Analysis of Thomas Dekker’s Poems

Most of Thomas Dekker’s (1572 – 1632) best poetry is found in his plays; unfortunately, since most of his plays were collaborations, it is often difficult to assign particular poetic pas-sages to Dekker, and perhaps even harder to assign the larger poetic designs to him. He is, however, generally credited with most of the poetry in Old Fortunatus and The Honest Whore, Parts I and II. He wrote the delightfully poetic The Shoemaker’s Holiday almost unaided. Mother Sawyer’s eloquent poetry in The Witch of Edmontonso closely resembles portions of his long pamphlet-poem, Dekker, His Dream, as to make it all but certainly his. Songs and verses occupy varying proportions of his journalistic works, from a few lines in The Wonderful Year, to several songs in Lanthorn and Candlelight, to most of The Double PP. In all his plays, verse comprises a significant part of the dialogue.

While the quality of thought and care in organization vary from work to work and al-most from line to line in a given work, the quality of the sound rarely falters. According to George Price in Thomas Dekker (1969), one poem long attributed to Dekker, Canaan’s Calamitie (1598), has been excluded from the canon largely because of the inferior music of its verse. Critics often attach words such as “sweet,” “lovely,” “gentle,”and “compassionate” to Dekker’s most popular passages, and the adjectives seem to cover both sound and theme in works such as Old Fortunatus and The Shoemaker’s Holiday.

Old Fortunatus

An old-fashioned production in its own day, Old Fortunatus weaves a morality pageant in which the goddess Fortune and her attendants witness a power struggle between Virtue and Vice with a loose chronicle play about a man to whom Fortune grants a choice. Instead of health, strength, knowledge, and wisdom, old Fortunatus chooses riches. His wealth and native cunning enable him to steal knowledge (in the form of a magic hat). After Fortune claims the old man’s life, his sons Ampedo and Andelocia, inheriting his magic purse and hat, make no better use of them than their father had done. Greedy Andelocia abducts a princess, plays assorted pranks at various courts, and ends up strangled by equally greedy courtiers; virtuous Ampedo wrings his hands, eventually burns the magic hat, and dies in the stocks, unmourned even by Virtue. Structurally, Old Fortunatus has the odd elegance of medieval drama. Fortune, Virtue, and Vice enter the human world five times, usually with song and emblematic show designed to judge menor to point out the choices open to them.

The play’s allegorical pageantry demanded elaborate costuming and equally elaborate verse, ranging from songs in varied meters and tones to dialogues that are often more incantation than blank verse speech:

Kings: Accursed Queen of chaunces, damned sorceresse.
The Rest: Most pow’rfull Queen of chaunce, dread soveraignesse.
Fortune:. . . [To the Kings] curse on: your cries to me are Musicke
And fill the sacred rondure of mine eares
With tunes more sweet than moving of the Spheres:
Curse on.

Most of the chronicle play that is interwoven with the morality pageant employs blank verse liberally sprinkled with prose passages and rhymed couplets. Renaissance notions of decorum set forth rather clear-cut rules governing the use of prose and poetry. An iambic pentameter line was considered the best medium for tragedy and for kings’ and nobles’ speeches in comedy. Madmen, clowns, and letter-readers in tragedy and lower class characters in comedy can speak prose. Dekker refines these guidelines. He uses prose for musing aloud, for French and Irish dialects, for talking to servants, and for expressing disappointment or depression: The sons mourn their dead father and have their most violent quarrel in prose. Dekker keys form to mood much as a modern song writer does when he inserts a spoken passage into the lyrics. Even Dekker’s prose, however, is textured like poetry; except for the lack of iambic pentameter rhythm, prose passages are virtually indistinguishable from verse. Typical are the lilting rhythms of the following passage (one of the cruelest in the play): “I was about to cast my little little self into a great love trance for him, fearing his hart was flint, but since I see ‘tis pure virgin wax, he shall melt his belly full.”

Sound itself is the subject of much comment in the play. Dekker’s natural gift for pleasing rhythms, his knack for combining the gentler consonant sounds with higher frequency vowels, and his ear for slightly varied repetitions all combine to make Old Fortunatus strikingly beautiful poetry.

