Giraffe gaffe


Alexander Waugh has trumpeted a great Oxfordian discovery. In The Spectator (2 November 2013), he wrote:

“Researching a new book on Shakespeare’s sonnets, I stumbled upon an astonishing piece of hitherto unnoticed evidence in a 16th-century book by a sex-maniac clergyman from Cambridge. I shall not bore you with the details; suffice it to say that William Covell (the author and S-MC in question) revealed in words not especially ambiguous by Elizabethan standards that ‘Shakespeare’ was a nom de plume used by the courtier poet Edward de Vere.”

This is his revelation:


Pretty, isn’t it?

Waugh is no fool: among other things, he wrote a damned good book on the Wittgenstein family. But his great epiphany is apophenia: the perception of meaning in the meaningless. Yes, I know that cluster of stars looks just like a giraffe, but don't expect to bring down astrophysics with your great discovery™.

I happen to like details: let’s look at them.

In comments, Waugh kept badgering his critics: “What, in your opinion, was Covell's intended purpose of meaning when he supported the phrase* ‘Oxford thou maist extol thy courte-deare-verse’ with the aligned text-note ‘Lucretia Sweet Shak-speare.’”

The bending of evidence starts here. “Intended purpose of meaning”? “Supported”? “Aligned”? Waugh’s written the question to enforce his desired answer. That’s at best naïve—and I don’t think he is.

A more honest form of the question would be “Why do you think that Covell wrote this marginal note for this text?” Bearing in mind, of course, that we have no idea how this passage looked in manuscript, and that any alignment is the printer’s work.

Let’s start with the text.

It is not, of course, from Polimanteia proper but from an appended “Letter from England to her three daughters, Cambridge, Oxford, Innes of Court, and to all the rest of her inhabitants...”

Covell speaks of “sweet daughter Oxford” and “sweet Cambridge.” They are embodiments, sisters.

“Let other countries (sweet Cambridge) envie, (yet admire) my Virgil, thy petrarch, divine Spenser. And unlesse I erre, (a thing easie in such simplicitie) deluded by dearlie beloved Delia, and fortunatelie fortunate Cleopatra; Oxford thou maist extoll thy courte-deare-verse happie Daniell, whose sweet refined muse, in contracted shape, were sufficient amongst men, to gaine pardon of the sinne to Rosemond, pittie to distressed Cleopatra, and everliving praise to her loving Delia.

Which may be parsed: Let others envy Cambridge her Spenser; but you, Oxford, may boast your Daniel, felicitous in poetry beloved at court, whose muse [that is, his particular genius, his style: OED 2a], in her concise and pithy form, would suffice to gain pardon, pity, and praise to her [note “her”: the subject is still “muse”] heroines. Delia was the unknown or imaginary mistress of his sonnet-cycle, published with the Complaint of Rosamond (1592). His Tragedie of Cleopatra (1594) is closet-drama, in which she decorously dies off-stage.

That “courte-deare-verse happie Daniell” looks weird, but Covell loves inventing extravagantly linked and nested adjectives. In just these few pages, we find:

blackemouthed envie
prince-killing Judith
hate-working gold
love-writing muse
Phoenix-like fire
ever-living Empresse (Oxfordians note: Elizabeth was very much alive in 1595)
foe-danting shield
Mars-conquering honor
free-toongd and un-aw-bound skill
Rome live-making Livie (Livy, whose history of Rome brought it to life)
courte-deare-verse happie Daniell

If that last one baffles you, try "Albert-begotten-children fortunate Victoria": Victoria is fortunate in children begotten by Albert, as Daniel is happy in poetry beloved by the court.

So: Covell picks Spenser as the greatest of contemporary Cambridge poets, and Daniel as the Oxford champion.

