Nashe’s attributions

This is the second of three blogs on attribution. See Shakespeare, attribution and attrition: at tribute zone and Let me speak to you about my huge words for more.

This week, thanks to Andrew Hadfield, Jennifer Richards and Kate de Rycker, I have been thinking a lot about Thomas Nashe. Nashe is often celebrated as an innovative writer, and returning to his work after a year thinking about the early playhouses has helped me see very specific examples of his semantic newness. The word ‘theatre’, for example, is almost an everyday English word for Nashe, one he uses repeatedly but surprisingly casually, at a time when for most other writers in the late 1580s and early ’90s, the word is either barely used at all, still carries a flavour of the foreign or refers very specifically to a certain kind of playhouse.

But Nashe has something to add to our recent discussions around authorship and attribution too. Tamara Atkin, Brett Greatley-Hirsch and Aaron Pratt all urged us to consider the historicisation of attribution, to account for the history of literary reception as filtered through perceptions of textual authorship. This, I confess, is where I become interested in authorship and attribution: I’m not sure exactly what it tells us to establish in 2017 (or to claim to have established) that x wrote y, but I become very interested when an author’s name is (or isn’t) attached to or associated with a text in the period itself, especially where this affects its reception history. ‘Let me speak to you about my huge words’, Nashe once asked, and he is a writer who cares much about words, the process of speaking and of hearing them, and how such words come to be ‘mine’ in the first place.

To give a few self-authored examples of authorship and attribution as live issues in the sixteenth century, I have myself proposed that Lyly’s plays, most of which were published anonymously, were strongly associated with his authorship in the period. In other words, I’ve suggested that bibliographical anonymity is not the same thing as cultural anonymity, that early modern readers and audience members themselves thought about authorship and attribution on the basis of both internal and external evidence. In Lyly’s case, this worked through a combination of perceived stylistic imprint, a continued investment in stories and an unusual level of public notoriety. Lyly’s first play, for example, dramatises stories that had been repeatedly, almost obsessively cited across his two earlier printed works and written in a prose style that immediately invoked that earlier work. This means that occasional cameo characters from Lyly’s prose fiction are suddenly central protagonists in his first play, and speaking in a manner strongly associated with their author. A number of contemporary print writers, meanwhile, assume that plays that were otherwise printed anonymously were by Lyly, and in making this assumption they further assume that their own readers had this knowledge too.

I’ve also traced the history of fictional attribution in Elizabethan prose fiction: the figure of Euphues, for example, is presented as the author of many such books, including Lodge’s Rosalind. This means that theatregoers watching As You Like It two decades after Lyly’s own Euphues books may well have thought of themselves as watching the dramatisation of a story by Euphues himself. As You Like It may have been as much a Euphues play, or a Lyly play, or a Lodge play, as it was a Shakespeare play. In other words, the history of early modern authorship and attribution acted as an interpretive prism for early readers and audience members in ways we rarely factor into our understanding of the period. Nashe offers a distinctive lens through which to view such questions because, of all literary figures working in the earliest decades of the playhouses, he is the most vociferous and explicit in his discussion of authorship, attribution and creativity. His work repeatedly makes reference to his work in a manner unlike his immediate contemporaries; it also makes reference to his contemporaries’ work in order to test out and redefine authorial individuality. He comments directly and explicitly on the writing process, names texts he hopes to write in future, and denies texts printed in the past were by him. These are statements broadcast from canon-formation as it is in progress. Imagine the prologue to Henry V opening with a description of Shakespeare’s compositional process, promising the author would hurry up and finish writing Hamlet, and angrily refusing all knowledge of having written The Merry Wives of Windsor. In a preface to Lenten Stuff, Nashe cites a previous work to prove his stylistic readiness for a new task. ‘Let me speak to you about my huge words which I use in this book’, he asks, ‘huge words’ for Nashe, as so often, not incommensurate with long strings of monosyllables.

I can’t pretend to be able to offer a comprehensive account of these ideas across sixteenth-century literary debate, but I can address them via the semantics of attribution and from the perspective of a group of writers important to Nashe’s development and early work: prose fiction writers. William Painter, George Pettie, John Lyly, Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge are all firmly embedded in Nashe’s bibliographic, generic and stylistic authorial practice, but none of them use the words ‘author’ or ‘attribute’ in quite the way he does. In other words, because Nashe is so indebted to these particular writers, his deviations from their semantic practice are especially revealing of his rearticulation of these words and ideas. Painter, in fact, writing in the 1560s, doesn’t use the words ‘author’ or ‘attribute’ at all, and indeed by following their usage chronologically it’s possible to see the two words’ increasing frequency through the 1580s and beyond. For George Pettie, for example, writing in the 1570s, when the word ‘attribute’ is used at all, it means ‘explain or interpret [something] by’: ‘if I kissed her boldly, I trust she will attribute it to young men’s bashfulness’ (Pettie’s attributions are often introduced by the conditional ‘if’, and often as dubious as this example here).

