Footloose and fancy free
What meane thei thus to fret and fume?
What meane thei thus to fare?
What meane thei thus on me to glume?
Whi was I not of it aware?
Is this—? Could this—? O my God, could this possibly be that holy grail, a long-lost poem by Edward de Vere? Be still, my beating heart.
Take a deep breath. It isn’t. These lines are from a manuscript of Certaigne psalmes or songues of David, translated into Englishe meter by Sir Thomas Smith, Knight, then prisoner in the Tower of London, with other prayers and songues by him made to pas the tyme there, 1549.
To do Smith justice, he never claimed to be a poet: these are private devotions and (I think) distractions: deprive a linguistics geek like Smith of his books and his liberty, and he’ll take refuge in words.
He really did have cause to feel anxious.
This day made new Duke, Marques, Earle, or Baron,
Yet maie the ax, stand next the dore,
Euerie thing is not ended, as it is begone,
God will haue the strok, either after or before
His psalmody was cutting-edge in 1549. It was scarcely two years since Thomas Sternhold’s Certayne Psalmes drawen into Englishe metre had appeared, with his earliest translations. You can’t really judge Smith’s imagery, which is mostly King David’s. Unlike his prose, his poetics are clumsy. No wonder: he’s writing in a raw new language, shoes too stiff to dance in. He hasn’t a clue where to put his feet, can’t tell his arsis from his thesis. “Metrically Smith is still very much at the learner stage” (Smith, 9). Remember that Latin prosody is non-accentual, not based on stresses, but on complex rules of long and short syllables. Smith probably hadn’t made a false quantity in Latin verse since he was seven, but in essaying “Englishe meter,” he’s out of his element: he flails. If there are names for several of his measures, I don’t know them. The line he likes best is centipedal. You could call it why-stop-at-fourteeners—I’ve counted as many as 19 or 20 syllables—or longways for as many as will. “There are ... far too many awkward lines where three or four unstressed syllables are allowed to each stressed syllable simply, it seems, because Smith could not manage it any other way” (10). It’s easier to read when it’s choppy:
Tavoide this blustering
I wold mak right great hast,
And hid me where
Thei shuld not me find
Till the tempest were ouerpast.
Lies and sclaunders
Both day and night
All about the walles doth fill,
Mischief and murdre
And vice in the midds of it still
At length, it drags out like a wounded worm; but his common measure could be sung. With difficulty.
Sadnes hath made my lief waxe old, with lamentacions great;
In moorning be spent my yeres bold, with sighes and teares weat.
My sprite beginneth me for to faile, for thes new cares and wheint;
Deuersitie maketh my strength to quaile, and all my bones feint.
I am becom a very reprofe, and a woundering stock I am made;
My neighbours gettes from me aloof, and myn acquaintaunce of me are afraid.
I have heard the sclaunder that against me doth ron, I am abhorred of every
To counsell against me thei haue begon, they will rid me to death if thei can.
That was Smith in 1549. Here’s Oxford, a full generation later, in the 1570s. The rhythm stumps along. What’s lost is dignity:
Framd in the front of forlome hope, past all recoverie,
I stayles stand 'tabide the shocke of shame and infamy.
My life through lingring long is lodgde, in lare of lothsome wayes,
My death delaide to keepe from life, the harme of haplesse dayes;
My sprites, my hart, my witte and force, in deepe distresse are dround,
The only losse of my good name, is of these greefes the ground.
Like surrogate father, like son?
Oxford’s poetry looks backward to an age of bombast. There’s a revolution going on behind his pansied slops.
Here’s Shakespeare in 1605 or 6:
Know, my name is lost, By treason’s tooth bare-gnawn and canker-bit...
In part, we have the grammar schools, with their incomparable grounding in rhetoric, to thank for “Shakespeare’s English”: for the wit, the daring, the transcendence of the playwrights, and the archangelic prose of “God’s secretaries,” the translators of the King James Bible. Both scholars and players worked in companies. The spirit of the age, it seems, was synergy. No less than five of the makers of the Authorised Version, including Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (who began at a charity school for “60 poore mens Children”), Thomas Kyd, John Webster, and Edmund Spenser, all studied at Merchant Taylors’, most under its founding headmaster, the great Richard Mulcaster. He wrote: “I love Rome, but London better, I favor Italie, but England more, I honor the Latin, but I worship the English.”
Here’s Smith’s 1549 translation of part of Psalm 103:
Mercifull he is, and full of pitie the Lorde,
Long ere he be angrie, and easie to accorde.
For he doth not his wrathe to thend endeuer,
Nor he doth not threaten ous for euer.
After our offences he doth not with vs deale,
Nor according to our synnes paieth he vs our meale.
For as heaven from earth in space is most distaunt,
So to them that feare him, is his mercie most abundaunt.
So far as is the rising from the setting of the sone,
So far away from vs our synnes hath he done.
And as the fathers hart is tender, yea ouer his wanton
So is the Lords ouer us, though we be synfull and wild;
For he remembreth the Creature, that himself hath
And knoweth vs to be dust, and thinges of nought.
For what is a man, but as gras and haie,
As the floure in the feeld, so fadeth he away,
Which falleth down, and withereth, as the wind on
it doth blowe,
It is cast away, and the place of it no man after doth knowe.
But the mercie of the Lorde is that, that doth for
And to them that feare him, is most certain and sure.
His rightuousnes and promises, to their childerns
childern shall remain,
That thinkes on his commaundementes, and studies them to main.
Here’s the Authorized Version (1611):
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and plenteous in mercy.
He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever.
He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.
For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.
As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children;
To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.