W[illiam] S[hakespeare]'s A Funeral Elegy and the Donnean Moment
Claude J. Summers
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Summers, Claude J. "W[illiam] S[hakespeare]'s A Funeral Elegy and the Donnean Moment." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 5.1-22 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-07/summers.htm>.
In his classic study of some forty years ago, The Shakespearean Moment, Patrick Cruttwell called attention to the affinity between Donne's Anniversaries and the plays of Shakespeare's last years, finding that both the poems and the plays share at once a fierce realism and a remote symbolism, an immense capaciousness and an abstractness, that distinguish them from earlier works in each author's career. In comparing the Anniversaries and Shakespeare's late plays, Cruttwell was acutely aware of the difficulties involved in discussing similarities between works of such disparate genres written for very different purposes. The recent rediscovery and attribution to Shakespeare of A Funeral Elegy by W.S. may facilitate our understanding of the literary affinities of Donne and Shakespeare since we are now able to consider works in the same genre written at roughly the same time. But while reading A Funeral Elegy alongside Donne's Epicedes and Obsequies and, especially, the Anniversaries (including the "Funeral Elegy" for Elizabeth Drury) in no way lessens the validity of Cruttwell's sense of a vital connection between Donne and Shakespeare, a comparison of these works complicates the literary history Cruttwell proposed. Indeed, rather than simply subsuming Donne within the Shakespearean moment, it may be more illuminating to locate W.S.' A Funeral Elegy liminally within a peculiarly Donnean moment, the creation of a new form of English elegy. Shakespeare's only elegiac poem -- if A Funeral Elegy is indeed Shakespeare's -- is a work probably indebted to Donne's mourning poems, yet, more certainly, it is one that rejects those very qualities of expansive symbolism and abstraction that the later plays share with the Anniversaries.
Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Donne's Epicedes and Obsequies written before the Anniversaries is their balance of the personal and the impersonal in a project of epideictic idealization that never entirely transcends their immediate contexts. The four poems occasioned by the deaths in rapid succession in the summer of 1609 of Lady Bridget Markham and Cecilia Bulstrode, two close friends of Lucy, Countess of Bedford, are complex social transactions, motivated not only by the need to commemorate the deceased individuals, whom Donne may not have known very well, but also -- and especially -- by the desire to solidify his relationship with his patroness, Lady Bedford. The poems exemplify what Dennis Kay defined as Donne's attempt to devise a non-pastoral Latinate funeral elegy "that could be both domestic and serious." While their hyperbolic comparisons, restless thought, imaginative leaps, and disturbing images anticipate the Anniversaries -- perhaps especially the "Elegie on Mris. Boulstred" (beginning "Death I recant"), which achieves consolation by contemplating Cecilia Bulstrode as an exemplar of the regenerate soul -- these poems are firmly rooted in the particularities of their unique occasions. They can be best understood as Donne's adaptation of the elegy as a vehicle to explore large philosophical and religious issues, while also fulfilling the epideictic obligations of the elegiac mode. These works seek to discover in the senselessness of specific losses some transcendent meaning to death and attempt to find in the meditations occasioned by those deaths some abstract truths, yet they are neither impersonal meditations nor self-absorbed exercises. Rather, they are coterie performances carefully tailored to a narrowly circumscribed audience. They skillfully mix lamentation, praise, and consolation in order to commemorate the lives of the dead women and to comfort their survivors, including especially their chief mourner and Donne's principal audience, Lady Bedford.
