1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Peele

Philip Bliss, "The Old English Jesters: Peele" London Magazine 10 (July 1824) 61-64.



The merry Jests of George Peele formed a very attractive volume, and were eagerly sought after by the readers of such publications, at the time of their appearance. Wood says that they came at last to be sold on the stalls of ballad-mongers, but that he had never been able to get a sight of them. The same writer calls them Peele's Jests or Clinches, a word of which we cannot immediately discover the etymology, although it probably means his shifts or stratagems.

The first edition appeared, we believe, in 1607; there was a second in 1627; that now before us, without date, but probably either a few years earlier or later; one in 1657, and a fifth, London, printed for William Whitwood, and to be sold in Duck Lane, 1671. They were also reprinted for R. Triphook, in 1809.

The author, George Peele, was undoubtedly an Oxford man, and appears to consider the place of his education, and the degree he acquired there, as adding no slight dignity and lustre to his name, for he invariably designates himself as "Maister of Artes in Oxenforde." He occurs as a member of Broadgate's Hall (now Pembroke College) in the first list extant of the members of the university, which was taken about the year 1564. Mr. Malone supposes him to have been born in 1557 or 1558, but it is not likely that he entered before the age of 12 or 13, which would carry back the time of his birth to 1552 or 1553. He is said to have been a native of Devonshire, although no positive authority to corroborate this assertion has been yet discovered. It is, we think, probable that his parents were obscure, and in some humble situation of life, that he was sent originally to the university in the capacity of a poor scholar, or servitor, where his quick parts, attracting the notice and approbation of his seniors, succeeded in obtaining for him a studentship of Christ Church, and he then proceeded through the regular academical course, taking the degree of bachelor of arts, June 12, 1577, that of master, July 6, 1579. The natural bent of Peele's disposition to gaiety, his poetical talents, and, above all, his fondness for dramatic composition, seem to have prevented him from pursuing any of the learned professions, for which he was doubtless well qualified by his abilities and education. He repaired to London, and was there probably indebted to his pen for a maintenance, becoming an author by profession. Here too he married. In 1585 we find him regularly employed in the capacity of the City poet, whose province it was to furnish the dialogue and addresses which accompanied the pageant usual at the inauguration of the new lord mayor, and from several passages in his Jests it is clear that his wit and humour rendered him a welcome visitant at the City tables. At this time he lived on the Bank-side, over against Blackfriars. About the year 1593 he was taken under the patronage of the Earl of Northumberland, to whom he dedicated his poem, entitled The Honour of the Garter, written on the Earl's being installed a knight of that order; but it seems that the irregularity of his life, and his constant extravagance and immorality of conduct prevented his deriving any permanent advantage from this nobleman's countenance and support. Robert Greene, a poet of the same stamp, and his companion, throws some light on the character of our author, in his Groatsworth of Wit, first printed in 1592. Driven (he says) like himself to extreme shifts, he calls upon Peele to be warned by his misery and example, "Delight not in irreligious oaths, despise drunkenness, flee lust, abhor those epicures whose loose life hath made religion loathsome to your eares, and when they sooth you with terms of master-ship, remember Robert Greene, whom they have often flattered, perishes now for want of comfort." Peele himself tells his patron, in the poem we have just mentioned, that cares had been his bedfellows for almost twenty years, but his misfortunes and privations do not appear to have wrought any reformation in his conduct, and it is lamentable to relate, on the authority of Meres, that he fell a sacrifice to his irregularities in or before 1598, leaving a widow and one daughter.

The following, we believe, to be the most perfect list of Peele's works yet given. They are all of the greatest rarity.

1. The Arraignment of Paris a dramatic pastoral. Lond. 1584, 4to.

2. The Devise of the Pageant, borne before Woolstone Dixi. Lond. 1585, 4to.

3. A Farewell to the famous and fortunate Generalls of our English Forces, Sir John Norris and Syr Frauncis Drake. Lond. 1589, 4to.

