The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 6. Rise of Formal Satire

But this brilliant and felicitous commentary on contemporary London was by no means uninfected by the contentious spirit of the age. The city was still echoing with the Marprelate controversy, which had been suppressed at the height of the conflict. But the public had not lost their taste for vituperative literature, and Nashe, foreseeing opportunities for “copy,” had advertised himself in Pierce Penilesse as a professional controversialist. In this capacity, he undoubtedly aspired to imitate Pietro Aretino, who held all Italy at bay from his one refuge in Venice (1527–57). Nashe, in order to be sure of rousing an antagonist, followed his challenge by a personal attack on the two Harveys, who had already crossed swords with him, and a “flyting” at once began. In studying this controversy, it must be remembered that literary duels, quite apart from personal animosity, had been a quasi-academic tradition since the days of the medieval Serventois and Jeupartis. Dunbar, Kennedy, Montgomerie, Churchyard, Skelton, Alexander Barclay, Lily the grammarian, James V, David Lyndsay and Stewart had taken part in “flytings.” But both Nashe and Harvey were probably more influenced by the classical scholars of the renascence. Beside Aretino, Poggio had given models of vituperative skill against Felix Anti-papa, Filelfo Valla and Petrarch. Julius Caesar Scaliger and Étienne Dolet had both attacked Erasmus with the vilest scurrility; and, lastly, Cicero, Harvey’s supreme authority, had proved a past master in the art of invective against the living and had not spared the dead. Personal resentment was certainly a motive in the Harvey-Nashe controversy; but private animosity was merged in the class hatred which the university nourished against the literary adventurers of London.

Nashe’s Apologie of Pierce Pennylesse marks a new stage in the art of personal abuse. Martin Marprelate had written in the style of a boisterous monologue, in which his arguments were enlivened by parentheses, ejaculations and puns. Nashe, undoubtedly his imitator, cultivates the same torrential and eccentric eloquence, but hardly attempts to refute his adversary. He merely uses him as a canvas on which to display his brilliant ingenuity. He invents amazing terms of vituperation, whose force is to be found in their imagery rather than imputation. Harvey is a “mud-born bubble,” a “bladder of pride newe blowne,” a “cotquean and scrattop of scoldes,” a “lumpish leaden-heeld letter-dauber,” “a mote-catching carper.” Sometimes, his antagonist becomes the occasion for notes and observations in which the original subject is lost sight of, as in his digression on Roman satire, or on the adaptability of the hexameter to English. Such exuberant fertility of fancy and expression was primarily Nashe’s innate gift. But his unceasing efforts at paronomasia betray the influence of such Italian Latinists as Guarino, and his affectation of figurative paraphrase is, in its essence of the kind which the Theophrastians made fashionable a few years later. But there are other passages in which his imaginative sarcasm overreaches itself and collapses in mere buffoonery.

Harvey retaliated with Pierces Supererogation. But the reply remained unanswered, since Nashe now came forward as a religious reformer in Christs Teares over Jerusalem (1593), to which he prefixed a declaration of peace and goodwill to all men. Such sudden conversions were not uncommon in an age of conflict between the traditions of medieval Christianity and the Graeco-Oriental morality advocated by the classics of the silver age. Gosson and Rankins both wrote plays before condemning the immorality of the stage; Anthony Munday is alleged to have written A Ballad against Plays; John Marston followed the production of an erotic poem with an attack on licentious verse; R. Brathwaite, after playing with the toys of fancy, published The Prodigals Teares: or His fare-well to Vanity (1614); and both Dekker and Rowlands unexpectedly appear in the guise of missionaries. As we have seen in the case of Greene, the ideals of ancient Rome and of renascent Italy were a treacherous guide among the temptations of London, and but a sorry consolation in times of poverty and pestilence. But the taste of the reading public must have chiefly weighed with these bread-winners. The lower classes loved the spectacle of a stricken conscience, even in their street ballads, and the ever-increasing sect of puritans must, by now, have formed a body of opinion difficult to resist. The booklet begins with a long paraphrase of Christ’s prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem. Then follows an account of its fulfilment, drawn from Joseph Ben Gorion. But it is easy to see that the narrative is coloured by a national sense of uneasiness. The signs and tokens which foreshadowed the destruction of the holy city are like the broadside prodigies which were circulating throughout England, and the horrors of the siege recalled the downfall of Antwerp, still fresh in men’s minds. Nashe pointed to the ruin of Jerusalem as an object-lesson for London, whose sins, he cried, were no less ripe for judgment. Thus he introduces an arraignment of city life.

