The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 26. Samuel Rowlands

Other writers were hardly less versatile than Dekker. Samuel Rowlands attempted every type of popular literature except essays and character sketches, which were no occupation for bread-winners. As Drayton, Nashe and Lodge had attracted attention by religious compositions, Rowlands began his career with The Betraying of Christ (1598). In this trifle, he produces fully-developed that polished flow of verse which is one of his contributions to the literature of his age. The other contribution, the witty portrayal of the “humours” of eccentricity and class spirit, is found in his next production, The Letting of Humours Blood in the Head-Vaine, which appeared in 1600. Latinised verse was now the fashion; so Rowlands gibbets the bad manners of Londoners under personalities: first, in classical epigrams, which give admirable glimpses of conduct, and then in satire of the school of Hall, in which we have more detailed portraits. Among others, we see the countryman filled with contempt for the citizen and led by his arrogance to commit absurd blunders; the censorious spirit, slovenly, poor and quarrelsome, pulling everyone’s reputation to pieces; and the two drunkards who strengthen each other in their vice by enumerating the benefits of wine after the manner of burlesque encomiums.

In 1602, Rowlands reverted to an older type in Tis Merrie when Gossips meete. The gay gossip of the alehouse had been for centuries a commonplace of popular literature, and Sir John Davies had brought something of that spirit into his “a wife widow and maid” in A Poetical Rapsody (1602). Rowlands’s poem shows us a middle-aged widow who has gathered from life a store of worldly wisdom and a connoisseur’s appreciation of burnt sack. She meets two acquaintances, a wife and a maiden, who are reluctantly induced to join her in the private room of a tavern. Claret is ordered, and the usual feminine conference on men begins. The value of the poem, however, does not consist in the egoistic views of these women, but in the dramatic development of their characters. The widow, a judge of ales and wine, is inclined to flaunt her independence; the wife is at first indifferent and preoccupied with domestic cares; the maid is timid and inclined to be shocked. But, as the wine percolates through their veins, they discuss old times and their present fortunes with the utmost freedom. When the conversation turns from dances to husbands, they talk faster and interrupt each other more frequently. Anon, sausages and sack are called for; even the maid begins to put in her say, while the widow talks so loudly that the eaves-dropping attendant bursts out laughing. The incensed lady delivers a voluble and incoherent reprimand, and they stagger down the stairs after a friendly competition as to who should pay the bill.

This brilliant sketch met with immediate popularity. Seven editions were called for during the century, and Rowlands now definitely abandoned standard literature. He turned his hand to coney-catching pamphlets and, trading on Greene’s reputation, entitled his tract Greenes Ghost haunting Coniecatchers, in which he contributes a few new facts to the subject, but, for the most part, fills his pages with picaresque anecdotes of farcical encounters and triumphs of mother wit. Then he combined the old idea of the dance of death with the new taste for type satire in Looke to it for Ile Stabbe ye (1604). Death is represented as threatening a number of typical wrongdoers, each of whom has his malpractices briefly characterised in two six-lined stanzas. Rowlands still writes the same clear smooth verse; but most of the characters had been the veriest commonplaces for a century. Yet there are a few interesting figures grouped under the heading of death’s vengeance, including the king who spills his subjects’ blood to enhance his own glory; the miser, now distinguished from the usurer; the husbandman who keeps almanacs to calculate the rainy weather and is never happy unless the price of grain is high; and the spendthirft, blinded to the dangers of the future, who neglects his family but is always “a good fellow to his friend.” In this poem, Death was employed merely as a figure-head; but, two years later, he produced a poem directly on that subject. For centuries, death, in popular imagination, had played a double part; on the one hand, as a gruesome monarch, on the other, as an antic or jester. Rowlands incorporates both these conceptions in the moral dialogue A terrible Battell betweene the two consumers of the whole world: Time and Death. Time and Death hold conference on the worldly-minded victims whom they have struck down in their sins, and review the brevity and temptations of life. The beginning of the poem has an almost Miltonic grandeur. Then, suddenly, the tone changes. Time comically complains that he is credited with many of Death’s escapades, and a dispute follows. Each claims to be the greater. Death scornfully insists that no man fears Time, while Time accuses Death of stabbing like a coward, and then compares his head to an oil-jar, his arms to a gardener’s rake, his legs to a pair of crane stilts and his voice to the hissing of a snake. After an interchange of even more outrageous insults, a reconciliation is effected.