Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) the satirical pamphleteer, who was wont to use language as a cudgel in a broad prose style, seldom disciplined himself to the more delicate work of writing poetry. Both his temperament and his pocketbook directed him to the freer and more profitable form of pamphlet prose. It is this prose that made his reputation, but Nashe did write poems, mostly lyrical in the manner of his time. No originator in poetic style, Nashe followed the lead of such worthy predecessors as Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe.
Nashe’s interest in poetry was not slight. In typical Renaissance fashion, he believed poetry to be the highest form of moral philosophy. Following Sidney, he insisted that the best poetry is based on scholarship and devotion to detail. Not only does poetry, in his perception, encourage virtue and discourage vice, but also it “cleanses” the language of barbarisms and makes the “vulgar sort” in London adopt a more pleasing manner of speech. Because he loved good poetry and saw the moral and aesthetic value of it, Nashe condemned the “ballad mongers,” who abused the ears and sensitivities of the gentlefolk of England. To him, the ballad writers were “common pamfletters” whose lack of learning and lust for money were responsible for littering the streets with the garbage of their ballads—a strange reaction for a man who was himself a notable writer of pamphlets. For the learned poetry of Western culture, Nashe had the highest appreciation.
Nashe’s own poetic efforts are often placed in the context of his prose works, as if he were setting jewels among the coarser material, as did George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, Thomas Deloney, and others. Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell, “The Four Letters Confuted,” and The Unfortunate Traveller all have poems sprinkled here and there. The play Summer’s Last Will and Testament, itself written in quite acceptable blank verse, has several lyrics of some interest scattered throughout. Nashe’s shorter poetic efforts are almost equally divided between sonnets and lyrical poems. The longer The Choise of Valentines is a narrative in the erotic style of Ovid.
Among Nashe’s poems are six sonnets, two of which may be said to be parodies of the form. Each is placed within a longer work, where its individual purpose is relevant to the themes of that work. Most of the sonnets are in the English form, containing three quatrains and a concluding couplet. Following the lead of the earl of Surrey (who is, indeed, the putative author of the two sonnets to Geraldine in The Unfortunate Traveller), Nashe uses a concluding couplet in each of his sonnets, including “To the Right Honorable the lord S.,” which in other respects (as in the division into octave and sestet rhyming abbaabba, cdcdee) is closer to the Italian form.
In his first sonnet, “Perusing yesternight, with idle eyes,” Nashe pauses at the end of Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell to praise the lord Amyntas, whom Edmund Spenser had neglected in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). In “Perusing yesternight, with idle eyes,” the famous poem by Spenser, Nashe had turned to the end of the poem to find sonnets addressed to “sundry Nobles.” Nashe uses the three quatrains to rehearse the problem: He read the poem, found the sonnets addressed to the nobles, and wondered why Spenser had left out “thy memory.” In an excellent use of the concluding couplet in this form, he decides that Spenser must have omitted praise of Amyntas because “few words could not comprise thy fame.”
If “Perusing yesternight, with idle eyes” is in the tradition of using the sonnet to praise, Nashe’s second sonnet, “Were there no warres,” is not. Concluding his prose attack on Gabriel Harvey in “The Four Letters Confuted,” this sonnet looks forward to John Milton rather than backward to Petrarch. Here Nashe promises Harvey constant warfare. Harvey had suggested that he would like to call off the battle, but in so doing he had delivered a few verbal blows to Nashe. To the request for a truce, Nashe responds with a poetic “no!” Again using the three quatrains to deliver his message, the poet calls for “Vncessant warres with waspes and droanes,” announces that revenge is an endless muse, and says that he will gain his reputation by attacking “this duns.” His couplet effectively concludes by promising that his next work will be of an extraordinary type.
