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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 19. Importance of his prose work

For the student of Elizabethan social life, Dekker’s prose is even more important than his plays. There are no surviving documents so rich in material for the reconstruction of its manners and fashions as these vivid and entertaining pamplets. Of some of these an account has been given in a previous volume of the present work. Both in The Wonderfull Yeare (1603) and in A Rod for Runawayes (1625), which also deals with appalling incidents of the plague and upbraids those who fled from the city in its need, Dekker anticipates Defoe in the realism and force of his descriptions, not unmingled in the former work with certain grimly humorous narratives, designed, as he said, “like a merry Epilogue to a dull Play, to shorten the lives of long winter’s nights, that lie watching in the dark for us.” Worke for Armorours, or the Peace is broken (1609), with its motto, “God help the Poor, the rich can shift,” allegorises the eternal conflict of classes in the war of the rival queens, Money and Poverty, and the perplexed social problems of our own no less than Dekker’s day are poignantly presented. Here, again, Dekker refers to “the purple whip of vengeance,” the plague, and its effects on the city life. Like many others, the poets and players are in evil case, the playhouses are closed, their flags and bushes taken down, the muses more sullen than monkeys,

  • no good doing in these dayes but amongst Lawyers, amongst Vintners, in Bawdy houses and at Pimlico. There is all the Musick (that is of any reckning), there all the meetings, there all the mirth, and there all the money.
  • Among incidental descriptions which give interesting glimpses into the city’s life is that of the bear pit, “the Dogges, like so many Divels inflicting torments upon it,” in which savage entertainment was included sport with a blind bear, not baited by dogs, but whipped “till the blood ran down his old shoulders” by “a company of creatures that had the shapes of men and faces of christians.”
  • Methought [says Dekker] this whipping of the blinde Beare, moved as much pittie in my breast towards him, as ye leading of poore starved wretches to the whipping posts in London (when they had more neede to be releeved with foode) ought to move the hearts of cittizens, though it be the fashion now to laugh at the punishment.
  • Dekker’s prose is not always faultless, but it is clear to any student of Shakespeare or of Elizabethan literature in general that what Arnold called “the victory of the prose style, clear, plain and short” was already won by our dramatists before the advent of Dryden, the virtues of whose prose were derived from his studies in their school. At his best, Dekker is as simple and lucid and direct as any later writer. Take this, from the complaint of Paules steeple in The Dead Tearme (1608)—

  • The Marriner there called mee his sea-marke, for to him I stood as a watch-tower to guide him safely to our English shore. No sooner did the traveller by land see me but his heart leaped for joy, and the wearisomnesse of his way seemed to go from him, because he knew he was in sight of the most goodly Cittie which he loved.
  • Dekker his Dreame (1620) (to which was prefixed a woodcut representing the poet asleep in bed) is a mixture of prose and verse, which opens with an apocalyptic vision of the end of all things and the last judgment, and describes the author’s progress through the infernal regions. It reveals an intense and vivid consciousness of the guilt and peril of sin but is singularly devoid of the natural grace and distinguished of another religious book, Fowre Birds of Noahs Arke (1609). This is a very remarkable collection of prayers, distinguished by a deep spirit of devotion, exquisite feeling and perfection of phrasing. There is probably no prayer book in the language from a single hand which can bear comparison with this for simplicity and beauty.