The fame of Old Fortunatus, however, rests on more than its sound. Dekker’s imagery de-serves the praise it consistently gets. The Princess’s heartless line is one of many that connect melting with the play’s values—love, fire, gold, and the sun—in ways that suggest both the purification of dross through the melting process and the fate of rich Crassus. Other images connect the silver moon and stars with music, and both precious metals with an earth producing fruit-laden trees that men use wisely or unwisely. The allegorical figures with their emblematic actions and costumes would heighten the effectiveness of such imagery for a viewing audience, just as hearing the poetry greatly magnifies its impact over silent reading.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday

In The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Dekker shows a more sophisticated use of poetry. As in Old Fortunatus, he shifts between poetry and prose, depending somewhat on the characters’ social class but more on mood, so that in a given scene a character can slip from prose to poetry and back while those around him remain in their normal métier. In the earlier play, however, he made little attempt to connect certain characters with certain sounds or images. In The Shoemaker’s Holiday, characters have their own peculiar music.

The play combines three plots. In the first, Rowland Lacy disguises himself as Hans, a Dutch shoemaker, to avoid being shipped off to war in France, far from his beloved Rose Otley. His uncle, the earl of Lincoln, and her father, Sir Roger Otley, oppose the love match. In the second, the shoemaker Rafe leaves his young wife, Jane, to do his country’s bidding; later, lamed and supposed dead, he returns to find Jane missing. He rediscovers her just in time to stop her marriage to the rich but shallow Hammon. In the third, master shoemaker Simon Eyre, the employer of Lacy, Rafe, and a crew of journeymen and apprentices, rises by common sense and enthusiastic shop management to become London’s merriest Lord Mayor.

Two relatively minor characters illustrate Dekker’s poetic sense. The earl of Lincoln, despite his blank verse, speaks less poetically than most of the other characters,and Eyre’s journeyman, Firke, despite his freer prose rhythms, speaks much of the bestpoetry. Lincoln’s decasyllables in the opening scene, for example, summarize Lacy’ssituation with few rhetorical figures:

‘Twas now almost a year since he requested
To travel countries for experiences.
I furnished him with coin, bills of exchange,
Letters of credit, men to wait on him.

Lincoln’s speech is not absolutely unpoetic. Its rhythm is varied, quickened by added syllables and made natural by inverted feet—but that is all. Lincoln has a prosaic mind; to him Lacy’s love is mere nuisance, a mild threat to the family name. Dishonest abou this own motives, he presumes that others are likewise motivated by self-interest. Thus, when he speaks, his words slip easily off the tongue, but rarely figure forth the imaginative connections between things that Dekker’s other characters display.

By contrast, Firke’s lines have more of poetry’s verbal texture than does most modern free verse. Asked the whereabouts of the eloped Rose and Lacy, he answers in a pastiche of poetic allusions and a pun on the gold coin that Elizabethans called angels: “No point: shall I betray my brother? no, shall I prove Judas to Hans? no, shall I crie treason to my corporation? no, I shall be firkt and yerkt then, but give me your angell, your angell shall tel you.” The passage shouts an emphatic dance rhythm, forcefully repeats the focal “no, shall I,” employs assonance (“Judas to Hans”), alliteration (“betray my brother”), and rhyme (“treason to my corporation” and “firkt and yerkt”). It speeds along, then slows to a perfectly cadenced close. The speaker, a boisterous, rowdy, practical joker, is always ready to burst into song, or something so close as to be indistinguishable from song.

Dekker gives these minor characters distinctive poetic voices. To the major characters, he gives individualizing linguistic habits. Bluff Simon Eyre’s trick of repeating himself would be maddening in a less kindly fellow. He is the only character capable of speaking prose to the king. Hammon, suitor both to Rose and Jane, speaks courtly compliment in light, rhymed couplets in which vows about “life” and “wife” play too heavy a part. Though he enjoys the banter of stichomythic verse, his images are stuffily conventional. As wellborn characters, Lacy and Rose naturally speak blank verse. Lacy’s voice, however, turns to a quick prose dialect when he is disguised as Hans; Rose occasionally startles by slipping out of her romantic preoccupations into a few lines of practical yet polished prose.


