The lyric poem known as “Golden Slumbers,” from Dekker, Chettle and Haughton’s 1603 play Patient Grissil, has been repeatedly appropriated over the past four hundred years, becoming at various points an “anonymous, traditional” folk song, a Beatles hit, a nursery rhyme, a minor Elizabethan anthology piece attributed to an established author, and a piece of gnomic folk wisdom. All of these identities continue to coexist today. The poem flourishes in a network of viral transmission, confounding conventional theories of literary canonization. The history of the poem’s transmission reveals Thomas Dekker’s peculiarly liminal role in the English canon and casts a startling light on how discourses of authorship and literary value function. The assignment of an author tends to stabilize the text itself, but also paradoxically strips away artistic complexity and obscures clear authorial intentions. Indeed, the poem does not function as a “work” at all. The various iterations of the text do not direct their audiences toward other uses of that text, or toward any sense of a stable, coherent literary object.


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