Throughout the text, Covell has used the marginalia for all the sorts of reasons we use footnotes: as glosses, afterthoughts, abstracts, streams of consciousness. His muse is discursive; there is scarce one page without parenthesis. Here in the margin—the sidebar—he gives a shortlist of lesser but still admirable poets’ creations, muddled up with their makers. Runners-up, as it were: “All praise worthy.” That alludes to a passage in the praise of nymphs in Spenser’s Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595). “All I praise, but in the highest place, Urania,” he says; then names six others, each time repeating that this Galathea or Theana is “ne lesse praise worthie” than the rest. What follows here is Covell’s shortlist of poetic nymphs. He’s been thinking about heroines, about Delia and Cleopatra, so Lucrece comes first to mind, with her maker, “Sweet Shakspeare.” Next is “Eloquent Gaveston,” most likely Michael Drayton’s (1593), not Marlowe’s: the subject here is lyric or epic verse, not stage plays. “Wanton Adonis” would (most likely) be Shakespeare’s again. Neither Shakespeare nor Drayton was at Cambridge or Oxford, so they are out of the mainstream of Covell’s argument. Thomas Watson brings the byway round again to the universities: he might have been the greatest of the Oxford poets, had he not died in 1592. Death put him in the margins. Who “Watsons heyre” is, is a puzzle: that honor has been argued for Marlowe, Shakespeare, Barnfield, and others. He could well be Daniel: the ghost in the margin could be handing on the laurels to the next Oxonian.†

So the sidenote forms a ladder from Spenser's Cambridge to Watson's Oxford: not a rigid pattern, but a swift concatenation of ideas, a waterfall, which might be sketched like this:


If I were playing Waugh's game, I'd draw an arrowhead round "Watsons heyre," with Cleopatra, Rosemond, and Delia as the flight of feathers. Just look at that shaft! "...and everliving praise to her..." Bull's-eye!

Why is “Sweet Shakspeare” only a side-note? Remember that he was still a rising star: Venus and Adonis (1593) was blazing through its second printing and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) was fire-new. Do you think an Oxfordian pseudo-Shakespeare, who had already written half the great plays would be relegated to the marginalia? On the other hand, how could the uncourtly Stratford poet, who was nursed by none of England’s three daughters, neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor the Inns of Court, have made it to the main text? So: first among the runners-up, with a little nosegay: “Sweet Shakspeare.”

Half London would have known him as a player: many at sight. Even if they’d never heard of the player, anyone with eyes to read the dedications to those poems could see that William Shakespeare was a commoner, cap in hand to Southampton.

Would anyone then, seeing “Sweet Shakspeare” west by southwest of “Oxford” have identified the two? Not bloody likely. Throughout the letter, “Oxford” and “Cambridge” have been goddess-like embodiments of learning. Here, all of a sudden, “sweet daughter Oxford” is allegedly the Earl.

This is indecorous on many levels.

First, within two sentences, Oxford is mismatched with Cambridge, boot and slipper. Elizabethans thought a great deal of balance in rhetoric, as in philosophy. Either both are both genii loci and living nobles in disguise, or neither is.

Second, now Oxford is mismatched with all the other Oxfords in the piece. It is a cheat to single out just one as a cipher: like drawing a target round your bullet-holes. Look! Bull's-eye!

Thirdly, Oxford is mismatched with Shakespeare. Gabriel Harvey, who thought that Shakespeare's Lucrece had that in it “to please the wiser sort,” thought otherwise of Oxford: “Vanitie aboue all: Villainie next her.” What reason could there be to hide the author of so chaste and laudable a work? If De Vere had written it, it might have rubbed a bit of tarnish from his reputation. Why not blazon it? Why wouldn’t he have jumped at the chance? The thing is ludicrous.

So much for propinquity. What about the so-called cipher?

If “courte-deare-verse” is an embedded anagram, it’s awfully clumsy. Read either in the context of the sentence or as part of the triangular message, it makes no damned sense at all. “Delia, Cleopatra; Oxford thy our De Vere a secret”? “Oxford thou maist extoll thy our De Vere a secret happie Daniell”? Perhaps something like “Oxford thou maist revel in a secret—our De Vere” (with the anagram in nudge-wink italics) might have been conceivable. Not “thy.” That “thy” is intransigent. But like every Oxfordian I’ve ever known, Waugh doesn’t much care for grammar or sense, as long he can find a pseudo-message.