No less rooted in their external occasion are the Anniversary poems, which cumulatively constitute Donne's most profound meditation on death and which are distinguished from the earlier Epicedes and Obsequies by virtue of their symbolic mode and greater remoteness from their ostensible subject. A principal difference between the Anniversaries and the earlier Epicedes and Obsequies is that the Anniversaries were printed while the elegies on Bulstrode and Markham circulated only in manuscript. Written to please one of the wealthiest men in England, Sir Robert Drury, the Anniversaries, like the earlier mourning poems, are deeply implicated in the patronage system. But unlike them they are presented to a wide audience, prefaced by the commendatory poetry, and ushered forth, as the title page of the 1611 edition of the first Anniversary, An Anatomy of the World, proclaims, "to be solde" at Samuel Machan's "shop in Paules Church-yard, at the signe of the Bul-head." The fact of publication in the form of commercially distributed books makes the Anniversary poems less coterie works than public performances. Donne's revulsion from the stigma of print is well known, and he later regretted having "descended to print." Thus, it is likely that the publication of the Anniversaries was at the insistence of Sir Robert Drury (or perhaps Joseph Hall, who wrote the prefatory poems) rather than at Donne's own prompting. Nevertheless, whether or not Donne himself conceived of the first Anniversary as a poem to be printed for wide distribution, he acquiesced in its print publication and clearly cooperated in the subsequent issuance of the second Anniversary in 1612. As poems offered for sale to the general public, the Anniversaries lack the familiarity and intimacy of the earlier mourning poems. If they share other aspects of coterie poetry with the earlier Epicedes and Obsequies, including especially intellectual sophistication, they differ in that the assumed audience is circumscribed only by the difficulties of the verse.
What makes the Anniversaries appropriate as public poems is the fact that Elizabeth Drury is only their nominal subject. As the complete title of the first Anniversary announces, the poem is "An Anatomie of the World, Wherein By Occasion of the untimely death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailtie and the decay of this whole world is represented." Similarly, the full title of the second Anniversary reads "Of the Progresse of the Soule, Wherein: By Occasion of the Religious Death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the incommodities of the Soule in this life and her exaltation in the next, are contemplated" (Variorum 22). That is, the Anniversary poems are occasioned by Elizabeth Drury's death but they are not really about her. They could hardly be so, since Donne not only did not know the adolescent girl personally but also apparently had never even seen her. Thus, it is not surprising that many readers, protesting that Elizabeth Drury simply cannot bear the weight of Donne's hyperboles of lament and praise, have questioned the sincerity of the poems and have found that the expression of grief in them rings hollow. In a famous statement, Donne himself allegedly answered Ben Jonson's accusation that the poems were blasphemous by explaining that "he described the Idea of a Woman and not as she was." But while Donne's lack of familiarity with the details of the fourteen-year-old dead girl's life might seem to have disqualified him from writing her elegy, it actually freed him to escape the domestic obligations of the elegy almost altogether. In the Anniversary poems, Donne explores via a symbolic mode the meaning not merely of Elizabeth Drury's individual life and death but, as Barbara Lewalski notes, the "nature and potential of man as image of God" (220), as well as more specific questions about the nature and powers of the soul. The poems represent a decisive break with the traditional English elegy, developing tendencies already apparent in the Epicedes and Obsequies toward refashioning the elegy as a vehicle for philosophical and metaphysical speculation.
But the 1611 edition of An Anatomy of the World included, along with the title poem and Hall's commendatory verse, a more personal work entitled "A Funerall Elegie." Although this poem was probably composed first, it follows the first Anniversary in the 1611 edition and is placed between the first and second Anniversaries in the 1612 edition, in which the second Anniversary, Of the Progresse of the Soule, is published for the first time. Donne's funeral poem for Elizabeth Drury contains the kernels of the theological argument and symbolism developed more fully in the Anniversaries and provides few details of the subject's life; as Paul Parrish notes, "the 'Elegie' moves toward the transforming art of the Anniversaries as it moves away from more conventional patterns of the [elegiac] tradition." Nevertheless, the elegy differs significantly from the Anniversaries in that it celebrates Elizabeth Drury as an individual. She is, to be sure, represented as an exemplar and an ideal even as Donne acknowledges that her youthful death precluded the achievement of great deeds herself. She will inspire others "T'accomplish that which should haue beene her fate" and her legacy is in fact the "future vertuous deeds" of those who will emulate her (100, 103). But, unlike in the first and second Anniversaries, the focus in the funeral elegy is on the girl herself, who is praised in far more conventional terms than in the two Anniversaries proper.