Perhaps the play’s best poetry is that which Dekker gives to shoemaker Rafe and seamstress Jane. Surrounded by shopkeepers and unaccustomed to courtly compliment, these two must invent their own poetic images and rhythms. “I will not greeve you,/With hopes to taste fruite, which will never fall,” says Jane to Hammon. Hearing of Rafe’s death, she dismisses her persistent suitor with lines remarkable for homespungrace. Rafe, in turn, gives the entire play its thematic unity in two passages that raiseshoemaking from a craft to a communal act of love. As he leaves for France, Rafe gives Jane a parting gift: not the jewels and rings that rich men present their wives, but a pair of shoes “cut out by Hodge, Sticht by my fellow  Firke, seam’d by my selfe,/ Made up and pinckt, with letters for thy name.” The shoes are the epitome of the shoemaker’s art, and they are individually Jane’s. Dekker returns to the image at a pivotal point after Rafe comes home from the war. The shoes, now old and needing replacement, lead Rafe to reunion with the missing Jane. His homely poetry, the most original in a play full of original language, is more touching than preposterous:

. . . this shoe I durst be sworne
Once covered the instep of my Jane:
This is her size, her breadth, thus trod my love,
These true love knots I prickt, I hold my life,
By this old shoe I shall find out my wife.

The simple language fits Rafe as well as the shoe fits Jane. In The Shoemaker’s Holiday, craftsmen know their work as confidently as the master wordsmith Dekker knows his characters’ individual voices. Critics generally agree that the play is Dekker’s poetic masterpiece. His other plays contain excellent poetry, nicely tuned to suit persona in sound, mood, and imagery, but none has the range and grace of The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Of special interest to the student of Dekker’s verse are two of the speeches in The Honest Whore plays. In Part I, Hippolito’s furious diatribe against whoredom is a virtual monologue, rising in a hundred lines to a fine crescendo, which deserves careful metrical and figural analysis. Its counterpart in Part II, Bellafront’s long argument against her former profession, deserves similar attention.


Dekker’s pamphlets continue the habit of mixing prose and verse; most of them contain some poetry, if only in the rhymed couplets signifying closure. As early as 1603, in The Wonderful Year, he was writing essentially dramatic poetry. In that pamphlet, he includes two poems supposed to be the prologue and a summary of the action of a play—the “play” of England’s reaction to Elizabeth I’s death. The poetic section ends with three short epigrams of a deliberately homespun sort. Lanthorn and Candlelight further reflects the dramatic in Dekker’s poetry. In the opening chapter, poems are couched incant, a special thieves’ jargon. “To cant” means “to sing,” but since “canters” are strange, they sing strangely: “Enough! With boozy cove maund nase,/ Tower the patring cove in the darkman case.” Dekker includes both a “Canter’s Dictionary” (largely plagiarized) and “Englished” translations. His habit of using dramatic voices inpoetry finds a logical conclusion in such songs.

Poetry is sporadic in most of Dekker’s pamphlets; in The Double PP and Dekker, His Dream, however, it dominates. The former alternates sections of prose and poetry in an exhibition of English nationalism as complete as Simon Eyre’s. In an elaborate rhetorical figure, Dekker presents ten kinds of papists as ten chivalric shields attacked by ten well-armed classes of English Protestants. The generally shallow but occasionally penetrating stereotypes show the influence of the current fad for Overburian Characters.

Dekker, His Dream

Dekker, His Dream is a much better poem. Published shortly after his release from seven years in debtor’s prison, the work is ostensibly autobiographical. Dekker claims to relate a dream he had after almost seven years of imprisonment in an enchanted cave. Using lines of rhymed iambic pentameter that vary with his subject in tone and tempo, Dekker describes the last day of the world, the final judgment, heaven, and hell. Periodically he interrupts the narrative to justify his vision by quoting in prose from scripture or church authorities.

