare's share, or lack of one, in plays of divided or uncertain authorship.

But if authorship studies were once humble footnotes to literary history, more recently they seem to be trying to revise it.

Mr. Foster's attribution of W.S.' "Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare, for example, appears to offer specialists in gender studies, gay studies and even deconstructionists, those professional doubting Thomases in any system of meaning or belief, a cornucopia of delights.

As reported by the New York Times, the elegy "provides a treasure of biographical information about Shakespeare, including his lack of religious conviction [such as skepticism about the widely accepted Christian belief in bodily resurrection], his disenchantment with theatrical excess and the possibility . . that he was bisexual."

Mr. Foster himself has been somewhat coy about such claims, but one of his supporters, Richard Abrams, who teaches at the University of Southern Maine, has asserted them aggressively.

Mr. Foster seems to want to become a public intellectual in the manner of Duke University's Stanley Fish or Harvard's Henry Louis Gates. He has appeared on CBS' "Evening News" and "Sunday Morning" and written an article for New York magazine, which purported to identify the controversial Anonymous, the author of the nation's best-selling "Primary Colors," as Newsweek political columnist Joe Klein.

But certain of his judgments arouse skepticism, if not suspicion. For example, he notes that run-on lines in "Funeral Elegy" amount to 46 percent of the whole and are comparable to the frequency of run-ons in Shakespeare's last plays, which were written at the same time.

He's comparing very different types of verse, however. Shakespeare's plays are written in blank verse -- verse that does not rhyme and in which run-ons sometimes signify a poet's mastery in making poetry sound like actual speech. But "A Funeral Elegy" is written in rhyming quatrains, and the large number of its run-on lines are a consequence of the poet's inability to keep his sentences under control.

(In Shakespeare's rhymingnon-dramatic verse, the percentage of run-on lines is always less than half, and often as little as a quarter, of those in the elegy.)

Moreover, many of Mr. Foster's comparisons between W.S. and Shakespeare are meaningless, depending as they do on the shared use of phrases like "castles in the air" -- which were no less cliches in the public domain for Elizabethans than they are for us.

Mr. Foster and Mr. Abrams must also be held responsible for several serious misreadings. Repeated and close perusals of "A Funeral Elegy" show no evidence of the author's bisexuality, of his life in the theater or of his skepticism about bodily resurrection, as Mr. Foster and Mr. Abrams claim. "A Funeral Elegy" is conventional and pious.

Even if the statistical evidence were better than it is, "A Funeral Elegy" is not merely a bad poem, but one so incompetent, amateurish and disorganized that one cannot conceive of it being written by one of history's greatest poets at the height of his powers.

The most troubling questions that arise from the attribution of "A Funeral Elegy" to William Shakespeare are about the ability to read of those who should be expected to teach students to understand literature. How else, but as a failure in reading, can one explain a failure to note the incongruity between the statistical "evidence" and the fact that "A Funeral Elegy" is lousy?

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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