- Critic: Algernon Charles Swinburne
- Source: The Age of Shakespeare, 1908. Reprint by AMS Press Inc., 1965, pp. 60-109
[Swinburne was an English poet, dramatist, and critic who is particularly remembered today for his rejection of Victorian mores in favor of literature which stressed sensuality and beauty. In this excerpt, he analyzes Dekker's dramas for their poetic qualities, depictions of character, and moral ideals. He also treats the quality of prose in Dekker's pamphlets, focusing on their humor and ethical concerns.]
Of all English poets, if not of all poets on record, Dekker is perhaps the most difficult to classify. The grace and delicacy, the sweetness and spontaneity of his genius are not more obvious and undeniable than the many defects which impair and the crowning deficiency which degrades it. As long, but so long only, as a man retains some due degree of self-respect and respect for the art he serves or the business he follows, it matters less for his fame in the future than for his prosperity in the present whether he retains or discards any vestige of respect for any other obligation in the world. François Villon, compared with whom all other reckless and disreputable men of genius seem patterns of austere decency and elevated regularity of life, was as conscientious and self-respectful an artist as a Virgil or a Tennyson: he is not a great poet only, but one of the most blameless, the most perfect, the most faultless among his fellows in the first class of writers for all time. If not in that class, yet high in the class immediately beneath it, the world would long since have agreed to enrol the name of Thomas Dekker, had he not wanted that one gift which next to genius is the most indispensable for all aspirants to a station among the masters of creative literature. For he was by nature at once a singer and a maker: he had the gift of native music and the birthright of inborn invention. His song was often sweet as honey; his fancy sometimes as rich and subtle, his imagination as delicate and strong, as that of the very greatest among dramatists or poets. For gentle grace of inspiration and vivid force of realism he is eclipsed at his very best by Shakespeare's self alone. No such combination or alternation of such admirable powers is discernible in any of his otherwise more splendid or sublime compeers. And in one gift, the divine gift of tenderness, he comes nearer to Shakespeare and stands higher above others than in any other quality of kindred genius.
And with all these gifts, if the vulgar verdict of his own day and of later days be not less valid than vulgar, he was a failure. There is a pathetic undertone of patience and resignation not unqualified by manly though submissive regret, which recurs now and then, or seems to recur, in the personal accent of his subdued and dignified appeal to the casual reader, suggestive of a sense that the higher triumphs of art, the brighter prosperities of achievement, were not reserved for him; and yet not unsuggestive of a consciousness that, if this be so, it is not so through want of the primal and essential qualities of a poet. For, as Lamb says, Dekker `had poetry enough for anything'; at all events, for anything which can be accomplished by a poet endowed in the highest degree with the gifts of graceful and melodious fancy, tender and cordial humour, vivid and pathetic realism, a spontaneous refinement and an exquisite simplicity of expression. With the one great gift of seriousness, of noble ambition, of self-confidence rooted in self-respect, he must have won an indisputable instead of a questionable place among the immortal writers of his age. But this gift had been so absolutely withheld from him by nature or withdrawn from him by circumstance that he has left us not one single work altogether worthy of the powers now revealed and now eclipsed, now suddenly radiant and now utterly extinct, in the various and voluminous array of his writings. Although his earlier plays are in every way superior to his later, there is evidence even in the best of them of the author's infirmity of hand. From the first he shows himself idly or perversely or impotently prone to loosen his hold on character and story alike before his plot can be duly carried out or his conceptions adequately developed. His pleasant Comedie of The Gentle Craft [The Shoemaker's Holiday], first printed three years before the death of Queen Elizabeth, is one of his brightest and most coherent pieces of work, graceful and lively throughout, if rather thin-spun and slight of structure: but the more serious and romantic part of the action is more lightly handled than the broad light comedy of the mad and merry Lord Mayor Simon Eyre, a figure in the main original and humorous enough, but somewhat over persistent in ostentation and repetition of jocose catchwords after the fashion of mine host of the Garter [in The Merry Wives of Windsor]; a type which Shakespeare knew better than to repeat, but of which his inferiors seem to have been enamoured beyond all reason. In this fresh and pleasant little play there are few or no signs of the author's higher poetic abilities: the style is pure and sweet, simple and spontaneous, without any hint of a quality not required by the subject: but in the other play of Dekker's which bears the same date as this one his finest and rarest gifts of imagination and emotion, feeling and fancy, colour and melody, are as apparent as his ingrained faults of levity and laziness. The famous passage in which Webster couples together the names of `Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Dekker, and Mr. Heywood,' seems explicable when we compare the style of `Old Fortunatus' with the style of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dekker had as much of the peculiar sweetness, the gentle fancy, the simple melody of Shakespeare in his woodland dress, as Heywood of the homely and noble realism, the heartiness and humour, the sturdy sympathy and joyful pride of Shakespeare in his most English mood of patriotic and historic loyalty. Not that these qualities are wanting in the work of Dekker: he was an ardent and a combative patriot, ever ready to take up the cudgels in prose or rhyme for England and her yeomen against Popery and the world: but it is rather the man than the poet who speaks on these occasions: his singing faculty does not apply itself so naturally to such work as to the wild wood-notes of passion and fancy and pathos which in his happiest moments, even when they remind us of Shakespeare's, provoke no sense of unworthiness or inequality in comparison with these. It is not with the most popular and famous names of his age that the sovereign name of Shakespeare is most properly or most profitably to be compared. His genius has really far less in common with that of Jonson or of Fletcher than with that of Webster or of Dekker. To the last-named poet even Lamb was for once less than just when he said of the `frantic Lover' in Old Fortunatus that `he talks pure Biron and Romeo; he is almost as poetical as they.' The word `almost' should be supplanted by the word `fully'; and the criticism would then be no less adequate than apt. Sidney himself might have applauded the verses which clothe with living music a passion as fervent and as fiery a fancy as his own. Not even in the rapturous melodies of that matchless series of songs and sonnets which glorify the inseparable names of Astrophel and Stella will the fascinated student find a passage more enchanting than this.
