Thomas Nashe 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...
(The entire section is 2009 words.)