In the four hundredth anniversary year of William Shakespeare’s death, laid to rest in Holy Trinity church in Stratford in 1616, a storm of excitement and controversy has erupted over the claimed discovery of a lost Shakespeare sonnet, which if proved genuine would change the cannon forever and which for its content has wide ranging implications over the question of the Bard’s purported Catholicism.
The single Elizabethan page, Elizabethan on quilted paper at least, and seeming to be in that classic, scrolling “Secretary” script, was unearthed in papers once belonging to the American couple The Wallaces, who came to England in the 1920’s to read through half of the millions of documents in the National Archive. In doing so they uncovered an original signature and two court cases, one relating to Shakespeare’s time on Silver Street, another when the Bard was accused of ‘Murder and Affray’ in Southwark by the corrupt Surrey Sherriff Sir William Gardiner, in 1596. Which ties the Bard directly to the theatrical entrepreneur Francis Langley, who built the Swan in Paris Gardens, and two still mysterious ladies, Dorothy Soeur and Anne Lee.
It remains a mystery though as to why the Wallaces, who grew increasingly paranoid about the British Establishment watching them, or filching their discoveries, and eventually returned to Wichita Falls in Texas to use their considerable investigative powers to unearth their own private oil well during the Texan boom, never revealed the existence of the sonnet, which is signed ws.
It’s form is classic Iambic Pentameter too and with the accepted Shakespearian rhyming structure, and though the page is now under lock and key, awaiting spectral analysis on the ink, its lack of punctuation and variable spelling points to its authenticity. It is reproduced here with only some modern spellings for clarity:
when somer blushes with the dropping leaf
and all the naked worlde uncloaks its shame
when calvin winter stalks the earth beneath
mouthing ffalse psalters to the god of blame
i build cathedrals to a joyous eve
erect profanelye alters to her grace
and like a preacher make the worlde believe
her beauties constant and her truthe her face
for all the seasons halte within her thrall
as though she might hatche eges outside their nest
make spring of winter somer from the fall
or bring forth sweet milk from a virgin brest
so i on trees in forests prick her name
in falling adam loves to fall again
Critics of the find however point to the fact that the papers were also in the hands of the notorious nineteenth century scholar and forger John Payne Collier, who was so publically discredited and disgraced in The Athaneum Magazine. The Shakespeare story is in fact filled with frauds and hoaxes. Scholars also point to textual oddities such as the American, or perhaps New World usage of the term Fall, for Autumn, of course punning on the Fall in the Biblical Garden of Eden, when Eve tempted Adam with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, bringing controversy and debate as to whether the term was even in currency at the period.
References to Calvinism and False doctrines have also raised a storm of new claims and counter claims that Shakespeare was in fact a secret Catholic, a theory, with the Reformation, resisted in Protestant England for four hundred years. One of the most exciting aspects of the find though is a barely legible scrawl at the bottom of the page, which relates to a payment for a bundle of lute strings, of one shilling and a penny, and dates it to 1599, the year the wooden Globe Theatre was put up on Bankside. The sonnet has increased interest and speculation though because of its strong sexual innuendo and references to pricking pages of love poetry on trees, in forests. Perhaps specific echoes of Orlando and Rosalind in the Forest of Arden, and of old Adam too, from one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays, As You Like It, also believed to have been written in 1599.