Rebecca Totaro, The Plague Epic in Early Modern England

Rebecca Totaro, The Plague Epic in Early Modern England: Heroic Measures, 1603-1721 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012). £65.00, 348pp. ISBN. 9781-1-4094-41-17-7.

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In The Wonderful Year (1603) Thomas Dekker paints a vivid and chilling tableau of the plague dead in which we are presented with a nightmarish scenario, featuring ‘an unmatchable torment’. Here we see a man ‘barred up every night in a vast, silent charnel-house … where all the pavement should instead of green rushes be strewed with blasted rosemary, withered hyacinths, fatal cypress and yew … mingled with dead men’s bones’. Here we see a thousand dead bodies ‘half mouldered in rotten coffins’ that fill the very air with ‘noisome stench’ and ‘the eyes with the sight of nothing but crawling worms’ (Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year, Norton, 237). The Wonderful Year was published in the first year of James VI and I’s reign. Almost continuous visitations of plague in England ensued for the next eight years and did not fully abate until 1611, before breaking out again to devastating effect in 1625 and again in 1630, 1638, 1643, and 1657-8. Rebecca Totaro reminds us in her excellent introduction to this new anthology of plague poetry that ‘this was a rude awakening to the new century’ (1). In popular perception of the plague in the seventeenth century these outbreaks often get ignored or marginalised by attention paid to the Great Plague of 1665.

The Wonderful Year is of course a prose pamphlet and has therefore no place in Totaro’s anthology. Instead we see Dekker represented with 718 lines of poetry entitled News from Graves-end, first published in 1604, and co-authored with Thomas Middleton (71-89). The poem itself is divided into four sections: ‘The Cause of the Plague’, ‘The Horror of the Plague’, ‘The Cure of the Plague’, and ‘The Necessity of a Plague’. The shift from definite to indefinite article in the final section is an interesting one, indicative perhaps of its interpretative rather than descriptive nature. This is a section concerned with apportioning blame and an attempt to rationalise the devastation that the plague brought. The belief related in these lines is that the plague itself was not only felt to be a perpetual evil, but a proto-Malthusian cure for the just as constant fear of famine: ‘Who among millions can deny / (In roughprose or smooth Poesy) / Of Evils ’tis the lighter brood - / A dearth of people than of food!’ (lines 693-96). Dekker’s tone here is also of a piece, in spirit at least, with A Modest Proposal (1729) where Swift makes similarly outrageous justifications in his recommendations that the Irish eat their babies to stave off famine. The causes of the plague are deemed to be political rather than biological, and the plague itself a God-given scourge inflicted on an ungrateful people.

Earlier in their poem Dekker and Middleton envisage an England found guilty of treason before the ‘Eternal King’ (line 187), though the causes are social and political as well as religious. When apportioning blame for its presence in a benighted land, Dekker and Middleton are less concerned with finding a medical or scientific reason for the plague’s appalling and unstoppable death toll, but instead refer the reader to the many sins of the powerful. The poem asks whether it be ‘Princes’ errors / Or faults of Peers, pull down these Terrors’, or the ‘Courtier’s pride, lust and excess’, or the ‘Churchman’s painted holiness’, or lawyer’s ‘grinding of the poor’? (lines 197-98, 201-3). As Totaro’s selections demonstrate, the plague poem is a useful platform for a state of the nation address, one that is rarely complimentary to the context in which it was written. The plagues of 1603 and 1625, for instance, frame the reign of James VI and I respectively, a fact not lost on Richard Milton who remarks in London’s Misery (1625) that, ‘There’s many of us do remember yet / It was so late, we can it not forget, / When first King James came here this Crown to sway, / How many by the plague were caught away, / And now the most of us persuaded be, / That such a sickness we again shall see’ (lines 357-62). In an age that attributed much to providence, such evidence could seem inevitable rather than coincidental, and God’s judgement on an ungodly reign.

Similar sentiments are echoed by John Davies in The Triumph of Death (1609), where providence is the architect of disaster. Describing the plague year of 1603 and its indifference to rank or social status, Davies points to the disease as the great equaliser: ‘A Deadly Murrain, [we are informed] with resistless force, / Runs through the Land and levels all with it!’ (lines 61-62). Richard Milton urges his readers to prostrate themselves before a merciful God in order ‘To pay a ransom for our deeds misdone’ (line 60). And in The Plague of Marseille (1720) Christopher Pitt too writes that ‘Repentance’ is the only way to ‘sheathe the Sword of an angry God’ (lines 281-82). Insofar as the medical profession is concerned Dekker and Middleton distinguish between those whose task it is to battle the disease and those who ‘grow up in ranks / And live by pecking Physic’s crumbs’ (lines 670-71). For these two playwrights the cure lies in the remedy of the soul and not the body.

A further and related context to consider here is the inevitable geographical site of plague poetry, that is to say London, a place that Davies describes as a ‘sink of Sin’ and the ‘Fount’ of the plague (line 316). The origins of the plague in The Triumph of Death lie in the material fabric of the city. Once the city has been consumed then the plague on goes to ravage as much of the country as possible before it runs its course, as Totaro rightfully notes in her introduction (23-26). As many commentators have written, early modern London did not lack critics. The capital is and has always been the pre-eminent administrative and cultural centre in England and the home of the monarchy and Parliament. Its ancient liberties were often the cause of bitter dispute between commoners and the monarchy. Indeed, its trained bands frustrated Charles I in his attempts to enter the city at Turnham Green in November 1642 during the course of the Civil War and formed the core of the Earl of Essex’s army throughout the conflict, as Michael Braddick has recently observed in his study of the Civil War, God’s Fury (2008).

The Great Plague of 1665 is represented by two poems published in 1666: William Austin’s The Anatomy of the Pestilence and Thomas Clark’s Meditations in my Confinement. In both of these selections the tumultuous and conflicted nature of seventeenth-century politics is everywhere apparent. This is an excellent edition in all respects. Totaro shines a valuable light on a body of verse that has been neglected and places it within a variety of contexts that are literary, medical, political, and theological, and her anthology will be a valuable resource for those in the field of literature and medicine and the medical humanities more generally.

David Walker, Northumbria University