Although Thomas Nashe's poem "The Choise of Valentines" is often considered the most pornographic work to survive from a major author of the English Renaissance, the nature and intent of the poem are perhaps less simple than they first appear. The likelihood that Nashe may have had Chaucer very much in mind as he wrote his own work suggests, for instance, that his poem may have been intended as more than an exercise in sexual titillation. Instead, Nashe may have been attempting to achieve something of the same comic irony so often associated with Chaucer.
In 1972 J. B. Steane suggested some important distinctions between Nashe's work and pornography per se, mentioning, for instance, that Nashe's Chaucerian tone and literary playfulness implied that Nashe's "own gratification was to be found in his success not as an aphrodisiac but as a wit" (34). Steane buttressed his argument by reporting various Chaucerian echoes. He noted, for instance, that Nashe's reference in the poem to "Poore pacient Grissill" (line 152) was an allusion to the famous heroine of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale (463 n). Other critics have also pointed to similarities between Nashe's text and Chaucer's writings. F. P. Wilson, for instance, in the revised standard edition of Nashe's works, mentioned (perhaps with some skepticism) E. Kuhl's "claim" that Nashe's line "Alass, alass, that loue should be a sinne" (191) was "a reminiscence of 1. 614 of the Wife of Bath's Prologue: 'Alias! alias! that ever love was sinne!'" (5: 73). More recently, M. L. Stapleton has briefly summarized and extended previous comment on the parallels between Nashe and Chaucer, suggesting similarities of tone between "The Choise" and Chaucer's General Prologue and Reeve's Tale (see esp. 36).In addition, David O. Frantz has recently suggested parallels between Nashe's poem and Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, in part because both are set on St. Valentine's Day (190). Thus, many critics who have examined "The Choise of Valentines" have recognized its various Chaucerian affinities.
However, connections between Nashe's poem and Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale also support the argument that Nashe was consciously indebted to Chaucer. David Frantz has already briefly noted that Nashe's reference to "Saint Runnion" (245) seems to allude to Chaucer, because "both the Host and the pardoner swear by Saint Ronyan" and because "a meaning 'runnion' came to have was the male organ" (197). If Frantz is correct, then Nashe's allusion to Chaucer here seems highly appropriate to the specific context of his poem, which deals with a woman's choice between an unreliable penis and an all-too-reliable dildo. Although notes in the recent Riverside Chaucer question a bawdy interpretation of Chaucer's phrasing (904), Nashe's decision to allude to the same saint in his explicitly sexual poem supports the assumption that by the late sixteenth century, at least, Chaucer's language had taken on this lewd association. When Nashe mentioned "Saint Runnion" in his frankly bawdy poem, he seems to have been thinking of Chaucer, and he seems to have assumed that Chaucer also intended bawdy overtones.
In fact, other parallels, previously unreported, between "The Choise" and The Pardoner's Tale also suggest that Nashe may have had the latter work very much in mind when he sat down to compose his own poem. The openings of the two works, for instance, are remarkably similar. Thus Nashe's poem begins by noting that
It was the merie moneth of Februarie
Nashe then goes on to describe how such young men "dance" (6), "taste the creame, and cakes and such good cheere" (10), attend plays, and (in the case of the speaker) visit whores. Similarly, The Pardoner's Tale begins by describing how
In Flaundres whilom was a compaignye
The Pardoner himself announces, even before beginning his tale, that "heere at this alestake / I wol bothe drynke and eten of a cake" (321-22), and we have already seen how Nashe, describing his band of roving young men, similarly mentions that they pause to "taste the creame, and cakes" (10). By the same token, just as Nashe's young rogues are out pursuing fleshly pleasures "fore breake of daie," so the Pardoner eventually focuses on three young men who "Longe erst er prime rong of any belle / Were set hem in a taverne to drynke" (662-63). Furthermore, just as Chaucer's characters eventually confront their doom by turning on to a "croked wey" (433), so Nashe's protagonist eventually meets his come-down by following "crankled wayes" (45). Indeed, where McKerrow's copy-text reads "crankled," three other early manuscripts read "crooked." The alternative adjectives here may not be insignificant because, as both Chaucer and Nashe well knew, the Bible repeatedly alludes to the notion of a "crooked way" to describe the path of sin and alienation from God.
Finally, perhaps it is more than a coincidence that Nashe's speaker eventually condemns the "Eunuke dilldo, senceless, counterfet / Who sooth male fill, but never can begett" (263-64). Readers familiar with criticism of Chaucer will remember that one of the most contentious issues connected with interpretation of The Pardoner's Tale involves the significance of the Pardoner's status as a eunuch. According to one influential reading, Chaucer thereby suggests that the Pardoner is a spiritual eunuch--a man who "deliberately refuses to perform good works, and willfully turns away from virtue" (Miller 227). So, it might be argued, is Nashe's cupidinous speaker, who is spiritually far more sterile than the inanimate dildo he attacks. If Nashe had any such meaning in mind (a possibility that, unfortunately, cannot be pursued here), then perhaps his reading of The Pardoner's Tale involved more than the occasional allusions and echoes noted above. It may also have involved the kind of larger irony so typical of Chaucer himself.