The publication of The Anatomy of the World in 1611 immediately established Donne as the master of a new and controversial elegiac mode, a position solidified by the publication of the Second Anniversary in 1612. As Lewalski points out, "several contemporary statements about these poems, as well as numerous more or less obvious verbal echoes and imitations of them, indicate that they rapidly became a model for praise and compliment generally, as well as a touchstone for judging other poetic endeavors in the panegyric and elegiac kinds." Hence, almost any elegy written after 1611 may be expected to be affected in some way by Donne's innovations in the genre. W.S.' funeral elegy for William Peter, entered into the Stationers' Register on February 13, 1611/12, just nineteen days after Peter's murder at the hands of his neighbor Edward Drew, is no exception. The work betrays some evidence of having been influenced by Donne's funeral elegy for Elizabeth Drury, so there can be little doubt that W.S. knew at least the first of Donne's Anniversary volumes. Yet in many crucial ways the funeral elegy for William Peter decisively rejects the new Donnean elegiac mode, even as it pioneers in other ways and even as its author may have faced similar problems of commemorating the death of an individual who had not accomplished great deeds and whom he may not have known well. Displaying considerable generic self-consciousness in his adoption of a "mourning style" (150), W.S. not only makes choices contrary to those made by Donne in the Anniversaries, but he also calls attention to those choices, in effect announcing his refusal to accede to the Donnean moment in the expression of grief.
The funeral elegy by W.S. owes many of its formal properties, including its rhyme scheme and other stylistic features to Samuel Daniel's "Funerall Poeme uppon the Death of the Late Noble Earle of Devonshire" (1606). As the glosses to the elegy in the second edition of the Riverside Shakespeare note, W.S. also occasionally echoes lines and phrases from Daniel's poem. But there are two important passages that were likely inspired by Donne rather than by anything in Daniel. While these parallels are not exact enough verbally to establish influence definitively, their conceptual similarities nevertheless suggest a relationship more specific than merely sharing a common stock of rhetorical responses to mourning.
Both Donne's and W.S.' funeral elegies open with a similar trope questioning the appropriateness of memorials, a variation on the ubiquitous "inexpressibility topos" and an assertion of the humanist belief that the deceased's best monument is his or her virtuous life. The Donne poem declares that "Tis lost, to trust a Tombe with such a ghest,/Or to confine her in a Marble chest" (1-2); and asks:
Can we keepe her then
In workes of hands, or of the wits of men?
Can these memorials, ragges of paper, giue
Life to the name, by which name they must liue? (9-12)
The elegy by W.S. begins by posing and answering the same question:
Since Time, and his predestinated end,
Abridg'd the circuit of his hopeful days,
While both his Youth and Virtue did intend
The good endeavors of deserving praise,
What memorable monument can last,
Whereon to build his never-blemish'd name
But his own worth, wherein his life was grac'd
Sith as [that] ever he maintain'd the same? (1-8)
The two poems answer the question in ways that are similar, yet also tellingly different.
Both poems insist upon the superiority of their subjects' lives-specifically their names-to any monument, including the present elegies, and both works effect the same variation on the commonplace by locating the true memorials in the influence exerted by their subjects. Without such an influence, Donne asserts, all elegies are but "ragges of paper" and "Carkas verse" (11, 14), while for W.S. only William Peter's "worth" (7) can endure the vicissitudes of time. But the subtle differences in the answers to this question of memorials also help define the crucial difference between the two poems. For Donne, the issue is not Elizabeth Drury's worldly fame but her spiritual influence, while for W.S. the concern is with Peter's earthly reputation. Attempting to rescue his friend's name from the scandal of his death, from those who would "Measure the course of life, with false pretenses / Comparing by thy death what thou hast been" (253-54), W.S. asserts his trust in Peter's goodness. For Donne the true memorial of Elizabeth Drury is her rather abstract function as spiritual exemplar, whereas for W.S., Peter's true memorial is his similar but somewhat more material and concrete office as a pattern of "One truly good" living in "the hearts and memories of men" (17, 13). This difference between the two poems is characteristic of the general tendency of the funeral elegy for William Peter to concretize and secularize what is abstract and spiritual in the Anniversaries.