The next two sonnets may be thought of as parodies of the Petrarchan style and of the medieval romance generally. Nashe, like his creation Jack Wilton, had little use for the unrealistic in love, war, or any aspect of life. The exaggerated praise of women in the Petrarchan tradition sounded as false to him as it did to Shakespeare and to the later writers of anti-Petrarchan verse. Both “If I must die” and “Faire roome, the presence of sweet beauty’s pride,” found in The Unfortunate Traveller, are supposedly written by the lovesick Surrey to his absent love, Geraldine. Both poems are close enough to the real Surrey’s own sonnets to ring true, but just ridiculous enough to be seen clearly as parodies.
The first is addressed to the woman Diamante, whom Surrey mistakes for Geraldine. The dying Surrey requests that his mistress suck out his breath, stab him with her tongue, crush him with her embrace, burn him with her eyes, and strangle him with her hair. In “Faire roome, the presence of sweet beauty’s pride,” Surrey, having visited Geraldine’s room in Florence, addresses the room. He will worship the room, with which neither the chambers of heaven nor lightning can compare. No one, he concludes, can see heaven unless he meditates on the room.
Such romantic nonsense held no attraction for Jack or for Nashe. Jack makes fun of “suchlike rhymes” which lovers use to “assault” women: “A holy requiem to their souls that think to woo women with riddles.” Jack, a much more realistic man, wins the favour of Diamante with a plain table.
The final two sonnets are also anti-Petrarchan in content. Addressed to a would-be patron to whom he dedicated The Choise of Valentines, both “To the Right Honorable the lord S.” and “Thus hath my penne presum’d to please” ask pardon for presuming to address an overtly pornographic poem to a “sweete flower of matchless poetrie.” In the octave of the former, Nashe excuses himself by declaring that he merely writes about what men really do. In the sestet, he proudly asserts that everyone can write Petrarchan love poems, full of “complaints and praises.” No one, however, has written successfully of “loves pleasures” in his time—except, the implication is, him.
Nashe’s earliest two lyrics, although they are very different in content, are each in four stanzas of six lines of iambic pentameter. The rhyme in each case is ababcc. The later songs, those in Summer’s Last Will and Testament, are in couplets and (in one case) tercets. Except for “Song: Spring, the sweete spring,” all the lyrics are laments.
The most personal of the lyrics is “Why ist damnation,” printed on the first page of Nashe’s famous pamphlet Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell. Trying to gain prosperity and failing, Nashe “resolved in verse to paint forth my passion.” In a logical progression, the poet first considers suicide (“Why ist damnation to dispaire anddie”) but decides against it for his soul’s safety. He then determines that in England wit and scholarship are useless. He asks God’s forgiveness for his low mood, but despairs because he has no friends. Finally, he bids adieu to England as “unkinde, where skill is nothing woorth.”
“All Soul, no earthly flesh,” Nashe’s second lyric, is more like the anti-Petrarchan sonnets that Nashe has the earl of Surrey write in The Unfortunate Traveller than it is like the other lyrics. Full of exaggerated comparisons (Geraldine is “pure soul,” “pure gold”), comic images (his spirit will perch upon “hir silver breasts”), and conventional conceits (stars, sun, and dew take their worth from her), the poem is as far from Nashe as is John Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1579).
In Summer’s Last Will and Testament, Nashe includes four major lyrics and several minor ones. Some of the lyrics are cheery “Song: Spring, the sweete spring,” “Song: Trip and goe,” and “Song: Merry, merry, merry,” for example. The general mood of the poems is sad, however, as the subject of the whole work would dictate: the death of summer. In watching summer die, readers, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Margaret, see themselves. “Song: Fayre Summer droops” is a conventional lament on the passing of summer. Written in heroic couplets, the poem uses alliteration successfully in the last stanza to bring the song to a solid conclusion. “Song: Autumn Hath all the Summer’s Fruitfull Treasure,” also in heroic couplets, continues the theme of lament with lines using effective repetition (“Short dayes, sharpe dayes, long nights come on a pace”). Here, Nashe turns more directly to what was perhaps his central theme in the longer work: man’s weakness in face of natural elements. The refrain, repeated at the end of each of the two stanzas, is “From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.”
