Recall from my previous post that in 1590, an anonymous poet styling himself “Ignoto” contributed a dedicatory poem to Edmund Spenser’s masterpiece The Faerie Queene. The tone and content of Ignoto’s poem suggest the author was a major hidden poet, perhaps a court poet. The next indication of a major hidden poet linked to the court is found in connection with John Florio’s 1591 book Second Fruits.
Florio, an Englishman of Italian descent (1553 – 1625), was a royal language tutor who devoted much of his career to bringing European culture to English soil. He counted many friends among the members of the nobility. Chief among these were Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, with whom Florio lived for an unspecified period during the early to mid 1590s, and Thomas Sackville, Baron of Buckhurst and Earl of Dorset after 1604, with whom he lived for an unspecified period between the late 1590s and early 1600s. Florio’s First Fruits, published in 1578, and Second Fruits, published in 1591, are compendia of Italian grammar, Italian lore, English-Italian dialogues, excerpts from the Italian literature, and Italian proverbs. Second Fruits includes a commendatory sonnet by Florio’s friend “Phaeton.” Its language, imagery, and swift movement of thought recall Shakespeare’s poetry:
Phaeton 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 spout, the little birds do sing,
Herbs, gums, and plants do vaunt of their release.
So when that all our English wits lay dead
(Except the laurel that is evergreen)
Thou with thy fruits our barrenness o’erspread
And set thy flowery pleasance to be seen.
Such fruits, such flowerets of morality
Were ne’er befroe brought out of Italy.
Only a handful of literary historians have commented on the Phaeton sonnet’s authorship; in general the poem has been neglected. Those few who have looked into the matter have found Samuel Daniel and Shakespeare to be leading contenders for the poem’s authorship. Daniel might seem the obvious candidate because he was Florio’s brother-in-law and dear friend, as well as a talented sonneteer whose poems are known to have influenced Shakespeare’s sonnets. He even commended several of Florio’s other works. Arguing against Daniel is the language of the sonnet itself. Daniel’s poetry tends to be cool, elegant, and restrained; ideas are developed slowly and natural imagery is used sparingly. The Phaeton sonnet, on the other hand, is warm and lively; it effortlessly blends natural, seasonal, and legal imagery in a quick sequence of thoughts. The phrase “the little birds do sing” also suggests Shakespeare more than Daniel. While Daniel revealed no special interest in birds in his works, Shakespeare used an abundance of bird imagery and was drawn to the simple image of little birds singing. To give a few examples: “When birds do sing, Hey ding a ding ding!,” “The eagle suffers little birds to sing,” “Upon those boughs…where late the sweet birds sang.” Although the image might have been an Elizabethan commonplace, not all poets of the time would have used it. “It seems too naive for Marlowe or Jonson, for example,” noted Joseph Sobran in a 1996 article.
Also arguing against Daniel, there is no obvious reason why he would have used the pseudonym “Phaeton” in 1591. Daniel had already published under his own name in 1585, and again published a work under his name in 1592, the sonnet cycle Delia. Why would he have written under a pseudonym in 1591, and what might have caused him to identify with the mythical character Phaeton, Apollo’s doomed son, who plummets to his death while trying to drive the solar chariot? The name Phaeton suggests an element of risk and danger, as if the author felt he were tempting fate by allowing his poem into print.
William Shakespeare was first suggested as the Phaeton sonnet’s author by William Minto in the late nineteenth century. Minto gave many reasons for identifying Shakespeare as the poem’s author, citing a range of verbal parallels and characteristic thought patterns, but ultimately he was guided by intuition and his familiarity with the poetry of the period:
In all poets we may encounter passages of special difficulty; but, on the whole, each poet keeps us at a particular intellectual strain. This is determined chiefly by the degree of abstractness or abstruseness in the language, and by the degree of clearness and power in the ideas…Phaeton's sonnet is not a large field to experiment upon; but, as nearly as I can judge, it requires very much the same intellectual strain as one of Shakespeare's sonnets. Let the reader compare it for himself with the sonnets of Sidney, Daniel, Drayton, and Shakespeare; he will be struck both with special expressions and with a certain clear firmness and boldness in the general method.
While there are many stylistic similarities between the Bard’s poetry and the Phaeton sonnet, there is one main difference: the sonnet rhyme scheme. The Phaeton sonnet uses a hybrid Italian-English sonnet form consisting of fourteen lines with the rhyme pattern a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-c-d, e-e. In contrast, Shakespeare’s acknowledged sonnets use the classic English sonnet form, fourteen lines with the rhyme pattern a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. However, unless one imagines that Shakespeare could not experiment with two sonnet rhyme schemes, both of which were practiced by English sonneteers of the period, this difference has no bearing on the Phaeton sonnet’s authorship—especially because the hybrid form was more common in 1591, and was eminently appropriate for a dedicatory poem affixed to an English book of Italian lore. Another difference between the Phaeton sonnet and Shakespeare’s sonnets is that its iambic pentameter is less regular and more Italianate. Again, the slightly unusual stress patterns are appropriate for an Italian-themed sonnet.