The emphasis on the subjects' names reflects the humanist panegyric tradition of naming that is particularly associated with epigrams and epitaphs. But the "name-as-praise" motif, as Scodel refers to the practice, is more than conventional here. The peculiar circumstances of each elegy make the emphasis on naming particularly appropriate, even as the two poems use the practice of naming quite distinctly. Since Donne did not know Elizabeth Drury personally, she is little more than a resonant and illustrious name to him, and evoking her name further serves the purpose of evoking the name of her father, his patron. Interestingly, however, her name is evoked but not mentioned in the Anniversaries, other than on the title pages. The failure actually to name Elizabeth Drury in the poems contributes further to the impersonality of the Anniversaries, augmenting the sense that the young woman whose name is on the title pages is indeed only the poems' ostensible subject. For W.S., however, naming William Peter has special significance given the circumstances that prompted the elegy. Since Peter's name was rendered suspect by the violent manner of his death, W.S. undertakes a project of rehabilitating the dead man's "name" in the sense of his reputation. He defines the goal of his elegy as that of building Peter's "never-blemish'd name" (6) and in so doing he asserts that the deceased's virtues merit respect for his name. Acutely conscious that after "those weak houses of our brittle flesh" decay we can "leave behind us but a name, / Which, by a life well led, may honour have" (189, 195-96), W.S. insists that "here on earth thy fame lives ever whole" (200) even in the face of the author's nagging fear that it may not be so, a fear that pervades the entire poem.
Although W.S.' emphasis throughout his poem is on Peter's function as a secular exemplar of moderation and virtue, he does not neglect the religious altogether. Indeed, one of his most moving passages is devoted to his subject's soul, which has taken "her flight to a diviner coast" (199). This passage, almost an inset Shakespearean sonnet, has no parallel in Daniel's poem, but it is strongly reminiscent of Donne's funeral elegy for Elizabeth Drury, which also contrasts earthly and heavenly perspectives.
Just as Donne declares that Elizabeth Drury's life will be recorded in the "booke of destiny" (84), so W.S. also appeals to the Book of Life for evidence of Peter's excellence:
For when the world lies winter'd in the storms
Of fearful consummation and lays down
Th'unsteady change of his fantastic forms,
Expecting ever to be overthrown;
When the proud height of much affected sin
Shall ripen to a head, and in that pride
End in the miseries it did begin,
And fall amidst the glory of his tide:
Then in a book where every work is writ
Shall this man's actions be reveal'd, to show
The gainful fruit of well-imployed wit,
Which paid to heaven the debt that it did owe.
Here shall be reckon'd up the constant faith,
Never untrue, where once he love profess'd. (171-84)
The "nature reversed" topos that is so pervasive in the Anniversary poems is here evoked only to yield to an apocalyptic consolation in which Peter is recognized as someone who has paid his debt to heaven. This recognition is similar to that effected in Donne's funeral elegy, where Elizabeth Drury's inexplicably brief life is seen, from a heavenly perspective, as a rich source of spiritual legacies. The poet acknowledges that someone not knowing Elizabeth Drury's history might read the book of her life and conclude that "eyther destiny mistooke / Or that some leafes were torne out of the booke" (89-90), but, he asserts, that conclusion would be wrong, for it would reflect only an earthly point of view.