Thou art a traitor to that white and red
Which sitting on her cheeks (being Cupid's throne)
Is my heart's sovereign: O, when she is dead,
This wonder, Beauty, shall be found in none.
Now Agripyne's not mine, I vow to be
In love with nothing but deformity.
O fair Deformity, I muse all eyes
Are not enamoured of thee: thou didst never
Murder men's hearts, or let them pine like wax,
Melting against the sun of thy disdain;
Thou art a faithful nurse to Chastity;
Thy beauty is not like to Agripyne's,
For cares, and age, and sickness, hers deface,
But thine's eternal: O Deformity,
Thy fairness is not like to Agripyne's,
For, dead, her beauty will no beauty have,
But thy face looks most lovely in the grave.
Shakespeare has nothing more exquisite in expression of passionate fancy, more earnest in emotion, more spontaneous in simplicity, more perfect in romantic inspiration. But the poet's besetting sin of laxity, his want of seriousness and steadiness, his idle, shambling, shifty way of writing, had power even then, in the very prime of his promise, to impede his progress and impair his chance of winning the race which he had set himself--and yet which he had hardly set himself--to run. And if these things were done in the green tree, it was only too obvious what would be done in the dry; it must have been clear that this golden-tongued and gentle-hearted poet had not strength of spirit or fervour of ambition enough to put conscience into his work and resolution into his fancies. But even from such headlong recklessness as he had already displayed no reader could have anticipated so singular a defiance of all form and order, all coherence and proportion, as is exhibited in his Satiromastix. The controversial part of the play is so utterly alien from the romantic part that it is impossible to regard them as component factors of the same original plot. It seems to me unquestionable that Dekker must have conceived the design, and probable that he must have begun the composition, of a serious play on the subject of William Rufus and Sir Walter Tyrrel, before the appearance of Ben Jonson's Poetaster impelled or instigated him to some immediate attempt at rejoinder; and that being in a feverish hurry to retort the blow inflicted on him by a heavier hand than his own he devised--perhaps between jest and earnest--the preposterously incoherent plan of piecing out his farcical and satirical design by patching and stitching it into his unfinished scheme of tragedy. It may be assumed, and it is much to be hoped, that there never existed another poet capable of imagining--much less of perpetrating--an incongruity so monstrous and so perverse. The explanation so happily suggested by a modern critic that William Rufus is meant for Shakespeare, and that `Lyly is Sir Vaughan ap Rees,' wants only a little further development, on the principle of analogy, to commend itself to every scholar. It is equally obvious that the low-bred and foul-mouthed ruffian Captain Tucca must be meant for Sir Philip Sidney; the vulgar idiot Asinius Bubo for Lord Bacon; the half-witted underling Peter Flash for Sir Walter Raleigh; and the immaculate Celestina, who escapes by stratagem and force of virtue from the villainous designs of Shakespeare, for the lady long since indicated by the perspicacity of a Chalmers as the object of that lawless and desperate passion which found utterance in the sonnets of her unprincipled admirer--Queen Elizabeth. As a previous suggestion of my own, to the effect that George Peele was probably the real author of Romeo and Juliet, has had the singular good fortune to be not merely adopted but appropriated--in serious earnest--by a contemporary student, without--as far as I am aware--a syllable of acknowledgment, I cannot but anticipate a similar acceptance in similar quarters for the modest effort at interpretation now submitted to the judgment of the ingenuous reader.
Gifford is not too severe on the palpable incongruities of Dekker's preposterous medley: but his impeachment of Dekker as a more virulent and intemperate controversialist than Jonson is not less preposterous than the structure of this play. The nobly gentle and manly verses in which the less fortunate and distinguished poet disclaims and refutes the imputation of envy or malevolence excited by the favour enjoyed by his rival in high quarters should have sufficed, in common justice, to protect him from such a charge. There is not a word in Jonson's satire expressive of anything but savage and unqualified scorn for his humbler antagonist: and the tribute paid by that antagonist to his genius, the appeal to his better nature which concludes the torrent of recrimination, would have won some word of honourable recognition from any but the most unscrupulous and ungenerous of partisans. That Dekker was unable to hold his own against Jonson when it came to sheer hard hitting--that on the ground or platform of personal satire he was as a light weight pitted against a heavy weight--is of course too plain, from the very first round, to require any further demonstration. But it is not less plain that in delicacy and simplicity and sweetness of inspiration the poet who could write the scene in which the bride takes poison (as she believes) from the hand of her father, in presence of her bridegroom, as a refuge from the passion of the king, was as far above Jonson as Jonson was above him in the robuster qualities of intellect or genius. This most lovely scene, for pathos tempered with fancy and for passion distilled in melody, is comparable only with higher work, of rarer composition and poetry more pure, than Jonson's: it is a very treasure-house of verses like jewels, bright as tears and sweet as flowers. When Dekker writes like this, then truly we seem to see his right hand in the left hand of Shakespeare.
