In this Elizabethan exuberance both poetry and prose poured down in a turbulent flood. We know the names of two hundred Elizabethan poets. But until Spenser introduced his Faerie Queene (1590), it was prose that caught the ear of Elizabethan England.
John Lyly did it first with his fanciful Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit—i.e., of intelligence—in 1579. Lyly proposed to show how a fine mind and character can be formed through education, experience, travel, and wise counsel. Euphues (Good Speech) is a young Athenian whose adventures provide the scaffolding for wordy discourses on education, manners, friendship, love, atheism. What made the book the best seller of its time was its style—a flux of antitheses, alliterations, similes, puns, balanced clauses, classical allusions, and conceits that took the court of Elizabeth by storm and held the fashion for a generation. For example:
This young gallant, of more wit than wealth, and yet of more wealth than wisdom, seeing himself inferior to none in pleasant conceits, thought himself superior to all in honest conditions, insomuch that he deemed himself so apt to all things that he gave himself almost to nothing.10
Whether Lyly caught this disease from the Italian Marini or the Spaniard Guevara or the rhetoriker of Flanders is in dispute. In any case Lyly welcomed the virus and transmitted it to a host of Elizabethans; it spoiled Shakespeare’s early comedies, tinged Bacon’sEssays, and gave a word to the language.
It was a word-conscious age. Gabriel Harvey, a Cambridge tutor, exerted all his influence to turn English poetry from accent and rhyme to classic meters based on syllabic quantities. At his urging, Sidney and Spenser formed in London a literary club, the Areopagus, which strove for a time to force Elizabethan vitality into Virgilian forms. Thomas Nash parodied Harvey’s “hopping” hexameters and laughed them literally out of court. When Harvey added insult to pedantry by condemning the morals of Nash’s friend Greene, he became the prime target in a pamphlet war that brought into England all the resources of Renaissance vituperation.
Robert Greene’s life summarized a thousand literary Bohemian careers from Villon to Verlaine. He was a fellow student at Cambridge with Harvey, Nash, and Marlowe; there he spent his time among “wags as lewd as” himself, with whom he “consumed the flower of his youth.”
I was drowned in pride; whoredom was my daily exercise, and gluttony with drunkenness was my only delight. … I was so far from calling upon God that I seldom thought on God, but took much delight in swearing and blaspheming the name of God. … If I may have my desire while I live, I am satisfied; let me shift after death as I may. … I feared the judges of the bench no more than I dread the judgments of God.11
He traveled in Italy and Spain, and there, he tells us, he “saw and practiced such villainy as is abominable to declare.” Returning, he became a familiar figure in London taverns, with his red hair, pointed beard, silk stockings, and personal bodyguard. He married and wrote tenderly of marital fidelity and bliss; then he forsook his wife for a mistress, upon whom he spent his wife’s fortune. From his firsthand knowledge he described the arts of the underworld in A Notable Discovery [uncovering] of Cozenage (1591) and warned rural visitors to London against the wiles of swindlers, cardsharpers, pickpockets, panders, and prostitutes; whereupon the underworld tried to kill him. It surprises us that in a life so assiduously devoted to vice he found time to write, with journalistic haste and verve, a dozen novels (in Euphuestic style), thirty-five pamphlets, and many successful plays. As his vigor and income declined, he saw some sense in virtue, and repented as eloquently as he had sinned. In 1591 he published a Farewell to Folly. In 1592 he composed two tracts of some moment. One, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier, attacked Gabriel Harvey. In the other, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, he attacked Shakespeare and called upon his fellow lechers—apparently Marlowe, Peele, and Nash—to quit their sinning and join him in piety and remorse. On September 2, 1592, he sent to his forsaken wife an appeal to reimburse with ten pounds a shoemaker without whose charity “I had perished in the streets.”12 The next day, in the house of this shoemaker, he died—according to Harvey, from “a surfeit of pickled herring and Rhenish wine.” His landlady, forgiving his debts for his verse, crowned his head with a laurel wreath and paid for his funeral.13
Of all the Elizabethan pamphleteers, Greene’s friend Tom Nash had the sharpest tongue and the widest audience. Son of a curate and tired of decency, Nash graduated from Cambridge into London’s Bohemia, buttered his bread with his pen, and learned to write “as fast as [his] hand could trot.” He established the picaresque novel in England with The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). When Greene died, and Harvey assailed both Greene and Nash in Four Letters, Nash retaliated with a series of pamphlets culminating in Have with You to Saffron Walden—Harvey’s birthplace—in 1596.
Readers, be merry, for in me there shall want nothing I can do to make you merry … It shall cost me a fall, but I will get him hooted out of the University … ere I give him over. What will you give me when I bring him upon the stage in one of the principalest colleges in Cambridge?14
Harvey survived this experience, outlived the Bohemians, and died at eighty-five in 1630. Nash completed his friend Marlowe’s play Dido, collaborated with Ben Jonson in The Isle of Dogs (1597), was indicted for sedition, and subsided into a cautious obscurity. At the age of thirty-four (1601) he crowned a fast life with an early death.