1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Dekker

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:211.



THOMAS DEKKER appears to have been an industrious author, and Collier gives the names of above twenty plays which he produced, either wholly or in part. He was connected with Jonson in writing for the Lord Admiral's theatre, conducted by Henslowe; but Ben and he became bitter enemies, and the former, in his "Poetaster," performed in 1601, has satirised Dekker under the character of Crispinus, representing himself as Horace! Jonson's charges against his adversary are "his arrogancy and impudence in commending his own things, and for his translating." The origin of the quarrel does not appear, but in an apologetic dialogue added to the "Poetaster," Jonson says—

Whether of malice, or of ignorance,
Or itch to have me their adversary, I know not,
Or all these mix'd; but sure I am, three years
They did provoke me with their petulant styles
On every stage.

Dekker replied by another drama, Satiromastix, or the Untrussing the Humorous Poet, in which Jonson appears as Horace junior. There is more raillery and abuse in Dekker's answer than wit or poetry, but it was well received by the play-going public. Dekker's Fortunatus, or the Wishing Cap, and the Honest Whore, are his best. The latter was a great favourite with Hazlitt, who says it unites "the simplicity of prose with the graces of poetry." The poetic diction of Dekker is choice and elegant, but he often wanders into absurdity. Passages like the following would do honour to any dramatist. Of Patience:—

Patience! why, 'tis the soul of peace:
Of all the virtues, 'tis nearest kin to heaven:
It makes men look like gods. The best of men
That e'er wore earth about him was a sufferer,
A soft, meek, patient, humble, tranquil spirit:
The first true gentleman that ever breath'd.

The contrast between female honour and shame—

Nothing did make me, when I loved them best,
To loathe them more than this: when in the street
A fair, young, modest damsel I did meet;
She seem'd to all a dove when I pass'd by,
And I to all a raven: every eye
That follow'd her, went with a bashful glance:
At me each bold and jeering countenance
Darted forth scorn: to her, as if she had been
Some tower unvanquished, would they all vail:
'Gainst me swoln rumour hoisted every sail;
She, crown'd with reverend praises, pass'd by them;
I, though with face mask'd, could not 'scape the hem;
For, as if heaven had set strange marks on such,
Because they should be pointing-stocks to man,
Drest up in civilest shape, a courtesan.
Let her walk saint-like, noteless, and unknown,
Yet she's betray'd by some trick of her own.

The picture of a lady seen by her lover—

My Infelice's face, her brow, her eye,
The dimple on her cheek: and such sweet skill
Hath from the cunning workman's pencil flown.
These lips look fresh and lively as her own;
Seeming to move and speak. Alas! now I see
The reason why fond women love to buy
Adulterate complexion: here 'tis read;
False colours last after the true be dead.
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
Circumscribes all! Earth can no bliss afford;
Nothing of her but this! This cannot speak;
It has no lap for me to rest upon;
No lip worth tasting. Here the worms will feed,
As in her coffin. Hence, then, idle art,
True love 's best pictured in a true love's heart.
Here art thou drawn, sweet maid, till this be dead,
So that thou livest twice, twice art buried.
Thou figure of my friend, lie there!

Dekker is supposed to have died about the year 1638. His life seems to have been spent in irregularity and poverty. According to Oldys, he was three years in the King's Bench prison. In one of his own beautiful lines, he says — "We ne'er are angels till our passions die." But the old dramatists lived in a world of passion, of revelry, want, and despair.