4. An Aeglogue gratulatorie, entituled to the right honourable and renowned Shepheard of Albion's Arcadia, Robert, Earle of Essex and Ewre, for his welcome into England from Portugal. Lond. 1589, 4to.

5. Polyhymnia; describing the honourable Triumphs at Tylt before her Majestie, with Sir Henry Lea his Resignation of honour at Tylt. Lond. 1590, 4to.

6. Descensus Astraeae. The Devise of a Pageant borne before M. William Web, Lord Maior. Lond. 1591, 4to.

7. The Hunting of Cupid.

8. The famous Chronicle of King Edward the First, an historical play. Lond. 1593, 4to. Second Edition, 1599.

9. The Honour of the Garter displaied in a Poeme gratulatorie, entitled to the worthie and renowned Earle of Northumberland. Lond. 1593, 4to.

10. The Old Wives Tale, a Comedy. Lond. 1595, 4to. A play of very great rarity. There is a copy in the King's library, purchased at Mr. Steevens's sale for twelve pounds, and a second copy was sold among the Duke of Roxburghe's books for 12 17s.

11. The Love of King David and fair Bethsabe: with the Tragedie of Absalon. Lond. 1599, 4to. Reprinted in Hawkins's Origin of the English Drama.

12. The Turkish Mahomet, and Hyren the Fair Greek, a play mentioned in his Jests as written by our author, but never printed. It is sarcastically alluded to by Shakspeare in the Second Part of King Henry IV.

13. Jests. Lond. 1607, &c.

14. .The Praise of Chastitie, a Poem inserted in a miscellaneous collection of old English Poetry, called The Phoenix Nest. Lond. 1593, 4to.

Short Poetical Pieces by Peele will be found also in England's Helicon, 1600; England's Parnassus, 1600; and in Belvedere or the Garden of the Muses, 1610; three very rare poetical collections, the first and second of which have been reprinted. And in one of Dr. Rawlinson's MSS. in the Bodleian library, there is a metrical description of love by our author, which we regret is not of a nature to invite insertion. Mr. Malone supposes Peele to have been the author of The Battle of Alcazar, with the death of Captaine Stukeley, a play printed Lond. 1594, 4to. although written long before that date.

Peele's Merrie Conceited Jests rather contain an account of his tricks and cheateries, than the record of his brilliant sayings. They consist, indeed, of his gesta or roguish exploits, and not of his dicta or witty sallies, but they are, nevertheless, curious, and are every way entitled to some mention in our FACETIAE; although as they have been so recently reprinted, we shall content ourselves with a brief specimen of their contents.

HOW GEORGE HELPED HIS FRIEND TO A SUPPER.

George was invited one night by certaine of his freinds to supper, at the White Horse in Friday street; and in the Evening as he was going, he met with an old friend of his, who was so ill at stomacke, hearing George tel him of the good cheere he went to, himselfe being unprovided both of meat and mony, that he swore he had rather have gone a mile about than have met him at that instant. And beleeve me, quoth George, I am hartily sorry that I cannot take thee along with me, my selfe being but an invited guest; besides, thou art out of cloathes, unfitting for such a company. Marry this Ile doe; if thou wilt follow my advice, Ile helpe thee to thy supper. Any way, quoth he to George, doe thou but devise the meanes and Ile execute it. George presently told him what he should doe; so they parted. George well entertained, with extraordinary welcome, and seated at the upper end of the table, supper being brought up, H. M. watched his time below, and when he saw that the meat was carried up, up he followes (as George had directed him) who when George saw, "You whorson rascall (quoth George) what make you here? Sir, quoth he, I am come from the party you wot of. You rogue (quoth George) have I not forewarned you of this?" I pray you quoth he, heare my errand. "Doe you prate, you slave," quoth George, and with that tooke a rabbet out of the dish, and threw it at him. Quoth he, you use me very hardly. "You dunghill," quoth George, "doe you out-face me?" and with that tooke the other rabbet, and threw it at his head: after that a loafe; then drawing his dagger, making an offer to throw it, the gentleman staid him. Meane while H. M. got the loafe and the two rabbets, and away he went: which when George saw he was gone, after a little fretting, he sate quietly. So by that honest shift he helped his friend to his supper, and was never suspected for it of the company.

