Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Thomas Dekker, Rock Star: "Golden Slumbers," the Beatles, and the Wages of Authorship

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Thomas Dekker, Rock Star: "Golden Slumbers," the Beatles, and the Wages of Authorship

Article excerpt

In 1969, an English rock band released an old song, written by an Elizabethan dramatist and set to fresh music, on their new album. That recording enjoyed overwhelming international success-selling millions of copies in its first few months and tens of millions thereafter-and became a critical touchstone, routinely included on lists of great rock albums. Since 1969, this song featuring Elizabethan lyrics has been covered by dozens of subsequent musical artists, continuing well into the twenty-first century. Thanks to the popularity of this song, the poetry of England 's literary golden age has circled the globe through electronic media and found new listeners among the young.

Had the Elizabethan poet in this story been William Shakespeare, this tale would be told as a triumph of English cultural heritage: a happy marriage between England 's most famous historical poet and most famous living musicians. But because the song the Beatles borrowed for Abbey Road was not written by Shakespeare, Abbey Road's connection to the early modern period has become merely a piece of trivia, a footnote. The author of "Golden Slumbers," a poem cherished by many different audiences for centuries, does not get the rock star treatment. Precisely because that author is not famous, his fame does not increase. He is not the renowned William Shakespeare, but the obscure Thomas Dekker. Or perhaps he was Henry Chettle, or William Haughton.

"Golden Slumbers," or "Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes," was first printed in 1603 as part of Dekker, Haughton, and Chettle's play Patient Grissil. The words thrive without ever becoming canonical; they are widely loved and yet not famous. I have encountered these verses as the complete text of an illustrated children's book (Wallwork), as an art print, as a nursery rhyme ascribed to Winnie the Pooh (Zoehfeld), and as an "authentic Cajun lullaby" (Authentic Cajun Lullabies). The Beatles' appropriation was only one more in the song's long history, far from the first and apparently still far from the last. The reception of "Golden Slumbers" over the past four centuries defies any simplistic explanation of how poems enter the canon.

The idea that literary works elevate themselves to the canon through verbal merit alone does not explain how this text has managed to circulate so widely and durably without gaining official acceptance. The idea that the canon is purely a social construction, divorced from formal considerations, leaves no way to account for an unsystematically circulated and uncanonized work that has been treasured by large numbers of readers despite those readers' relative social isolation from one another. The words of "Golden Slumbers" do evidently hold some intrinsic appeal to readers, who often respond warmly without knowing those words' history. The lyric is old and even beloved, but the poem has gained neither the status of a classic nor recognition of its persistent identity. This is a text that is not a "work."

Becoming Anonymous

Philip Henslowe's so-called Diary records payments for Patient Grissil to Thomas Dekker, Henry Chettle, and William Haughton in 1599.1 The play, an adaptation of the Griselda story from Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, was registered with the Stationers' Company in 1600 and printed without any authors' names in 1603.2 Two of the three songs in Dekker, Chettle, and Haughton's play form a linked pair: both use the phrase "golden slumbers" and both are associated with Grissil's father, Janicola. While nothing about these songs' composition is positively known, their shared language hints that they might have been composed together. The playwrights might also have appropriated two existing songs, or tailored a new song to echo a traditional one, but no example resembling either lyric is recorded before 1603.

As in Boccaccio and Chaucer's versions of the Griselda story, a Marquess marries the beautiful daughter of the peasant Janicola (whom Dekker, Chettle, and Haighton make a basketmaker) and tests her loyalty by putting her though a series of grueling and sadistic ordeals. …

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