It was surely fear of the plague and of humanity’s frailty in general that led Nashe to write the best of his lyrics, “Song: Adieu, farewell earths blisse,” sung to the dying Summer by Will Summer. Nashe recognizes in the refrain that follows each of the six stanzas that he is sick, he must die, and he prays: “Lord, have mercy on us.”
In a logical development, Nashe first introduces the theme of Everyman: “Fond are lifes lustful ioyes.” In succeeding stanzas, he develops each of the “lustfull ioyes” inturn.”Rich men” are warned not to trust in their wealth, “Beauty” is revealed as transitory, “Strength” is pictured surrendering to the grave, and “Wit” is useless to dissuade Hell’s executioner. In a very specific, orderly manner and in spare iambic trimeter lines, Nashe presents humankind’s death lament and prayer for mercy. One stanza will show the strength of the whole poem:
Beauty is but a flowre,
Which wrinckles will deuoure,
Brightnesse falls from the ayre,
Queenes have died yong and faire,
Dust hath closed Helens eye.
I am sick, I must dye:
Lord, have mercy on vs.
The Choise of Valentines
Nashe’s last poem is by far his longest. The Choise of Valentines is an erotic narrative poem in heroic couplets running to more than three hundred lines. With the kind of specificity that one would expect from the author of The Unfortunate Traveller, Nashe tells of the visit of the young man Tomalin to a brothel in search of his valentine, “gentlemistris Francis.” Tomalin’s detailed exploration of the woman’s anatomical charms, his unexpected loss of sexual potency, and her announced preference for a dildo all combine to present an Ovidian erotic mythological poem of the type popular in Elizabethan England. Nashe’s poem must, however, be set off from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593) and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598), which emphasize the mythological more than the erotic. Nashe clearly emphasizes the erotic, almost to the exclusion of the mythological. Why not? he seems to say in the dedicatory sonnet accompanying the poem: Ovid was his guide, and “Ouids wanton Muse did not offend.”
Nowhere, with the exception of the excellent “Song: Adieu, farewell earths blisse,” does Nashe rise to the heights of his greatest contemporaries, Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. In that poem, in the sonnet “Were there no warres,” and in perhaps one or two other poems his Muse is sufficiently shaken into consciousness by the poet’s interest in the subject. The remainder of Nashe’s poetry is the work of an excellent craftsperson who is playing with form and language.
Plays: Dido, Queen of Carthage, pr. c. 1586 1587 (with Christopher Marlowe); Summer’s Last Will and Testament, pr. 1592; The Isle of Dogs, pr. 1597 (with BenJonson; no longer extant).
Nonfiction: The Anatomie of Absurditie, 1589; Preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon, 1589; An Almond for a Parrat, 1590; Preface to Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, 1591; Preface to Robert Greene’s A Quip for an Upstart Courtier, 1592; Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem, 1593;The Terrors of the Night, 1594; Have with You to Saffron Walden, 1596; Nashe’s Lenten Stuffe, 1599.
Miscellaneous: Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell, 1592 (prose and poetry); Strange News of the Intercepting of Certain Letters, 1592 (prose and poetry; also known as The Four Letters Confuted);The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton, 1594 (prose and poetry).
Crewe, Jonathan V. Unredeemed Rhetoric: Thomas Nashe and the Scandal of Authorship. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Helgerson, Richard. The Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Hilliard, Stephen S. The Singularity of Thomas Nashe. Lincoln: University of NebraskaPress, 1986.
Holbrook, Peter. Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare. Cranbury, N. J. : Associated University Presses, 1994.
Hutson, Lorna. Thomas Nashe in Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
McGinn, Donald J. Thomas Nashe. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe. London: Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1984.
Nielson, James. Unread Herrings: Thomas Nashe and the Prosaics of the Real. NewYork: Peter Lang, 1993.