Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hannah Lavery: "Exchange & Reciprocation"

Hannah Lavery
University of Sheffield

Exchange and Reciprocation in Nashe’s ‘Choise of Valentines’ (c. 1592)

1> At the heart of Thomas Nashe’s pornographic poem lies issues of exchange and reciprocation. Early modern authors of erotic-satiric texts such as the ‘Choise’ are writing within a longer tradition of the ‘impotency poem’ genre. Here, the meaning of the impotency relies on the satirical reinterpretation of the concepts of amicitia (a complex and profound friendship, implying mutual obligation, affection and pleasure), and fides (fidelity/ integrity). By recognising the central importance of the terms of obedience and exchange, the central relationships that form the basis for the erotic poem are re-imagined by some writers as an allegorical site within which wider social relationships can be satirised. In the relationships that are imagined in Nashe’s ‘Choise of Valentines’, the humour plays upon a knowledge of literary patronage relationships operating at the time. This is not to suggest that the poem is put forward as a discussion of these relationships per se, but that it is the ideas of exchange and obligation that underpin the humour, emphasising the ‘failure’ involved. The ironic tone for the humour relies on an interpellated audience, which forms both the means for communicating, and the subject of, the satirical significance for the text.

2> Thomas Nashe’s case demonstrates that the position for a writer seeking patronage in England could be one of extreme frustration and poverty. Nicholl notes:

“Patronage was precarious and usually rather brief, and Nashe was soon back on the streets again, his true milieu, living to the full his most famous persona Pierce Penniless, the half-starved malcontent young poet who petitions the devil to spirit away those capitalist ‘cormorants’ who ‘bung up all the welth of the land in their snap-haunce bages’ while we poor scholars must ‘wander in backe lanes and the out-shiftes of the Citie’.” (2)

3> A reading of the poem that pays attention to the ironic and satiric interpretations of issues of exchange and reciprocation aligns the themes in the ‘Choise’ with complaints against financial injustices found more clearly in other works.

4> One key pressure was the sense of commission that came with patronage, in the sense of a requirement for the writer to adopt different personas and writing style, depending on the commission. In a response to criticism by Harvey, Nashe replies:

“As newfangled and idle, and prostituting my pen like a Curtizan, is the next Item that you taxe me with; well it may and it may not bee so, for neither deny it nor will I grant it; onely thus farre Ile goe with you, that twise or thrise in a month, when res est augusta domi, the bottome of my purse is turnd downeward, and my conduit of incke will no longer flowe for want of reparations, I am faine to let my Plow stand still in the midst of a furrow, and follow some of these new-fangled Galiardos and Senor Fantasticos, to whose amorous Villanellas and Quipassas I prostitute my pen in hope of gaine; but otherwise there is no newfanglenes in mee but pouertie, which alone maketh mee so vnconstant to my determined studies.” (‘Have with you to Saffron Walden’, 1596)

5> What is interesting about the statement is the use Nashe makes of the pen as metaphor for penis, established through the link of the ‘Curtizan’. Also, Nashe describes his activity in this kind of ‘popular’, commissioned writing as enacting a transaction, or participating in a relationship, akin to that of a prostitute and a paying client. Nashe’s construction in this passage of the process of writing as the active use of his pen-penis, links to the ideas of literary transaction that Nashe undertakes in ‘Nashe His Dildo’ (the popular nickname for the poem at the time of circulation). As a satirical ‘tool’ I suggest Nashe uses his ‘dildo’ (the ‘Choise’), to represent the failure and breakdown of systems of mutual reciprocation.

6> In ‘The Choise of Valentines’, Nashe investigates the construction of power relations within the context of a relationship of financial give and take. The humour of Nashe’s text depends largely upon the audience’s recognition of the ironic conjunction of the erotic and political positions. In this sense, one clear element of ‘exchange’ that takes place in the poem is the conscious interpellation of the ‘reader’ in relation to the production of significance within the text, and as a member of a recognisable group of consumption for the text.[1] This in itself then becomes part of the satirical significance for the poem.

