1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Dekker

John Payne Collier, "A Knight's Conjuring" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 1:244-47.



There were three editions of this tract, the first under the title of Newes from Hell, brought by the Divells Carrier, 1606, and two others (with the date of 1607, and without a date), as A Knights Conjuring. It may be disputed, perhaps, whether the last was a reprint or only a reissue; but it is quite certain that there are very material differences between Newes from Hell, and A Knights Conjuring. The first contains important passages which were omitted in the last, and the last has some additions not in the first, while the whole (to give it, perhaps, the appearance of greater novelty) is divided into nine chapters.

All three impressions have reference to an extremely popular publication, about thirteen or fourteen years older, by Thomas Nash, and still read and reprinted when Dekker sat down to write what may be considered a sequel to it. Nash's tract was called Pierce Pennilesse his supplication to the Devill, 4to, 1592; and in the second impression of it the author held out a sort of promise to write a continuation, but he died before 1600, without keeping his word. About six years after his death an anonymous author produced what he wished to be considered a sequel of the subject: he called it The Returne of the Knight of the Post from Hell, with the Devils Answeare to the Supplication of Pierce Penniless. This was followed immediately by Dekker's Newes from Hell, in which be criticizes the production of his rival, The Returne of the Knight of the Post, and describes it as heavy and puritanical. Of course, Dekker intended his own work to be the reverse, but he was not altogether successful.

It may be supposed that the sale of A Knights Conjuring, after the anonymous Returne of the Knight of the Post and Dekker's own Newes from Hell, was not rapid in 1606; and in the following year a new title-page was printed to it, without any date, of which some copies have reached our day. One of those, with the date of the year 1607, is the subject of the present article.

The dedication to Sir Thomas Glover, and the address "To the Reader," both subscribed "Tho. Dekker," are not in Newes from Hell; but the last has a curious paragraph about Nash and Gabriel Harvey, which was subsequently suppressed — in all likelihood because it revived the memory of a literary contest regarding which the public authorities had interfered, and had ordered that the satirical and abusive pamphlets on both sides should be destroyed. Dekker, in his Newes from Hell, thus breaks out in an apostrophe to Nash, who had been his private friend:—

"And thou into whose soule (if ever there were a Pithagorean Metempsuchosis) the raptures of that fierce and unconfineable Italian spirit were bounteously and boundlesly infused; then sometime Secretary to Pierce Pennylesse, and Master of his Requests, ingenious and ingenuous, fluent, facetious T. Nash, from whose abundant pen hony flowed to thy friends, and mortall Aconite to thy enemies; then that madest the Doctor [Hervey] a flat dunce, and beatst him at his two sundry tall weapons, Poetrie and Oraterie; sharpest Satyre, luculent Poet, elegant Orator, get leave for thy ghost to come from her abiding, and to dwell with me a while, till she hath carows'd to me in his owne wonted ful measures of wit, that my plump braynes may swell, and burst into bitter invectives against the Lieftenant of Limbo, if he cashiere Pierce Pennylesse with dead pay."

Excepting the above, the most interesting part of Dekker's Knight's Conjuring is the conclusion, which relates to certain dead poets, whom the author must have known when living, (for he descends even to their personal appearance,) whom he represents enjoying the society of each other in the Elysian Fields. He first speaks of Chaucer, surrounded "by all the makers or poets of his time"; and then he introduces Spenser, Watson, Kyd, Atchlow, Marlowe, Greene, Peele, Nash, and Chettle, which last had only just arrived, so that we may presume he was only recently dead.

The passage regarding Spenser is more interesting than any other, because it decisively shows what has been doubted, namely, that he never wrote more of his Faerie Queene than has come down to us, and that there were in fact no six books, concluding the great subject, which were said to have been either lost at sea, on their way from Ireland, or destroyed by the carelessness of a servant. Dekker's words regarding Spenser are:

"Grave Spencer was no sooner entred into this Chappell of Apollo, but these elder Fathers of the divine Furie gave him a Lawrer and sung his Welcome: Chaucer call'de him his Sonne, and plac'de him at his right hand. All of them (at a signe given by the whole Quire of the Muses that brought him thither) closing up their lippes in silence, and tuning all their eares for attention, to heare him sing out the rest of his Fayrie Queenes praises."

It was because Spenser had never written "the rest of his Faerie Queene" that the Muses listened to hear the conclusion of the subject. Had "the rest" ever been composed, the Muses must have known it, and "tuning their eares" for attention would have been needless. (See Life of Spenser, 1862, p. cxliii.)

In his Knights Conjuring, Dekker purposely omitted all allusion to the anonymous writer of The Returne of the Knight of the Post, whom he had mentioned with no great respect in his Newes from Hell. Why he thus slighted him does not anywhere appear; and as The Returne of the Knight of the Post from Hell is a greater rarity than even Dekker's work, and as a copy of it is now lying before us, it may be worth while to note, that the author claims to have been one of Nash's intimate friends, and to have heard from him what he had intended to have said and done in a second part of Pierce Pennilesss Supplication. Upon that plan he pretends to proceed, but his work is not only dull and dry, but affectedly pious. He avails himself of the popular topic afforded by the recent discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, and introduces curious particulars regarding some of the actors in that conspiracy. He thus speaks of John Wright, brother to Christopher Wright, both of whom were implicated:—

"The elder of these was infinitely proud, yet not so proud as ungratefull, for being utterlye without any certaine meanes more then the revenue of other mens purses, yet was his generall ostentation that he was beholden to no man. His vertue was a good oylie tongue, that with easie utterance beguiled many weake attentions and a formall carriage, which, contemning others, heapt upon himselfe a selfe commendation: his usuall boast was that he scornd felt hats, he lovde doublets lined with taffata, linnen of twenty shillings an elle, silk stockings, never under twenty angels in his pocket, and his horse at least of fortie pound reckoning."

The Knight of the Post, who has just returned from the infernal regions, finds Pierce Penniless walking in what was termed "the Intelligencers Walk," in St. Paul's Cathedral and whoever was the writer of this tract (whom Dekker, in his Newes from Hell, professes not to know) must have been a tolerable composer of verses; and near the end of his tract he introduces two specimens, which are far from contemptible, particularly the second, where he speaks of a person who

in poverty no poorenesse knowes,
Nor feeles the strange diseases of the rich.

We may feel well assured that Dekker knew who and what he was, though he might not like to acknowledge him as an acquaintance.