Four Birds of Noah's Ark
A Prayer Book from the Time of Shakespeare
- ISBN: 9780802874818
- Published By: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Published: October 2017
Written in 1608, Thomas Dekker’s Four Birds of Noah’s Ark is a prayerful response to the fears and struggles witnessed by the author during outbreaks of the plague—colloquially known as the Black Death—in the city of London in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In Four Birds, Dekker assumes the personae of a variety of persons across all classes of life in his straightforward-yet-poignant prayers, mingling gratitude to God and pleas for continued life with social and political commentary under the allegorical umbrella of avian emblematics (each bird in the slim volume represents a category of prayer).
In the introduction, editor Robert Hudson begins with a note on the context of Dekker’s life in London during the plague of 1608. Although he acknowledges that Dekker “was not an unusually pious man,” and was in fact known as a “rogue” (2), Hudson somewhat romanticizes both Dekker himself and the context in which he lived and wrote. He suggests that Dekker was “an irrepressible optimist” (4), which, given the full context of Dekker’s sardonic and often bitter polemics and stage plays, seems more a reflection of Hudson’s love for Dekker’s work than a true reflection of Dekker himself. Similarly, Hudson’s confidence in the depth of Dekker’s faith is perhaps more generous than historically accurate.
While acknowledging that “during periods of economic and social instability, people seek out religious books for comfort” (6), and that it was customary for playwrights like Dekker to turn to poetry or prose publications as supplemental income when the theatres closed, Hudson suggests that “the fact that [Dekker’s] book speaks to us so powerfully after so many centuries is a testimony to its sincerity and conviction” (6). Yet Hudson also acknowledges that Four Birds was not popular in its own time, and that Dekker wrote only this single prayer volume throughout his otherwise prolific career. This evidence seems to suggest the contrary, that Four Birds was a unique attempt by an otherwise experienced playwright and pageanter to turn a profit during a time when his other crafts—the public stage and the Lord Mayors’ Shows—were unavailable to him. Despite all this, Four Birds is, as Hudson remarks, an interesting portrait of the faith which crossed classes and trades in the England of Dekker’s time.
In the main body of the book, Hudson retains Dekker’s original organization, including his notes to the reader in which Dekker explains his organization and purpose. Beginning with the Dove, Dekker includes “simple prayers or such as are appropriate to the mouths of the young and the common people” (19). The second book, that of the Eagle, includes the imagined prayers of royalty and nobility. The Pelican, which sacrifices itself for its young in early modern heraldry, “carries the image,” Dekker explains, “of our Redeemer on the cross,” including prayers “against all those deadly and capital sins” (19). Finally, Dekker concludes with the resurrection and the Phoenix, prayers that contain “wishes that [Christ] would in different gifts bestow those blessings upon us” (19).
In each section, Dekker adopts the personae of his devotees, assuming the voice of a child on his way to school, a merchant, a soldier, a clergyman, the members of the royal family, the late Queen Elizabeth I, and others, writing prayers for those facing a variety of struggles, sins, and in need of the healing power of Christ. In each vignette, Dekker acknowledges both the distinctions between the men, women, and children in each position, as well as the healing universality of belonging to a single Christian faith.
As a devotional text, Dekker’s language and universality are appealing in their simplicity. Hudson’s edition updates Dekker’s language, changing, for example, the opening lines of “The Dove” from “O God, that art the fountaine of all wisedome, & founder of all learning,” to “O God, who is the fountain of all wisdom / and the founder of all learning” (27), both modernizing the spelling and changing the format from prose (as in the original printing) to an aesthetically-pleasing prose-poetry hybrid. Hudson’s alterations make Dekker’s lines more palatable and readable for a modern, non-scholarly audience, without changing the essential atmosphere and tenor of the original. He also includes bracketed biblical references at the start of each prayer, which are relevant to the subsequent content, suggesting not only Dekker’s source material, but also study references for those using the text as a devotional guide.
Hudson’s edition, while visually pleasing, is not a replacement for F. P. Wilson’s 1924 edition or a scholarly complete works of Dekker, nor is it in any sense a scholarly edition of the text. Hudson has edited a devotional edition of Dekker’s prayers, providing biblical annotations throughout the text without providing critical analysis of the social, political, or even theological critique and commentary that runs throughout Dekker’s work. That said, Hudson’s editorial work has streamlined Dekker’s prose for a modern devotional reader while retaining much of the essence of the original work. While it is not a volume for scholars of theology, history, or literature of the early modern period, Hudson’s edition encapsulates the elegant simplicity of Dekker’s Four Birds for a modern devotional reader with an interest in historical spirituality.
Kristin M. S. Bezio is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.Kristin BezioDate Of Review:June 7, 2018