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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 21. Characteristics of Nashe’s prose

The main characteristics of Nashe’s mature prose are its naturalness and force. Most of his contemporaries had aimed at refinement rather than strength, they relied upon artifice which soon lost its power of appeal. But Nashe, dealing with plain things, writes in plain prose, and it was but natural for the satirist of contemporary affectations to dismiss from his practice the prose absurdities of the time. While he was at Cambridge, Euphues had appeared to him as beyond all praise, and considerable regard for Euphuistic effects appears in his earlier work. But, later, he discarded, and helped Greene to discard, the specious aid of “counterfeit birds and hearbes and stones,” and his later “vaine,” he took pride in stating, was of his “own begetting” and called “no man father in England.” In the novel, the hero occasionally makes use of Euphuistic similes and Latin tags, but a dramatic intention underlies this device, for the page has frequently to “engage his dupes with silver-sounding tales.” From Nashe’s later work, all this is absent; he successfully aims at a familiar style, and the result embodies the strength and weakness of actual conversation. In thus turning from books to life, Nashe, like later writers in dialect, produces a style fresh and picturesque, vivid, terse and droll: he avoids abstract terms, and discards what is hackneyed. But, on the other hand, not infrequently, he is faulty in his syntax, and inartistic, even vulgar, in his colloquialisms. Not merely content with the forcefulness of the ordinary conversational manner, he aims at heightening its effects in several ways; his scorn becomes more emphatic in such descriptions as “piperly pickthanke” and “burlybond butcher”; he is audacious in adaptation and coinage alike; he is a lover of “boystrous compound words,” for “no speech or wordes of any power or force … but must be swelling and boystrous.” He also appreciated the charm of Biblical phrase, for that stately diction occasionally slips from his “teare-stubbed pen,” while his description of the anabaptists is the earliest example of Scott’s happy manner of dealing with the convenanters. In general, the page’s description of Aretino holds good of Nashe:

  • His penne was sharpe pointed like ponyard.… With more then musket shot did he charge his quill where he meant to inveigh.… His sight pearst like lightning into the entrailes of al abuses.… He was no timorous, servile, flatterer of the common-wealth wherein he lived.
  • But, while the realistic type of work failed to attract as many writers as the romance, Greene and Nashe do not stand alone. Lodge’s contribution consisted of The Life and Death of William Longbeard (1593), which dealt, in humorous and realistic fashion, with the story of a daring rogue. Breton wrote his Miseries of Mavillia, which betrayed some want of acquaintance, however, with the scenes of low life described; and, in 1595, appeared Chettle’s Piers Plainnes seaven yeres Prentiship, in which the picaro Piers relates his life-story to Arcadian shepherds in Tempe. The work thus hesitated between the Arcadian, the romantic and the picaresque types, but its most successful passages are those which relate to the hero’s life in London, and to the haunts of usurers and dealers in old clothes. Dickenson also adopted the same type in his Greene in conceipt new raised from his grave (1598), a work, which, following the methods of Greene, concerned itself, primarily, with the tragic story of a fair Valeria of London, and, incidentally, with low life in the metropolis.