Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Thomas Dekker (c. 1570–1632)
[Nothing, or next to nothing, is known of Dekker’s life. From a vague reference of his own it would seem that he was born about the sixth or seventh decade of the sixteenth century. He was married before 1594—if indeed the register on which this inference is grounded refers to him. He had pretty certainly begun to write for the stage some years before 1600: and he seems to have been alive as late as 1637. But scarcely a figure in the whole shadowy Elizabethan calendar is more shadowy than his. His works in prose, verse, and drama, with their dates in some cases, are almost the only certain things we know about him. Of the first division—the only one which concerns us here—the chief are The Wonderful Year and A Bachelor’s Banquet, both belonging to the year 1603, and a series of pamphlets (mostly similar to the “cony-catching” pieces of Greene) which range from 1606 to 1609. Among these rank The Seven Deadly Sins of London, News from Hell, The Gull’s Hornbook (the best known of all), The Bellman of London, Lanthorne and Candle Light, The Dead Term (long vacation), Work for Armourers, and The Raven’s Almanack. The Four Birds of Noah’s Ark, a devotional work, dates from 1613. It would appear that Dekker’s later years were entirely devoted to the stage—at least we have no prose extant that seems to date from them.]  1
THE PROSE works of Dekker belong to a very curious division of English literature which has never since its own day been widely read, and which is not very easy to characterise briefly to those who have not read it. This division consists of those pamphlets in the reigns of Elizabeth and James which were not devoted to polemical or didactic purposes, and which obviously aimed at little or nothing more than providing amusement. Comparatively rare as examples of it are now, it must have had a considerable circulation at the time, for it was almost entirely the work of men who lived by their pens, and who would evidently have written something else if this had not brought them in money. Its two chief subdivisions were the Euphuist romance, and an odd kind of olio or miscellany of satire, moral reflection, and scraps from books, attempts to pourtray the ways and habits of the lower and looser London society of the time. It is impossible to tell how far this kind of picture of manners, to the class of which Dekker’s prose work chiefly belongs, is a genuine reproduction of fact, and how far it is “made up” for literary purposes. Sketches of Bohemia by Bohemians always have something factitious and suspicious about them, and perhaps this is not, in Dekker’s case, lessened by the fact that some of his work in this kind is translation or adaptation—as of The Gull’s Hornbook from Dedekind’s Grobianus, and of the Bachelor’s Banquet, from the famous French satire of the Quinze Joies du Mariage. Yet there is much freshness and apparent fidelity in the details, despite the reminiscences of books that constantly occur.  2
  Dekker has few obvious idiosyncrasies or mannerisms of style. It does not seem that he was a university man, and he is less prodigal of scraps of learning and tags of Latin than his academic contemporaries, though his work is not absolutely lacking in such things. The Euphuist simile and the abuse of alliteration, which abound in some of his earlier fellows, are also by no means prominent in him. Contrariwise, his prose has much of the simple and natural grace which is perceptible in the best parts of his plays, and it sometimes seems rather wasted on the ephemeral and barren fashion of composition which, as a hack writer, he probably had no choice but to adopt.  3
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