Just as Donne in his funeral elegy for Elizabeth Drury contrasts earthly and heavenly perspectives to culminate in an apocalyptic vision, so W.S. also contrasts an earthly perspective in which Peter is viewed with suspicion and a heavenly perspective in which he is rewarded for steadfast loyalty even in "those times of change" (187). On earth, men are subject to "The willful blindness that hoodwinks the eyes" (257) and to the "corrupt commentaries" and "texts of malice" that proceed from a fallen and corrupt human nature (257, 265, 266). Hence, even William Peter's exemplary life is subject to misrepresentation and the malicious misconstrual "Of men in-wrapped in an earthly veile" (258). But in the afterlife, W.S. declares, will be "reckon'd up" Peter's "constant faith" in friendship, which "is a miracle in men" (183, 185). Similarly, Donne foresees Elizabeth Drury's continuing spiritual legacy as the source of mirth in heaven, as the heavenly spirits "see how well, the good play her, on earth" (106). Both poets turn to an apocalyptic vision as a means of praising and justifying their subjects, but characteristically W.S.' emphasis on Peter's role as faithful friend is more worldly than Donne's stress on Elizabeth Drury's inspiration of future virtuous deeds.
Because it is the most personal of the poems in the two Anniversary volumes, Donne's funeral elegy for Elizabeth Drury is closer in spirit to W.S.' funeral elegy than are the other works. Hence it is not surprising that W.S. seems to have found in it tangible inspiration for his own expression of grief. But the most significant fruit of the comparison of these works by Donne and W.S. is not the detection of possible influence, but the apprehension of how resolutely W.S. distances himself from Donne's elegiac innovations. Indeed W.S. not only rejects the symbolic mode and abstraction of the Anniversaries, but he also seems to define his own work in terms specifically opposed to the Donnean moment.
Like the Anniversaries, W.S.' funeral elegy was also promulgated in print rather than circulated in manuscript. But, unlike the Anniversaries, the funeral elegy for Peter was almost certainly published for private circulation among Peter's family and friends rather than for general distribution. On its title page there is no mention of its being offered for sale at any place, nor are there any commendatory verses that usher it to a general public nor dedicatory poems that attempt to curry favor with patrons. The dedication, to Peter's brother, describes the work as "this last duty of a friend," motivated by "The love I bore to your brother." That is, the elegy is presented as a private rather than a public poem and as one prompted by the demands of a personal rather than a general bond. "[W]hatsoever is here done," W.S. asserts in the dedication, "is done to him, and to him only." He thus pointedly denies any ulterior or even secondary motives in writing the poem. While it may well be, as Leah Marcus speculates, that the poem was actually written on commission from some member or ally of Peter's family or for some purpose relating to the complex web of Stratford politics, the author nevertheless goes to great lengths to deny any motive other than simple love of the deceased. That is to say, whatever the actual circumstances of composition and publication, W.S., unlike Donne, embraces a rhetoric of deeply personal grief.
Most significantly, the elegy itself insistently disavows any involvement in the patronage system and asserts that the grief it expresses is genuine and not artificial or formulaic. "I took this task upon me," W.S. writes, addressing his dead friend:
To register with mine unhappy pen
Such duties as it owes to thy desert,
And set thee as a President to Men,
And limn thee to the world but as thou wert:
Not hir'd, as heaven can witness in my soul,
By vain conceits to please such as know it;
Nor servile, to be lik'd, I do not owe it. (224-32)
In these lines the poet fiercely asserts his sincerity, independence and honesty. He not only insists that he is not motivated by financial considerations or the desire (or compulsion) to please others, but he also promises that his portrait of Peter is scrupulously truthful. Like Donne he represents his subject as an exemplar, "a President to Men," but he also pointedly pledges to "limn thee . . . but as thou wert." In these lines asserting the purity of his motives and the truthfulness of his portrait, W.S. may well be thinking of the criticism directed against Donne's Anniversaries as motivated by venality and as offering an impossibly idealized and hence inaccurate image of Elizabeth Drury. Precisely because the impetus for the poem is the rehabilitation of Peter's reputation, W.S. must present himself as truthful and sincere, qualities of an author that the patronage system by its very nature rendered suspect.