Numerous other parallels of phrasing and situation between Chaucer and Nashe might easily be cited. When Nashe's bawd, for instance, describes the sex act as "nicerie" (38), her term may echo the similar usage of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who in her "Prologue" (412) calls the same act "nycetee." Likewise, when the same bawd promises in line 61 that Nashe's protagonist, Tomalin, will have a chance to "swiue with" his favorite prostitute ("Francis" or Frances), one cannot help but hear echoes of a favorite Chaucerian verb for sexual intercourse (memorably used, for instance, in The Miller's Tale). By the same token, when Nashe's prostitute describes her whorehouse as a "dancing schoole" (86), perhaps we are meant to remember that Chaucer's Wife of Bath was described as a skilled practitioner of the "old daunce." Finally, when Tomalin's penis (after some initial difficulties) is described as flying at Francis as if it were "wood," Nashe is not only making a joke about its renewed firmness but is almost certainly echoing a favorite Chaucerian adjective describing madness (Chaucer 1308).
Other parallels between phrasing and situations in Nashe's poem and in Chaucer's works could well be mentioned. The ones cited in this brief article (including the possible allusions to The Pardoner's Tale) strongly suggest that Chaucer was constantly on Nashe's mind as he wrote "The Choise." Why? My own suspicion is that Nashe saw in Chaucer's writing a precedent for the kind of comic, ironic treatment of cupidinous sexuality he offers in his own bawdy poem. Nashe, I suspect, takes Tomalin and Francis no more seriously as credible representatives of worthy motives or values than Chaucer took Nicholas and Alisoun in The Miller's Tale.
Yet however one chooses to explain Nashe's specific purposes in so frequently echoing Chaucer, his Chaucerian echoes do seem worth noting. Whatever they may suggest to individual readers or critics about Nashe's specific intentions, they undeniably serve as valuable evidence of Chaucer's continuing impact on the best writers of the English Renaissance.
1. I discuss this possibility much more fully in a forthcoming book dealing in detail with Nashe's poem.
2. On the same page, Steane identifies the chief "literary influences" on "The Choise" as "those of Ovid and Chaucer."
3. See Steane, 463 n. In quoting from Nashe's poem, I cite the text printed in the McKerrow and Wilson edition, 3: 403-16.
4. I must disagree, however, with Stapleton's argument that "Nashe imitates Ovid for the same reason he imitates Chaucer's stroke-by-stroke account of erotic congress: he enjoys the graphically sexual" (40).
5. All quotations from Chaucer are from this text.
6. See the textual notes to McKerrow's edition for references to two other manuscripts. For an account of a third, see Evans and Niland.
7. See, for instance, Psalm 125:5; Proverbs 2:15; Isaiah 59:8; and Lamentations 3:9.
8. John Farmer, in his privately printed edition of the poem, glosses this term as alluding to the noun "'Nick,' female pudendum; hence nickery, copulation" (6 n).
9. Texts differ in the spelling of her name; on this point, see Evans and Niland 367.
10. For specific citations of such usage, see the references cited in the Benson edition of Chaucer, 1296.
11. For the connotations of this phrase and citations of its use in Chaucer, see the Benson edition, 1234.
12. I discuss others, for instance, in my forthcoming book on Nashe.
13. For treatment of this issue see, for instance, my article "Ben Jonson's Chaucer," English Literary Renaissance 19 (1989): 324-45, and the other studies cited therein.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Evans, Robert C. "Ben Jonson's Chaucer." English Literars, Renaissance 19 (1989): 324-45.
Evans, Robert C, and Kurt R. Niland. "The Folger Text of Nashe's 'Choise of Valentines.'" Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 87 (1993): 363-74.
Frantz, David O. Festum Voluptatis: A Study of Renaissance Erotica. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1989.
Miller, Robert P. "Chaucer's Pardoner, the Scriptural Eunuch, and The Pardoner's Tale." Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Richard J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor. South Bend, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1960. 221-44.
Nashe, Thomas. The Choise of Valentines. Ed. John S. Farmer. London: Privately Printed for Subscribers Only, 1899.
The Works of Thomas Nashe. Ed. Ronald B. McKerrow and F. P. Wilson. 5 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1958.
Stapleton, M. L. "Nashe and the Poetics of Obscenity: The Choise of Valentines." Classical and Modern Literature 12 (1991): 29-48.
Steane, J. B. Introduction. The Unfortunate Traveler and Other Works. By Thomas Nashe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. 13-44.
By ROBERT C. EVANS, Auburn University at Montgomery