Lyly’s use of the term is perhaps more revealing still, because although he uses it rarely, it appears twice in quick succession in the philosophers scene in Campaspe (‘that first mover, which you term God, is the instrument of all the movings, which we attribute to nature’). This seems especially revealing in its suggestion that the word attribute may be a philosophical or argumentative term, especially given Lyly’s wider interest in defining characters’ professional identities via their choice of jargon. Compare this to the single use of the word in Euphues and His England, where the love-sick Camilla (everyone’s love-sick in Elizabethan prose fiction, right?) says that love has the same ‘three roots which they attribute to music: mirth, melancholy, madness’. Here the word ‘they’ means something like ‘the sort of people who go around theorising the attributions of music’: in other words, philosophers or, as we might now call them, cultural theorists. Attribution is something clever people do to clever ideas. The one exception to this usage in Lyly’s works is in his first book, the first Euphues story, where a self-avowed atheist concedes that ‘the names that in holy scripture are attributed to God bring a terror to my guilty conscience’. I’m not sure if this is a reference to authorship itself or to inspiration of it, but it certainly brings the idea of attribution closer to textual composition than any other usage of word by Pettie or Lyly. Greene and Lodge follow these writers in associating the word with explanation: if you attribute something, you are describing and clarifying it. In their continuities with Pettie, Greene and Lodge help to emphasise Lyly’s distinctive use of ‘attribute’.

It is in this context that Thomas Nashe is also distinctive, and attests to a semantic change in the word’s history that Nashe may either be witnessing or driving (two possibilities that themselves ask questions about our conceptions of authorship). In his preface to Greene’s Menaphon, Nashe uses the word in the vicinity of authorship, though not in direct reference to it, when he says of George Turberville that ‘in translating [ie, Ovid and Mantuan] he attributed too much to the necessity of rhyme’. This is, in other words, a usage of the word familiar from either Pettie or Lyly (or, indeed, Greene, the author of the main text of Menaphon), but it nevertheless hints at semantic developments to come in its proximity to one form of authorship, the act of translation. This is striking for two further reasons, firstly that it comes in Nashe’s deeply authorship-aware preface to Menaphon, in which this very new writer offers an astonishing account of the state of contemporary literary composition, secondly that this preface is attached to Menaphon, itself a complex conflation of contemporary representations of authorship and attribution. Menaphon is, for example, presented as a work by Lyly’s fictional character Camilla, writing to Lyly’s other fictional character Euphues, an already complicated idea that the book then further complicates by titling the main section of the text ‘Arcadia’ (in his preface, Nashe calls Greene’s book ‘thy Arcadian Menaphon‘). This of course brings Sidney into play alongside Lyly as authoring agents. There is a very public karaoke tradition to early modern composition, a history of adopting not only other author’s voices but their characters and fictional worlds, and doing so explicitly, and Nashe’s first use of the word ‘attribute’ is caught up in a complex nexus of such issues.

By the time Nashe writes Pierce Penniless, however, the word has developed a greater attachment to subjectivity, perhaps even to something like authorship itself. Indeed, Nashe is an early user of the word ‘author’ to mean ‘writer’ (or perhaps ‘cultural commentator on writing’?), as when he speaks of ‘poor Latinless authors’, who ‘no sooner spy a new ballad, and his name to it that compiled it, but they put him in for one of the learned men of our time’. In other words, these are not just authors, but author-aware authors, authors who think in terms of authorship. In comparison to such people, Nashe promises to ‘challenge no praise of learning to myself’ (and then of course does exactly that), because ‘I attribute so much to my thankful mind about others, which I am persuaded would enable me to work miracles’. Here, then, is a new, emerging use of the word, at least in the context of writers engaged in Elizabethan prose fiction, to capture something about the subjectivity and selfhood of authorship.

To this we might compare Nashe’s distinctive use of the word ‘invent’ to describe an important part of the toolkit of authorship. In the prefaces to the second edition of Pierce Penniless, Nashe responds to his detractors who ‘wrest or pervert’ his meaning, and warns

Beggarly lies no beggarly wit but can invent. […] But I am of another metal; they shall know that I live as their evil angel, to haunt them world without end, if they disquiet me without cause.