To find the names of Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker amicably associated in the composition of a joint poem or pageant within the space of a year from the publication of so violent a retort by the latter to so vehement an attack by the former must amuse if it does not astonish the reader least capable of surprise at the boyish readiness to quarrel and the boyish readiness to shake hands which would seem to be implied in so startling a change of relations. In all the huge, costly, wearisome, barbaric and pedantic ceremonial which welcomed into London the Solomon of Scotland, the exhausted student who attempts to follow the ponderous elaboration of report drawn up by these reconciled enemies will remark the solid and sedate merit of Jonson's best couplets with less pleasure than he will receive from the quaint sweetness of Dekker's lyric notes. Admirable as are many of Ben Jonson's songs for their finish of style and fullness of matter, it is impossible for those who know what is or should be the special aim or the distinctive quality of lyric verse to place him in the first class--much less, in the front rank--of lyric poets. He is at his best a good way ahead of such song-writers as Byron; but Dekker at his best belongs to the order of such song-writers as Blake or Shelley. Perhaps the very finest example of his flawless and delicate simplicity of excellence in this field of work may be the well-known song in honour of honest poverty and in praise of honest labour which so gracefully introduces the heroine of a play published in this same year of the accession of James--Patient Grissel; a romantic tragicomedy so attractive for its sweetness and lightness of tone and touch that no reader will question the judgment or condemn the daring of the poets who ventured upon ground where Chaucer had gone before them with such gentle stateliness of step and such winning tenderness of gesture. His deepest note of pathos they have not even attempted to reproduce: but in freshness and straightforwardness, in frankness and simplicity of treatment, the dramatic version is not generally unworthy to be compared with the narrative which it follows afar off. Chettle and Haughton, the associates of Dekker in this enterprise, had each of them something of their colleague's finer qualities; but the best scenes in the play remind me rather of Dekker's best early work than of Robert Earl of Huntington or of Englishmen for my Money. So much has been said of the evil influence of Italian example upon English character in the age of Elizabeth, and so much has been made of such confessions or imputations as distinguish the clamorous and malevolent penitence of Robert Greene, that it is more than agreeable to find at least one dramatic poet of the time who has the manliness to enter a frank and contemptuous protest against this habit of malignant self-excuse. `Italy,' says an honest gentleman in this comedy to a lying and impudent gull, `Italy infects you not, but your own diseased spirits. Italy? Out, you froth, you scum! because your soul is mud, and that you have breathed in Italy, you'll say Italy has defiled you: away, you boar: thou wilt wallow in mire in the sweetest country in the world.'
There are many traces of moral or spiritual weakness and infirmity in the writings of Dekker and the scattered records or indications of his unprosperous though not unlaborious career: but there are manifest and manifold signs of an honest and earnest regard for justice and fair dealing, as well as of an inexhaustible compassion for suffering, an indestructible persistency of pity, which found characteristic expression in the most celebrated of his plays. There is a great gulf between it and the first of Victor Hugo's tragedies: yet the instinct of either poet is the same, as surely as their common motive is the redemption of a fallen woman by the influence of twinborn love and shame. Of all Dekker's works, The Honest Whore comes nearest to some reasonable degree of unity and harmony in conception and construction; his besetting vice of reckless and sluttish incoherence has here done less than usual to deform the proportions and deface the impression of his design. Indeed, the connection of the two serious plots in the first part is a rare example of dexterous and happy simplicity in composition: the comic underplot of the patient man and shrewish wife is more loosely attached by a slighter thread of relation to these two main stories, but is so amusing in its light and facile play of inventive merriment and harmless mischief as to need no further excuse. Such an excuse, however, might otherwise be found in the plea that it gives occasion for the most beautiful, the most serious, and the most famous passage in all the writings of its author. The first scene of this first part has always appeared to me one of the most effective and impressive on our stage: the interruption of the mock funeral by the one true mourner whose passion it was intended to deceive into despair is so striking as a mere incident or theatrical device that the noble and simple style in which the graver part of the dialogue is written can be no more than worthy of the subject: whereas in other plays of Dekker's the style is too often beneath the merit of the subject, and the subject as often below the value of the style. The subsequent revival of Infelice from her trance is represented with such vivid and delicate power that the scene, short and simple as it is, is one of the most fascinating in any play of the period. In none of these higher and finer parts of the poem can I trace the touch of any other hand than the principal author's: but the shopkeeping scenes of the underplot have at least as much of Middleton's usual quality as of Dekker's; homely and rough-cast as they are, there is a certain finish or thoroughness about them which is more like the careful realism of the former than the slovenly naturalism of the latter. The coarse commonplaces of the sermon on prostitution by which Bellafront is so readily and surprisingly reclaimed into respectability give sufficient and superfluous proof that Dekker had nothing of the severe and fiery inspiration which makes a great satirist or a great preacher; but when we pass again into a sweeter air than that of the boudoir or the pulpit, it is the unmistakable note of Dekker's most fervent and tender mood of melody which enchants us in such verses as these, spoken by a lover musing on the portrait of a mistress whose coffin has been borne before him to the semblance of a grave.
Of all the roses grafted on her cheeks,
Of all the graces dancing in her eyes,
Of all the music set upon her tongue,
Of all that was past woman's excellence
In her white bosom, look, a painted board
Is there any other literature, we are tempted to ask ourselves, in which the writer of these lines, and of many as sweet and perfect in their inspired simplicity as these, would be rated no higher among his countrymen than Thomas Dekker?