From one of the jests we learn that Peele contributed towards his own and his wife's support, by translating from the learned languages for persons who were desirous to read the contents of Greek authors in their mother tongue, but, says his biographer, he "was of the poetical disposition, never to write so long as his mony lasted." One of his employers finding that all attempts to procure a translation he had undertaken for him, were vain, had recourse to this stratagem — "some quarter of the booke being done and lying in his hands at randome," George calls upon his friend for more money — "the gentleman bids him welcome, causeth him to stay dinner, where falling into discourse about his booke, found that it was as neere ended as he left it two moneths agoe." The gentleman upon this calls up his servants, binds Peele hand and foot, and sending for the barber, had his head and beard clean shaved, then "putting his hand into his pocket gave him two brace of angels: quoth he, M. Peele drinke this, and by that time you have finished my booke your beard will be growne, untill which time I know you will be ashamed to walke a broad." The plot succeeded, for although Peele contrived to get five pounds more from him, by a second device, which is made the subject of another jest, the translation was nevertheless finished within a few days.

Oldys, in his very curious manuscript additions to Langbaine, justly remarks that Peele's jests might with more propriety be termed the tricks of a sharper. The supper story was somewhat of this nature, and nearly all his other witty pranks are of a similar description. He robs a poor tapster of an angel by borrowing that sum from him on the pledge of "an old Harry groat" which he delivers to his gull with great ceremony, assuring him that by it he holds the lease of a house, and making him swear that he will return it, whenever he shall call upon him so to do. The tapster falls into decay, as he well may with many such customers as George, and going to our author begs him to receive his pawne and restore him his borrowed angel — "not for the world, quoth George, thou saist thou hast but that groat in the world, my bargaine was, that thou shouldst keepe that groat untill I did demand it of thee. I aske thee none. I will do thee more good, because thou art an honest fellow, keepe thou that groat still, till I call for it, and so doing, the proudest Jacke in England cannot justifie thou art not worth a groat, otherwise they might: and so honest Michael, fare well." The tapster finding he has no redress, breaks out into a lamentation, and concludes with what is called a proverb, but is only curious at present, as it proves that an angel was the price of a barrel of beer in those days: "For the price of a barrell of beere I have bought a groatsworth of wit. Is not that deare?"

We will close this article with a specimen of Peele's blank verse, which is far more creditable to his abilities and patriotism than any thing we have as yet been able to produce. The extract is from his Farewell to Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake, 1589, and is part of an address to their brave followers.

Have done with care, my hearts! aboard amain,
With stretching sails to plow the swelling waves.
Bid England's shore and Albion's chalky cliffs
Farewell: bid stately Troynovant adieu,
Where pleasant Thames, from Isis' silver head,
Begins her quiet glide, and runs along
To that brave bridge, the bar that thwarts her course,
Near neighbour to the ancient stony Tower
The glorious hold that Julius Caesar built.
Change love for arms; girt to your blades, my boys!
Your rests and muskets take, take helme and targe
And let God Mars's concert make you mirth:
The roaring cannon, and the brazen trump,
The angry sounding drum, the whistling fife,
The shrieks of men, the princely courser's neigh.
Now vail your bonnets to your friends at home,
Bid all the lovely British dames adieu,
That under many a standard, well advanc'd,
Have hid the sweet alarms and braves of love.
Bid theatres and proud tragedians
Bid Mahomet's Poo, and mighty Tamberlain,
King Charlemagne, Tom Stukeley and the rest Adieu!
To arms, to arms, to glorious arms
With noble Norris and victorious Drake
Under the sanguine cross, brave England's badge,
To propagate religious piety.