Moreover, W.S.' rejection of any "vain conceits to please" may betray the author's deliberate eschewal of the kind of imaginative pyrotechnics that characterize the Anniversaries, and may elucidate his adoption of a plain style. W.S. explains that he does not intend "in full discourse / To progress out [Peter's] life," but, he adds, if he wanted to he could "force / The common voice to warrant what I say" (79-80, 81-82). These lines reject not only the narrative form of many elegies (such as Daniel's account of Devonshire's life and exploits), but also the kind of virtuoso performance that Donne practices in the Anniversaries. W.S. here disavows any interest in forcing the assent of others by the employment of histrionic emotion or exaggerated rhetoric or dazzling displays of ingenuity. Indeed, at the one point in the elegy that W.S. approaches the daring of Donne by comparing William Peter and Christ (367-74), he quickly retreats and apologizes for the possible blasphemy:
But O far be it, our unholy lips
Should so profane the Deity above
As thereby to ordain revenging whips
Against the day of Judgment and of Love. (375-78)
As Richard Abrams has observed, the poet harmonizes his style in the elegy with Peter's own practice of restraint and moderation: "W.S. bears witness to Peter's virtue both by describing it and by drawing on a plain voice in himself to exemplify it."
W.S.' stylistic identification with Peter is but one component of an extended motif of identification between writer and subject that attempts to make the elegy appear intensely personal, and sometimes private and insular, despite the fact that the poet actually offers few details of Peter's life and rehearses a rather conventional and platitudinous list of Peter's virtues. This attempt to create a rhetoric of personal grief and private mourning in W.S.' elegy pointedly contrasts with the public expressions and communal mourning of Donne's Anniversaries. Throughout the poem W.S. stresses the personal connections between himself and Peter and emphasizes the mutuality of their relationship. Indeed, as Abrams observes, in the elegy W.S. celebrates his friendship with Peter as "double selfhood." For example, in a gesture that anticipates Lycidas, he declares that, "had it chanc'd" that he had died first, Peter would have written an elegy for him with his "well-abled quill" (236, 238). The identification of author and subject, and the insistence on the primacy of the author's personal grief (to the neglect, for example, of the grief of Peter's widow and child, who are mentioned only in passing) bespeaks an altogether different mode of mourning than that practiced in the Anniversaries. Dennis Kezar observes that W.S.' rejection of the theatrical (and, I would add, of the communal performance enacted by the Donnean moment) "reveals an effort to protect William Peter from the imaginative collaboration and co-ownership that renders the subject public property." Even in a published work addressed to posterity, in which Peter is presented as a model for others, W.S. presents his friend as a private individual and his own grief as a privileged emotion.
Relatedly, the poem's cryptic allusions to a shared history also attempt to create an illusion of intimacy utterly lacking in the Anniversaries. Most interestingly, W.S. adduces his own experience as a subject of scandal and gossip as evidence of his ability to identify with his friend and as a source of his faith in an ultimate justice that will right present wrongs. Himself a victim of his "country's thankless misconstruction" of his "name and credit" (141, 142), W.S. can appreciate the unfairness of the aspersions cast on Peter's name by virtue of the manner of his death. His faith that "Time, the father of unblushing truth" will eventually "right the hopes of my indanger'd youth" (145, 147) gives credence to his assertions that his friend's worth will also eventually be recognized:
The many hours till the day of doom
Will not consume his life and hapless end,
For should he lie obscure without a tomb,
Time would to time his honesty commend. (157-60)
W.S.' personal witness gives force both to his condemnation of earthly injustice and to his faith in eventual vindication.
