Nigel Cockburn – on Spedding, 1 of 2
Doubters of Bacon's authorship of the Shakespeare works also at times point to his main biographer, James Spedding, who didn't believe he was Shakespeare. But N.B. Cockburn among others have shown the faults in Spedding's own thinking. Cockburn writes:
It is necessary to say a word about James Spedding, and this may be as a good a place as any at which to do it. When he was writing The Works of Francis Bacon, the main rebirth of the Baconian theory, after its Elizabethan origins, had not yet taken place. But in 1867 an American judge, Nathaniel Holmes, confronted Spedding with the suggestion that Bacon was Shake-Speare. In a reply dated 15 February of that year (which is printed in Holme's book The Authorship of Shakespeare (1886), Vol. 2, pp. 612-618 Spedding rejected the suggestion outright, declaring: "If there was any reason for supposing that the real author was someone else, I think I am in a condition to say that, whoever it was, it was not Francis Bacon". O fortunatam natam me consule Roman! (How fortunate for Rome that I am Consul!). Spedding's ipse dixit has exerted great influence, by reason of his reputation as Bacon's biographer.
But how reliable is he on this question? He performed an invaluable service, let it be said, in editing Bacon's works, letters and life, and without his great labours, which produced order out of chaos, study of Bacon would be a nightmare. On the other debit side, however, and despite his 14 volumes, his understanding of Bacon remained surprisingly incomplete. To give one example not connected with the Shake-Speare authorship dispute, he delivered himself of this pronouncement: 'All his life he [Bacon] had been studying to know and speak the truth; and I doubt whether there was ever any man whose evidence upon matters of fact may be more absolutely relied on, or who could more truly say with Kent in Lear 4.7.5-6:
All my reports go with the modest truth,
No more, nor clipp'd; but so.
Alas!, Bacon's statements were sometimes decidedly 'clipp'd' rather than 'so'. Certainly he was a relentless seeker after truth about men and nature. But to suppose that he was always a paragon of veracity in his own affairs, whether public or private, is a comical misjudgment. In his Essay on Dissimulation he openly advocates a degree of dissimulation; and in Chapter 4 [of Cockburn's book] we shall find him putting theory into practice by forging two letters. The Spedding misjudgment which is relevant to the present book is his failure to recognise Bacon's interest in poetry and the Theatre. The underlying reason for this failure is all too apparent from something he wrote when discussing Bacon's Psalm paraphrases: "The truth is that Bacon was not without the fine phrenzy of the poet; but the world into which it transported him was one which, upon express condition that fiction should be utterly prohibited and excluded. Had it taken the ordinary direction, I have little doubt that it would have carried him to a place among the great poets; but it was the study of his life to refrain his imagination and keep it within the modesty of truth; aspiring no higher than to be a faithful interpreter of nature, waiting for the day when the Kingdom of Man should come".
But there is absolutely no warrant for the assertion that it was "the study of Bacon's life to refrain his imagination". What Spedding should have said and thought is that it was the study of his life to refrain his imagination when searching for truth about men and nature. Any sensible person will be guided in such matters by the evidence, not by imagination. But it is a non sequitur to suppose that this debarred him from indulging his imagination to his leisure hours. In the next chapter we shall see many statements by Bacon of his enjoyment of poetry and the Theatre. He described poetry as "rather a pleasure or play of the imagination than a work or duty thereof"; and as "a thing sweet and varied that would be thought to have in it something divine".