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).