Martin Parker: Ballads and Broadsides (10th May 2017)

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Next meeting: Wednesday 10th May / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Martin Parker was the most celebrated and famous balladeer of the seventeenth century. His extant corpus contains over eighty ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, and chapbooks, but it is hard to judge the true size of his canon due to the catastrophic survival rates of cheap seventeenth century texts, the incomplete record of everything that was published during this period, and because of a suspicion that his initials may have been misapplied to the works of less known writers in order to boost sales. His first ballad appeared in 1624, and tells the story of a Cornish murder, while the last text to bear his name was a chapbook entitled The Most Admirable History of that Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur, King of the Britaines, in 1660. Before 1660 the last entry in the Stationers’ Register to bear his name was a chapbook published in 1647. This thirteen-year silence coincided with a clampdown on ballads and balladeers by the Government, led by Captain Bethan; Parker is also believed to have died during this period, probably sometime in the early 1650s. A satirical elegy for Parker appears in 1656, within a book entitled Death in a New Dress, OR Sportive Funeral Elegies and references in the 1653 and 1654 editions of Merlinus Anonymous suggest that Parker had died.

It is suspected that Parker was an innkeeper of some kind due to references to this profession in both his own work and that of others. There a few references in other people’s work that Parker may become entangled with the law on a number of occasions. He was singled out for special attention in a puritanical petition, signed by 15000 people and delivered to Parliament in November 1640, which, among other things, said that Parker’s work was ‘in disgrace of Religion, to the increase of all vice, and withdrawing of people from reading, studying, and hearing the Word of God, and other good Bookes’.[1] Parker’s later work certainly contains strong royalist themes, which angered Puritans and earned him the title ‘The Prelates Poet’, not an uncommon insult for the King’s supporters at the time. He is thought to have taken over the running of the royalist newsbook Mercurius Melancholicus after its editor John Hackluyt was arrested and imprisoned.

Although primarily remembered as a balladeer, Parker was proficient in many different forms. His early work mainly concerned the ups and downs of young, married life, often with a rural setting, but he moved on to journalism and current affairs, royalist ballads and pamphlets, adapted old stories and legends into histories, and, on occasion, dabbled in serious poetry. We’re reading quite a broad selection of these different genres and forms to try and get a sense of the range of which Parker was capable. The texts are as follows:

Householde Talke (1629) – One of Parker’s earliest extant ballads. His early work is mainly pastoral and domestic, focusing on marriage and young – mainly rural – lovers. This particular ballad gives advice about jealousy.

The Rape of Philomela (1632) – This is a rendering of Ovid’s account of the rape of Philomela from his Metamorphoses. It is often regarded as Parker’s only extant attempt at ‘real’ poetry. It is prefaced by a few short poems from contemporaries praising the work.

A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632) – An account of the Robin Hood story, which places a strong emphasis on truth. Part of what could be called Parker’s English Heroes series, which include works on King Arthur, St George, and Guy of Warwick, though unfortunately the latter two are not extant. He is also credited with an adaption of the Valentine and Orson romance, of which only eleven lines have survived.

Britaines Honour (1640) – Parker was well known as a writer of current events, and seems to have been considered a generally reliable reporter. This ballad reports on the Battle of Newburn (1640), but is more focused on telling a story of heroism, weaved together with myth, and strong anti-Scottish feelings, not unusual in Parker. It is also a heavily royalist text. By this time Parker had become one of the premier royalist writers working in England.

The Poet’s Blind Mans Bough (1641) – This is the most personal of Parkers many works. It is a text that primarily hits back at critics of Parker and also bemoans the trend of anonymous publication.

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  1. Who do we think Parker was writing for? Do each of these texts speak to the same audience? Is there a consistent authorial voice?
  2. Is there humour at work in any of these text? If so, how does it work?
  3. Why is truth so important to Parker in many of his texts? How does truth work in the selection we have here?
  4. What is the purpose of the extended preface, including the complimentary poems, that proceed ‘The Rape of Philomela’? Do we agree with them?
  5. Is Parker’s a good translation of Ovid? How closely do we think Parker engaged with the Latin original?
  6. How does Parker engage with the legendary material he utilises? Is his Robin Hood what we expect from a Robin Hood text? How does the Galfridian myth enter into ‘Britaines Honour’?
  7. Are Parker’s politics on show in all of these texts? In which do they come out most strongly? Are they consistent?
  8. Parker employed many different forms and styles over the course of his career, how do each of the forms we’re looking at here affect the texts?
  9. What do we make of the woodcuts? Are they what we would expect from woodcuts of this time? Can they tell us anything about the texts?
  10. Do we think that Parker was a good writer?

[1] The Third Speech of the Lord George Digby, to the House of Commons, concerning Bishops, and the Citie Petition, the 9th of Febr: 1640