7> The satirical nature of the text implies an incorporated if not an intended readership in general society. This is emphasised in the proem, in that the poet-narrator’s statement ‘all men acte what I in speache declare/ Onelie induced by varietie.’ (7-8) constructs a recognisable cultural ‘group’ upon which his work is based, and to which his narrative speaks. In Nashe’s final appendum ‘Claudito iam rivos Priape, sat prata biberunt’ (‘Priapus, drop the sluice-gates now: the meadows have had enough to drink’), he substitutes ‘Priapus’ for the original ‘boys’ (pueri). This acknowledges vicarious reader pleasure, through an ironic reinterpretation of Virgil to imply sexual satiation. Nashe is here taking a jibe at the ‘lecherous reader’. Further, the equation of ‘the meadows’ with ‘the audience’ contains a suggestion of multiplicity through which we can glimpse the process of circulation of this manuscript (another significant form of ‘exchange’ in relation to the development of the impotency poem).

8> It is this construction of a ‘group’ of readership for his piece which both builds the humour, and allows that humour to be based upon a recognition of shared understanding of the financial diction, upon which the satire relies. The idea of financial exchange is introduced when the male protagonist Tomalin can not find his ‘love’ Francis:

“But woe-alass, she was not to be found,
For she was shifted to an upper-ground.
Good Justice Dudgein-haft, and crab-tree face
With bills and staves had scar’d hir from the place;
And now she was compell’d for Sanctuarie
To flye unto an house of venerie.” (19-24)

9> Here, we learn that the narrator’s love-lover has been forced to enter a brothel through poverty. We, as reader, undertake this initial journey with the narrator Tomalin, and so are immediately linked to his character and his movements/ desires.

10> Whilst the seduction for the reader of aligning with the jocular, vernacular, narrator of the story is initially strong, there is evidence that Nashe’s male protagonist is intentionally undermined from the beginning of the piece:

“Thither went I, and bouldlie made enquire
If they had hackneis to lett-out to hire,
And what they crau’d by order of their trade
To lett one ride a iournie on a jade.” (25-28)

11> Here, Nashe begins his devaluation of sexual activity through the introduction of a series of misogynistic elements. Indeed, this misogyny cannot be denied. Though I would suggest that as Nashe aligns his poem-dildo with the concept of commission, and therefore elements of ‘contract’, this misogyny is not necessarily intended to singularly degrade femininity. This is used here as much to address concepts of subordination and oppression in themselves. Indeed, Nashe does not limit his critique here to feminine depravity, but through the placing of these terms within the mouth of Tomalin we see an implicit mockery of the masculine as well. At line 28 the simile of the ‘horse’ creates a dual meaning in relation to the eroticised situation that allows us to laugh with, but also at, the male character in his excessive and unnatural lusts at this point.

12> In fact, this critiquing of the masculine sexual position is strong from the very beginning, and this is constructed through representations of male ‘impotence’. The incorporation of positions of impotency are pejoratively representative of positions of ‘failure’ on the male protagonist’s part to ‘honour’ the terms of a reciprocal relationship. The bawd informs Tomalin that:

“None enters heere to doe his nicerie.
But he must paye his offertorie first,
And then perhaps wee’le ease him of his thirst.” (38-40)

13> This concept of ‘paying offertorie first’ ironically foreshadows the later episodes of impotency. Ultimately, as we see from the beginning of the encounter, the male protagonist’s desire is selfishly centred, having no intention of embarking upon a reciprocally beneficial experience, and therefore culminates in failure.

14> This situation is returned to again at the point at which the male protagonist first encounters his ‘lover’ in the text:

“As how my lambkin? (blushing, she replide)
Because I in this dancing-schoole abide?
If that be it, that breede’s this discontent,
We will remove the camp incontinent.
For shelter onlie, sweete heart cam I hither,
And to avoide the troblous stormie weather.” (85-90)

15> Here the reader finds confirmation that Francis has been forced into prostitution through a change in personal circumstance, and we feel sympathetic to this position. At the same time, however, we are aware of the naivety that Nashe underlines in this character: ‘But now the coaste is cleare, we wilbe gone,/ Since but thy self, true lover I have none.’ (91-2) Francis’ belief that her lover has arrived to ‘rescue her’ is poignant in the light of how the male character has introduced himself, and again the meaning is constructed through dramatic irony.

16> If we remember Nashe’s description of commercial, erotic, writing as a form of prostitution forced onto him as a result of poverty, we see the context within which his critique unfolds. Nashe creates an ironic representation of the patronage-client relationship at this point. Where the female character believes that her ‘true love’ will provide support and constancy in their relationship, we have witnessed from the beginning of this poem that the male views it as purely monetary, and entirely selfish, experience. The humour of this episode is as a result of the implicit understanding of the sexual relationship as evoking that of the patron-client contract.

