Sensationalism and a Cypher II
The Speaker, January 25, 1902
THE TRAGEDY 0F SIR FRANCIS BACON. London: Grant Richards. By Harold Bayley.
In a previous article I drew attention to the general spirit in which the Baconian question must be approached. That spirit involves the possession of a thing which is scarcely comprehended in America, the instinct of culture which does not consist merely in knowing the facts, but in being able to imagine the truth. The Baconians imagine a vain thing, because they believe in facts. Their historical faculty is a rule of three; the real historical faculty is a great deal more like an ear for music. One of the matters, for example, which is most powerfully concerned in the Bacon-Shakespeare question, is the question of literary style, a thing as illogical as the bouquet of a bottle of wine. It is the thing, in short, which makes us quite certain that the sentence quoted in The Tragedy of Sir Francis Bacon from his secret narrative, "The Queen looked pale from want of rest, but was calm and compos’d," was never written by an Elizabethan. Having explained the essentials of the method as they appear to me, I now come to the study of the mass of the Baconian details. They are set forth in a kind of resume of various Baconian theories in The Tragedy of Sir Francis Bacon, by Harold Bayley (Grant Richards). The work is an astonishing example of this faculty of putting out the ﬁre of truth with the fuel of information. Mr. Bayley has collected with creditable industry an enormous number of fragmentary facts and rumours. He has looked at the water-marks in the paper used by Rosicrucians and Jacobean dramatists. He has examined the tail-pieces and ornamental borders of German and Belgian printers. He has gone through the works of Bacon and Shakespeare and a hundred others, picking out parallel words and allusions, but all the time he is completely incapable of realising the great and glaring truism which lies at the back of the whole question, the simple truism that a million times naught is naught. He does not see, that is, that though a million coincidences, each of which by itself has a slight value, may make up a probability, yet a million coincidences, each of which has no value in itself, make up nothing at all. What are the sort of coincidences upon which Mr. Bayley relies? The water-mark used in some book is the design of a bunch of grapes. Bacon says, in the Novum Organum: "I pledge mankind in liquor pressed from countless grapes." Another water-mark represents a seal. Somebody said about Bacon that he became Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England and of the great seal of nature. The rose and the lily were symbols used by the Rosicrucians; there are a great many allusions to roses and lilies in Shakespeare. A common printer's border consists of acorns. Bacon somewhere alludes to his fame growing like an oak tree. Does not Mr. Bayley see that no conceivable number of coincidences of this kind would make an account more probable or even more possible? Anyone in any age might talk about clusters of grapes or design clusters of grapes; anyone might make an ornament out of acorns; anyone might talk about growing like a tree. I look down at my own floor and see the Greek key pattern round the oilcloth, but it does not convince me that I am destined to open the doors of Hellenic mystery. Mr. Bayley undoubtedly produces a vast number of these parallels, but they all amount to nothing. In my previous article I took for the sake of argument the imaginary case of Lord Rosebery and Mr. W. B. Yeats. Does not Mr. Bayley see that to point out one genuine coincidence, as that Lord Rosebery paid secret cheques to Mr. Yeats, might indicate something, but to say that they both walked down Piccadilly, that they both admired Burne-Jones, that they both alluded more than once to the Irish question, in short that they both did a million things that are done by a million other people, does not approach even to having the faintest value or significance. This, then, is the ﬁrst thing to be said to the Baconian spirit, that it does not know how to add up a column of naughts.
The second thing to be said is rather more curious. If there is a cypher in the Shakespearean plays, it ought presumably to be a definite and unmistakable thing. It may be difficult to ﬁnd, but when you have found it you have got it. But the extraordinary thing is that Mr. Bayley and most other Baconians talk about the Baconian cypher as they might talk about "a touch of pathos" in Hood's poetry, or "a ﬂavour of cynicism" in Thackeray's novels, as if it were a thing one became faintly conscious of and suspected, without being able to point it out. If anyone thinks this unfair, let him notice the strange way in which Mr. Bayley talks about previous Baconian works. "In 1888 Mr. Ignatius Donelly claimed to have discovered a cypher story in the ﬁrst folio of Shakespeare's plays. In his much abused but little read and less refuted book, The Great Cryptogram, he endeavoured to convince the world of the truth of his theory. Partly by reason of the complexity of his system, the full details of which he did not reveal, and partly owing to the fact that he did not produce any definite assertion of authorship, but appeared to have stumbled into the midst of a lengthy narrative, the world was not convinced, and Mr. Donelly was greeted with Rabelaisian laughter. He has since gone to the grave unwept, unhonoured, and unsung, and his secret has presumably died with him. The work of this writer was marred by many extravagant inferences, but The Great Cryptogram is nevertheless a damning indictment which has not yet been answered." Again, on the second Baconian demonstration, "Dr. Owen gave scarcely more than a hint of how his alleged cypher worked." The brain reels at all this. Why do none of the cypherists seem to be sure what the cypher is or where it is? A man publishes a huge book to prove that there is a cryptogram, and his secret dies with him. Another man devotes another huge book to giving "scarcely more than a hint" of it. Are these works really so impenetrable that no one knows whether they all revealed the same cypher or different cyphers? If they pointed to the same cypher it seems odd that Mr. Bayley does not mention it. If their cyphers were different we can only conclude that the great heart of America is passionately bent on ﬁnding a cypher in Shakespeare- anyhow, anywhere, and of any kind.
Finally, there is one thing to be said about a more serious matter. In the chapter called "Mr. William Shakespeare" the author has an extraordinary theory that Shakespeare could not have been the author of the works under discussion because those works rise to the heights of mental purity, and the little we know of Shakespeare's life would seem to indicate that it was a coarse and possibly a riotous one. "Public opinion," he says solemnly, "asks us to believe that this divine stream of song, history, and philosophy sprang from so nasty and beastly a source." There is not much to be said about an argument exhibiting so strange an ignorance of human nature. The argument could equally be used to prove that Leonardo da Vinci could not paint, that Mirabeau could not speak, and that Burns's poems were written by the parson of his parish. But surely there is no need to say this to the Baconians. They should be the last people in the world to doubt the possibility of the conjunction of genius with depravity. They trace their sublime stream of song to a corrupt judge, a treacherous friend, a vulgar sycophant, a man of tawdry aims, of cowardly temper, of public and disgraceful end. He killed his benefactor for hire, and the Baconians would improve this and say that he killed his brother. We know little of Shakespeare's vices, but he might have been a scarecrow of profligacy and remained a man worthier to create Portia than the Lord Verulam whom all history knows. The matter is a matter of evidence, and sentiment has little concern with it. But if we did cherish an emotion in the matter it would certainly be a hope that "the divine stream of song" might not be traced to "so nasty and beastly a source" as Francis Bacon.