QUEEN ELIZABETH’S “ECLIPSE” DISEASE
& SONNET 107: John Donne's Disclosure
©Eric Miller, 2015
“There was nobody more thoroughly scared of witchcraft [and other forms of superstition and astrology] than Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth. . .so we may regard the Act of 1581, 23 Eliz., Cap. II, as mere finesse and chicane. . . The statue runs as follows:
“That if any person. . during the life of our said Sovereign Lady the Queen’s Majesty that now is, either within her Highness’ dominions or without, shall by setting or erecting any figure or by casting of nativities or by calculation or by any prophesying, witchcraft, conjugations, or other like unlawful means whatsoever, seek to know, and shall set forth by express words, deeds, or writing, how long her Majesty shall live, or who shall reign a king of queen of this realm of England after her Highness’ decease. . . that every such offence shall be a felony, and every offender therein, and also all his aiders (etc.) shall be judged as felons and shall suffer pain of death and forfeit as in the case of felony is used without the benefit of clergy or sanctuary.”
Malleus Maleficarum, Introduction (from the 1928 edition of 1489 publication, p.xxi)
Shakespeare so masterfully manipulates the powerful language of his orchestral sonnet, 107, that, like the magic glass in the fairy tale, the more one looks into it the more wonders appear. Take, for instance, the subject of double entendres. We produced a quite possible “whooper” of one with the key ingredient having been brought to our attention by Dr. Renaker regarding John Donne’s disclosure that the QE had had an “eclipse-feinting” disease or malady.
Queen Elizabeth was her father’s daughter. “It is often forgotten that in the troublous days of Henry VIII the whole country swarmed with astrologers and sorcerers, to whom high and low alike made constant resort. . .the King himself, a prey to the idlest superstitions, ever lent a credulous ear to the most foolish prophecies and old wives’s abracadabra.” (p. xxi)
The phrase in Sonnet 107 that “The mortall Moone hath her eclipse endur’de”, Dr. Renaker proposes related to her feinting fits “to the point of death.” Renaker was apparently entirely unaware of the Great Conjunction of April 28. 1583, and so he found an explanation of a phrase, but did not link it directly to an astrological event—as we have done. But, knowing now, both things to be true (the great “eclipse” and QE’s medical “eclipse” disease) we are instantly aware of the powerful double entendre, involving, as I claim, not only Lord Oxford’s imprisonment and potential death, but, it would seem the death of Queen Elizabeth, as well.
Moreover, those familiar with the biography of QE will be aware that she nursed pathological fears of her life—probably from childhood on. And often experienced signs of PTSD—or related type of psychiatric malady.
Another instance when Shakespeare may well have skilled his use of language so as to allow other levels of meaning—especially, I strongly suspect, the person he was writing to, the addressee, QE. We have interpreted the phrase, “supposede as forfeit to a confin’d doome” to refer to Lord Oxford, who was under house arrest at the time. But, does it have to be Lord Oxford, or only Lord Oxford who is in “confin’d doom,” as obvious as it seems in the light of the salient facts of the situation?
There is no way to prove, as a matter of fact, to whom “my true love” refers in the phrase “Can yet the lease of my true love control/Supposde as forfeit to a confin’d doome.” Nor can we prove, whether the author means to refer to his own felt “true love” or if he means to refer to the person of whom he is beloved.
I believe it is Lord Oxford speaking of his deep love/affection. But, let us suppose it is not only Lord Oxford that is being spoken of. Of course, there is a branch of Stratfordians/Oxfordians who long have believed that the phrase can only refer to Lord Southampton, who, in 1603 upon the death of QE was confined to the Tower, his life forfeited. The semantic logic of this view has it that “true love” is a person and that person is Southampton. But, of course, we can adopt the same logic and offer a new identity, as we have done in our The Fiery Trigon. Let us here rather say, arguendo, that the poet is referring to QE being the person who is “supposed as forfeit to a confin’d doom.” How can that be?
The first two lines of the first quatrain:
Not mine owne feares, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confin’d doom
In the above, if we interpret “lease” as the life “term” of a person (Onions), the author is simply saying that neither he nor the world soul itself can do anything to “control” or influence the lease, or the term or her life, in other words when she will die—as supposed she will die in a “confin’d doome.”
QE, let us not improbably imagine, was indeed (as previously described) beside herself and no doubt had doctors attending her under medications. We know QE had morbid, superstitious fears, of her death—even sometimes to being terrorized by the movement of a cat. The world was predicted to perhaps come to an end, surely she remained confined in her apartments on such a treacherously infamous evil day, which supposed she and other Princes of the world might perish! If that was the will of Heaven, there is nothing that could be done about it, neither he (Lord Oxford) nor the spirits of the world soul have, to this day, been unable to change what destiny have determined.
The first quatrain merely tells QE, his love; that he nor anyone else in the spirit world can influence the real outcome of what has been prophesized. In four lines it states itself with clear simplicity.
The second quatrain immediately makes disappear the burden of the worry over QE and the world’s survival and her worrisome confinement. “The mortal Moone hath her eclipse endured.”
Briefly, below, as a dramatist laying out his stage and scenes, we have:
Huge problem, nothing can be done about it;
Poet’s fears for his love, who is supposed to die, he can’t change heaven’s life term for her or himself, or anyone’s, “lease”. Then, we move to opening of the next scheme:
The queen is not dead, long live the queen.