From the indisputable fact of Middleton's partnership in this play Mr. Dyce was induced to assume the very questionable inference of his partnership in the sequel which was licensed for acting five years later. To me this second part seems so thoroughly of one piece and one pattern, so apparently the result of one man's invention and composition, that without more positive evidence I should hesitate to assign a share in it to any colleague of the poet under whose name it first appeared. There are far fewer scenes or passages in this than in the preceding play which suggest or present themselves for quotation or selection: the tender and splendid and pensive touches of pathetic or imaginative poetry which we find in the first part, we shall be disappointed if we seek in the second: its incomparable claim on our attention is the fact that it contains the single character in all the voluminous and miscellaneous works of Dekker which gives its creator an indisputable right to a place of perpetual honour among the imaginative humourists of England, and therefore among the memorable artists and creative workmen of the world. Apart from their claim to remembrance as poets and dramatists of more or less artistic and executive capacity, Dekker and Middleton are each of them worthy to be remembered as the inventor or discoverer of a wholly original, interesting, and natural type of character, as essentially inimitable as it is undeniably unimitated: the savage humour and cynic passion of De Flores, the genial passion and tender humour of Orlando Friscobaldo, are equally lifelike in the truthfulness and completeness of their distinct and vivid presentation. The merit of the play in which the character last named is a leading figure consists mainly or almost wholly in the presentation of the three principal persons: the reclaimed harlot, now the faithful and patient wife of her first seducer; the broken-down, ruffianly, light-hearted and light-headed libertine who has married her; and the devoted old father who watches in the disguise of a servant over the changes of her fortune, the sufferings, risks, and temptations which try the purity of her penitence and confirm the fortitude of her constancy. Of these three characters I cannot but think that any dramatist who ever lived might have felt that he had reason to be proud. It is strange that Charles Lamb, to whom of all critics and all men the pathetic and humorous charm of the old man's personality might most confidently have been expected most cordially to appeal, should have left to Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt the honour of doing justice to so beautiful a creation--the crowning evidence to the greatness of Dekker's gifts, his power of moral imagination and his delicacy of dramatic execution. From the first to the last word of his part the quaint sweet humour of the character is sustained with an instinctive skill which would do honour to a far more careful and a far more famous artist than Dekker. The words with which he receives the false news of his fallen daughter's death; `Dead? my last and best peace go with her!'--those which he murmurs to himself on seeing her again after seventeen years of estrangement; `The mother's own face, I ha' not forgot that'--prepare the way for the admirable final scene in which his mask of anger drops off, and his ostentation of obduracy relaxes into tenderness and tears. `Dost thou beg for him, thou precious man's meat, thou? has he not beaten thee, kicked thee, trod on thee? and dost thou fawn on him like his spaniel? has he not pawned thee to thy petticoat, sold thee to thy smock, made ye leap at a crust? yet wouldst have me save him?--What, dost thou hold him? let go his hand: if thou dost not forsake him, a father's everlasting blessing fall upon both your heads!' The fusion of humour with pathos into perfection of exquisite accuracy in expression which must be recognised at once and remembered for ever by any competent reader of this scene is the highest quality of Dekker as a writer of prose, and is here displayed at its highest: the more poetic or romantic quality of his genius had already begun to fade out when this second part of his finest poem was written. Hazlitt has praised the originality, dexterity, and vivacity of the effect produced by the strategem which Infelice employs for the humiliation of her husband, when by accusing herself of imaginary infidelity under the most incredibly degrading conditions she entraps him into gratuitous fury and turns the tables on him by the production of evidence against himself; and the scene is no doubt theatrically effective: but the grace and delicacy of the character are sacrificed to this comparatively unworthy consideration: the pure, high-minded, noble-hearted lady, whose loyal and passionate affection was so simply and so attractively displayed in the first part of her story, is so lamentably humiliated by the cunning and daring immodesty of such a device that we hardly feel it so revolting an incongruity as it should have been to see this princess enjoying, in common with her father and her husband, the spectacle of imprisoned harlots on penitential parade in the Bridewell of Milan; a thoroughly Hogarthian scene in the grim and vivid realism of its tragicomic humour.
But if the poetic and realistic merits of these two plays make us understand why Webster should have coupled its author with the author of Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the demerits of the two plays next published under his single name are so grave, so gross, so manifold, that the writer seems unworthy to be coupled as a dramatist with a journeyman poet so far superior to him in honest thoroughness and smoothness of workmanship as, even at his very hastiest and crudest, was Thomas Heywood. In style and versification the patriotic and anti-Catholic drama which bears the Protestant and apocalyptic title of The Whore of Babylon is still, upon the whole, very tolerably spirited and fluent, with gleams of fugitive poetry and glimpses of animated action; but the construction is ponderous and puerile, the declamation vacuous and vehement. An Æschylus alone could have given us, in a tragedy on the subject of the Salamis of England, a fit companion to the Perso; which, as Shakespeare let the chance pass by him, remains alone for ever in the incomparable glory of its triumphant and sublime perfection. Marlowe perhaps might have made something of it, though the task would have taxed his energies to the utmost, and overtasked the utmost of his skill; Dekker could make nothing. The empress of Babylon is but a poor slipshod ragged prostitute in the hands of this poetic beadle... (pp. 60-80)
The next play which bears his name alone was published five years later than the political or historical sketch or study which we have just dismissed; and which, compared with it, is a tolerable if not a creditable piece of work. It is difficult to abstain from intemperate language in speaking of such a dramatic abortion as that which bears the grotesque and puerile inscription, If this be not a good Play, the Devil is in it. A worse has seldom discredited the name of any man with a spark of genius in him. Dryden's delectable tragedy of Amboyna, Lee's remarkable tragicomedy of Gloriana, Pope's elegant comedy of Three Hours after Marriage, are scarcely more unworthy of their authors, more futile or more flaccid or more audacious in their headlong and unabashed incompetence. Charity would suggest that it must have been written against time in a debtor's prison, under the influence of such liquor as Catherina Bountinall or Doll Tearsheet would have flung at the tapster's head with an accompaniment of such language as those eloquent and high-spirited ladies, under less offensive provocation, were wont to lavish on the officials of an oppressive law. I have read a good deal of bad verse, but anything like the metre of this play I have never come across in all the range of that excruciating experience. The rare and faint indications that the writer was or had been an humourist and a poet serve only to bring into fuller relief the reckless and shameless incompetence of the general workmanship.
