- College Life
Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) came up to St John's in 1582 as a sizar scholar, performing menial tasks for other members of College in exchange for a reduced financial burden. He left John's in 1588 and set about making a name for himself as a writer; this name, however, was not always held in high regard, as Nashe’s economic situation did not improve enough to keep him from writing such works as The Choise of Valentines.
Not 'accorded the dignity of print' until 1899, the poem is subtitled 'The Merie Ballad of Nash His Dildo'; and it has a story to tell. To recount it in as brief and savoury a manner as possible: it is Valentine’s Day, and the poet seeks his beloved, only to find that owing to a shortage of funds she has been 'compel'd, for Sanctuarie, | To flye unto a house of venerie'. The poet visits said house and pays a tidy sum, in order that he might be brought to his 'gentle mistris Francis', who assures him of her fidelity to him in spite of her current straits. They commence to consummate their love, only for the poet to find the means of consummation unforthcoming; Francis's redoubling of her efforts is if anything overly successful, and the poet finds of a sudden that 'the well is drye that should refresh me'. At this stage one of the lovers – some inconsistency in the representation of direct speech makes it unclear, perhaps fittingly, which – produces the marital aid to which the subtitle alludes, and its praises are, at length, sung, and the poet's (and all men's) failings, at length, bemoaned.
The notes to the 1899 edition suggest that the 'Lord S.' to whom the poem is dedicated was Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (famously Shakespeare's patron and subject of many of the Sonnets). This inference might have been due to the (possibly non-lucrative) dedication of Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller to Southampton; it is now believed that the patron addressed in the Choise was Lord Strange (Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby; another patron to Shakespeare). Nashe was making some money from his writing, but writing this sort of work in the service of prurience might have felt closer to the semi-servitude of his days at St John’s than was entirely comfortable for him. Is the poem any sort of aesthetic or moral achievement? Is it even worth discussing except to dismiss or condemn?
Perhaps. In The Singularity of Thomas Nashe (1986), Stephen S. Hilliard writes that Nashe's poem, 'like much pornography, mechanizes sex and demeans women.' But one might question whether it (the poem) really does this. The accusation, if one can call it that, of mechanisation is fair enough to an extent, but it must be tempered by the fact that the tactic of mechanisation is partly the poem's subject, something mechanically reliable being portrayed as, sometimes, preferable to the unpredictability and occasional embarrassment of the biological equivalent.
As for being demeaning to women: yes, on one hand, the female character exists in the poem primarily as a sex object and in the name of fuelling the bawdy narrative. But then, so does the man; and the man, whom the subtitle invites us to consider as the poet and not as wholly fictional, is crucially not even a successful sex object. He, not she, is weak and disposable. The self-loathing that Nashe may well have felt over the financial circumstances leading him to compose the poem is inflicted upon his avatar: impotence begets (so to speak) impotence, and shameful urgency is born of shameful urgency. One might even imagine some contempt being directed towards the patron who could pay Nashe for any kind of poem but is specifically paying him for this, although Nashe's addresses to Lord S. are superficially all reverence:
My mynde once purg'd of such lasciuious witt,
With purifide words and hallowed verse,
Thy praises in large volumes shall rehearce,
That better maie thy grauer view befitt.
Meanewhile yett rests, you smile at what I write;
Or, for attempting, banish me your sight.
Nashe provides what people want and then presents this as a failing; he speaks of 'large volumes' of 'hallowed verse' as an aspiration hindered by his 'lasciuious witt' rather than as a financial impracticality. He is an exploited party who must act as if he were merely unworthy; a poet who can write a line like 'A knaue, that moues as light as leaues by winde' but must expend it on cheap sex comedy.
Relative, anyway, to its portrayal of men as utter financial and bodily failures, the poem’s representation of women and their sexuality borders on the celebratory; indeed, bearing in mind the rooting of 'dildo' in 'dyderian', 'to deceive, to cheat' (as Eric Partridge notes in Shakespeare’s Bawdy, his 1947 study of the period’s sexual swear words), one might note that Nashe's lover has not, even to save herself from financial ruin, been unfaithful (she says as much; why should we disbelieve her?); nor is the deceiver the dildo, but that for which it (more dependably) stands.
While feminism is hardly its business, then, misandry rather than misogyny is foremost in the poem's dealings, which may speak slightly in its favour. That St John's holds a copy of the 1899 printing (donated by Johnian mathematician Francis Puryer White) but not a far older manuscript copy is, perhaps, appropriate. The College (at which Nashe 'might have been a Fellow if I had would' [sic]) may wish to keep at arm’s length something of which its alumnus was probably not proud (although, as he notes, 'all men acte what I in speache declare'), while at the same time respecting the fact that in writing something disappointing Nashe was able to consider, amongst the prettie rysing wombs and loftie buttocks, a number of aspects of disappointment.
This article was contributed by Adam Crothers, Library Assistant. Adam’s articles about the College’s literary vestiges appear in PN Review and on the Johnian blog, and usually don’t involve this sort of thing.