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 L. Taylor, who comes from Topeka, Kan., has in the 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. If genuine, it is the first addition to Shakespeare's canon since the 17th century.
Mr. Taylor, a respected Shakespearean 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. This poem was attributed by the scribe to Shakes peare. It was completely unfamiliar to Taylor. Over the following 10 days he became positive that Shakespeare wrote it.
Some scholars have already expressed doubts. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Taylor defended what he describes as a very carefully tested assertion to the press that the untitled poem, which he believes can be dated about 1593 to 1595, is undoubtedly 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 Shake speare. . . . 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 (it is scheduled to appear in the New York Times Review of Books on Dec. 15).
``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,'' Taylor says. ``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'' to do this, he said, only using all those accepted by Shakespearean scholars. These included searching other manuscript sources at other major libraries worldwide and subjecting the text and detail of the poem to an extremely close reading.
In the latter task he was aided by Stanley Wells, his senior editor on Oxford's ``New Complete Shakespeare.'' Dr. Wells supports his colleague's assertion that the poem is genuine.
``All the tests say yes,'' Taylor says. ``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 actually depend on early documents of this kind for ``our knowledge of everything Shakespeare wrote.'' In this case, ``All that I have done is to cross-examine that witness.''
As far as Taylor is concerned, the only arguments so far advanced to throw doubt on his conclusions are that the quality of the poem ``is not good enough.'' He says, ``It's not `Hamlet,' it's not `The Tempest.' '' 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.'' The mistake even
scholars sometimes make, however, is to judge Shakespeare's early work by the quality of his great, mature plays. Taylor considers this wrong.
Prof. Philip Brockbank, general editor of the ``New Cambridge Shakespeare,'' is dismissive. ``It's the kind of poem that Shakespeare used to make fun of in his early poems,'' he says. ``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 adds,, ``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. You see, in every standard Shakespeare there are about half a dozen poems, or perhaps more, that are only dubiously Shakespearean. These include a collection called `The Passionate Pilgrim.' No fuss is made about that. Very few people have ever read it. If it were discovered today, there would be a tremendous fuss. It'd be hitting all the headlines. And ye t it is, in itself, of no consequence. That's where I think this poem is destined for -- that little limbo.''
Gary 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 discovered early music by Mozart. ``You don't say they are not by Mozart just because they aren't `The Marriage of Figaro' or `Don Giovanni.' ''
The plays he thinks come close to the poem are those he describes as ``very lyrical'' and with ``a lot of rhyme in them.'' They ``do a lot of experimenting with form.'' Such qualities are very much part of the newly found love lyric.