Thursday, 1 October 2020

Nashe's Terrors

 Bedtime reading should, ideally, be engaging but restful (an adjective that was Ronald Firbank's highest term of praise for any work of art), not over-stimulating and never seriously disturbing. So I don't know how The Terrors of the Night ended up on my bedside pile; it could hardly be more unsuitable. This is a short work from 1594 by Thomas Nashe, republished as a Penguin Little Black Classic. Here's a taster:

The night is the devil's Black Book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as, when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror; so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences, no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our hearts is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us. 
  The rest we take in our beds is such another kind of rest as the weary traveller taketh in the cool soft grass of summer, who thinking there to lie at ease and refresh his tired limbs, layeth his fainting head unawares on a loathsome nest of snakes.

  Nashe's prose is lively stuff, even by Elizabethan standards, and always makes exhilarating reading, though perhaps best taken in relatively small doses. He wrote a rollicking proto-novel called The Unfortunate Traveller (which I read and enjoyed years ago) and a wide range of polemical pamphlets and other short works, with names such as An Almond for a Parrot, Have with You to Saffron-Walden and Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell. He also wrote a pornographic poem called A Choise of Valentines, otherwise known as Nashe's Dildo. Here are a few choice lines, voiced by a woman who has discovered a more than satisfactory substitute for her lover:

My little dildo shall suplye their kind,
A knave that moves as light as leaves by winde;
That bendeth not, nor fouldeth anie deale,
But stands as stiff as he were made of steele,
And plays at peacock twixt my leggs right blythe.

   However, Nashe was also capable of something closer to the sublime, as in his most famous poem, the 'Litany in Time of Plague', which reads like a tolling bell –

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkes will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree
To welcome destiny.
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us! 

  The beautiful line 'Brightness falls from the air' – the line that obsesses the young Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Portait of the Artist and that Eliot dilated upon – is thought by some to be a transcription error for 'Brightness falls from the hair', which in the context does indeed make rather more sense. Could it be that one of the great lines in all of Elizabethan poetry came about by mistake? It's an intriguing thought – but who would want the 'correct' reading now? 








6 comments:

  1. If it is a typo, it is surely the greatest typo in English literature. Was it Kierkegaard who said "The man who becomes witty via the printer's error becomes witty via legitimate means"?

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  2. If it was, he surely had a point. Thanks Jeff.

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