I’m not impressed with his reading of “in contracted shape.” His alleged “our De Vere—a secret” isn’t in contracted shape at all, but jumbled up. Even “our De Vere” is not so much contracted as winkled out from its matrix, or sieved. Covell might have called it “pickt.” I call it cherry-picked.

Waugh is fortunate to have a sock-puppet Shakespeare with a brief, ubiquitous name. By sheer fortuity, his title names a university and his letters are four-fifths of “verse.” And of course, “ever” is one of the commonest of English words. “Er” and “re” are the 4th and 6th most common digrams; “ve” and “de” are 33rd and 45th. (For comparison, “of” is 31st.) Trigrams? “Ere” is 8th and “ver” is 26th. You can’t find a passage of English prose that isn’t speckled with bits of De Vere, like raisins in plum duff.

Connect the dots.

It took me five minutes to find this in Polimanteia (p. 28 in the PDF):

“...for euen as in the seede the vertue of those things is hid which it bringeth foorth...”

Oh, look, a giraffe! De Vere sings, is hid. And aligned in the margin next to that: “An unlike similitude.”

A giraffe? Gosh, how about a flying pig? or a bicycle?

As long as Waugh’s playing Scrabble, he could broaden his game.

How about “career due to verse”? (with reference to that Stratford fellow in the margin). Or “redecorates revue”? (a prescient vision of Inigo Jones). Or “Eve creates ordure”? (clearly a misogynist meditation on the Fall).

Or if he must have his lordship, why not:

Vere seduce ear? Rot
Terse: Vere cad, roue
De Vere, trouser ace

And why not embrace that impossible “thy”? Look what he could do with three more tiles:

A cheesy tortured verse
A trochee? Restudy verse
Sc[ilicet] De Vere: a rusty hetero
De Vere’s career—tush toy

Or maybe the prophetic Covell saw Oxfordians unborn, and cursed them:

Chartreuse-eyed voters
Traducer! (Vetoes heresy.)
Destroy these verrucae!

Let’s not forget “Delia, Cleopatra; Oxford”:

Lo! I, Lord Ox., farted apace

Hey, why not shoot the moon? Why not all seven words? Borrowing an "l" from “simplicitie”—clearly the apex of the triangle—I find:

Hell! A lord, tortured coterie verse—a poxy facade!

There’s no art in this sort of thing. Covell himself described a version of Waugh’s hunt-and-peck method as “A foolish proofe” (p. 8):

Jamblicke, who wanted to know the name of the next emperor, “made trial of it by a certain foolish ... and most unlearned divination in this manner: He caused the Greeke Alphabet written to bee put by distinct letters, in the ground, and vpon euery one he placed a graine of Barley; in the midst a Cock, & the letters where the Cocke scraped the Barley, should signifie the thing he so much desired.”


So: the cock won’t stand up (at least not to scrutiny). What about the mystic giraffe?

Having been argued to the wall in comments, Mr. Waugh shifted ground yet again.

You are in error if you think that I have imagined the triangle. Take out a ruler, measure the width of the main text, then measure to the centre of the word 'Delia' (the 'l') at the top of the triangle and then, on the line beneath, measure to the centre point, ie to the semi-colon between Cleopatra and Oxford. You will notice that the distance between Cleopatra and the semi colon is shorter than the distance between the [semi] colon and Oxford. Had those distances been the same, the effect of the triangle would have been destroyed and perhaps I might then have believed in your 'giraffe.' But the spacing shows signs of deliberate text-manipulation...

Well, yes. That’s called “typography”: the art of arranging letters, words, and spaces in aesthetically pleasing, optimally legible arrays. the author and compositor who created the triangle.