This supernatural and `superlunatical' attempt at serious farce or farcical morality marks the nadir of Dekker's ability as a dramatist. The diabolic part of the tragicomic business is distinctly inferior to the parallel or similar scenes in the much older play of Grim the Collier of Croydon, which is perhaps more likely to have been the writer's immediate model than the original story by Machiavelli. The two remaining plays now extant which bear the single name of Dekker give no sign of his highest powers, but are tolerable examples of journeyman's work in the field of romantic or fanciful comedy. Match me in London is the better play of the two, very fairly constructed after its simple fashion, and reasonably well written in a smooth and unambitious style: The Wonder of a Kingdom is a light, slight, rough piece of work, in its contrasts of character as crude and boyish as any of the old moralities, and in its action as mere a dance of puppets: but it shows at least that Dekker had regained the faculty of writing decent verse on occasion. The fine passage quoted by Scott in The Antiquary, and taken by his editors to be a forgery of his own, will be familiar to many myriads of readers who are never likely to look it up in the original context. Of two masques called Britannia's Honour and London's Tempe it must suffice to say that the former contains a notable specimen of cockney or canine French which may serve to relieve the conscientious reader's weariness, and the latter a comic song of blacksmiths at work which may pass muster at a pinch as a tolerably quaint and lively piece of rough and ready fancy. But Jonson for the court and Middleton for the city were far better craftsmen in this line than ever was Dekker at his best. (pp. 80-83)
Among his numerous pamphlets, satirical or declamatory, on the manners of his time and the observations of his experience, one alone stands out as distinct from the rest by right of such astonishing superiority in merit of style and interest of matter that I prefer to reserve it for separate and final consideration. But it would require more time and labour than I can afford to give an adequate account of so many effusions or improvisations as served for fuel to boil the scanty and precarious pot of his uncertain and uncomfortable sustenance. The Wonderful Year of the death of Elizabeth, the accession of James, and the devastation of London by pestilence, supplied him with matter enough for one of his quaintest and liveliest tracts: in which the historical part has no quality so valuable or remarkable as the grotesque mixture of horror and humour in the anecdotes appended `like a merry epilogue to a dull play, of purpose to shorten the lives of long winter's nights that lie watching in the dark for us,' with touches of rude and vivid pleasantry not unworthy to remind us, I dare not say of the Decameron, but at least of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. In The Seven Deadly Sins of London--one of the milder but less brilliant `Latterday Pamphlets' of a gentler if no less excitable Carlyle--there are touches of earnest eloquence as well as many quaint and fitful illustrations of social history; but there is less of humorous vigour and straightforward realism than in the preceding tract. And yet there are good things to be gathered out of this effusive and vehement lay sermon: this sentence for example is worth recollection:--`He is not slothful that is only lazy, that only wastes his good hours and his silver in luxury and licentious ease:--no, he is the true slothful man, that does no good.' And there is genuine insight as well as honesty and courage in his remonstrance with the self-love and appeal against the self-deceit of his countrymen, so prone to cry out on the cruelty of others, on the bloodthirstiness of Frenchmen and Spaniards, and to overlook the heavy-headed brutality of their own habitual indifference and neglect. Although the cruelty of penal laws be now abrogated, yet the condition of the poorest among us is assuredly not such that we can read without a sense of their present veracity the last words of this sentence:--`Thou set'st up posts to whip them when they are alive: set up an hospital to comfort them being sick, or purchase ground for them to dwell in when they be well; and that is, when they be dead.' The next of Dekker's tracts is more of a mere imitation than any of his others: the influence of a more famous pamphleteer and satirist, Tom Nash, is here not only manifest as that of a model, but has taken such possession of his disciple that he is hardly more than a somewhat servile copyist; not without a touch of his master's more serious eloquence, but with less than little of his peculiar energy and humour. That rushing wind of satire, that storm of resonant invective, that inexhaustible volubility of contempt, which rages through the controversial writings of the lesser poet, has sunk to a comparative whisper; the roar of his Homeric or Rabelaisian laughter to a somewhat forced and artificial chuckle. This News from Hell, brought by the Devil's Carrier, and containing The Devil's Answer to Pierce Penniless, might have miscarried by the way without much more loss than that of such an additional proof as we could have been content to spare of Dekker's incompetence to deal with a subject which he was curiously fond of handling in earnest and in jest. He seems indeed to have fancied himself, if not something of a Dante, something at least of a Quevedo; but his terrors are merely tedious, and his painted devils would not terrify a babe. In this tract, however, there are now and then some fugitive felicities of expression; and this is more than can be said for either the play or the poem in which he has gone, with feebler if not more uneasy steps than Milton's Satan, over the same ground of burning marl. There is some spirit in the prodigal's denunciation of his miserly father: but the best thing in the pamphlet is the description of the soul of a hero bound for paradise, whose name is given only in the revised and enlarged edition which appeared a year later under the title of A Knight's Conjuring; done in earnest; discovered in jest. The narrative of `William Eps his death' is a fine example of that fiery sympathy with soldiers which glows in so many pages of Dekker's verse, and flashes out by fits through the murky confusion of his worst and most formless plays; but the introduction of this hero is as fine a passage of prose as he has left us.