The transformation of society from an aristocracy based on the subjection of the masses to a monarchy based on the balance of classes was being accompanied by the development of commerce and the diffusion of knowledge. The age offered many more prizes to wit, and life in London became a struggle for self-advancement. Such a period of transition inevitably bred abuses. Men and women did not scruple about the means they employed to push their fortunes. The successful spared no ostentation which might command the respect of their fellows, while the unsuccessful were filled with envy and discontent. Immorality increased in imitation of Italy, or as a reaction from the restraints of the medieval church. Finally, in this expansion of the intellectual and social world, many found the faith of their ancestors insufficient, and turned to atheism. Such was the society which Nashe denounced in the last part of Christs Teares. The style is still vigorous, but it has lost its exuberant originality and, in places, approximates to pulpit oratory. There are a few touches of Nashe’s irresistible satire and an exposure of London stews unparalleled in English literature. But his attitude is that of a Tudor churchman. Like Latimer, he anathematises pride as the fundamental vice of the strenuous, ambitious city life. Like Crowley, he designates all the necessary and accidental abuses of competition as a violation of the Biblical law to love one another. But what the booklet loses in spirit, it gains in thoughtfulness. It is largely an attempt to examine the social sentiments. Avarice, extortion, vainglory, atheism, discontent, contention, disdain, love of “gorgeous attyre,” delicacy (worldliness), lust or luxury and sloth are all anatomised and all traced back to pride. In this method of analysis and synthesis, Nashe evolves a literary process hardly removed from the essay. Each sin forms a theme of its own, introduced by a definition. Thus,

  • vaine glory is any excessive pride or delight which we take in things unnecessary; much of the nature is it of ambition but it is not so dangerous or conversant about so great matters as ambition. It is (as I may call it) the froth and seething up of ambition.
  • This play of thought and fancy on familiar ideas, already noticeable in The Anatomie of Absurditie, illustrates a habit of mind made familiar to us by Bacon and his school.

    But Nashe was not destined to create the essay. He had, indeed, the sympathy with daily life, the knowledge of character, and the familiarity with classical wisdom necessary to cultivate this genre. But he had also to earn his bread and pay his debts. He could not distil his philosophy into a volume of detached counsels and reflections, which might slowly win its way. So he continued to squander his wit, learning and experience in pamphlets “botched up and compyled” on the sensations of the moment.

    Thus, in his next production, reflections on Turkey, Iceland, physiognomy, consumption and Camden hurtle one another in a counterblast to dream-superstitions. Europe, at this moment, was agitated with the belief that the devil was regaining his control over man. His handiwork was being discovered everywhere; old women were witches, cats were spirits or transfigured men, dreams were messages from hell. The report of a gentleman, who died after experiencing seven fantastic visions, had just reawakened Englishmen’s alarm at the unseen perils of sleep and darkness. Nashe seized this opportunity to compose the Terrors of the Night. At this time, demonology belonged to the realms of theological disquisition. Even R. Scot had not escaped the academic atmosphere, and G. Gifford and H. Holland had recently delivered themselves of treatises unutterably scholastic. It is a striking illustration of the vitality of popular literature that Nashe discovered how to burst the bubble of these superstitions by sound common sense and sympathetic insight into human nature. He claims that one thought of faith will put to flight all the powers of evil, and answers with a volley of ridicule the dogma of St. Chrysostom that the devil can multiply himself indefinitely. He quotes history to prove that dreams seldom or never come true unless they are direct intimations from God; and he refutes the belief in astrologers from his own experience of their careers. Most of them, he declares, began as apothecaries’ apprentices and dogleeches, who used to impose on rustics with ointments and syrups made of toasted cheese and candle ends. By and bye, some needy gallant hears of their practices and introduces them to a nobleman on condition of sharing the profits. Thus, they make their way through the world, sometimes rising by their counterfeit art to the position of privy councillor. He disposes of the mystery of dreams, explaining them as after-effects of the day’s activity; “echoes of our conceipts,” often coloured by sensations felt in sleep, so that the sound of a dog’s bark suggests the “complaint of damned ghosts” in hell, and “he that is spiced wyth the gowte or the dropsie” dreams of fetters and manacles. This theory had already been outlined by Scot, but Nashe surpasses the older controversialist when he describes the moral terrors of the night. Not only does a guilty conscience breed “superstitions as good as an hundred furies,” but the sorrows and anxieties of life have special power, as Bullein had pointed out, in the loneliness and gloom of sleep-time.

    But Nashe was never again to approach so near the high level of a moralist. Some more skirmishing took place between him and Gabriel Harvey in the autumn of 1593 and in 1594. And then, in 1596, he produced Have with you to Saffron-Walden, or, Gabriell Harveys Hunt is up.

    This piece of invective is unique in English literature, and it exhausts the literary resources of the age. To multiply his ridicule and give scope to his digressions, he borrowed from comedy and cast the lampoon into the form of a tetralogue, in which four speakers contribute to criticise Harvey’s style and to make merry over his humble origin. Then ensues a burlesque biography of the doctor. His conception and birth are narrated in the manner of Rabelais, and his academic character is travestied on the model of Pedantius. Nashe creates a truly infernal picture of the university scholar, absorbed in his own spite:

  • In the deadest season that might bee, hee lying in the ragingest furie of the last plague, when there dyde above 1600 a week in London, ink-squittering and printing against me at Wolfes in Powles churchyard.
  • Neither Nashe nor anyone else expected such accusations to be taken seriously. But the tract deserves a place in permanent literature. It is a saturnalia of invective such as only the age could produce. Nor must we regard this intellect and ingenuity as altogether wasted in a barren attempt to defame a fellow-creature. The impeachment was composed for a critical audience, and, in the effort to attain rhetorical effect, the art of expression was perceptibly enlarged. Among other features, there is a full-length portrait of Harvey, executed with a thoroughness of detail which Mme. de Scudéry might have envied, and the character of an intelligencer which the Overbury collection never surpassed.

