Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
Thomas Nashe (1567–1601)
 
[Thomas Nash or Nashe was the son of a clergyman, and born at Lowestoft in 1567. In his fifteenth or sixteenth year he entered at St. John’s College, Cambridge, at that time in intellectual activity the foremost college in the university. Here he resided for seven years “lacking a quarter,” taking his B.A., but, for some undiscovered reason, not his M.A., degree. In 1589 he was in London, and in print. Very soon afterwards he had become a leader of the Anti-Martinists in the famous Mar-Prelate Controversy, though his share in it has been overstated. Mixed up with this was his private quarrel with Gabriel Harvey, in which Nash took up the cudgels for his dead friend Greene, nor laid them down for seven years. Little is known of his personal life, except that in 1597 he was put in prison on account of some passages in his play, The Isle of Dogs. He was busily employed with his pen till his death, which occurred in 1600, or early in 1601.]  1
 
WHETHER by chance or otherwise, Nash, by the publication of The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594), became the father of the English novel of adventure,—a literary species destined to a long and robust life, and not unlikely to endure so long as English novels are produced for home consumption. Thus, if only by right of this one achievement, Nash holds a very notable place in the history of English prose. Perhaps his story, and its successors in the long line which includes Roderick Random and Martin Chuzzlewit, might be still further differentiated as the novel of odd or mixed adventure. To this traveller no kind of experience comes amiss or needs an elaborate assimilative process. He is in turn practical joker, poet’s confidant (contriving, in this capacity, to mystify a long succession of commentators with his pleasant invention of the legend of Surrey and the Lady Geraldine), and leading actor in scene upon scene of desperate intrigue. Historical celebrities, from Henry VIII. to Martin Luther, help to crowd Nash’s canvas, and he is so prolific of incident that we forbear looking very closely after his plot. The style of the story is easy and familiar, although amply furnished with both Latin quotations and native adages; jests abound, nor are puns wanting; but the guileless author expressly disclaims the intention of personalities. Altogether, his audacity deserved its success, though, being written in the sixteenth century, the book must be set down as a little too long.  2
  Yet it is not by his efforts in the field of the novel, or in the contiguous one of the drama, that Nash is most generally remembered. He is best known by his extraordinary activity and vigour as a writer of pamphlets, not of the sugared kind whereby Greene fascinated his lady and gentlemen readers, but of the more highly-seasoned controversial sort. As such, from the time when he first came before the world with his Anatomy of Absurdity, so named in imitation of one of Greene’s titles, he was always effective, whether it was the Martinists, or the unspeakable Pembroke don, or any other “Pruritan” foe whom he set himself to make wince, or whether he fared forth as a critic of things in general, like a latter-day weekly journalist. His style as a pamphleteer cannot be called Euphuistic, being altogether devoid of the well-known distinctive marks of cadence, alliteration, and wire-drawn simile. Of course, as a classical scholar hailing from (slightly to alter his own phrase) the most famous and fortunate contemporary seminary of learning, he was in honour bound to adorn his writings liberally with classical phrases and allusions, and his biblical erudition is even more notable. But the gems so profusely introduced into his pages owe much to their setting; nor was Nash’s anonymous brother-Johnian far wrong who, shortly after his death, proclaimed on the academical stage that, as to his genius,
                  “for a mother-wit,
Few men have ever seen the like of it.”
  3
  Nash usually wrote with a definite purpose, and perfectly understood the force of good, strong, argumentative, assertive, or abusive prose. In this sense he proclaimed himself a follower of the Aretine, confessing how little he cared “for the demure, soft mediocre genus, that is like water and wine mixed together,” and how he preferred “pure wine of itself, that begets good blood and heats the brain thoroughly.” Agreeably to the spirited style to which he allowed himself to be inclined, he was fond of using sonorous compounds, and of coining “Italianate” verbs ending in ize. But he was, at the same time, gifted with a genuine satiric vein of the lighter kind; thus the flow of ridicule, for instance, with which in Have with you to Saffron Walden he overwhelms Gabriel Harvey’s kith and kin, and the earnestness with which he indites an entire mock biography of Gabriel himself, are in their way irresistible. Hence, in Pierce Penniless’ Supplication to the Devil, his humorous fancy could take a bolder flight and produce one of those odd Elizabethan week-day sermons in which the vices and follies of the age, and its manners and customs at large, are depicted with so much vigour and vivacity, that the character-sketches and descriptive essays of later times, the papers in the Tatler and Spectator above all, may fairly be said to be foreshadowed in them. Nor would Nash, we may be sure, have any more than Steele or Addison refused to be reckoned after his kind among the moralists; for though the substance of his largest book, entitled Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem, proves to be yet another prose satire on London, the solemnity of the induction is incongruous neither in intention, nor, I think, in general effect.  4
  Although Nash was not original enough to anticipate the happy revolution which was to liberate English prose from all its self-imposed fetters, he did good service by his deliberate refusal to imitate the established native models. “Euphues,” he says, “I read when I was a little ape at Cambridge, and I then thought it was Ipse ille; it may be excellent good still, for aught I know, for I looked not on it this ten year. But to imitate it I abhor, otherwise than it imitates Plutarch, Ovid, and the choicest Latin authors.” And again: “This I will proudly boast … that the vein which I have … calls no man father in England but myself—neither Euphues, nor Tarlton, nor Greene.”  5
 
 
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