The foremost of them was a personage of so composed a presence, that Nature and Fortune had done him wrong, if they had not made him a soldier. In his countenance there was a kind of indignation, fighting with a kind of exalted joy, which by his very gesture were apparently decipherable; for he was jocund, that his soul went out of him in so glorious a triumph; but disdainfully angry, that she wrought her enlargement through no more dangers: yet were there bleeding witnesses enow on his breast, which testified, he did not yield till he was conquered, and was not conquered, till there was left nothing of a man in him to be overcome.
That the poet's loyalty and devotion were at least as ardent when offered by his gratitude to sailors as to soldiers we may see by this description of `The Seaman' in his next work.
A progress doth he take from realm to realm,
With goodly water-pageants borne before him;
The safety of the land sits at his helm,
No danger here can touch, but what runs o'er him:
But being in heaven's eye still, it doth restore him
To livelier spirits; to meet death with ease,
If thou wouldst know thy maker, search the seas.
These homely but hearty lines occur in a small and mainly metrical tract bearing a title so quaint that I am tempted to transcribe it at length:--The Double PP. A Papist in Arms. Bearing Ten several Shields. Encountered by the Protestant. At Ten several Weapons. A Jesuit Marching before them. Cominùs and Eminùs. There are a few other vigorous and pointed verses in this little patriotic impromptu, but the greater part of it is merely curious and eccentric doggrel.
The next of Dekker's tracts or pamphlets was the comparatively well-known Gull's Horn-book. This brilliant and vivid little satire is so rich in simple humour, and in lifelike photography taken by the sunlight of an honest and kindly nature, that it stands second only to the author's masterpiece in prose, The Bachelor's Banquet, which has waited so much longer for even the limited recognition implied by a private reprint. There are so many witty or sensible or humorous or grotesque excerpts to be selected from this pamphlet--and not from the parts borrowed or copied from a foreign satire on the habits of slovenly Hollanders--that I take the first which comes under my notice on reopening the book; a study which sets before us in fascinating relief the professional poeticule of a period in which as yet clubs, coteries, and newspapers were not--or at the worst were nothing to speak of.
If you be a Poet, and come into the Ordinary (though it can be no great glory to be an ordinary Poet) order yourself thus. Observe no man, doff not cap to that gentleman to-day at dinner, to whom, not two nights since, you were beholden for a supper; but, after a turn or two in the room, take occasion (pulling out your gloves) to have some Epigram, or Satire, or Sonnet fastened in one of them, that may (as it were unwittingly to you) offer itself to the Gentlemen: they will presently desire it: but, without much conjuration from them, and a pretty kind of counterfeit lothness in yourself, do not read it; and, though it be none of your own, swear you made it.
This coupling of injunction and prohibition is worthy of Shakespeare or of Sterne.
Marry, if you chance to get into your hands any witty thing of another man's, that is somewhat better, I would counsel you then, if demand be made who composed it, you may say: `'Faith, a learned Gentleman, a very worthy friend.' And this seeming to lay it on another man will be counted either modesty in you, or a sign that you are not ambitious of praise, or else that you dare not take it upon you, for fear of the sharpness it carries with it.
The modern poetaster by profession knows a trick worth any two of these: but it is curious to observe the community of baseness, and the comparative innocence of awkwardness and inexperience, which at once connote the species and denote the specimens of the later and the earlier animalcule.
The Jests to make you merry, which in Dr. Grosart's edition are placed after The Gull's Horn-book, though dated two years earlier, will hardly give so much entertainment to any probable reader in our own time as The Misery of a Prison, and a Prisoner, will give him pain to read of in the closing pages of the same pamphlet, when he remembers how long--at the lowest computation--its author had endured the loathsome and hideous misery which he has described with such bitter and pathetic intensity and persistency in detail. Well may Dr. Grosart say that `it shocks us to-day, though so far off, to think of 1598 to 1616 onwards covering so sorrowful and humiliating trials for so finely touched a spirit as was Dekker's'; but I think as well as hope that there is no sort of evidence to that surely rather improbable as well as deplorable effect. It may be `possible,' but it is barely possible, that some `seven years' continuous imprisonment' is the explanation of an ambiguous phrase which is now incapable of any certain solution, and capable of many an interpretation far less deplorable than this. But in this professedly comic pamphlet there are passages as tragic, if not as powerful, as any in the immortal pages of Pickwick and Little Dorrit which deal with a later but a too similar phase of prison discipline and tradition.
The thing that complained was a man:--`Thy days have gone over thee like the dreams of a fool, thy nights like the watchings of a madman.--Oh sacred liberty! with how little devotion do men come into thy temples, when they cannot bestow upon thee too much honour! Thy embracements are more delicate than those of a young bride with her lover, and to be divorced from thee is half to be damned! For what else is a prison but the very next door to hell? It is a man's grave, wherein he walks alive: it is a sea wherein he is always shipwrackt: it is a lodging built out of the world: it is a wilderness where all that wander up and down grow wild, and all that come into it are devoured.'
In Dekker's next pamphlet, his Dream, there are perhaps half a dozen tolerably smooth and vigorous couplets immersed among many more vacuous and vehement in the intensity of their impotence than any reader and admirer of his more happily inspired verse could be expected to believe without evidence adduced. Of imagination, faith, or fancy, the ugly futility of this infernal vision has not--unless I have sought more than once for it in vain--a single saving trace or compensating shadow.
