Plague Pamphlets. An unsigned review of The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker, ed. F. P. Wilson
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[ 801 Plague Pamphlets1 An unsigned review of The Plague Pamphlets of Thomas Dekker, ed. F. P. Wilson Oxford: Clarendon, 1925. Pp. xxix + 263. Times Literary Supplement, 1279 (5 Aug 1926) 522 The literature of Plague is not a large one – for the English reader there hardly exist more than Defoe’s Journal and Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”2 – and we may be grateful to Mr. Wilson for reprinting these pieces of prose and verse. They will not, for the most part, add much to Dekker’s reputation. Most of them, it is true, are here printed for the first time since the original publication; and one of the most interesting, The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie, is a new ascription by Mr. Wilson – an ascription which, judging only on grounds of style, we see no reason to question.3 All the prose pieces appear to have been written hurriedly as pamphlets to satisfy a transient public demand. None is equal in interest or workmanship to The Guls Hornebooke or The Belman of London;4 and Dekker’s place as a prose writer will remain where it was, considerably below that of Nashe; but as contributions to the study of Plague literature these are of very great interest. The two examples mentioned above gain their effect by structure and by their rates of speed. Poe produces his effect by suddenness and what may be called “expected surprise,” united with a moral idea of retribution. Defoe’s effect is due to an aggregation of small detail producing final unity. The tone of every anecdote is projected into the next, and so on. One is continuously the spectator of the slow creeping of infection from parish to parish, of a more and more intolerable movement which one can neither arrest nor accelerate. Dekker has no movement whatever; his pamphlets are a collection of vague anecdotes interspersed with passages of the purple meditationinwhichhisageindulgeditself.ThedifferencebetweenDekker and Defoe is partly due to the fact that in Dekker’s age there were few statistics , whilst in Defoe’s time public statistics of some pretence to accuracy were at hand. Defoe is, as we all know, immensely indebted to the Weekly Bills, both for statements of fact and for those figures of the numbers of 1926 802 ] deaths without which the peculiar movement of his Journal would have been impossible.5 Statistics form the skeleton of the Journal; Defoe was one of the first to attempt and to succeed in that boasted enterprise of “making statistics interesting.” And Defoe had a further advantage: his age, and that of which he wrote, had higher standards of medical observation, and the records of this observation inevitably influenced literary style: the Loimologia of Dr. Hodges, to which Defoe presumably had access, is an example.6 We must take these considerations into account in criticizing Dekker. They go to explain the difference of use to which he puts the anecdote, and the differences of detail within the anecdote itself. But there is another difference between Dekker and Defoe, which makes us find for Dekker a distant relationship to Boccaccio, and a nearer relationship to the ordinary teller of fabliaux.7 For Defoe the plague is a “visitation,” virtually a sign from Jehovah of His wrath; for Dekker it is merely the occasion for meditation upon death and the brevity and uncertainty of human life, and for tales which are as often as not “merry” ones. One of the most interesting of the pamphlets is The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie, one of those meetings of gallants which he or Middleton could deal with so readily in acomedy.Thegallantsarenamed,aswemightexpect,SignorsShuttlecocke, Ginglespurre, Stramazon and Kickshow. As the last of these gentlemen remarks, “I love to heare Tales when a merrie Corpulent Host bandies them out of his Flopmouth” [119]; and the host, the traditional comic figure , treats his “Gallant Bullyes of five and twenty” first to a tale of a vintner in London, dying in a humour: “such a ridiculous humour of dying was never heard of before” [123]. But even the more “pathetical” tales are lighter than Defoe’s; they may end with a moral, they are careless of the great moral of Defoe, they belong to a more reckless and a tougher world. In The Wonderfull Yeare is a tale of a bride taken ill of the plague at the altar: Now was his divination true, she was a wife, yet continued a mayd; he was...