The Choise of Valentines, by Thomas Nashe


Nash’s “CHOISE OF VALENTINES” has apparently come down to us only in manuscript form. It is extremely doubtful (Oldys notwithstanding1), whether the poem was ever before accorded the dignity of print. Nor would it now be deemed worthy of such were the only considerations those of literary merit or intrinsic value: truth to tell there is little of either to recommend it. But, as it has been repeatedly said, and well insisted on, the world cannot afford to lose any “document” whatsoever which bears, or may bear, in the slightest degree, on the story of its own growth and development, and out of which its true life has to be written. Especially is even the meanest Elizabethan of importance and value in relation to the reconstruction — still far from complete — of the life and times of the immortal bard of Avon. In the most unlikely quarters a quarry may yet be found from which the social historian may obtain a valuable sidelight on manners and customs, the philologist a new lection or gloss, or the antiquary a solution to some, as yet, unsolved problem.

“The Choise of Valentines” claims attention, and is of value principally on two grounds, either of which, it is held, should amply justify the more permanent preservation now accorded this otherwise insignificant production. In the first place, it appears to have been dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, the generous patron of letters, and friend of Shakspeare; and second, it is probably the only example extant of the kind of hackwork to which Nash was frequently reduced by “the keenest pangs of poverty.”2 He confesses he was often obliged “to pen unedifying toys for gentlemen.” When Harvey denounced him for “emulating Aretino’s licentiousness” he admitted that poverty had occasionally forced him to prostitute his pen “in hope of gain” by penning “amorous Villanellos and Quipasses for new-fangled galiards and newer Fantisticos.” In fact, he seems rarely to have known what it was to be otherwise than the subject of distress and need. As an example of these “unedifying toys” the present poem may, without much doubt, be cited, and an instance in penning which his “hope of gain” was realised.

It is a matter of history that Nash sought, and succeeded in obtaining for a time, the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, one of the most liberal men of his day, and a prominent figure in the declining years of Elizabeth. “I once tasted,” Nash writes in 1593,3 “the full spring of the Earl’s liberality.” Record is also made of a visit paid by him to Lord Southampton and Sir George Carey, while the former was Governor, and the latter Captain–General, of the Isle of Wight.

From internal evidence it would seem that this poem was called forth by the Earl’s bounty to its author. “My muse devorst from deeper (the Rawl. MS. reads deepest) care, presents thee with a wanton elegie;” and further on, the dedication promises “better lines” which should “ere long” be penned in “honour” of his noble patron. This promise is renewed in the epilogue:—

“My mynde once purg’d of such lascivious witt,

With purifide words and hallowed verse,

Thy praises in large volumes shall rehearse,

That better maie thy grauer view befitt.”

Does this refer to “The Unfortunate Traveller; or, The Life of Jack Wilton,” generally regarded as Nash’s most ambitious work, and which he dedicated to Lord Southampton in 1593? If so, and there is no evidence to gainsay the conclusion, we can fix the date of the present poem as, at all events, prior to 17th September of that year, when “The Unfortunate Traveller” was entered on the Stationers’ Register.4 This would make Nash contemporaneous, if not prior to, Shakspeare in offering a tribute to the merits of the young patron (Southampton at that time was barely twenty years old) of the Muses. Venus and Adonis was entered on the Register of the Stationers’ Company about five months earlier, on the 18th April, 1593, and barely more than two months prior to the registration of “The Terrors of the Night.”

It is curious to note that while Shakspeare and Nash both promise “graver work” and “better lines,” they alike select amatory themes for their first offerings. The promise in Shakspeare’s case was redeemed by the dedication to Southampton of “The Rape of Lucreece,” while it may be assumed, as aforesaid, that Nash followed suit with “The Unfortunate Traveller.”

Nash, however, for some cause or other failed to retain the Earl’s interest; “indeed,” says Mr. Sidney Lee, “he did not retain the favour of any patron long.” It is only fair to state, however, that the withdrawal of Lord Southampton’s patronage may not have been due to any fault or shortcoming on the part of Nash, for there is likewise no evidence whatever to show that any close intimacy existed between Southampton and Shakspeare after 1594. Probably there was much else to claim Lord Southampton’s attention — his marriage, and the Essex rebellion to wit. This, however, leads somewhat wide of the present work.

So much for the circumstances which appear to have called forth “The Choise of Valentines.” The next consideration is, Has it ever appeared in print before? Oldys, in his MS. notes to Langbaine’s English Dramatic Poets (c. 1738) says:—“Tom Nash certainly wrote and published a pamphlet upon Dildos. He is accused of it by his antagonist, Harvey.” But he was writing nearly 150 years after the event, and it is certainly very strange that a production which it can be shown was well known should, if printed, have so entirely disappeared. At all events, no copy is at present known to exist.5 John Davies of Hereford alludes to it, but leaves it uncertain whether its destruction occurred in MS. or in print. In his “Papers Complaint”6 he writes:—

But O! my soule is vext to thinke how euill

It is abus’d to beare suits to the Deuill.

Pierse–Pennilesse (a Pies eat such a patch)

Made me (agree) that business once dispatch.

