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Alfred_noyesAlfred Noyes wrote a good deal, and in many genres. A poet, novelist, sci-fictioneer, essayist and pamphleteer, he was especially famous for his narrative poems – first of all the highly melodramatic The Highwayman.

Whether these poems have aged all that well is… er, open to debate – but I must confess a partiality for Noyes’s Tales of the Mermaid Tavern. Published in 1913, it’s a mostly blank verse affair, whose narrator stumbles into everybody’s dream…

Oh, right – into my dream: while taking a stroll about London and musing on history and poetry, the fellow falls through time, and finds himself a tapster at the Mermaid Tavern, in the 1590s, where he waits on customers like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Nashe, Raleigh…

Between a tankard of ale and an eel-pie, our hero gets to listen while the best of Elizabethan theatre argue and tell tales, trade songs and improvise. Sir Wat Raleigh spins sea yarns, Marlowe and Jonson playfully make a poaching Shakespeare into a sort of Robin Hood, they all read Greene’s true last words (much less nasty than the Groatsworth of Wit), Puritan Richard Bame eavesdrops on reckless Marlowe – of whose demise, in the end, the company hears from a sobbing Tom Nashe… NoyesToMI

And it is clear as day who Noyes’s hero is: a Promethean Kit Marlowe, all genius, fire and poetry – and stunningly handsome to boot. Poor Will Shakespeare never stands a chance – and soon loses centre-stage-

Oh – and this is all pre-Hotson: what happens in Deptford is a crime of passion over a doxy, and instead of Baines-the-Spy we get Bame-the-Puritan. Some day I’ll have to dig deeper into this combination of misspelled name and religious persuasion… Ziegler, Preston-Peabody, Noyes… how did they come across this version of the fellow?

That said, Tales of the Mermaid Tavern is one of those things that, like opera librettos and William Shakespeare Burton’s paintings – very much belong to a certain time, an a certain way of romanticising history. Still, bearing that in mind, it makes for picturesque reading. I think it has a saving grace in the bitterish slant to the idealised Elizabethan era. The colours may be those of a toy-theatre – and yet, “We like to imagine it like this,” Noyes seems to whisper, “But let’s not forget that like this was dangerous and full of shadows.”

Should you be curious TotMT can be found on Internet Archive.

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