TO be, or not to be an early poem by William Shakespeare -- that is the question posed by a young American scholar in Oxford, England. Gary Taylor, who comes from Topeka, Kansas, last week made known to the world a nine-stanza Elizabethan love lyric with a complicated pattern of rhymes. He is convinced it is a previously ignored and unacknowledged work by the great English playwright.
Mr. Taylor, a respected Shakespearian textual analyst, has been working for nearly eight years as joint general editor of the Oxford University Press's ``New Complete Shakespeare,'' to be published in 1986. His discovery took place Nov. 15 in Oxford's Bodleian Library. During finishing stages of his exhaustive labors for the new edition, he noted a catalog reference in the library to a poem included in a ``very large'' 17th century anthology. The poem, which the anthologist attributed to Shakespeare, w as completely unfamiliar to Taylor. Over the following 10 days he became positive Shakespeare wrote it.
Already some scholars have expressed doubts. In a telephone interview last week, Taylor defended his very carefully tested assertion to the press that the untitled poem, which he believes can be dated about 1593 to 1595, is an early work by Shakespeare.
``We tried to find a way to prove that it wasn't by Shakespeare,'' he said, ``because we thought that as soon as the poem was published, the first thing everyone would try to do was prove that it wasn't by Shakespeare. . . . It is perfectly reasonable for scholars to be cautious'' he agreed, particularly in view of ``the unusual situation'' of only partial evidence being made known before his own full scholarly article on the work has been published.
``But people who are having the poem read to them over the phone and instantly deciding that it is no good -- that doesn't seem to me to be very responsible. . . . If I had just read the poem once in the Bodleian and then ran out to tell the newspapers that I'd found a Shakespeare poem, everyone would have been within their rights to have started throwing cow-dung at me! But. . . I investigated the poem in every way that I possibly could.''
He hasn't invented any ``new techniques,'' he said, to do this, only those accepted by Shakespearian scholars. These include a thorough search of other manuscript sources, of major libraries worldwide, and the use of computer technology. Then, with his senior editor on the Oxford University Press ``New Complete Shakespeare,'' Stanley Wells, (who now supports his colleague's position) they subjected the text and detail of the poem to an extremely close reading.
``All the tests say yes,'' Taylor said. ``It's not me,'' he pointed out, ``who says that the poem is by Shakespeare. It is the manuscript which says so. The document is undoubtedly genuine, dating from the 1630s. There is no question of a forgery or anything like that. Neither the poem nor the name can have been added later.''
Scholars depend on early documents of this kind for their ``knowledge of everything Shakespeare wrote.'' In this case, ``all that I have done is to cross-examine that witness.'' Taylor says the only argument advanced so far to throw doubt on his conclusion is that the poem's quality ``is not good enough.''
``It's not `Hamlet,' it's not `The Tempest,' '' he said. It's an early work, not inconsistent he feels with the long narrative poems in the Shakespeare canon, ``Venus and Adonis'' and ``The Rape of Lucrece.'' He also finds parallels in such plays as ``Romeo and Juliet,'' ``A Midsummer-Night's Dream'' and ``Love's Labour's Lost.'' Taylor maintains that it is a mistake to judge Shakespeare's early work by the quality of his great, mature plays.
Prof. Philip Brockbank, the general editor of the ``New Cambridge Shakespeare'' calls it ``the kind of poem that Shakespeare used to make fun of in his early poems. He makes mock of poems and poets who rhyme ``love'' and ``dove'' [as in the fourth stanza]. I'm glad it's been found'' he said, ``but the fuss is purely of the newspapers' creating.''
Would he include the poem when the ``New Cambridge'' volume of poems comes out? Yes, but only ``in that little limbo of poems of doubtful ascription.''
Taylor counters: ``In the first place I think it's a decent poem. I don't think it's a piece of rubbish.'' He compares it to some recently found early music by Mozart. ``You don't say they are not by Mozart just because they aren't `The Marriage of Figaro' . . . .''
Professor John Carey, the Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, has a high estimation of Taylor's scholarship. He has studied the poem and read Taylor's as yet unpublished article. But he still has doubts about the poem.
``Granted that you might expect a very early poem by Shakespeare to have a lot of conventional and perhaps even, I suppose, trite material in it. This poem doesn't seem to me to have anything else. . . . Even in very early Shakespeare plays you do find, I think, signs of the power that is to come. I don't think anyone could say they could find this in this poem. . . . I mean: look at `Romeo and Juliet' and then look at this poem. It is just undistinguished.''
Dr. Peter Beal, Sotheby's expert on manuscripts calls it ``sort of 60-40 in Gary Taylor's favor,'' although he would have advocated longer research. ``Attributions in 17th century anthologies of this kind are not always totally reliable,'' he says. ``Sometimes the scribes made guesses. There are hundreds of these anthologies around, written in the 1620s, '30s and '40s. On the other hand, Shakespeare's name is very, very rare in them. Sometime it does crop up, and when it does it is almost certainly co rrect. His second sonnet occurs more than once, for instance. Perfectly genuine.'' So, he believes, ``this attribution has to be taken seriously.''
Taylor says finally: ``If someone else can disauthenticate the manuscript, so be it. But we simply cannot think of any way that could be done. . . .''