1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Nashe

John Payne Collier, "Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 3:8-11.



This is the first edition of a very notorious tract, and it was published without the author's consent or knowledge. A second impression came out in the same year, which Nash authorized, and which must have appeared after the death of the famous Robert Greene in September, 1592, because that event is alluded to in an introductory "private Epistle of the Author to the Printer." Afterwards Nash speaks with reference to the Groatsworth of Wit, the tract published by Henry Chettle in 1592 as Greene's work, in which Shakspeare was disparagingly called "the only Shake-scene of a country." He says of it:—

"Other newes I am advertised of, that a scald triviall lying Pamphlet, called Greens Groats worth of Wit is given out to be of my doing. God never have care of my soule, but utterly renounce me, if the least word or syllable in it proceeded from my penne, or if I were any way privie to the writing or printing of it."

Nash seems to disbelieve that it was by Greene; but the facts, as declared and maintained by Chettle, were, that Greene wrote the Groatsworth of Wit very illegibly in his illness, and that Chettle copied, it out and procured it to be printed. It gave great offence to some of the poets and pamphleteers of the day, and among them to Shakspeare, and in the first instance Chettle was generally believed to be the author of it. We have only his own testimony to the contrary, but we are not disposed to doubt it.

The chief difference between the first surreptitious edition of Pierce Peniless' Supplication, and the second impression, which Nash supervised, consists in the author's preliminary Epistle to the Printer, Abel Jeffes. It is highly interesting and important, occupying three pages, but the text of the body of the work is the same in both editions; and it is very clear, therefore, that, although Richard Jones had no right to print it, he bad obtained a very correct manuscript. Nash mainly complains of the "longtailed" title containing "a tedious Mountebanks oration to the Reader," and in his own edition be much simplified it, and shortened it as follows: — "Pierce Pennilesse his Supplication to the Divell. Barbaria grandis habere nihil. Written by Tho. Nash, Gent. — London, Printed by Abell Jeffes for John Busbie. 1592." 4to.

The third edition has the same date, and the imprint on the title-page is the only difference, for it there stands, "London, Printed by Abell Jeffes for I. B. 1592." Nash, in his preliminary epistle, also denounced all those who went about offering to the trade in St. Paul's Churchyard a pretended "second part" to his Pierce Peniless; but he adds, "I might haps (halfe a yeare hence) write the retourne of the Knight of the Post from Hell, with the Devils answer to the Supplication; but as for a second part of Pierce Pennilesse, it is a most ridiculous rogery."

Such a tract, and with that title, was published several years after the death of Nash, but it is very inferior to what the author of Pierce Penniless' Supplication would undoubtedly have made of it.

The plague, or a putrid fever so called, was raging in London at the time, when three editions of the work before us were printed in 1592; and in his Epistle to Abel Jeffes, Nash states that he was "the plagues prisoner in the country." The fact was that he was then residing in the house of Sir George Carew at Beddington, near Croydon, where his drama of Summers last Will and Testament was acted, most likely, as a private entertainment. When Nash printed his Terrors of the Night in 1594, he acknowledged with gratitude his obligations to the Carew family for the shelter and patronage afforded him.

Nash's reputation was principally founded upon his prose compositions, which are generally written in clear, vigorous, and unaffected English. He has left comparatively little verse behind him, but that little is good of its kind. In the tract before us are two pieces by him, one often quoted, (first in The Yorkshire Tragedy, attributed to Shakspeare,) beginning "Why is't damnation to despair and die," and the other a sonnet, as may he presumed, upon the Earl of Derby, which expressly mentions Spenser, and has been rarely noticed. Nash objects that "heavenly Spenser," (so he calls him,) in the sonnets appended to his Fairy Queen, 1590, had "passed unsaluted" one "special pillar of nobility"; and Nash subjoins a sonnet he had himself written "long since." It runs thus:—

Perusing yesternight with idle eyes
The Fairy Singers stately tuned verse,
And viewing, after Chapmen's wonted guise,
What strange contents the title did rehearse,
I streight leapt over to the latter end,
Where, like the quaint Comaedians of our time
That when the play is doone do fal to ryme,
I found short lines to sundry Nobles pen'd;
Whom he as speciall Mirrours singled fourth
To be the Patrons of his Poetry.
I read them all, and reverenc't their worth,
Yet wondred he left out thy memory.
But therefore, gest I, he supprest thy name,
Because few words might not comprise thy fame.

We were formerly of opinion that the unnamed peer, here addressed, was the Earl of Southampton, Shakspeare's patron, whose title is also omitted in the sonnets appended to the Fairy Queen, but we are now satisfied that Nash alluded to the claims of the Earl of Derby, who died in 1594. Nash dedicated to Lord Southampton his Life of Jack Wilton, 4to, 1594, where the following passage occurs, referring very modestly to Nash's own merits as a versifier: — "A dere lover and cherisher you are, as well of the lovers of Poetrie, as of Poets themselves. Amongst their sacred number I dare not ascribe my self, though now and then I speak English: that small braine I have, to no further use I convert, save to be kinde to my friends, and fatall to my enemies. A new braine, a new wit, a new stile, a new soule will I get mee to canonize your name to posteritie, if in this my first attempt I be not taxed of presumption."

Whether this tender of service was accepted does not appear, but the Earl of Southampton well knew how to appreciate the extraordinary talents and learning of such a man as Thomas Nash.

In connection with Nash's Pierce Penniless, and the tracts that grew out of it, we may notice one of extraordinary rarity, under the title of Piers Plainnes seaven yeres Prentiship. By H. C. Nuda Veritas. — Printed at London by J. Danter for Thomas Gosson, 1595. 4to. It is a disappointing production, for it turns out to be a mere novel, and may have been from the needy pen of Henry Chettle.