The Monument
Shakespeare's Sonnets

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"Three Winters" - an example of
how historical context and sonnet
text can now fit together

By tradition, regardless of the authorship question, scholars have assumed that the "three winters ... since first I saw you fresh" of Sonnet 104 refer to a three-year period including 1593 and 1594, when "William Shakespeare" dedicated his first publications (Venus and Adonis and Lucrece) to Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton.

The breakthrough discovery of THE MONUMENT, however, is that the "three winters" actually refer to Southampton's imprisonment from February 1601 to April 1603 – specifically:

(1) Sonnet 27: February 8, 1601, the date of the Essex Rebellion and the confinement that night of Essex and Southampton in separate prison rooms in the Tower of London
(2) Sonnet 97: February 8, 1602, the first anniversary of the failed palace coup; and
(3) Sonnet 104: February 8, 1603, the second anniversary of the abortive attempt to overthrow the Elizabeth government under Robert Cecil's control. 

                       Sonnet 104

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,          
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,          
Such seems your beauty still: Three Winters cold       
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,       
Three beauteous springs to yellow Autumn turned,       
In process of the seasons have I seen, 
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.          
Ah yet doth beauty, like a Dial hand          
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived,        
So your sweet hew, which methinks still doth stand,    
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived.        
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:  
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.  

THE MONUMENT changes the paradigm by identifying eighty consecutive verses (Sonnet 27 to Sonnet 106) as an intensely emotional diary recording events during Southampton's twenty-six months in prison.  This represents more than half the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets of the entire sequence. 
The great editor Hyder Edward Rollins predicted that such a dramatic shift of perception of Shakespeare's Sonnets would take place if only we could know the context of time and circumstance to which the verses refer. 

"The question ‘when’ the sonnets were written is in many respects the most important of all the unanswerable questions they pose. If it could be answered definitely and finally, there might be some chance of establishing to general satisfaction the identity of the friend, the dark woman and the rival poet (supposing that all were real individuals), of deciding what contemporary sources Shakespeare did or did not use, and even of determining whether the order is the author’s or not. In the past and at the present, such a solution has been and remains an idle dream.”  (A New Variorum Edition, 1944)


Tower of LondonTHE MONUMENT answers the crucial question "when" by demonstrating that the story of the Sonnets revolves around the imprisonment of Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton from the Rebellion of 1601 until the death of Elizabeth and the accession of King James in 1603. 

And in fact this answer to “when” establishes “the identity of the friend, the dark woman and the rival poet”:

The Friend (or fair youth) must be Southampton, since he’s the one who’s imprisoned in the Tower as a traitor;

The Dark Woman (or dark lady) must be Queen Elizabeth, since she’s the one who has “stolen” Southampton by keeping him in her prison fortress;

The Rival Poet cannot be any living writer, since no poets could write to Southampton while he was in the Tower; and therefore, the “rival” can only be “William Shakespeare,” the pen name of the real author, which can take the credit for dedicating “his” works to Southampton.

Once this altered view of the time frame comes into focus, we come face to face with Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, participating as a judge in the Treason Trial of February 19, 1601 and then doing everything possible to save his beloved Fair Youth from execution and gain his freedom.  This is the real story of the Sonnets and why Oxford agreed to sacrifice his identity as "Shakespeare," the poet who had publicly declared his commitment to Southampton ("The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end") and now promised him: 

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die. (Sonnet 81)

Note: This context of time and circumstance does NOT require the so-called Prince Tudor theory of Southampton as the royal son of Oxford and Elizabeth.  The post-Rebellion context of 1601-1603 can be accepted on its own terms.  It thereby explains the torrent of legal language in the Sonnets as pertaining to the treason trial and Oxford’s efforts to secure Southampton’s eventual release with a royal pardon.

Only when we take a further step to attempt to explain the relationship between Oxford and Southampton (that is, to explain why Oxford is so concerned about him) do we confront the Prince Tudor theory as (in our view) the only plausible answer.  (Within the context of Southampton in the Tower, the “bisexual” theory of the Sonnets must be ruled out, since there would have been no way for any “love triangle” to be in play.) 