Most important of all in achieving the illusion of intimacy in the expression of grief, W.S. not only frankly declares his love for Peter but also calls attention to the declaration as a revelation. Expressing regret that he had not stated his love more openly while Peter still lived, the poet figures his elegy as an embodiment of a love that, he confesses, "I could not set forth / In any other habit of disguise" (207-08). W.S. emphatically describes his poem as foremost an "act of friendship" (206), a kind of ritual sacrifice, a personal offering up "to memory / [Of] The value of my talent" (241-42). While W.S.' persistent appeals to his personal relationship with Peter may constitute a case of protesting too much, they nevertheless create an affinity between poet and subject altogether different from that obtaining in the Anniversaries. In short, W.S., rather than presenting his subject as a remote, symbolic figure or idea, makes the flesh and blood intimacy he allegedly shared with the deceased a core element of the elegy and of the grief that it expresses. His poem is, quite literally, presented as a love offering.
While W.S. rejects the Donnean innovations in the elegiac mode, he does not, however, merely look backwards. His own elegy is in fact remarkable for its own innovativeness. As Donald Foster has noted, "Most Renaissance elegies, if not written for wealthy patrons, were penned for great celebrities. William Peter was neither." Acutely conscious that he is violating elegiac convention in writing of someone who is not known "in eminent courts, or place great / For popular concourse" (130-31), W.S. justifies his practice by insisting that it is as much glory "to be good / For private persons, in their private home, / As those descended from illustrious blood / In public view of greatness, whence they com" (133-36). Near the end of the elegy he returns to the fact that Peter was "but a private man in rank" and proceeds to offer a homily on gentilesse, declaring that "Blood, pomp, state, honor, glory, and command, / Without fit ornaments of disposition, / Are in themselves but heathenish and profane" (439-41). He locates Peter's nobility in the beauty of his mind and the goodness of his conduct rather than in his birth or in any great deeds.
It may at first glance seem surprising that Shakespeare, if he is in fact the author of A Funeral Elegy, should fail to adopt the Donnean innovations in the elegy for William Peter, since his last plays may be said to partake somewhat of the symbolic method and remoteness of the Anniversaries. But W.S.' resistance to Donne's new elegiac mode may itself simply be a function of how rooted in their occasions elegies must necessarily be, as well as how differently individual talents may resolve similar problems. Donne and W.S. faced roughly analogous problems in composing mourning verse for individuals who were not themselves well known or exceptionally accomplished and whom they probably did not know intimately. Donne solved this problem by translating Elizabeth Drury into an idea and a pretext. Adopting a symbolic mode, he wrote public poems that display his learning and virtuosity, in the process transforming the traditional English elegy into a vehicle for theological and philosophical speculation. W.S. may well have learned from Donne that one way of commemorating someone who had not achieved fame by virtue of great deeds is to make of the deceased a pattern of goodness rather than of greatness. But in other respects he rejected the Donnean moment as inappropriate for mourning the untimely and violent death of William Peter. Eschewing Donne's rhetoric of communal mourning, he adopted a rhetoric of personal bereavement. The expression of grief for William Peter is neither symbolic nor philosophical nor witty nor hyperbolic nor remote. While the elegy may indeed be as implicated in the patronage system as are the Anniversaries and while W.S. may have known William Peter as slightly as Donne knew Elizabeth Drury, A Funeral Elegy nevertheless adopts a rhetoric of grief that is personal and intimate, and in so doing rejects the Donnean moment.
1. See Cruttwell (73).
2. On the attribution of A Funeral Elegy to Shakespeare, see Donald W. Foster, Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution, and "A Funeral Elegy: W[illiam] S[hakespeare]’s ‘Best-Speaking Witnesses,’"; Richard Abrams, "W[illiam] S[hakespeare]’s ‘Funeral Elegy’ and the Turn from the Theatrical," and the forum on A Funeral Elegy in Shakespeare Studies, which reproduces Foster’s text of A Funeral Elegy, his PMLA essay, a revision of Abrams’ SEL essay, and responses by Ian Lancashire, Stanley Wells, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Leah S. Marcus, and Stephen Booth. In her contribution to the Shakespeare Studies forum ("Who Wrote A Funeral Elegy?", 192-210), Katherine Duncan-Jones makes a rather implausible case for the Reverend William Sclater, a Puritanically inclined divine, as the author of A Funeral Elegy. In her contribution to the forum ("Who was Will Peter? Or, A Plea for Literary History," 211-228), Leah Marcus buttresses the attribution to Shakespeare by presenting a number of circumstantial connections between Shakespeare and the family of the elegy’s subject. While I find the arguments for attributing the poem to Shakespeare generally convincing, most of my remarks about the relationship of A Funeral Elegy to what I describe as the Donnean moment are independent of whether the poem is by Shakespeare or not.