Well, no. It is exceedingly unlikely that the author directed this, or had any hand in the typography. Like the face of the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich, the triangle is an artefact, a chance apparition. Why do I think so? Because there do exist collaborations between author and printer or author and scribe: they make sense.

Perhaps the most familiar kind of carmina figurata, or pattern poetry, is written (and then set) in some form expressive of its text—a cup, a cross. Some of you will know George Herbert's splendid “Easter Wings” (1633):

Easter Wings

Another type is versus intexti, in which a text embedded in a text serves as commentary on its matrix, either as epitome or argument. It may indeed be encoded. Such work is often of a dazzling virtuosity—and is meant to be shown off. In manuscripts, the versus intexti is often in red ink, or perhaps outlined. A printed text might use italics. (A part of Waugh’s giraffe is in italics, but only because all proper nouns are in this book.) Or it may be overpainted with images, as here in Hrabanus Maurus, De laudibus sanctae crucis (1503):

Hrabanus Maurus,

Above all, the embedded text should in itself be meaningful. All of it. What Waugh’s fortuitous triangle encloses is not: "Delia, Cleopatra ; Oxford thy courte-deare-verse." I know he’s fiddled a bit of it to his satisfaction; but his choice of text is arbitrary, driven by his need. Why enclose Delia, Cleopatra, and thy in his magic polygon? Because he needs them to make up his delta. Why exclude them from his cipher? Well, they may be necessary, but they’re useless. It won't fly.

As any Oxfordian will tell you, 8 + 4 + 9=17, because 17! If you ask, what happened to the 4? Oh, that’s there to conceal the meaning. “Thy” is a 4 in this equation, left out of the reckoning. It’s in the way. But there is no meaning here, no secrets to encrypt, no reason to riddle: only pareidolia.

You will notice that the midway points on the first two lines (eg the 'l' of Delia and the semi colon beneath it) are placed exactly in the centre of the text and aligned to one another. You will also notice that the words 'thy courte-deare-verse' form the third line which is again precisely centred to the two lines above it to form a word triangle of all three lines. Now this is quite a lot of factual evidence in support of my contention that what you glibly call the 'giraffe' triangle was in fact deliberately set and centred in Covell's text. There are plenty of other clues confirming this. Look for instance at the spacing of the text around the triangle. It should also be fairly obvious to BA (Eng Lits) like you that the triangle was created first and that the marginal notes and supporting text were added afterwards.
Remember I am way ahead of you on all this. I have been studying Polimanteia for much longer than you have and I understand precisely why that triangle was put there and precisely what Covell is telling his readers about Shakespeare and de Vere and a great deal else. You are lagging and you will never catch up because you will never accept even the most obvious part of this message - the only part I have so far revealed - which tells us that Edward de Vere was the author of Lucrece.

Since you will never accept this and since you continue to hide behind a fake name, I really do not see why I should assist you further in this matter. It is tiring for me and feels like trying to explain the beauty of a nightingale's song to someone born without ears.

"The triangle was created first."

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. Waugh. As a long-time connoisseur of pseudodoxy, I'm enraptured. Glorious, hilarious, pitiful. (And if that's what you sent Stanley Wells, I must applaud his restraint.) 

Look, I'm sorry that your emerald is a bit of bottle glass. Blustering won't help. You'd want more than an imaginary coded message to convict your earl of writing Shakespeare: he has an unbreakable alibi of time and place and incompatible poetic DNA.

Bugger the triangle. Prove that De Vere worked closely—as a friend and fellow—with the King's Men, 1603 to 1613, and you might have the glimmerings of a case. Show me—

O my god. I see it now, I see it all: your cunning misdirection and your ruse. Of course the puzzle’s not a mere three-cornered thing. Behold: the even prettier and more telestic pentagon.


That figure (of course) is the nucleus of an inverted pentagram—the blackest of Satanic sigils. Here, at last discovered, is the baleful star of Oxenford’s nativity, whose rays illuminate, as if by hell-fire light, a hidden swarm of truths.


