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Deloney, Thomas (156?–1600) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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The life of Thomas Deloney remains largely unknown. With no birth record and no university records, he left no convenient benchmarks by which to judge his date of birth. His first known work was his translation of A Declaration made by the archbishop of Collen in 1583, so scholars range widely as they use it to make a guess based on how mature they judge him to have been when he translated it. Deloney may have been born in Norwich; editor F. O. Mann guessed so, misquoting Thomas Nashe* as evidence. The only real evidence for Norwich is that Deloney’s first known published ballad was printed there in 1586, which I find unconvincing given that we can establish him in London that same year: the St. Giles, Cripplegate, Parish Register for 1586 lists the birth of a son, Richard, to a Thomas Delonie silk weaver on 16 October (Wright, 17). Certainly, once in London (if not from there originally), he was increasingly prominent for his ballads, succeeding William Elderton as the dominant balladeer by the early 1590s.

His title of silk weaver does tell us that Deloney was somewhat unusual for a writer of his time, in that he had a day job: he was a yeoman member of the liveried London Company of Weavers. He continued a double life as weaver and writer at least until 1595, when he was arrested and imprisoned for writing and printing a letter, “To the Ministers and Elders of the French Church in London” (Consitt, 312–18). This incident reveals intriguing details about his status in his craft, as the letter unsuccessfully requests the ministers to force alien weavers to conform to the ordinances of the Company of Weavers. Deloney’s legal problems continued after this incident (he was released from jail by the aldermen and the Privy Council), because a year later in 1596 he was sought by the lord mayor for the penning of a ballad, “On the Want of Corn” (Wright, 18), now lost. The mayor never caught him, and after writing all four of his novels in his final years, Deloney died of causes unknown in 1600 (Wright, 19).

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Deloney’s literary endeavors fall primarily into three categories: Protestant polemic, street ballads, and prose fictions, that I call novels for lack of a better term. In the first category, he published translations, A Declaration Made by the Archbishop of Collen upon the Deede of his Mariage and The Proclamation and Edict of the Archbishop and Prince Elector of Culleyn , which are reasonably clear, but primarily of interest to scholars of the English Reformation. Perhaps a similar impulse inspired Deloney’s serious poetic work, Canaans Calamitie , which follows Nashe’s Christes Teares Over Ierusalem in its use of the fall of Jerusalem as an allegory for a purported fall of London. While he makes great use of the grotesque, I must admit that in Canaans Calamitie Deloney demonstrates the extent to which he was not a great poet. His verse is not the worst of the period but cannot match the energy and intensity of his prose works.

Similarly, the ballads that were the foundation of Deloney’s Elizabethan reputation are not great poetry, although they often show signs of the vivid dialogue and characterization that would make his novels the cornerstone for his later reputation. Appearing in The Garland of Good Will (from which volume the term “garland” for a collection of ballads is derived) and Strange Histories , along with innumerable broadsides, the ballads range in subject from the romantic tales of the nobility to patriotic and domestic journalism of his time. Deloney was at his best when presenting the voices and lives of his fellow commoners and tradespeople; he was possibly the first English author to use dialect effectively in A pleasant Dialogue betweene plaine Truth, and blind Ignorance (Mann, 351). The chronicle ballads and journalistic ballads, like his song on Elizabeth’s* speech at Tilbury, reflect the popular taste of his time, while his ballads, like “A Song in praise of Women,” show his interest in the concerns of common people.

Deloney finally hit his stride after 1596, with the publication of four novels, Iacke of Newberie, The Gentle Craft I (the source for Thomas Dekker’s* Shoemaker’s Holiday ), The Gentle Craft II , and Thomas of Reading . All four detail the lives of tradespeople, shoemakers in The Gentle Craft and Deloney’s fellow weavers in Iacke and Thomas . All four novels lack unified narrative lines, but they share an insight into the lives of real people that is not to be found in the other prose writers of the time, like Nashe, Robert Greene,* or John Lyly.* While Deloney has his euphuistic moments when trying to create high speech for his noble characters, he in general favors a realistic and conversational style, and the novels are like plays in their reliance on characters’ speech (Lawlis, xiff.). Deloney’s novels are polemical, glorifying the virtues of the guild class, but along the way he presciently creates a sort of prose narrative, unlike those of any of his contemporaries, that predicts the novel to come.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

In his own time, Deloney was largely regarded as a very successful practitioner of the debased form, the ballad. In particular, Nashe invoked Deloney to defend Elderton from an attack by Gabriel Harvey,* and Harvey in turn told Nashe to spend less time with Deloney and more with Thomas More* ( Pierce’s Supererogation ). In a similar vein, Greene* (the same fellow who called Shakespeare* an upstart crow) accused Deloney of “yarking up” (jerking up) ballads ( Defense of Conny-Catching ). On the other hand, there remain no first editions of any of Deloney’s novels or garlands, suggesting that they were read out of existence, and the novels remained in print for centuries (Wright, 120).

In our own century, the reception of Deloney has been a long string of missed opportunities. There have been two good editions, F. O. Mann’s Works and Merritt Lawlis’ Novels , but there have been only a few book-length studies of Deloney. He appears in histories of the novel, and he spawns an article or two every few years, but few critics have risen above the level of noticing his existence. There is an excellent body of source study on Deloney, but there remains a scarcity of insightful readings. I remain mystified in particular that more historical or Marxist readings have not been done, given the balance of Deloney’s involvement with his guild and his focus on guild-dominated trades. Because he wrote novels in an age preceding the invention of the novel, he has, by and large, fallen through the cracks of the academy.

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