The acrostical Burgess

It was Anthony Burgess who revealed the identity of Mr WS’s dark lady. ‘I found her name,’ he wrote, ‘acrostically presented’ in Sonnet 147:

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me…
 

‘Ftmah’ he wrote, was an ‘almost pedantic transliteration of the Arabic spelling of the name Fatimah’ (فاطمة — destiny). So in the 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life (pp. 17-21 of the 1982 Hamlyn edition), he included a sonnet he himself wrote ‘that acrosticised the name in full, backwards as well as forwards’:

Fair is as fair as fair itself allows,
And hiding in the dark is not less fair.
The married blackness of my mistress’ brows
Is thus fair’s home, for fair abideth there.
My love being black, her beauty may not shine
And light so foiled to heat alone may turn.
Heat is my heart, my hearth, all earth is mine;
Heaven do I scorn when in such hell I burn.
All other beauty’s light I lightly rate.
My love is as my love is, for the dark.
In night enthroned, I ask no better state
Than thus to range, nor seek a guiding spark.
And, childish, I am put to school of night
For to seek light beyond the reach of light.
 

FATIMAH — HAMITAF — ‘Roman and Semitic letter-orders,’ Burgess explained. ‘No critic noticed the acrostic, which was…meant to be a secret between myself and myself.’

Are there many acrostics — or other such ‘secrets between himself and himself’ — in Burgess’s work? There are bound to be many, but it will be a long and laborious task fishing them all out using the human eye alone. Information technology must come to our aid.

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