The players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that . . . he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, "Would he had blotted a thousand!" --Ben Jonson
And now, something new from the man who brought you Hamlet?
"Every relic counts," said Harvard Professor Emeritus Harry Levin. "Shakespeare's work has ceased to be a literary consideration. It has become part of our culture, almost part of our ideology and religion."
"This is a second-rate, hack work," countered Columbia's Edward W. Tayler. "It's clumsy, inept. It's a clunker. It's quite clear to anyone who doesn't have a zinc ear that this is not a poem written by Shakespeare."
Thus were the bristly experts in the world of literary scholarship arguing last week the merits of a young Kansan's claim that he had discovered in Oxford a long-buried poem by William Shakespeare. If authentic, the work would be the first notable addition to the canon in more than three centuries. Gary Lynn Taylor, 32, joint general editor of the Oxford University Press's forthcoming New Complete Shakespeare, reported that he first glimpsed the find while checking through the Bodleian Library's listing of first lines in the catalog of its vast manuscript collection. He came across an entry reading, "Shall I die? Shall I fly . . ." The line, attributed to Shakespeare in the catalog, was unknown to Taylor. So one day last month he asked the Bodleian to show him its "Rawlinson Poetry Manuscript 160," a leather-bound collection of copied manuscripts that had been donated to the library in 1755 by Bishop Richard Rawlinson. There on leaf 108, all adorned with red curlicues, was the poem:
Shall I die? Shall I fly Lovers' baits and deceits, sorrow breeding? Shall I fend? Shall I send? Shall I shew, and not rue my proceeding? In all duty her beauty Binds me her servant for ever. If she scorn, I mourn, I retire to despair, joying never . . .
At the end of the nine stanzas, the anonymous copyist had written the name of the author: William Shakespeare. Other scholars had seen this signature, but somehow nobody before Taylor had pursued the obvious question: What if. . .? "I tried not to think about it," Taylor recalls. "The chances of actually finding something like this are so grotesquely small that you don't want to get excited." Unexcited, Taylor began probing.
Says Taylor, who studied at Kansas and Cambridge but never got his doctorate: "I'm a literary technician, like someone in a police morgue who is presented with a body and told to figure out how it died." The first step, which proved to be fairly easy, was to demonstrate that the manuscript had been in the Bodleian for centuries, that there was no possibility of its being a modern fake. No less important was the evidence that other works in the collection had been attributed without error to such poets as Robert Herrick and Ben Jonson. Then came the search for what Taylor calls "forensic evidence of a literary kind . . . stylistic fingerprints."