Structurally, Dekker, His Dream is among his best works, building slowly to a climactic conclusion in which Dekker turns out to be, as William Blake said of John Milton, “of the devil’s party.” The poem begins with covert reminders of what Dekker himself has recently suffered, then moves vividly through the tale of Earth’s destruction. Calmly, it relates the majestic coming of Christ and the harmonious rewards given the good, then turns rather quickly to hell. (In fact, Christ and Heaven occupy eight of Dekker’s fifty-two pages.) Like Dante, Dekker secures permission to walk among the damned; he finds a two-part hell. In the first, the cold region, he sees the “rich dogs” who refused to help the poor and sick. Tormented by whips, diseases, snakes, and salamanders, they react with “Yels, teeth-gnashing, chattering, shivering.” Then he moves into the traditional fires to find the drunkards, gamblers, adulterers, and gluttons—“mil-lions” of them, whipped and stung with their own longings and with the “worme of conscience.” Among them is a young man cursing God and proclaiming loudly as the whips descend that he does not deserve eternal punishment. Dekker gives him a perfectly logical defense: He had only thirty years of life, fifteen of which were spent asleep, five more in childishness, and some at least in good deeds. Nature had given him little—drops of gall from her left breast instead of milk—and his sins were small. His lengthy defense contains some of Dekker’s best images and rhythms; it is interrupted by a booming angelic voice that shouts about justice until the rest of the damned, angered, outshout it, waking the poet. Dekker, hands shaking from the experience, concludes that, reading the world, “I found Here worse Devils than are in Hell.”

The dream vision has been largely misinterpreted, but close study of the quality of the imagery and the proportions of the whole indicate that Dekker was indeed leading his readers to question the justice shouted by the avenging angel. It is a subtly and effectively composed poem, deserving more attention than it has had.

Major Works
Plays: Patient Grissell, pr. 1600 (with Henry Chettle and William Haughton); Satiromastix: Or, The Untrussing of the Humourous Poet, pr. 1601; Sir Thomas Wyatt,pr. 1602 (as Lady Jane, pb. 1607); Westward Ho!, pr. 1604 (with John Webster); North-ward Ho!, pr. 1605 (with Webster); The Whore of Babylon, pr. c. 1606-1607; The Roar-ing Girl: Or, Moll Cutpurse, pr. c. 1610 (with Thomas Middleton); If This Be Not aGood Play, the Devil Is in It, pr. c. 1610-1612 (as If It Be Not Good, the Devil Is in It); Match Me in London, pr. c. 1611-1612; The Noble Soldier: Or, A Contract Broken, Justly Revenged, pr. c. 1622-1631 (with John Day; thought to be the same as The Spanish Fig, 1602); The Wonder of a Kingdom, pr. c. 1623; The Welsh Embassador: Or, A Comedy in Disguises, pr. c. 1624 (revision of The Noble Soldier); The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 1953-1961 (4 volumes; Fredson Bowers, editor).
Nonfiction: News from Hell, 1606; The Seven Deadly Sins, 1606; The Bellman of London, 1608; A Work for Armourers, 1609; Four Birds of Noah’s Ark, 1609; TheGull’s Hornbook, 1609; Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish, 1631; The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker, 1925 (F. P. Wilson, editor).
Miscellaneous: The Magnificent Entertainment Given to King James, 1603 (with Ben Jonson and Middleton); The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 1884-1886(4 volumes; Alexander B. Grosart, editor); Selected Prose Writings, 1967 (E. D.Pendry, editor).

Adler, Doris Ray.Thomas Dekker: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
Champion, Larry S. Thomas Dekker and the Tradition of English Drama. 2d ed. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.
Conover, James H.Thomas Dekker: An Analysis of Dramatic Structure. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1966.
Dekker, Thomas.The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Edited by Stanley Wells and Robert Smallwood. 3d ed. London: Metheun Drama, 2008.
Gasper, Julia. The Dragon and the Dove: The Plays of Thomas Dekker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Hoy, Cyrus Henry. Introductions, Notes, and Commentaries to Texts in “The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker.” 4 vols. Edited by Fredson Bowers. 1980. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Hunt, Mary Leland. Thomas Dekker: A Study. 1911. Reprint. Philadelphia: R. West,1977.

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