Two years after he had tried his hand at an imitation of Nash, Dekker issued the first of the pamphlets in which he attempted to take up the succession of Robert Greene as a picaresque writer, or purveyor of guidebooks through the realms of rascaldom. The Bellman of London, or Rogue's Horn-book, begins with a very graceful and fanciful description of the quiet beauty and seclusion of a country retreat in which the author had sought refuge from the turmoil and forgetfulness of the vices of the city; and whence he was driven back upon London by disgust at the discovery of villainy as elaborate and roguery as abject in the beggars and thieves of the country as the most squalid recesses of metropolitan vice or crime could supply. The narrative of this accidental discovery is very lively and spirited in its straightforward simplicity, and the subsequent revelations of rascality are sometimes humorous as well as curious: but the demand for such literature must have been singularly persistent to evoke a sequel to this book next year, Lantern and Candle-light, or the Bellman's Second Night-walk, in which Dekker continues his account of vagrant and villainous society, its lawless laws and its unmannerly manners; and gives the reader some vivid studies, interspersed with facile rhetoric and interlarded with indignant declamation, of the tricks of horsedealers and the shifts of gypsies--or `moon-men' as he calls them; a race which he regarded with a mixture of angry perplexity and passionate disgust. A Strange Horse-race between various virtues and vices gives occasion for the display of some allegoric ingenuity and much indefatigable but fatiguing pertinacity in the exposure of the more exalted swindlers of the age--the crafty bankrupts who anticipated the era of the Merdles described by Dickens, but who can hardly have done much immediate injury to a capitalist of the rank of Dekker. Here too there are glimpses of inventive spirit and humorous ingenuity; but the insufferable iteration of jocose demonology and infernal burlesque might tempt the most patient and the most curious of readers to devote the author, with imprecations or invocations as elaborate as his own, to the spiritual potentate whose `last will and testament' is transcribed into the text of this pamphlet.
In The Dead Term such a reader will find himself more or less relieved by the return of his author to a more terrene and realistic sort of allegory. This recriminatory dialogue between the London and the Westminster of 1608 is now and then rather flatulent in its reciprocity of rhetoric, but is enlivened by an occasional breath of genuine eloquence, and redeemed by touches of historic or social interest. The title and motto of the next year's pamphlet--Work for Armourers, or the Peace is Broken.--God help the Poor, the rich can shift--were presumably designed to attract the casual reader, by what would now be called a sensational device, to consideration of the social question between rich and poor-or, as he puts it, between the rival queens, Poverty and Money. The forces on either side are drawn out and arrayed with pathetic ingenuity, and the result is indicated with a quaint and grim effect of humorous if indignant resignation. The Raven's Almanack of the same year, though portentous in its menace of plague, famine, and civil war, is less noticeable for its moral and religious declamation than for its rather amusing than edifying anecdotes; which, it must again be admitted, in their mixture of jocular sensuality with somewhat ferocious humour, rather remind us of King Louis XI. than of that royal novelist's Italian models or precursors. A Rod for Runaways is the title of a tract which must have somewhat perplexed the readers who came to it for practical counsel or suggestion, seeing that the very titlepage calls their attention to the fact that, `if they look back, they may behold many fearful judgments of God, sundry ways pronounced upon this city, and on several persons, both flying from it, and staying in it.' What the medical gentleman to whom this tract was dedicated may have thought of the author's logic and theology, we can only conjecture. But even in this little pamphlet there are anecdotes and details which would repay the notice of a social historian as curious in his research and as studious in his condescension as Macaulay.
A prayerbook written or compiled by a poet of Dekker's rank in Dekker's age would have some interest for the reader of a later generation even if it had not the literary charm which distinguishes the little volume of devotions, [Four Birds of Noah's Ark], now reprinted from a single and an imperfect copy. We cannot be too grateful for the good fortune and the generous care to which we are indebted for this revelation of a work of genius so curious and so delightful that the most fanatical of atheists or agnostics, the hardest and the driest of philosophers, might be moved and fascinated by the exquisite simplicity of its beauty. Hardly even in those almost incomparable collects which Macaulay so aptly compared with the sonnets of Milton shall we find sentences or passages more perfect in their union of literary grace with ardent sincerity than here. Quaint as are several of the prayers in the professional particulars of their respective appeals, this quaintness has nothing of irreverence or incongruity: and the subtle simplicity of cadence in the rhythmic movement of the style is so nearly impeccable that we are perplexed to understand how so exquisite an ear as was Dekker's at its best can have been tolerant of such discord or insensible to such collapse as so often disappoints or shocks us in the hastier and cruder passages of his faltering and fluctuating verse. The prayer for a soldier going to battle and his thanksgiving after victory are as noble in the dignity of their devotion as the prayers for a woman in travail and `for them that visit the sick' are delicate and earnest in their tenderness. The prayer for a prisoner is too beautiful to stand in need of the additional and pathetic interest which it derives from the fact of its author's repeated experience of the misery it expresses with such piteous yet such manful resignation. The style of these faultlessly simple devotions is almost grotesquely set off by the relief of a comparison with the bloated bombast and flatulent pedantry of a prayer by the late Queen Elizabeth which Dekker has transcribed into his text--it is hardly possible to suppose, without perception of the contrast between its hideous jargon and the refined purity of his own melodious English. The prayer for the Council is singularly noble in the eloquence of its patriotism: the prayer for the country is simply magnificent in the austere music of its fervent cadences: the prayer in time of civil war is so passionate in its cry for deliverance from all danger of the miseries then or lately afflicting the continent that it might well have been put up by a loyal patriot in the very heat of the great war which Dekker might have lived to see break out in his own country. The prayer for the evening is so beautiful as to double our regret for the deplorable mutilation which has deprived us of all but the opening of the morning prayer. The feathers fallen from the wings of these Four Birds of Noah's Ark would be worth more to the literary ornithologist than whole flocks of such `tame villatic fowl' as people the ordinary coops and hen-roosts of devotional literature.
