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Who Wrote William Basse’s ‘Elegy on Shakespeare’?: Rediscovering a Poem Lost from the Donne Canon

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Peter Holland
Affiliation:
University of Notre Dame, Indiana
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Summary

The first known poem to be composed in response to Shakespeare’s death is an elegy attributed to William Basse (1583?–1653?) that was widely copied into commonplace books of the era under various titles and printed in several seventeenth-century editions. (See Appendix for a list of sigla for the textual witnesses.) The elegy reads as follows in a single-sheet manuscript broadside (siglum c) written and signed by Basse himself (illustration 10):

On Mr William Shakespeare who dyed in Aprill 1616. Renowned Spenser, lye a thought more nye To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumont lye A little neerer Spencer, to make roome For Shakespeare in your threefold fowerfold tombe. To lodge all fower in one bedd make a shift 5

Untill Doomesday; for hardly will a fift Betwixt this day and that, by fate be slaine For whome your Curtaines may be drawne againe. If your precedency in Death doth barr A fourth place in your sacred Sepulchre 10

Under this carved marble of thyne owne Sleep rare Tragædian, Shakespeare sleep alone Thy unmolested Peace, unshared Cave Possesse as Lord, not Tennant of thy grave. That unto us and others it may bee 15

Honor heereafter to be laid by Thee.

Mr Willm Basse.

The poem has a specific agenda. After Spenser was buried next to Chaucer in Westminster Abbey in 1599, it became the practice to honour England’s most celebrated poets with burial in what is now called Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, W. H. Auden being a recent case in point. The playwright Francis Beaumont was interred there in 1616 and it is the poem’s proposal that Shakespeare should be as well (lines 1–8). However, this would entail disinterring Shakespeare’s remains from his grave in Stratford and transferring them to Westminster for reburial, an audacious proposition that would require the consent of all concerned. In lines 9–16 of the elegy, the poet concedes that Shakespeare may remain buried in Stratford after all – and he diplomatically gives his assent in advance should that prove to be the case (although it is clearly his second choice).

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Shakespeare Survey , pp. 267 - 284
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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