While there are no stylistic grounds for dismissing the Bard as the Phaeton sonnet’s author, William Shakespeare is not a likely author because he had no known reason to write under the pseudonym “Phaeton” in 1591, and there is no evidence he and John Florio were friends by then—or for that matter at a later time. Florio was a well established and respected figure at court in 1591, while William Shakespeare was an up-and-coming member of the disreputable acting profession. It is hard to see how they could have been on intimate terms at such an early stage of William’s career.
At this point, it is worth recalling that William Shakespeare was not a typical member of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean community of writers. He did not publish essays, pamphlets, satires, or epigrams commenting on contemporary people and events. Nor is he known to have published eulogies or commendatory verses in honor of his fellow poets, even though these were so common as to be almost obligatory among the literati. He was probably not a copious letter writer, since none of his letters survived, and he may not have owned many books, since books were then viewed as precious possessions, and he did not bequeath any books in his will. (According to scholars, William’s personal library might have been documented in a lost inventory that accompanied his will.) Nor did he make any bequests to writers. Excepting Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594, he did not ensure that the works printed under his name were carefully edited, or follow custom by including prefatory or dedicatory materials. By all indications he belonged more to the world of the London theatre and the world of Stratford commerce than to the world of the London intelligentsia.
Phaeton may not have been Samuel Daniel, William Shakespeare, or any of the familiar poets of the 1590s. Instead he may have been a hidden poet whom John Florio counted among his friends. In his 1598 World of Words, Florio referred to “a good sonnet” written by a gentleman, “a friend of mine, that loved better to be a poet than to be counted so.” Since Florio demonstrably had a sonnet-writing friend in 1598 who preferred not to be known as a poet, and since Phaeton was a sonnet-writing friend of Florio’s who deliberately hid his identity in 1591, Phaeton was plausibly the same man who “loved better to be a poet than to be counted so.”
Although Phaeton’s identity remains mysterious, there are three hints: he was an excellent sonnet writer; he identified himself with the mythological figure Phaeton, Apollo’s doomed son; and he was a close friend of John Florio’s in the 1590s. Thomas Sackville had all three attributes, and should therefore be seen as the most likely author of the Phaeton sonnet. He was drawn to sonnet writing as a young poet—this is known because his friend Jasper Heywood praised Sackville’s “sweetly sauced and featly fined” sonnets in 1560. Furthermore, Sackville tended to see the world and himself in mythic terms. His narrative poem Induction, first printed in the 1563 Mirror for Magistrates, tells the story of his encounter with the Goddess of Sorrow and subsequent journey to the underworld. When a manuscript version of Sackville’s Induction and its companion piece, The Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham, was discovered in the early 1900s, it contained an additional hundred-odd lines that had not previously been printed, nor even completed. In the opening stanza of the fragment Sackville envisions himself relating stories from English history as Apollo’s doomed son, who tries to drive his father’s solar chariot but instead plunges to his death. He declares that he will “be Phaeton,” urging his steeds to greater speed so that the sparks of light flaming from their nostrils might unfold “fair and heavenly light” along with a “thousand cares” to mortal man. In this context, to be Phaeton seems to mean embarking on a reckless adventure, gaining heavenly visions while suffering a spiritual death of sorts.
Sackville was apparently preoccupied with Phaeton’s story in the early 1560s, since Gorboduc, co-authored with Thomas Norton in 1561, contains three separate allusions to Phaeton’s story. The twentieth-century poet John Berryman recognized the importance of Gorboduc’s Phaeton imagery to its central themes. To support his assertion that “Shakespeare’s early style owes much to Gorboduc…rather to Sackville’s [contributions]…than to Norton’s,” Berryman noted among other similarities that Gorboduc “even [contains] a controlling image, Phaeton.”
If Sackville returned to poetry in earnest around 1591, he might have seen himself as once again adopting Phaeton’s mantle.
A final indication that Sackville could have been Second Fruit’s Phaeton is that Sackville and Florio were close friends. Florio even lived in Sackville’s home for an extended period while translating Montaigne’s essays into English. When he published his English translation of Essays in 1603 he dedicated a portion of the work to Lady Mary Neville, daughter to Sackville and wife to Sir Henry Neville. Florio declared he did not know whether the “best-deserving Lady Neville” gained her impressive talent for languages from her father—“in wisdom none greater”; from her mother—“in goodness none better”; or in some other fashion. Florio described Mary’s “right Honorable Father” as “this age’s Cato, our England’s Hospitalis.” In other words, he viewed Sackville as comparable to the Roman statesman Cato, a man famous for his eloquence, patrotism, and high ideals, in addition to being the age’s most hospitable man. He added, “I owe and vow all service for many-many favors he hath done me.” Florio credited Mary with helping him translate the essays while both were living in her father’s household: “your Ladyship may challenge no small part [of the work], since no small part thereof was done under your Father’s roof, under your regiment.” The close connection between John Florio, Thomas Sackville, and Sackville’s family could explain why Sackville might have commended Florio’s Second Fruits as “Phaeton” in 1591. Sackville could even have been Florio’s friend who “loved better to be a poet than to be counted so” in the 1590s.