Saturday 4 May 2013

Hero and Leander retold, Elizabethan style - Katherine Langrish

Hero and Leander by Domenico Fetti, oil on panel, 1622/3

Thomas Nashe is my very favourite minor Elizabethan writer-cum-dramatist-cum-pamphleteer-cum-entertainer-cum-poet, best known today for his picaresque ‘novel’ ‘The Unfortunate Traveller’ - but the work of his I like best is ‘Nashe’s Lenten Stuff:

The Description and First
Procreation and Increase of the Town of
Great Yarmouth in Norfolk

With a new play never played before,
of the praise of the

It’s an extravaganza of wit, polemics, history, satire, puns, silly jokes and lyrical prose well worthy of the man who wrote the beautiful poem ‘Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss.’  Nashe doesn’t just make words dance, he makes them turn cartwheels and set off fireworks; he coins brand new ones, enjoys old ones: bathes in words, wallows in words, splashes them in your face. ‘Lenten Stuff’ was the last pamphlet he published before his death at the age of something like thirty-four (perhaps of the plague), and if like me, you enjoy over-the-top prose, Nashe is your man.

He opens in style:

To his Readers, he cares not what they be. ‘Nashe’s Lenten Stuff’. And why ‘Nashe’s Lenten Stuff’? Some scabbed scald squire replies, ‘Because I had money lent me at Yarmouth, and I pay them again in praise of their town and the red herring.’  And if it were so, Goodman Pig-wiggen, were not that honest dealing? …But thou art a ninny-hammer; that is not it. 

I can’t begin to do it justice, so instead I’m simply going to quote from Nashe’s fresh, utterly irreverent, but really lovely retelling of the Greek story of the doomed lovers Hero and Leander.  Please sit back and enjoy!

Let me see, hath anyone in Yarmouth heard of Leander and Hero, of whom divine Musaeus sang, and a diviner muse than him, Kit Marlowe?

Two faithful lovers they were, as every apprentice in Paul’s churchyard will tell you for your love and sell you for your money.  The one dwelt at Abidos in Asia, which was Leander; the other, which was Hero, his mistress or Delia, at Sestos in Europe; and she was a pretty pinkney and Venus’ priest.  And but an arm of the sea divided them… In their parents the most division rested, and their towns, like Yarmouth and Leystoffe [Lowestoft], were still at wrig-wrag and sucked from their mother’s teats serpentine hatred one against each other. Which drove Leander when he durst not deal above-board or be seen aboard any ship… to play the ducking water-spaniel to swim to her, nor that in the day, but by owl-light.

Hero and Leander, William Turner, 1837

What will not blind night do for blind Cupid? …By the sea on the other side stood Hero’s castle, such another tower as one of our Irish castles, that is not so wide as a belfry, and a cobbler cannot jerk out his elbows in: a cage or pigeonhouse, roomsome enough to comprehend her and the toothless trot her nurse who was her only chatmate and chambermaid…

Neither her father nor mother vowed chastity when she was begot.  Therefore she thought they begat her not to live chaste… Of Leander … she liked well; and for all that he was a naked man and clean despoiled to the skin when he crawled through the brackish suds to scale her tower, all the strength of it could not hold him out. … Were he never so naked when he came to her, …she found a means to cover him in her bed; and for he might not take cold after his swimming, she lay close by him in the dark to keep him warm. This scuffling or bo-peep in the dark they had awhile without [let or hindrance] …till their sliding stars revolted from them.  And then for seven days together, the wind and the Hellespont contended which should howl louder. The waves dashed up to the clouds, and the clouds on the other side spit and drivelled upon them as fast.

The Last Parting of Hero and Leander, William Etty, 1827

Hero wept as trickling from the heavens to think that Heaven should so divorce them. Leander stormed worse than the storms… At Sestos was his soul, and he could not abide to tarry in Abidos.  Rain, snow, hail or blow how it could, into the pitchy Hellespont he leapt when the moon and all her torch-bearers were afraid to peep out their heads. But he was peppered for it… for the churlish frampold waters gave him his bellyful of fish-broth, ere out of their laundry or wash-house they would grant him his coquet or transire [permission to cross]… and tossed his dead carcass, well bathed or parboiled, to the sandy thresh-hold of his leman or orange, for a morning breakfast. All that livelong night could she not sleep, she was so troubled with the rheum, which was a sign she should hear of some drowning. Yet towards cock-crowing she caught a little slumber, and then she dreamed that Leander and she were playing at check-stone with pearls in the bottom of the sea.

You may see dreams are not so vain as they are preached of… The labouring man’s hands glow and blister after their day’s work; the glowing and blistering of our brains after our day-labouring cogitations are dreams… Hero hoped, and therefore she dreamed (as all hope is but a dream). Hope and fear both combated in her, and both these are wakeful, which made her at break of day… to unloop her luket or casement to look whence the blasts came or what gait or pace the sea kept; when forthwith her eyes bred her eye-sore, the first white whereon their transpiercing arrows stuck being the breathless corpse of Leander. 

Down she ran in her loose nightgown, and her hair about her ears (even as Semiramis ran out with … her black dangling tresses about her shoulders with her ivory comb ensnarled in them, when she heard that Babylon was taken) , and thought to have kissed his dead corpse alive again, but as on his blue-jellied sturgeon lips she was about to clap one of those warm plaisters, boisterous woolpacks of ridged tides came rolling in and raught him from her (with a mind to carry him back to Abidos). At that she became a frantic Bacchanal outright, and made no more bones, but sprang after him, and so resigned up her priesthood, and left work for Museaus and Kit Marlowe.


Picture credits
Hero and Leander by Domenico Fetti, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wikimedia Commons
Hero and Leander, William Turner, 1837,Tate Britain, Wikimedia Commons
The Last Parting of Hero and Leander, William Etty, 1827, Wikimedia Commons
Marlowe: Hero and Leander, 1595, Wikimedia Commons


Joan Lennon said...

This is gorgeous! Thank you - and for the paintings as well!

adele said...

Lovely! One of my favourite stories brilliantly told! Thanks!

michelle lovric said...

How brilliant. I love the 'toothless trot' and the idea of being 'at wrig-rag'. I can see why you are enamoured!

Theresa Breslin said...

A classic! Thanks.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Wonderful imagery! "She dreamed that Leander & she were playing at check-stone with pearls in the bottom of the sea..."

Thanks for sharing this!

Katherine Langrish said...

So glad you love it! I recommend reading the whole thing if you can - it's great stuff.

Leslie Wilson said...

Lovely! I adore her being his leman or orange..And the 'blue-jellied sturgeon lips.'