    Nashe passed through two years of adversity, and then reappeared in 1599 with Lenten Stuffe. This pamphlet is an ambitious attempt to “wring juice out of a flint”: to heighten his humour by extracting it from unproductive material, and he succeeds in uniting many of the lighter types of prose literature in a single pamphlet. He begins by introducing a personal note telling the public of his literary difficulties and financial embarrassments. These led him to leave London. In return for the hospitality which he enjoyed at Yarmouth, he recounts the history of that town (drawn from Camden) in a fine spirit of pageantry, trumpeting its origin and development “as I have scrapped out of worm-eaten Parchments.” He then treats his readers to a specimen of burlesque encomium, such as the Romans, Italians and especially the German anti-Grobianists, had made popular, working up an eulogy on the herring fisheries, not forgetting their services to Lent (hence the title). The Prayse of the Red Herring soon develops into a kind of jest-book. But the tales and anecdotes no longer turn on the humiliation of monks or the “quicke answers” of wenches. Nashe wittily parodies the legends of antiquity and adapts them to the glorification of this homely fish. How the fable of Midas, who turned everything to gold, originated from the fact that he ate a red herring. How Leander and Hero (after a burlesque account of their adventures, in Nashe’s best manner) were converted into fish—the youth to a ling, the maiden to a Cadwallader herring and the old nurse, who had a sharp temper, into the mustard which always accompanies them at table. The curing of the herring was discovered in a manner suggestive of Charles Lamb’s roast pig, and the first red herring was sold to the pope by methods reminiscent of the sibyl’s sale of the prophetic books.

    But, besides a sense of the romance of history, and an ingenious appropriation of classical lore, there is an unmistakable love for the sea and sympathy with the rough, simple, life of seamen. In one place, he tells how “boystrous woolpacks of ridged tides came rowling in.” Again, he describes the cobbles which skim “flightswift thorow the glassy fieldes of Thetis as if it were the land of yce, and sliding over the boiling desert so earely and never bruise one bubble of it.” And he talks of “these frostbitten crabtree faced lads, spunne out of the hards of the towe.”

    Yet, Lenten Stuffe never enjoyed the popularity of Pierce Penilesse. With all its cleverness and narrative power, the tract did not gratify the Londoner’s interest in city life. This taste for realistic satire and humour continually increased and tended every year to number more educated men within its ranks. At the same time, court circles began to grow weary of Euphuism, and to prefer discussing their fellow-creatures rather than indulging in the apostrophes and soliloquies of prose romances or such poems as Ovid’s Elegies and Venus and Adonis. These two elements combined to form an upper stratum in the general reading public. “Select” persons lived in the same city as ordinary members of the middle classes, and were attracted by the same phenomena. But they were more fastidiously critical, and they looked more uncompromisingly for the stamp of classicism, in any publication of which they were to approve. Even Sir John Harington’s Rabelaisian descents into the secrets of cloacinean burlesque (1596) are illuminated with bookish allusions and classical quotations. The school of pamphleteers who had formerly secured patronage with erotic poetry now followed, perforce, the new tendency. Thomas Lodge set the example, in 1595, by producing a slim volume of verse eclogues and satires, and, with a show of self-assertion made fashionable by Nashe, he entitled the venture A Fig for Momus.

    Verse satire had flourished throughout the sixteenth century, and, in many instances, developed individual portraiture under the guise of types. Within the last fifty years, Crowley’s One and Thirty Epigrams (1550), Bansley’s Pryde and Abuse of Women (1550), Hake’s Newes out of Poules Churcheyarde (1567) and Gosson’s Quippes for Upstart Gentlewomen (1596) had covered the most prominent abuses of the time and kept pace with the growing spirit of puritan censoriousness. But Lodge ignored their example and revived the new genre which Wyatt had introduced, almost unobserved, into English literature: the avowed imitation and occasional paraphrase of classical models. He chose Horace for his satirical prototype; but, attempting to copy the Roman’s genial discursiveness, he merely gave the public ten dull, ill-constructed satires and epistles, mingled with a few Vergilian eclogues. And yet A Fig for Momus is important. Wyatt was before his time and, moreover, confined his animadversions to the court, in a difficult metre borrowed from the Italian. Lodge’s production is as miscellaneous and bookish as a volume of essays. Moreover, he made current the use of pseudonymous allusion, and, while Gascoigne had rather unsuccessfully experimented in blank verse, he demonstrated that classical satire could be most effectively written in the decasyllabic couplet.