Poor Thomas Nashe. He is credited with one of the most famous lines in English poetry, and he never wrote it.

From Summer’s Last Will and Testament

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkes will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree
To welcome destiny.
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Metrically the poem is brilliant. It is nominally in iambic trimeter, but Nashe produces a dirge-like movement by beginning most lines with a trochee, which emphasizes the line breaks. The repeated double trochees that conclude each stanza give the unmistakable impression of death bells tolling, and for thee.

It is also extremely unfashionable. Its grim theme of the inevitable procession to the grave will not resonate with the modern reader, who expects to live forever. Gold buys a lot more health now than it did in 1600, the plague full swift stopped going by in Western countries about a hundred years ago, and there is a good deal that can be done about wrinkles nowadays. The consolation of the afterlife Nashe offers in the last stanza will not persuade many today; indeed Nashe himself seems unconvinced. (He did haste to his welcome destiny nonetheless: like many other Elizabethan poets, including his posse, Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, Nashe lived fast and died young.)

The poem’s structure is also alien. It is syllogistic, with an argument that might have been taken, as J.V. Cunningham points out, wholesale from Aquinas:

They are such propositions as might have been translated from the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas, and they are located in that general tradition. St. Thomas, for instance, discusses the following questions: That human happiness does not consist in carnal pleasures; that man’s happiness does not consist in glory; that man’s happiness does not consist in worldly power; that man’s happiness does not consist in the practice of art; that ultimate happiness is not in this life, “for if there is ultimate happiness in this life, it will certainly be lost, at least by death.” But these are the propositions of Nashe’s lyric, some literally, some more figuratively put.

The Elizabethans often wrote syllogistic poems — Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Ralegh’s The Lie come to mind. Moderns never do. The best modern poems proceed associationally, by coherence of feeling rather than coherence of argument. One may doubt whether this is an advance.

Notwithstanding all of this, Nashe’s poem is famous for the line “Brightness falls from the air.” It’s evocative, it’s ambiguous, it’s thoroughly modern. In Portrait of the Artist Stephen Dedalus has a page-long meditation on the line, which he first misremembers, characteristically, as “Darkness falls from the air.” T.S. Eliot dilated on it. At a less exalted level, James Tiptree and Jay McInerney borrowed it to title their novels, and astronomers are very fond of it.

Trouble is, the line makes no sense in context. All of the other metaphors in the poem are homely and literal. Nashe’s 20th century editor, McKerrow, writes, with a practically audible sigh: “It is to be hoped that Nashe meant ‘ayre,’ but I cannot help strongly suspecting that the true meaning is ‘hayre,’ which gives a more obvious, but far inferior, sense.” What is obvious, once you read this, is that “Brightness falls from the hair” is the correct reading. It is literal, sensible, and on the same order as the rest of the poem. It’s not modern, but neither was Nashe.

Should the line be corrected in future anthologies? Too late; the question is irrelevant. The poem will survive in its current form no matter what Nashe intended. The great literary critic John Ford had the last word on the subject: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

(Update: Glenn Frazier comments. Eve Tushnet posits Philip Larkin as a modern who proceeds logically, not associationally. I don’t quite agree, but I will write about Larkin soon at some length and will take this up then. Terry Teachout points out that Constant Lambert set this poem to music.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted August 2, 2003 @ 12:32 PM | Language,Poetry

8 Responses to “‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy”

  1. 1 1. aboulian

    But why ‘the’ hair? In MnE that’s more naturally a single hair, no? For ‘hair’ as Nashe must mean it in your emendation the ‘zero article’ would be idiomatic. It could conceivably work plurally to refer to ‘the hair’ in a sort of medical sense, so ‘the hair’ as a property common to all humans (if too much alcohol is drunk the liver will scar), or less conceivably in a situation where the speaker’s referring to something occurring in front of him in real time. Are the rules for the definite article different in Elizabethan English?


  2. 2 2. Jordan | Download Xerxes Guide

    Interesting… the following line reminds me of a scripture:

    Rich men, trust not in wealth,
    Gold cannot buy you health;

    (Zephaniah 1:18) Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them in the day of HIS fury; but by the fire of his zeal the whole earth will be devoured, because he will make an extermination, indeed a terrible one, of all the inhabitants of the earth.”

    I also enjoyed:

    Beauty is but a flower
    Which wrinkes will devour;

    Beauty only last so long. It eventually fades, but what a person is on the inside will continue to be beautiful!

    Thank you,

    Jordan


  3. 3 3. Kelly

    Much of this does sound like scripture to me. I’m not familiar with this author.

    My favorite verse:

    “Haste, therefore, each degree
    To welcome destiny.
    Heaven is our heritage,
    Earth but a player’s stage;
    Mount we unto the sky.”

    Where can I find more works like this?


  4. 4 4. Cabo

    Kelly, I don’t think you’ll find those in the bible, but I do agree that it may resemble certain passages.

    If you like this style of writing so much, I would suggest picking up a copy of the New Testament and you’ll be in heaven… no pun intended ;)


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