In the main text of Pierce Penniless, Nashe writes of the learned that ‘they will set their self-love to study to invent new sects of singularity’. He then rebukes the ‘enemies of poetry’ (who I feel deserve some kind of TV show, by the way) who think that creative composition needs ‘no more cunning […] than to preach pure Calvin, or distill the juice of a commentary in a quarter sermon’, involving ‘no invention but “Here is to be noted ‘I stole this note out of Beza or Marlorat”‘”. In these various examples Nashe once again showcases his distinctive interest in individuality and subjectivity, and in the latter case comes to define creative writing by opposing it to the reproduction of, commentary on, or plagiarism of pre-existing texts. You only need to look at the quotation-mark pile up at the end of that last quote to see the complex intertwining of different voices that this defence of authorial voice rests upon.

In these cases, such theorisations of authorial selfhood turn on new articulations of invention. Inventio was, for Cicero, the first stage of textual composition, and involved the identification of appropriate subject matter, sources, materials or arguments for the work the writer intended to write. It was therefore a technique that bound the creator of new texts tightly to antecedent material. For Nashe, in these examples, the word is being stretched into the newer semantic territory of creativity and originality that later periods would come to associate with authorship. This is a regular feature of Nashe’s writing: later in the same text, the devil refers to ‘Poets and philosophers, that take a pride in inventing new opinions’. For Cicero, invention depended on identifying something new or original in something old; Nashe can be seen pushing for newness in the new. As he puts it in the preface to The Unfortunate Traveller, ‘that small brain I have, to no further use I convert, save to be kind to my friends and fatal to my enemies. A new brain, a new wit, a new style, a new soul will I get me’. Nashe may have been willing to concede the smallness of his brain, but he couldn’t have been clearer about his commitment to the new, the new, the new and the new. His contemporaries presumably noticed this: how else to explain Nashe’s emergence into print in the Marprelate controversy as well as the preface to Greene’s Menaphon, where this new writer set old and well-established writers to school?

It is beyond the means of this writer and this blog to consider what the language and conceptualisation of attribution and authorship would go on to mean for a Marlowe, a Shakespeare or a Jonson (for all of whom, by the way, the word ‘attribute’ is more often noun than verb). But this micro and very partial history of attribution in the work of prose writers returns me to the questions I posed in my first blog on this subject: the function of perceived or actual authorship in the receptive process, then or now; the political and cultural implications of such functions; the stages and processes of creative composition that are often elided in accounts of authorship; and the tensions between models of authorship based on stability, singularity and individuality instead of revision, collaboration and creative exchange. Lyly described himself as ‘a fool [that] hath intruded himself to discourse of wit’, and I have suggested elsewhere that his image of himself as an anatomist intruding into discourse had important implications for developing conceptualisations of authorship. In Lyly’s later involvement in the Martin Marprelate controversy, he opens his tract by aggressively shouting for room for a new author: ‘Room for a roister! So, that’s well said. Hitch a little further for a good fellow’. Nashe tells us that at university he caught the Lyly craze, thinking Euphues the great work of his lifetime, and he joined Lyly in writing anti-Marprelate pamphlets. Is it possible that in his wish for ‘a new brain, a new wit, a new style, a new soul’, Nashe was responding to the discourse-intrusions and roistering rooms opened up by Lyly’s work, prompting the calls for new inventions and miraculous attributions that his own work seems distinctive in invoking?

To put all this another way, where Lyly and Nashe often address authorship head on (albeit in very different ways), Greene and Lodge’s attribution of their own work to Lyly’s fictional characters bespeaks a kind of attributive deferral or deflection. Nashe seems to sweep this aside in the name of novel invention. Is that right? And what do we make of it if so?

In my previous blog post, I asked why authorship and attribution matter. They clearly mattered to Nashe, and here’s one reason why that mattering might matter to us. The Unfortunate Traveller is the first Elizabethan prose fiction I’m aware of to tell its story in the first rather than the third person, at least without a framing device or title page or prefatory epistle explaining who the ‘I’ of the first person narration is. The investment in authorship and attribution suggested by Nashe’s rearticulation of these very terms may also be played out at the level of the form of his work, so that composition and its conceptualisation affect the shape and communicative strategies of a text as much as they affect its semantic range. When Nashe says that ‘I attribute so much to my thankful mind’, he is telling us something not just about himself but about his expectations of his readers and their investment in his identity. These are new ideas in Elizabethan literature. To what should we attribute them?

Andy Kesson

4 thoughts on “Nashe’s attributions

  1. Pingback: Let me speak to you about my huge words | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: Shakespeare, attribution and attrition: at tribute zone | Before Shakespeare

  3. Pingback: Putting the might in Marlowe’s (and Nashe’s) mighty line | Before Shakespeare

  4. Pingback: Before Shakespeare

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