The Rival Poet was the cause of obvious anxiety to Shakespeare. A poet depended on patronage to finance the publication of his works so a rival presents a real threat of loss of income through loss of patronage as well as the professional and personal feelings of rejection, loss of esteem and a competitor being seen to gain favour instead of oneself. The sonnets that refer to the Rival Poet appear to contain sufficient data to enable the rival to be identified:
The Rival Poet who writes verse is first mentioned in Sonnet 21:
"So is it not with me as with that muse
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse"
and goes on to say:
"Making a couplement of proud compare"
This part of the sonnet is open to several interpretations but it may be explicitly referring to George Chapman's use of English couplet rhymes in his epic translation of Homer's Odysseys:
"The Gods in council sit, to call
Ulysses from Calypso's thrall,
And order their high pleasures thus:
Grey Pallas to Telemachus
(In Ithaca) her way addrest;
And did her heavenly limbs invest..."
The heavenly subject matter of Chapman's verse would appear to correlate with Sonnet 21's:
"Who heaven itself for ornament doth use"
The final line of this sonnet is the most intriguing:
"I will not praise that purpose not to sell."
as it appears to pun in the term not to sell on George Chapman's surname: Chapman was a 16th.Century word meaning "buyer", hence, I will not praise that purpose not to sell could also mean "I will not praise the efforts of Chapman / buyer / not to sell".
The Rival Poet doesn't appear again until Sonnet 78 in which rival poets are cited as having published their verse under the patronage of Shakespeare's patron:
"As every alien pen hath got my use,
And under thee their poesy disperse."
Shakespeare goes on in this sonnet to acknowledge himself to be dumb and have heavy ignorance but has been inspired to excel under the patron's wing. This statement deliberately contrasts with the acknowledged erudition of George Chapman who was a University graduate and who persistently projected his persona as a "man of learning".
In Sonnet 79 the author expresses his deepest anxiety at the threat the rival poses and how it adversely affects his own verse but in Sonnet 80 discloses:
"O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name"
where spirit may be referring to George Chapman who claimed to be directly inspired by Homer's spirit. Indeed, the nautical theme of this sonnet fits well with the theme of Homer's Odyssey as do Shakespeare's flattering comments about the rival's epic verse.
Sonnets 82, 83, and 84 continue the theme of the Rival Poet but without any apparent material to identify who he is. But Sonnet 85 reverts to the reference to spirit as in 79:
"To every hymn that able spirit affords"
that may be a link back to George Chapman.
Sonnet 86 is the final Rival Poet sonnet, and again the influence of a spirit on the rival features prominently:
"Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write"
Perhaps in an allusion to Shakespeare, in Chapman's dedicatory sonnet to Sir Thomas Walsingham he describes his own All Fools comedy as the "least allow'd birth of my shaken brain". And Chapman makes several spiritual and maritime allusions in his own works that closely resemble the imagery in Shakespeare's Sonnet 86, e.g. The Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron Act 3, Scene 1: "Give me a spirit that on this life's rough sea Loves t' have his sails fill'd with a lusty wind."
Shakespeare goes on to demean the influence of the rival's inspirational spirit/ghost in:
"He nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence"
Outside of the Sonnets, there was a group of poets called The School of Night, also called The School of Atheisme in a 1592 reference, that was led by Raleigh and included Marlowe and Chapman. This group is apparently parodied in Love's Labours Lost:
King: "Black is the badge of hell, The hue of dungeons and the school of night And beauty’s crest becomes the heavens well."
Chapman also wrote a verse named The Shadow of Night whose title and subject matter fits in well with Chapman's involvement with this group.
Finally, George Chapman did write verse dedicated to the Earl of Southampton who was also Shakespeare's patron.
Although the identity of the Rival Poet is not conclusive, the material within the Rival Poet sonnets and the contemporary activity of George Chapman does, in my view, converge to point to George Chapman being the man.
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