Francis Bacon was known to his circle, i.e. the nobility and certain university intellectuals, as a ‘concealed poet’. He also described himself as such. A significant proportion of English literature appearing in print before the 17th century was published anonymously or pseudonymously. “Anonymity was of course common form with an aristocratic author”, as the prominent orthodox Shakespeare scholar, A.L.Rowse said in his William Shakespeare (1963).
Also known is that some authors borrowed the identity of another writer or figure to divert suspicion away from themselves. One of Bacon’s contemporaries, the Cambridge graduate Robert Greene, spoke about this in his Farewell to Folly (1591) as follows:
Others… if they come or write or publish anything in print, it is either distilled out of ballets [ballads] or borrowed of theological poets which for their calling and gravity being loth to have any prophane pamphlets pass under their hand, get some other Batillus to set his name to their verses. Thus is the ass made proud by this underhand brokery.
There is a lot of information in this excerpt. Nigel Cockburn comments “Batillus was a minor poet in the reign of Augustus Caesar”. But what he doesn’t point out is that the ‘ass’ was traditionally associated, in ages more steeped in the New Testament, with the donkey that bore Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and experienced the ovation alongside Jesus. In other words, Greene’s rather snobbish image tells us that a lowly creature may share, absurdly, in the acclaim merited by the person he ‘bears’. Clearly if this applies to Bacon and Shakespeare, Shakespeare would have been the ‘Batillus’, the ass who bore Bacon.
Selection of evidence
The clearest of the several proofs of Bacon’s concealment come both from his own testimony and that of others:
1. Bacon’s letter to Sir John Davies (28th March 1603) was written to ask Davies, a friend of Bacon, to speak well of him to James 1, newly appointed to the throne of England. The letter finishes “so desiring you to be good to all concealed poets, I contine, your very assured Fr. Bacon”. Davies was a respected poet of the Elizabethan age, and the letter evidently reads as an appeal from one poet to another, on an equal footing.
2. Stow’s Annals (1615) which mentions Sir Francis Bacon in the lofty company of Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney and ‘Willi Shakespeare’. Written in 1615 when both Bacon and Shakespeare were still alive, this is particularly important proof, since it regards Bacon and Shakespeare as distinct, yet poetically on a par. Therefore, no biased view of the authorship question is influencing the view of Bacon as a poet.
3. Edmund Waller’s Poems (1645) defends poetry, on the grounds that notables like Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Bacon practised it.