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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pierce Penniless

Thanks are due to the Penguin English Library for reprinting a generous selection of Nashe in The Unfortunate Traveller and other works, edited and introduced by J. B. Steane. Page references in parentheses are to that edition. Numbers in brackets are endnotes.

I, like many, had known Thomas Nashe only as the author of The Unfortunate Traveller, the picaresque [1] Elizabethan novel, so rich in violence that gratuitous suffering becomes a theme in itself. [2] This book has long been a favorite; it is so lively and colloquial, precise and opinionated, so full of antique humor and ebullient language. The same qualities are evident in his other works. Few today will take an interest in the controversies behind the partisan pamphleteering that made his name in his own time when he was hired, as were Lyly and Greene, to defend the Established Church against the attacks of reformers whose essays from underground presses used the name Martin Marprelate.

Some things, however, have not changed in four hundred years. Having lived for decades below the poverty line, I found his Pierce Penniless, in which the writer complains of poetry and scholarship’s going unrewarded while “base men” prosper, more relevant to my own condition. “A scrivener,” he writes, is “better paid for an obligation, than a scholar for the best poem he can make,” and in general “those that deserve best” are “kept under by dunces.” (54-55) Frustrated and desperate, he prepares a “supplication” to the devil, through his representative, the Knight of the Post (a professional perjurer), seeking better treatment.

On this pretext, Nashe constructs a panorama of the Seven Deadly Sins, all chatty and learned and poetic and effervescently witty, from which he feels free to diverge on the least excuse or none. Certain of these bypaths have attracted much interest, in particular, the concluding one in defense of the drama, in which theater is in general defended as the least harmful of the vices men pursue and thus deserving of toleration. Among the other excurses are a discussion of demonology which in its curious inquiry recalled Burton to me and an amusing account of national ethnic stereotypes: the “cunning, proud” Italian, the Frenchman “wholly proud of deceivable courtship,” the Danes “the most gross and senseless proud dolts.” (73-74)

In contrast to a moralistic cataloguer of sins, Nashe is always an entertainer. On the whole he pursues the classic line of generating comedy in Frye’s low-mimetic mode. [3] In this inversion of tragic pity and fear, the reader at once is comforted by superiority to the sinners portrayed and mildly troubled that each is only an exaggeration of himself, and sometimes very little exaggerated.

Nashe is brilliant at phrases and jokes and sudden scholarly citations. He is not as good at larger structures. Just as the incidents experienced by the picaro often lack a significant development one from another and may be shifted about like identical beads on a string (the same is true of classic Chinese novels like Water Margin), Nashe’s expositions are marvels of teeming activity. Only when the readers steps back to reconsider is it clear that he has wandered through the piece, going now this way and now that. Yet one fails to notice or, at any rate, to be disappointed because every moment was wholly absorbing and, in its modest way, rewarding. Katastases are delivered with the regularity of a stand-up comedian’s, though Nashe’s punch-lines are of the angry, biting kind, far closer the lacerated heart of Dean Swift than the cosmic belly laugh of Rabelais. The target shifts its targets in a play of depth from satire on an individual man to fashions and abuses of the powerful of his own day, and more generally to human failings in general and finally to the absurdity of life itself.

Thus, he wisely chooses the schematic design of the deadly sins for Pierce Penniless, unable to resist a few accretions on the fore and aft ends. The topic, a common theme for homilies, provides an altogether medieval setting for this decidedly Renaissance work. Because the overall design is often loose, I shall focus on a single passage, chosen very nearly at random. Indeed, given the book’s nature, one can only pass from one rhetorical figure, one joke or citation, one wry partisan dart to the next.

When Nashe, after discussing overeating, says he will “descend” to a “Complaint of Drunkenness,” the reader feels he is the average Christian being conducted like Dante on a tour of Hell. (104-105) But the topic is no sooner mentioned, than it is blamed on the Dutch whom English military forces had supported in 1585 against Habsburg rule. [4] In another few sentences, one set of foreigners is forgotten, and Nashe is blaming instead the social-climbing cavalier, a “frenchified” tipsy miles gloriosus. The moves from an individual focus to a national one to the universal is smooth and rapid enough to bring the reader along unquestioning.

The imagery is vivid and realistic. Every term is multiplied in a sort of slightly dilute Euphuism. [5] A drunk is one who may be seen “wallowing in the streets or “sleeping under the board.” “We” [that is, the proper people] would “spit at him.” But the image is yet insufficient – we would spit at him “as a toad” and call him a “swine.” Nashe spouts slang and vogue expressions to describe barroom activities: one must drink “super nagulum, carouse the hunter’s hoop, quaff upsey freze cross, with healths, gloves, mumps, frolics, and a thousand such domineering inventions.”

The finale sentence, so grand a crescendo of rhetoric as to deserve quoting in whole, ends in a soft elegiac tone appropriate to all human folly. “Let him be indued with never so many virtues, and have as goodly proportion and favour as nature can bestow upon a man, yet if he be thirsty after his own destruction, and hath no joy or comfort but when he is drowning his soul in a gallon pot, that one beastly imperfection will utterly obscure all that is commendable in him, and all his good qualities sink like lead down to the bottom of his carousing cups, where they will lie like lees and dregs, dead and unregarded of any man.”

Nashe is always bobbing in an ocean of words with neither beginning nor end, and so it is that he can conclude his work only by willfully dropping the curtain, both the curtain of his drama and that which conceals the author as Oz: “And so I break off this endless argument of speech abruptly.” (145)

1. In spite of the strictures of Nashe’s worthy editor McKerrow and his perceptive critic Hibbard to whom the term picaresque is inappropriate.

2. According to Steane the narrative is “a procession of cruelties” (31).

3. Frye was only following Aristotle here for whom comedy was “an imitation of inferior people,” though for Aristotle the economically and the morally low were closely associated. (Poetics 1449a32)

4. The support of the Dutch was part of the intermittent Anglo-Spanish War. Nashe had already named Philip of Spain “as Great an Enemy to mankind as the Devil.” (81)

5. The practice had been approved by medieval critics under the name amplificatio.

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