Literature

A Short Analysis of Thomas Dekker’s ‘Golden Slumbers’

Memorably used by The Beatles as the lyrics for their song of the same name on the Abbey Road LP, ‘Golden Slumbers’ is a lullaby from Thomas Dekker’s 1603 play Patient Grissel, written with Henry Chettle and William Haughton. This is one of the most soothing short Renaissance poems – and perhaps the best-known Renaissance lullaby, or ‘cradle song’, out there.

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

Care is heavy, therefore sleep you,
You are care, and care must keep you;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

Patient Grissel, from which ‘Golden Slumbers’ is taken, was actually written by by Thomas Dekker with Henry Chettle and William Haughton. Although it was first printed in 1603, Philip Henslowe mentions it in his diary in December 1599. The play is based on the story of ‘patient Griselda’, a tale told in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and which Chaucer, in turn, lifted from Boccaccio. As well as co-writing Patient Grissel, Dekker also contributed to a number of other plays, although he is best remembered for the solo-authored play The Shoemaker’s Holiday. He also wrote the Plague Pamphlets, which are valuable social records of life in Jacobean England while the plague was regularly breaking out in London.

‘Golden Slumbers’ is a miniature verbal picture of contentedness in sleep: ‘golden’ suggests the richness but also rareness of a good sleep, with the tenderness of these slumbers kissing the baby’s eyes implying love and protection, and the softness of being lulled to sleep. It’s a fine lullaby: it’s easy to see why the Beatles, or Paul McCartney to be more precise, chose to adapt the words from Dekker’s poem (although strictly, that should be Dekker, Chettle, and Haughton’s poem).

But how did McCartney come to know of Dekker’s poem (or song)? Dekker wasn’t fashionable or widely read until quite recently, and Patient Grissel is not a classic or well-known play by any means. But McCartney didn’t need to read the play. ‘Golden Slumbers’ was reprinted in a nineteenth-century songbook, and that is how people in the twentieth century came to it: through anthologies and songbooks.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best Poems about Sleep | Interesting Literature

  2. so interesting –

  3. Thank you very much for that! It would have never occurred to me even to seek the source of the lyrics. I like to learn something new and unexpected every day, and this was today’s new fact!

  4. My mother sang this as a lullaby to my sister & I back in late 1940s. So pleased to recall the song & sweet memories as well as learning something of it’s origins.