FOR the playwright Thomas Dekker, 1609 was a busy year, despite the severe outbreak of plague that had closed the theatres. He resorted to pamphleteering, and one of his publications was a book of prayers: Four Birds of Noah’s Ark.
Dekker is now best known for his comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599), and his sweet poem “Golden slumbers kiss your eyes” (adapted by the Beatles on their album Abbey Road). Four Birds has a claim to being another of this prolific writer’s finest achievements.
It is a sustained act of devotional ventriloquism, in which Dekker offers a sequence of prayers in different voices, all the way up the social scale: the midwife asks for help delivering a “new unborne creature”; the miner requires protection, since “death is . . . at my elbow”. Others are prayed for rather than imagined offering prayers of their own. “Wipe away al miusts of errors from their eies,” for example, is a supplication made on the clergy’s behalf.
There are prayers for the city and the country, and against the Deadly Sins. The avian quartet of the title hover overhead: the comforting Dove, the courageous Eagle, the health-bestowing Pelican, and the life-giving Phoenix.
If you like reading your old literature in something resembling its original form, seek out Four Birds in F. P. Wilson’s lovely pocket-sized edition of 1924. Robert Hudson’s new edition is something else: a careful reworking of Dekker for today, subtitled A prayer book from the time of Shakespeare.
Here, spelling, syntax, and grammar are modernised, and archaisms make way for modern equivalents. Hudson notes relevant Bible passages, cuts some of the “brimstone and damnation”, and renders Dekker’s prose in quasi-poetic lines, “to group ideas together and to encourage the reader to read slowly and meditatively”.
It is an effective approach — only Hudson seems to believe that Dekker wrote the prayer “made by” Queen Elizabeth. On the contrary, it is un-Dekker-like because Dekker did not write it: it was prompted by an expedition to the Azores, led by Elizabeth’s sometime favourite the Earl of Essex, in 1597. No wonder Hudson has trouble adapting it for modern use.
Michael Caines is English Literature editor at the Times Literary Supplement.
Four Birds of Noah’s Ark: A prayer book from the time of Shakespeare
Thomas Dekker; Robert Hudson, editor
Church Times Bookshop £13.50