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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 21-39

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"Milksop Muses" or Why Not Mary?

Penny McCarthy *

There is, in contemporary scholarship, still a tenacious belief that, at the end of the sixteenth century, women who aspired to be writers were "confined to patronage, translation, dedications of translations, epitaphs, letters, and the occasional private devotional meditation," as Margaret Hannay puts it. 1 Evidence to the contrary tends not to be addressed, or to be discounted when observed, which says more about a pervasive attitude of the twentieth century than the sexism of the sixteenth.

Take the three sonnets published in 1593, written apparently by a woman, in defense of Gabriel Harvey (or so he claims) in his long-running quarrel with Thomas Nashe. Vigorous, unpolished, strangely rhymed, almost doggerel, and tossed off in pamphleteering mode, they do not fit our favored paradigm of womanly writing. They are printed immediately below, so the reader can savor them before turning to a consideration of what they constitute.

Her owne Prologue, or Demurr. 2

O Muses, may a wooman poore, and blinde,
A Lyon-draggon, or a Bull-beare bind?
Ist possible for puling wench to tame
The furibundall Champion of Fame?
He brandisheth the whurlewinde in his mouth,
And thunderbolteth fo-confounding shott: [End Page 21]
Where such a Bombard-goblin, North, or South,
With drad Pen-powder, and the conquerous pott?
Silly it is, that I can sing, or say:
And shall I venture such a blustrous fray?
Hazard not, panting quill, thy aspen selfe:
Hel'e murther thy conceit, and braine thy braine:
Spare me, รด super dominering Elfe,
And most railipotent for ever raine.
     Si Tibi vis ipsi parcere, parce Mihi.

Her Counter-sonnet, or Correction of her own Preamble.

Scorne frump the meacock Verse, that dares not sing,
Drouping, so like a flagging flowre in raine:
Where doth the Urany, or Fury ring,
That shall enfraight my stomacke with disdaine?
Shall Frend put-up such braggardous affrontes?
Are milksop Muses such whiteliverd Trontes?
Shall Boy the gibbet be of Writers all,
And none hang-up the gibbet on the wall?
If dreery hobling Ryme hart-broken be,
And quake for dread of Danters scarecrow Presse,
Shrew Prose, thy pluckcrow implements addresse,
And pay the hangman pen his double fee.
Be Spite a Sprite, a Termagant, a Bugg:
Truth feares no ruth, and can the Great Div'll tugg.
    ----Ultrix accincta flagello.

Her old Comedy, newly intituled.

My Prose is resolute, as Bevis sworde:
March rampant beast in formidable hide:
Superrogation Squire on cockhorse ride:

Zeale shapes an aunswer to the blouddiest worde.
If nothing can the booted Souldiour tame,
Nor Ryme, nor Prose, nor Honesty, nor Shame:
But Swash will still his trompery advaunce,
Il'e lead the gagtooth'd fopp a new-founde daunce.
Deare howers were ever cheape to pidling me:
I knew a glorious, and braving Knight, [End Page 22]
That would be deem'd a truculentall wight:
Of him I scrauld a dowty Comedy.
Sir Bombarduccio was his cruell name:
But Gnasharduccio the sole brute of Fame.


See, how He brayes, and fumes at me poore lasse,
That must immortalise the killcowe Asse. 3

They are far from self-explanatory, but Nashe (the "Gnasharduccio" of the third sonnet, line 14), his Pierce Penilesse, which both he and his adversaries tend to nickname his "Saint Fame" (first sonnet, line 4; third sonnet, line 14), Nashe's publisher John Danter (second sonnet, line 9), and Harvey's reply Pierces Supererogation (third sonnet, line 3) are discernible in the "blustrous fray" (first sonnet, line 10).

The traditional account of the start of the Harvey / Nashe quarrel is as follows. 4 Harvey, who was a charismatic but spiky scholar of Pembroke Hall and then Trinity Hall, Cambridge, had a brother, Richard, who seems to have taken exception to what he saw as the arrogance of young Nashe. In an epistle affixed to his Lamb of God (1590), Richard Harvey pours scorn on the way Nashe, in his preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon...


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