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"Shakspere-Bacon's Cipher" (1891)

This six-line poem, first published in the second annex to the 1891 edition of Leaves of Grass, "Good-Bye my Fancy," probably reflects Whitman's familiarity with Ignatius Donnelly's theory that a hidden system of ciphers in Shakespeare's works conveys the identification of Francis Bacon as the author. With elaborate documentation, Donnelly set forth his proposition in the two-volume The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays (1888). A flurry of articles, primarily as rebuttals, appeared in American and British journals. The Bacon-authorship proposal had been launched first in book form—Was Lord Bacon the Author of Shakespeare's Plays? (1856) by William Henry Smith. The theory gained prominence through Delia Bacon's The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857); she cites the existence of a cipher to reveal the true author.

Without adhering to the Baconian camp, Whitman sidesteps the controversy to find another type of "mystic cipher . . . infolded." It lies within "every object, mountain, tree, and star." Nowhere in the poem itself is either Shakspere (Whitman's usual spelling of the name throughout all of his prose and poetry) or Bacon mentioned. Whitman echoes words from the books and articles about the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy, but he finds "meaning, behind the ostent"—the universal spirit that breathes throughout nature and persons.


Friedman, William F., and Elizebeth S. Friedman. The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1957.

Stovall, Floyd. "Whitman's Knowledge of Shakespeare." Studies in Philology 49 (1952): 643–669.

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