From the fifth line through the end of the poem, the poem is steeped in Latin scenes, allusions, sounds, and the high pomp of royal dignities. Most every major commentator on Sonnet 107 has commented on the fact that the poems ushers up images of royal tombs, the crests of tyrants, the movements of masses of people, Olives to present Peace, as was the case the Greeks and Romans.
Of interest is the fact that it is immediately after the statement that the mortal moon has survived, we are given the corollary context in the following commentary on the fact, of the astrologers—who by the interpretation above—had “supposed” it to be, perhaps her own death! They, the astrologers, are now in BIG trouble for such false prophesies and they had better “mock” their own work, if they know what’s good for them.
In Act Two the subject is disclosed, to whom we are speaking, who it was that “supposed” that her life was “forfeit” by the stars—that disposed of, we turn to the New World of the Re-Living Queen, where “peace proclaims Olives of endless age” Incertainties are “crowned” (no more “certain” end of the old world-order) assured.
In Act One, the high rhetorical art of the opening quatrain seems to end on a note of despair, “supposed as forfeit to a confin’d doom.” In the second quatrain, Act Two, the stage is cleared, the astrologers driven out of the temple with self-mockery, then there is a fade out, the light begins to come on and brightens as we hear: “Incertainties now (that the Augurs are banished) crown themselves assured (light continues to brighten and the sweet sound of birds in the background as the words are heard) “and peace proclaims Olives of endless age.” (QE is back in business Long Live the Queen).
And all shall live in harmony and peace.
It is now, eight lines after the beginning of the sonnet, that the poet turns to his beloved, for the first time, and addresses her, not the scene of which she is the mythic “moon”, so to speak. He now speaks to his beloved not as a mythic figure, but as his love. Now, as to the subject of “love” personal love between the Monarch and the Earl, the poet speaks in tones so intimate and daring as to outface the most brazen of all claims any could ever make—beyond this side idolatry, we are speaking of the claim that our poet can immortalize his love and in doing so he can also immortalize himself as he lives within his immortal love which he poured into his poem—or so he tells us.
In any case, the point is that we are entitled, at least by virtue of the fact of the way it was written, to regard QE as the one who was supposed as forfeit and that makes much sense, when one thinks about it
Note: We cannot fail to mention that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published a year before Donne’s piece, Conclave Ignati, and wonder if John Donne indeed knew that his use of “Ignati” was also intended to summon the shades of “Ignoto,” an pseudonym of Lord Oxford’s name.
The Entire Text Below Is From Dr. Renaker
SHAKESPEARE’S SONNET 107: A BRIEF NOTE by Professor Renaker (SF State University)
In this sonnet, the reason Shakespeare proposes for general rejoicing as at deliverance from a disaster, is: “The mortall Moone hath her eclipse indur’de” (line 5). No one knows what the near-disaster was, and the vividness of the metaphor coupled with the elusiveness of its meaning has led to a pageant of commentary not unlike that accompanying the two-handed engine in Milton’s Lycidas. Perhaps the Spanish Armada, which sailed into battle in a crescent-shaped formation, is the mortal moon, and its defeat is the eclipse. Perhaps the mortal moon is the crescent banner of Islam and the eclipse is the Battle of Lepanto. Or the mortal moon is Queen Elizabeth (a metaphor employed by Spenser and Ralegh as well as Shakespeare) and the eclipse is the alleged plot by Doctor Lopez against her life, or the alleged plot by Robert Southwell and two others, or threatened war between England and Spain, or “tempests and eclipses toward the end of 1601,” or Elizabeth’s death; or the mortal moon is the Earl of Southampton and the eclipse is his imprisonment in the tower (all from Furness, ed., A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, J. B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1944, Vol. I, pp. 263-66)
In John Donne’s Conclave Ignati composed in 1610 and published in 1611, and afterwards translated into English (T.S. Healy, ed., John Donne: Ignatius His Conclave, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969, p. xi) occurs a passage in which Satan unfolds to his followers, the Jesuits, the likelihood of their conquering England through the vulnerability of its monarch. First Satan mentions her embarrassing amours with Dudley and Essex, then some seemingly life-threatening seizures; then he praises her wisdom:
…why should wee doubt of our fortune in this Queene, which is so much subject to alterations, and passions? she languishes often in the absence of the Sunne, and often in Ecclipses falls into swownes, and is at the point of death… nor can I call to minde any woman, which either deceived our hope, or scaped our cunning, but Elizabeth of England …(p.85)
Earlier commentators have ignored this passage, perhaps for the very good reason that it was published later than the Sonnets. But, it has the advantage that it mentions the mortall Moone by name (Elizabeth of England), speaks of a literal eclipse as only one of the other possible sources does, and sets forth a real national calamity (subjugation of England by the Jesuits) from fear of which the whole country, the soul of the wide world, like the individual (mine owne feares) might awake as to a balmy time.
Suppose that at some time before Elizabeth’s death in 1603, a rumor spread around Whitehall, then all over London, that she lost consciousness during an eclipse and that her vital signs sank so low that she seemed about to die. Then, the rumor proving false, suppose a second rumor spread to the effect that the first had been created by Jesuits trying to destabilize the government. Shakespeare and Donne might both write about both oral traditions.
For a homely comparison let me recall Y2K, the sudden malfunctioning of every computer on earth which was to precipitate the end of the world at midnight, 31 Dec., 1999. There must have been people so deeply in love that they simply and effortlessly ignored the whole thing and on New Year’s Day enjoyed a richly-deserved laugh on the rest of the population. This supplies a plausible explanation for the euphoric tone of the sonnet.