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THOMAS NASHE (1567-1601?)

The following biography is reprinted from Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley. William Minto. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.

Marlowe's unfinished tragedy of Dido was completed by Thomas Nashe; and though this clever writer is memorable chiefly as a prose satirist, yet his name will always be remembered most naturally in connection with his poetical associates, Greene, Marlowe, Lodge, and Peele. Nashe was educated at Cambridge, which he seems to have left in some disgrace, and his first essay in print was the dashing critical preface to Greene's Menaphon in 1587. A clever harum-scarum fellow, with a quick sense of the ludicrous, and an unsparing tongue, he found admirable scope for his powers in replying to the Martin Marprelate tracts, which he did in some four or five different pamphlets in and about the year 1589. In the same year he opened up a vein of general prose satire in his Anatomy of Absurdity, a general attack on whatever struck him as ridiculous in contemporary literature and manners--ranging consequently within a wide circle. In 1592 he continued his exercitations in this vein with Pierce Penniless, his Supplication to the Devil. But meantime he had become involved in a quarrel with Gabriel Harvey, the friend of Spenser, and his brothers, of which a full account is given in D'Israeli's Quarrels of Authors. The original cause of Nashe's ire seems to have been the offensive conceit of Richard Harvey, who in the Marprelate controversy had tried "to play Jack of both sides," sneering at all parties to the dispute, and had repeated the offense in a subsequent publication, in which he went the length of terming all poets and writers about London "piperly make-plays and make-baits." Nashe was thoroughly in his element in taking up such a taunt. Throughout the various pamphlets of the celebrated logomachy, he seems never to lose for a moment his feeling of complete and easy mastery over his opponent, writing always with good-humoured assurance of victory, and with the unsparing derision of one who fears no retort. In the opening of his Strange News, a reply to Harvey's attacks on the deceased Greene, he bids the Lord have mercy on poor Gabriel, for he is fallen into hands that will plague him. Harvey's poetical pretensions, and, above all, his hexameters, are ridiculed in this pamphlet with wonderful spirit and direct freshness and copiousness of language. It confirms Nashe's protestations that the quarrel was none of his seeking, to find him in his Christ's Tears over Jerusalem, a religious and moral performance strangely different from the writer's previous effusions, making certain overtures towards reconciliation. These overtures being rejected, he returned with redoubled incisiveness to his former ways of warfare, which continued till the mouths of the antagonists were shut by the intervention of the scandalized Government.

Nashe was imprisoned in 1597 for his share in a play called The Isle of Dogs, which has not been preserved. Summer's Last Will and Testament is the only play of his that has come down to us. It is of the nature of a Masque, in which the seasons are the prominent figures; was written for representation on the private stage of some nobleman, whose name is unknown, and was acted in 1592, though not published till 1600. On the whole it is a somewhat dull production, as the author himself seems to have felt. Frantic efforts are made to say witty and pretty things about the seasons, and to deliver striking saws about miscellaneous objects, dogs and drunkards, bookish theorists, and misanthropists. The best part of it is the song quoted in Palgrave's Treasury. Nashe has no marked dramatic talent. His forte lay in what Mr. Collier calls "humorous objurgation": he throws himself into that vein with a sad want of continence, but with unflagging vivacity, and unfailing copiousness both of words and of conceptions. He tried also a tale--Jack Wilton--but did not succeed; he never is anything except when in the full swing of harum-scarum raillery.

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