At the center, as Waugh has partly revealed, is the message Ape Oxford, our De Vere—a secretA lie; to the NE, deluded; to the SW, acted a lie; to the NW, Belial; to the SE (allowing but an a), fantasm; at the nadir, the eternal void.

Within this prison/prism of conjectured meaning—in this Star of England—is confined the Earl of Oxford, whose damnation is the gibbering of his idolaters. And in the margin, free as air, eternally beyond his hellish bounds, is—Shakspeare.


*After much protestation, Mr. Waugh at last conceded gracefully: the “phrase” in question is indeed a clause, with a subject and predicate. The full uncircumcised clause reads “Oxford thou maist extoll thy courte-deare-verse happie Daniell.” Not at all what Waugh wants it to say, so he snips that inconvenient “happie Daniell.”

†The titular Oxford, the earl, does have a link to Covell's passage, but not as the print-shy poet of Waugh's phantasies, his imperishable-blind-academe-denied-praise tragic Oxford. De Vere read some of Watson's verses in manuscript, and urged him to publish. (Poet, thou art sad. Get thee a press, get thee a press!) He was not Watson's heir but his patron.

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Comments (12)

  • alfa-16's picture

    I'm sure you are aware that "imperishable-blind-academe-denied-praise" is an anagram of  "A marble hippie cannibalised Ed's Rimes." Will does look a bit like a hippie in the Stratford Monument.

    Dec 06, 2013
  • anon

    Excellent and highly informative Nat. Going back to the Spectator blog exposes the the weakness of argument for Waugh. There's hardly anything to support him. Most of the 713 comments are 'off topic' indicating the shallowness of the claimed 'discovery'. So little focus on backing up Waugh. And so much vitriol directed at those who expose the fallacy.

    Thanks for more light and less heat. 

    Dec 06, 2013
  • knitwitted's picture

    Nice job! Especially deciphering the Oxford's fart which is well documented.


    Did anyone see Doc S's Nov. 28th comment on FaceVere: "Wow... By the way, for those who have been (or once were) following the vigorous debate on the Alexander Waugh blog, Alexander just announced victory after the several remaining Strats... in effect threw in the towel earlier this evening."


    ***Added*** <snort>

    Dec 06, 2013
  • alfa-16's picture

    Hi Knitwitted. Roger's always declaring victory. In this case it was a bit like Custer declaring victory at Little Big Horn. 'I win again, shoot me, scalp me and stake me out on an anthill if i'm wrong!'

    Dec 06, 2013
  • natwhilk's picture

    A marble hippie cannibalised Ed's Rimes


    Fabulous.  My feather hat's off to you.


    Dec 06, 2013
  • natwhilk's picture

    Many thanks.  You set me a high standard!

    There wasn't going to be a conversation over there.  As soon as someone drops a crust, the gulls wheel in, jeering and squabbling.



    Dec 06, 2013
  • natwhilk's picture

    Thanks, Knitwitted.  I confess I'm dying to know who I am.



    Dec 06, 2013
  • knitwitted's picture

    Hey alfa-2^4

    Yep, another win for the Oxfordians considering Waugh’s original argument regarding Covell’s secret wound up being back-burnered by a supposedly de Verean poem. i.e. Do the Oxfordians ever stay on one topic for more than a week?

    Dec 09, 2013
  • natwhilk's picture


    (“The spelling ‘Shakspeare’ – missing the medial ‘e’ – is here forced by lack of space,” Waugh points out. Adding an ‘e’ after the ‘k’ would make it collide with the main text. “No other significance should be attached to this spelling.”)


    I was wondering when they'd notice "Shakspeare."  Of course, that lack of an "e" is crucial, except when it isn't.






    Dec 09, 2013
  • natwhilk's picture

    There are so many hidden messages in that book it's wonder it ever left the press--or if it did, was not seized and burned by at least six conflicting parties.  I haven't yet done a sweep for Baconian, Marlovian, and royal anagrams, but I'm sure they're all in there.



    Dec 09, 2013