Such is the potency of this new context that it no longer allows us to keep different views of the “story” in play at once; all of a sudden there is only one real-life tale being recorded and the free-for-all game of “this interpretation versus that interpretation” is hereby cancelled.  


WINTER I:  February 8, 1601    

Sonnet 27: Rebellion & Imprisonment 

Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel (hung in ghastly night)

Makes black night beauteous and her old face new

WINTER II:  February 8, 1602 

Sonnet 97: First Anniversary of Rebellion & Imprisonment

How like a Winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!

[“Pleasure” = the Queen’s pleasure or command; “Fleeting” = slang for imprisoned, echoing the Fleet Prison.]

WINTER III:  February 8, 1603

Sonnet 104: Second Anniversary of the Rebellion

Three Winters cold...
Since first I saw you fresh...

In his book Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1970), the scholar Alastair Fowler notes that Sonnet 104 “speaks of three years, whereas from a structural point of view only two years of 52 stanza-weeks have elapsed” by then.  The explanation from the Monument solution, of course, is that by this time Southampton has been in the Tower for two years. 

Can we doubt that Oxford deliberately found a way to use Sonnet 104 at exactly this point to signify 52 weeks + 52 weeks = two years?  The context of Southampton’s confinement for two years up to Feb. 8, 1603 supplies us with the reason why Oxford would do so.   

Another observation by Fowler is that the introduction of the Fair Youth as “the world’s fresh ornament” in Sonnet 1 “encourages us to take Sonnet 104 as structurally referent” – because of its line, “Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.”  The Monument solution to the Sonnets confirms this observation by Fowler by explaining that during Sonnets 1-26 from 1591 to 1600 the Earl of Southampton was “fresh” in Oxford’s eyes because he enjoyed the favor of the Queen; during Sonnets 27-106 [which includes Sonnet 104] from Feb. 8, 1601 to April 9, 1603, he was no longer “fresh” because he was languishing in prison; and then in Sonnet 107 upon his release on April 10, 1603, Oxford proclaims, “My love looks fresh…”  

It appears certain, given Fowler’s support from a strictly structural point of view, that Oxford deliberately used “fresh” to reinforce the context of Southampton’s ordeal:

The Golden Time [1591-1600]: Fresh: “Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament” – Sonnet 1, line 9

The Prison Years [1601-1603]: Not Fresh: “Since first I saw you fresh” – Sonnet 104, line 8

Upon Liberation [April 10, 1603]: Fresh Again: “My love looks fresh” – Sonnet 107, line 10

The eighty-sonnet prison sequence (27-106) contains two more verses:

Sonnet 105:  March 24, 1603: Death of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Let not my love be called Idolatry,                     
Nor my beloved as an Idol show,                       
Since all alike my songs and praises be,   
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.                        
Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind,      
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;   
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,        
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.              
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,   
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words,             
And in this change is my invention spent,         
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords. 
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,          
Which three, till now, never kept seat in one.  

Sonnet 106:  April 9, 1603 - Southampton's last night in Tower.

When in the Chronicle of wasted time,            
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,     
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,         
In praise of Ladies dead, and lovely Knights,              
Then in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,       
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,      
I see their antique Pen would have expressed           
Even such a beauty as you master now.                    
So all their praises are but prophecies      
Of this our time, all you prefiguring,
And for they looked but with divining eyes,              
They had not still enough your worth to sing:         
For we which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Sonnet 107 is the high point and the start of a new sequence of twenty verses (107-126) that will complete the hundred-sonnet center of the Monument. Southampton is liberated after having been "supposed as forfeit to a confined doom" in prison:

Sonnet 107: April 10, 1603    
Not mine own fears, 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 confined doom.
The mortal Moone hath her eclipse endured,               
And the sad Augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,               
And peace proclaims Olives of endless age.                  
Now with the drops of this most balmy time                 
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spite of him I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.        
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,               
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.