3. For extended discussions of these poems, see Kay (91-101) and Summers (211-31).
4. Kay (95).
5. I follow Barbara Lewalski (Donne’s Anniversaries and the Poetry of Praise) in thinking of the Anniversaries as embodying a symbolic mode. Edward Taylor, in Donne’s Ideas of a Woman: Structure and Meaning in The Anniversaries, has recently inveighed against the use of "symbol" in connection with the poems, but many of his own explanations of the meaning of idea are elaborate distinctions with little or no real difference from Lewalski’s understanding of the symbolic mode. By "symbolic" I (like Lewalski) mean simply that Donne conceives Elizabeth Drury as simultaneously both her individual self and a universal figure; I do not mean that either "she" or shee" is "really" Queen Elizabeth or the Virgin Mary or the logos, etc.
6. For a reading of the Anniversaries as patronage verse, see Marotti (235-45). For a different perspective of patronage, see Taylor (7).
7. The title page is reproduced in The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne: Volume 6: The Anniversaries and the Epicedes and Obsequies (Stringer 2). All quotations from the Anniversaries are from this edition.
8. See Hester (238).
9. See Jonson (133).
10. See Lewalski (220). On Donne’s exploration of the nature and powers of the soul, see especially Stanwood (227-38). Stanwood reads the Anniversaries in terms of the creative power of the soul and the "essentiall joye" of heavenly grace.
11. See Parish (55-66).
12. See Lewalski (380).
13. For the circumstances of Peter’s murder, see Foster (Elegy by W.S. 11-19).
14. It is possible but not likely that W.S. could have known the Second Anniversary as well. The second edition, containing both Anniversaries and the funeral elegy, was in print before April 1612, but exactly how long before is not certain. The murder of William Peter occurred in January of what would now be dated 1612, and W.S.’ poem probably appeared in February, perhaps somewhat later.
15. See Foster (Elegy by W.S. 82). See also glosses to Foster’s edition of "A Funeral Elegy" in The Riverside Shakespeare (1896-1904).
16. For discussion of this belief, see Scodel (27-40).
17. All quotations from the elegy by W.S. follow the text prepared by David Foster for the second edition of The Riverside Shakespeare.
18. See Scodel (58).
19. On this point, see Foster (Elegy by W.S. 71-74).
20. See Marcus (221-28).
21. In the dedication, W.S. also emphasizes the truthfulness of his portrait, writing "I am herein but a second to the privilege of Truth, who can warrant more in his behalf than I undertook to deliver."
22. The disavowal of patronage concerns may also, of course, be intended to distinguish the elegy for Peter from Daniel’s funeral poem for Devonshire and from a host of other works produced to earn patronage, as well as from the Anniversaries. In any case, the disavowal is more likely a rhetorical ploy than an accurate statement.
23. See Abrams (442). Kezar, Jr. (210) makes a similar observation: "W.S.’s attempts to purify his verse of the theatrical economy reflect a desire to imitate his untheatrical subject, who ‘never was addicted to’ a life of show and boast." Both Abrams and Kezar see W.S. as rejecting the theatrical; I think he is also rejecting analogous elements of Donnes’s elegiac style.
24. See Abrams (442).
25. See Kezar (211).
26. See Foster (Elegy by W.S. 16).
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© 2001-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
(RGS, LJ, WSH, 08 May, 2001 )