And having made me vndergo the shame,

Abusde me further, in the Deuills name:

And made [me] Dildo (dampned Dildo) beare,

Till good men’s hate did me in peeces teare.

As regards the manuscript copies there are one or two points worthy of note. At present we know of two, more or less incomplete, but each of which supplements, in some degree, the other. These MSS. are respectively in the Bodleian (Rawl. MS. Poet, 216) and the Inner Temple (Petyt MS. 538, vol. 43, p. viii., 295b.) libraries. Both texts are obviously corrupt, the Rawlinson abominably so. Probably the former was written out from memory alone, while the Petyt, if not a transcript direct from the original is, at any rate, very near to it.

The Bodleian version is written on paper in a small oblong leather-covered book, originally with clasps. The penmanship is early 17th century, probably about 1610–20. It is thus catalogued:— . . . “E libris Matt. Postlethwayt, Aug. 1, 1697. Perhaps (earlier) Henry Price owned the book.” The volume contains besides an English transcript of Ovid’s “Arte Amandis” and some amatory poems.7 The date of the Petyt text may be about. . . . It is written in a miscellaneous, folio, commonplace-book, and in the catalogue it is described as “an obscene poem, entitled ‘The Choosing of Valentines,’ by Thomas Nash. The first 17 lines are printed at p. lx. of the Preface to vol i. of Mr. Grosart’s edition of Nash’s works, as if they formed the whole piece.”8

Nothing is known of Postlethwayt and Price, who at one time owned the Rawlinson copy, that throws light on its source. In the Petyt, however, we get a suppositional explanation of its manifestly purer text. Petyt, subsequent to his call to the Bar, in 1670, was for many years Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London. Now we know that Lord Essex, an intimate friend and connection of the Earl of Southampton, and like Southampton a generous and discerning patron of letters, was for some time in the “free custody” of the Lord Keeper of the Tower. Further, Southampton, who had joined Essex in his rebellion, had been tried and convicted with his friend, and though the Queen spared his life, he was not released from the Tower until the ascension of James I. It is not unlikely, therefore, that a copy of Nash’s manuscript made for Lord Essex passed, on the execution of the latter, with other papers and documents, into the official custody of the Lord Keeper, to be subsequently unearthed by his successor, Petyt, who, with a taste for the “curious,” had it copied for his own edification. This supposition is further borne out as follows: The particular commonplace book in which this poem occurs has been written by various hands. In the same handwriting as, and immediately preceding “The Choise of Valentines,” are two poetical effusions dedicated “To the Earl of Essex,” both apparently written when he was in prison and under sentence of death. The other contents of the volume are likewise contemporaneous.

All things considered, then, the Petyt text, although transcribed about fifty years later, has weightier claims to attention than the version in the Rawlinson MSS. I have, therefore, adopted the former as a basis, giving the Rawlinson variations in the form of notes. A few of these are obviously better readings than those of the Petyt text: the reader cannot fail to distinguish these. In the main, however, the Inner Temple version will be found consistent with its particular dedication, whilst the Rawlinson variations appear due to an attempt, signally unsuccessful, to adapt the poem for general use.

For the rest I have faithfully adhered to the original in the basic text, and in the variorum readings, except in one particular. The Rawlinson MS. is altogether guiltless of punctuation, while the Petyt copy has been carelessly “stopped” by the scribe: I have therefore given modern punctuation.

J. S. F.

1 See page x. [Transcriber’s note: starting “It is curious to note”]

2 Have with you to Saffron Walden, iii., 44.

3 Terrors of the Night.

4 It is true that Nash, in his dedication of the “Unfortunate Traveller,” speaks of it as his “first offering.” This, however, must be taken rather as meaning his first serious effort in acknowledgment of his patron’s bounty, for in “The Terrors of the Night” (registered on the 30th June, 1593), he somewhat effusively acknowledges his indebtedness to Lord Southampton:—“Through him my tender wainscot studie doore is delivered from much assault and battrie: through him I looke into, and am looked on in the world: from whence otherwise I were a wretched banished exile. Through him all my good is conueighed vnto me; and to him all my endeavours shall be contributed as to the ocean.” Again, as evidence that Nash had addressed himself to Southampton prior to his dedication of “The Unfortunate Traveller,” we glean from his promise (“Terrors of the Night”) “to embroyder the rich store of his eternal renoune” in “some longer Tractate.”

5 At the same time it must be stated that the scandal of the controversy between Nash and Harvey became so notorious that in 1599 it was ordered by authority “that all Nashes books and Dr. Harvey’s books be taken wheresoever they may be found and that none of the said books be ever printed hereafter” (COOPER, Athenæ Cant. ii. 306).

6 Davies [Grosart, Works (1888) 1–75, lines 64–72.]

7 These have been incorporated in “National Ballad and Song” (Section 2, Merry Songs and Ballads, Series 1).

8 This is not quite correct. The title in the MS. runs “The Choise of Valentines,” and Dr. Grosart purports to give the first eighteen lines, but in transcription he has omitted line 4.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:24