17> It is at this point that Nashe progresses from an implicit critiquing of the protagonists to his clearest satirical communication:

“A prettie rising wombe without a weame,
That shone as bright as anie silver streame;
And bare out lyke the bending of an hill,
At whose decline a fountaine dwelleth still,
That hath his mouth beset with uglie bryers
Resembling much a duskie nett of wyres.” (109-114)

18> This is a satiric reinterpretation of the Petrarchan catalogue motif as employed by Remy Belleau in the parent text ‘Jan qui ne peult’ (c. 1577). Through his inversion of subject and meaning, beauty is utterly denied. In a pornographic process intentionally explicit images seek to promote sexual arousal; Nashe’s extreme revision of the passage denies this occurrence. Importantly, however, the male character is sexually overcome by the sight and touch of the female:

“A loftie buttock barred with azure veine’s,
Whose comelie swelling, when my hand distreines,
Or wanton checketh with a harmeless stype,
It makes the fruites of love eftsoone be rype;
And pleasure pluckt too tymlie from the stemme
To dye ere it hath seene Jerusalem.” (115-120)

19> The male reaction at this point comments again upon the excess, irrationality, and worthlessness, of the male protagonist’s approach.

20> Furthermore, the use of the transitive verb ‘to distrain’ is ironic. Meaning to effect the legal seizure of goods to enforce payment, Nashe heightens the ensuing episode of impotency for the male by emphasising the greed and excess of the male’s position here. We see that impotency is brought on through the excessive lust of the ‘patron’, leading to diminishment of power. The episode consistently mocks and degrades the gentleman rake through an ironic satire directed against greedy and voracious, imbalanced lust and action. This is ‘imbalanced’ not only in the sense of excess, but also in the sense of a production of relationships that do not recognise reciprocity and responsibility as part of that.

21> As the female resorts to her dildo to replace the repeated failures of her partner (233-239), in the wider context of this poem as ‘Nashe’s dildo’, we see the idea of having to ‘make do’ in order to receive fulfilment. This denies the lover-patron as possessing that power, and instead we see the implementation of a means for self-fulfilment that reflects a dangerous position of self-sufficiency and individualism. This triumphing of the dildo is by default critical of the other’s actions, with the statement that this tool, (presumably unlike the patron-lover) ‘bendeth not, nor fouldeth anie deale’ (241). Again, the adoption of financial jargon highlights the multiple significances that Nashe intends his ‘dildo’ to hold.

22> In this paper I have shown examples of how the allegorical implications of ‘impotency poems’ imply a satirical basis for the work itself, as commenting on social relationships in a literary sense, but also through the very systems of readerly exchange that form the basis for the construction of meaning. Nashe humorously adapts contemporary understanding of patronage and literary production in order to satirise relationships whereby the writer is used and degraded. Equally, the excessive sexuality of the piece is made negative, and this throws a wider critique out on to the audience that recognises and consumes these relationships.


1. cf. Arthur Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1995) for his discussion of social networks in relation to manuscript circulation.

Works Cited

Belleau, Rémy, (1618) ‘Impuissance’, [‘Jan qui ne peult’], Le Cabinet Satyrique, Paris.

Kuin, Robert, & Prescott, Anne Lake, (2000), ‘The Wrath of Priapus: Rémy Belleau’s “Jean qui ne peult” and its Traditions’, Comparative Literature Studies, 37.1, 1-17.

Nashe, Thomas, (1905) ‘Choise of Valentines’, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, vol. 3, London, A. H. Bullen.

Nashe, Thomas, (1905) ‘Have with you to Saffron-Walden’, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, vol. 3, London, A. H. Bullen.

Nashe, Thomas, (1905) ‘Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Divell’, The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, vol. 1, London, A. H. Bullen.

Nicholl, Charles, (1984), A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Virgil, (1977) Eclogues (of) Virgil, ed. Robert Coleman, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Hannah Lavery recently completed a PhD with research on the development of the impotency poem from ancient Latin, through continental Renaissance texts, into English early modern poetry. She teaches in the English and History programs at both Open University and University of Sheffield.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

No comments: