Names and anagrams in the Renaissance

From Colin Burrow’s review of Alastair Fowler, Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), London Review of Books 22 Nov. 2012 (original here):

Fowler is convinced that poetry written before the Enlightenment is rich in various forms of ‘silent language’: numerological principles which determine how names are arrayed in lists, or cryptograms which might run through poems written before the regularisation of spelling and the rise of rationalism spoiled the party. Poets and patrons in the 16th century could take delight in visible acrostics and plays on patrons’ names, as Sir John Davies’s ‘Hymns of Astraea’, which inscribe ‘ELISABETHA REGINA’ in the first letters of each of their lines, exhaustingly show. The point of such acrostics was that they were readily noticeable displays of artifice which poets might hope their patrons would see and reward. But did Renaissance poets also create less visible anagrams? Fowler believes so, and cites with approbation an article by Roy Winnick (‘now I cry ink’) which he says ‘startled the scholarly world’ by revealing anagrams which spell out the name WRIOTHESLEY buried throughout Shakespeare’s Sonnets. We are told ‘Thy louers withering, as thy sweet selfe grow’st’ contains all the letters of ‘Wriothesley’ twice over, and that this ‘remarkable fact’ is very unlikely to be a result of chance. For Fowler this suggests not only the identity of the young man, but that Shakespeare was our greatest anagrammatist as well as our greatest poet.

I can reveal in these pages for the first time a more remarkable truth: that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were addressed not to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, but to a hitherto unknown young man. His name was Alastair Fowler. The name ‘Alastare’ (or ‘Alaster’, the more usual 16th-century form) is written in black and white in the first two lines of the most famous poem in the sequence:

ShALl I compare thee to A Summers day?
Thou art more louely And more tempeRatE:

The young man, though ‘fouler’ by name, is ‘more louely’ by nature. The key identifying word, ‘foul’ itself, we might notice, does not occur at all in the sequence until the poems to the dark mistress, when young Alastair reveals his fouler side. But here too the anagrammatic genius of Shakespeare – or ‘hearse speak’ as we cryptographers, who believe he speaks from the tomb, prefer to call him – veritably sings out the name of Alastair, first this time in its modern spelling and then again in the form ‘Alastare’:

In the ould Age bLacke wAS noT counted fAIRe,
Or if it weare it bore not beauties name:
But now is blacke beauties successiue heire,
And Beautie sLAnderd with a baSTARrd shamE,
For since each hand hath put on Natures power,
Fairing the FOULE with ARts faulse borrow’d face.

The reference to ‘beauties name’ is of course the sign that the beloved’s name is buried anagrammatically within this sonnet. Generations of inattentive scholars have failed to notice that the letters A, L, A, S, T, A, I and R all appear in the line which talks of ‘Fairing the foule’. In the very same line the constituent letters of ‘Fouler’ or ‘Fowler’ occur twice over too. This remarkable fact could not be the result of accident. Shakespeare was clearly obsessed by Fowler, whose perfect anagram ‘flower’ blooms no fewer than 13 times in his sonnets. The addressee of the sequence is ‘beauty’s rose’, whose essence should be distilled in order to produce generations of sweet Fowlers from beauty’s single, fairest, Al-encompassing flower. So there you have it: the riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is finally solved.

The problem with the hermetic view of the Renaissance, of which Fowler has been the leading magus for many years, is that it invites us to believe that 16th and 17th-century literature followed utterly alien conventions. But once the all-learned hermeneut is brought in to crack the literary code, the obscure text is reduced to a single and simple truth: all the minor characters in The Faerie Queene are identifiable individuals; most characters in satires and epigrams are also real people; the young man in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is beyond all doubt Henry Wriothesley.

Shakespeare certainly liked what we call wordplay, and took both it and names seriously. But taking something ‘seriously’ in fiction can mean regarding it as a way of creating character and drama rather than believing it to be the best way secretly to encode the truth about who your patron or your lover might be. When poor old Malvolio is taunted with a letter that says ‘M, O, A, I, doth sway my life’ and believes it means him, Shakespeare is making a joke about cryptograms and anagrams and the wishful thinking that sees names in strings of letters. Much of the music of Twelfth Night emerges from its not quite anagrammatical names (Malvolio, Olivia, Viola; Illyria, Elysium) from which the rude corporeality of the names Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek are pointedly excluded. The fluidity of names anagrammatically reassembled was without doubt a powerful theatrical resource for Shakespeare, and names could suggest and feed his plots. The asymmetrical pair of Edgar and Edmund suggest likeness and opposition: more of the world (‘mundus’) can be heard in Edmund, and Camden records the sense of the name Edgar as ‘happy or blessed honour’. The trio of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia (which Shakespeare inherited rather than invented) suggest the outlines of a story, since only one of the sisters has in her name a heart, a cor. Shakespeare’s comic names again tend to tell rather clearer stories than their tragic counterparts: a Dogberry is a little dogged but probably quite sweet if you pluck and eat it, Mistress Overdone speaks for herself, as does Mistress Quickly, while Sir John Falstaff has an impotent droop (as well as false stuff) which cannot equal the proud Shaking of a Spear implied in the name of his creator. A Caliban is a cannibal who has elementary problems with literacy, but who, were he aware of Greek, might hear beauty (kalos) within his name. A cannibal who can’t quite manage to be a cannibal is a more likeable thing than a cannibal who can, and even when drunk poor Caliban can’t make a cannibalagram of his name: ‘’Ban, ’Ban, Cacaliban’, he sings, transforming the beauty of his name (kalos-ban) into ugliness (kakos-ban) once a libation has filled his middle (Caliban). He never realises that a cannibal ‘can’ rebel, and, remarkably, never utters the word ‘can’ at all, although the powerful Prospero uses it ten times. There is in all these names, and the shimmer of sounds which surrounds them, much brilliance and beauty, but there is no sign that Shakespeare wrote fictions in which names of real people were anagrammatically concealed like Easter eggs.

This is not surprising. Ben Jonson, who didn’t always practise what he preached, denounces logogriphs, palindromes and anagrams. George Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie describes anagrams or ‘poesie transposed’ as a pleasure fit for ladies, and presents his efforts to make prophecies out of the name of ‘Elissabet Anglorum Regina’ as trifles that made him smile. Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry (which has no time for cryptograms) positions fiction between the generality of philosophy and the specificity of historical example. This means that what Sidney calls ‘poesy’ (which was what fiction was called in the Elizabethan period) does more than refer under veiled names to specific individuals. It presents individuals who are representative of wider classes, who have proper names but who can function analogously to common nouns in encompassing a range of individual instances which might share a family resemblance. Philisides in Sidney’s Arcadia is not just Sir Philip Sidney, nor is Astrophil, the lover of Stella (‘a star, an aster’), in Astrophil and Stella. He is a name for a kind of lover that includes aspects of Sidney without being exclusively Sidney. There was no radical break, no moment of Enlightenment rupture in which the cryptic Renaissance was killed off. It never existed. The ability to encompass a general type within a specific instance is, and more or less always has been, the foundation of fiction, and that combination of the specific and the typical is often also a feature of fictional names.


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