One work only of Dekker's too often over-tasked and heavy-laden genius remains to be noticed; it is one which gives him a high place for ever among English humourists. No sooner has the reader run his eye over the first three or four pages than he feels himself, with delight and astonishment, in the company of a writer whose genius is akin at once to Goldsmith's and to Thackeray's; a writer whose style is so pure and vigorous, so lucid and straightforward, that we seem to have already entered upon the best age of English prose. Had Mr. Matthew Arnold, instead of digging in Chapman for preposterous barbarisms and eccentricities of pedantry, chanced to light upon this little treatise; or had he condescended to glance over Daniel's compact and admirable Defence of Rhyme; he would have found in writers of the despised Shakespearean epoch much more than a foretaste of those excellent qualities which he imagined to have been first imported into our literature by writers of the age of Dryden. The dialogue of the very first couple introduced with such skilful simplicity of presentation at the opening of Dekker's pamphlet is worthy of Sterne: the visit of the gossip or kinswoman in the second chapter is worthy of Molière; and the humours of the monthly nurse in the third are worthy of Dickens. The lamentations of the lady for the decay of her health and beauty in consequence of her obsequious husband's alleged neglect, `no more like the woman I was than an apple is like an oyster'; the description of the poor man making her broth with his own hands, jeered at by the maids and trampled underfoot by Mrs. Gamp; the preparations for the christening supper and the preliminary feast of scandal; are full of such bright and rich humour as to recall even the creator of Dogberry and Mrs. Quickly. It is of Shakespeare again that we are reminded in the next chapter, by the description of the equipage to which the husband of `a woman that hath a charge of children' is reduced when he has to ride to the assizes in sorrier plight than Petruchio rode in to his wedding; the details remind us also of Balzac in the minute and grotesque intensity of their industrious realism: but the scene on his return reminds us rather of Thackeray at the best of his bitterest mood--the terrible painter of Mrs. Mackenzie and Mrs. General Baynes. `The humour of a woman that marries her inferior by birth' deals with more serious matters in a style not unworthy of Boccaccio; and no comedy of the time--Shakespeare's always excepted--has a scene in it of richer and more original humour than brightens the narrative which relates the woes of the husband who invites his friends to dinner and finds everything under lock and key. Hardly in any of Dekker's plays is the comic dialogue so masterly as here--so vivid and so vigorous in its lifelike ease and spontaneity. But there is not one of the fifteen chapters, devoted each to the description of some fresh `humour,' which would not deserve, did space and time allow of it, a separate note of commentary. The book is simply one of the very finest examples of humorous literature, touched now and then with serious and even tragic effect, that can be found in any language; it is generally and comparatively remarkable for its freedom from all real coarseness or brutality, though the inevitable change of manners between Shakespeare's time and our own may make some passages or episodes seem now and then somewhat over particular in plain-speaking or detail. But a healthier, manlier, more thoroughly good-natured and good-humoured book was never written; nor one in which the author's real and respectful regard for womanhood was more perceptible through the veil of a satire more pure from bitterness and more honest in design.
The list of works over which we have now glanced is surely not inconsiderable; and yet the surviving productions of Dekker's genius or necessity are but part of the labours of his life. If he wanted--as undoubtedly he would seem to have wanted--that `infinite capacity for taking pains' which Carlyle professed to regard as the synonym of genius, he was at least not deficient in that rough and ready diligence which is habitually in harness, and cheerfully or resignedly prepared for the day's work. The names of his lost plays--all generally suggestive of some true dramatic interest, now graver and now lighter--are too numerous to transcribe: but one at least of them must excite unspeakable amazement as well as indiscreet curiosity in every reader of Ariosto or La Fontaine who comes in the course of the catalogue upon such a title as Jocondo and Astolfo. How on earth the famous story of Giocondo could possibly be adapted for representation on the public stage of Shakespearean London is a mystery which the execrable cook of the execrable Warburton has left for ever insoluble and inconceivable: for to that female fiend, the object of Sir Walter Scott's antiquarian imprecations, we owe, unless my memory misguides me, the loss of this among other irredeemable treasures.
To do justice upon the faults of this poet is easy for any sciolist: to do justice to his merits is less easy for the most competent scholar and the most appreciative critic. In despite of his rare occasional spurts or outbreaks of selfassertion or of satire, he seems to stand before us a man of gentle, modest, shiftless and careless nature, irritable and placable, eager and unsteady, full of excitable kindliness and deficient in strenuous principle; loving the art which he professionally followed, and enjoying the work which he occasionally neglected. There is no unpoetic note in his best poetry such as there is too often--nay, too constantly--in the severer work and the stronger genius of Ben Jonson. What he might have done under happier auspices, or with a tougher fibre of resolution and perseverance in his character, it is waste of time and thought for his most sympathetic and compassionate admirers to assume or to conjecture: what he has done, with all its short-comings and infirmities, is enough to secure for him a distinct and honourable place among the humourists and the poets of his country. (pp. 90-109)
Algernon Charles Swinburne, "Thomas Dekker," in his The Age of Shakespeare, 1908. Reprint by AMS Press Inc., 1965, pp. 60-109.