Pierce’s Supererogation (1593) by Gabriel Harvey

Harvey’s Pierce’s Supererogation (1593) (which could mean, “Nashe’s Going Overboard” or “Nashe’s Great Waste of Paper”) was one in a series of vitriolic exchanges had between Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe, which spilled much ink and filled many pages throughout the 1590s. The whole affair came to an end in 1599 when the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered all the copies of books by both authors to be confiscated and destroyed.  (For a broader account of this exchange, and how it relates to Mary Sidney, see Tiger’s Heart in Woman’s Hide by Fred Faulkes).  In sum, the spill-out of this heated exchange began when Nashe insulted Mary Sidney, in his preface to an illicit publication of Philip Sidney’s sonnets, and whom Harvey, Nicholas Brenton, and others, came to her defense.

Though her name is never mentioned, most scholars agree that the Gentlewoman profusely praised by Harvey, in Pierce’s Supererogation was Mary Sidney, his patroness.  Here is one such exalted passage of praise:

“Come divine poets and sweet orators, the silver streaming fountains of flowingest wit, and shiningest art; come Chaucer and Spenser, More and Cheek, Ascham and Astely, Sidney and Dyer; come the dearest sister [Mary Sidney] of the dearest brother [Philip Sidney], the sweetest daughter of the sweetest Muses [a woman who has been blessed by the poetic inspiration of the Muses], only one excepted, [i.e., the Queen, i.e., Mary is the paramount of excellence, except for the Queen—as it was customary not to let the praises for anyone excel those for the Queen] the brightest diamond of the richest eloquence, only one excepted; the resplendentest mirror of feminine valour, only one excepted; the Gentlewoman of Courtesy, the Lady of Virtue, the Countess of Excellency, and the Madam of immortal Honour: come all the daintiest dainties of this tongue, and do homage to your Vertical Star that hath all the sovereign influences of the eloquent and learned constellations at a beck, and paradiseth the earth with the ambrosial dews of his incomprehensible wit.” (p. 173)

Venus and Adonis

With the understanding that Harvey’s “Countess of Excellency,” is Mary Sidney, we find, in the later portions of Pierce’s Supererogation, an oblique reference to an upcoming publication about “the fair body of Venus” [i.e., the narrative poem, Venus and Adonis] which is “redoubtedly [dreadfully] armed with the complete harness of the bravest Minerva.” Harvey’s later reference suggests the penname Shake-speare, since Minerva/Pallas is commonly associated with the shaking of a spear.  Such a reference to Minerva/Pallas is found in the works of Ovid and Spenser:

“Cast off these loose veils and thy armour take. | And in thy hand the speare of Pallas shake.” (Ovid's Art of Love, tr. Thomas Heywood (1625) Book I, ll. 904-5)

“Quaint, [clever, cunning] strange Bellona; the goddess of battle, that is Pallas, which may therefore well be called quaint [clever, cunning] for that (as Lucian saith) when Jupiter her father was in travail of her, he caused his son Vulcan with his axe to hew his head. Out which leaped forth lustily a valiant damsel armed at all points, whom seeing Vulcan so faire & comely, lightly leaping to her, proffered her some courtesy, which the Lady disdeigning  [with haughty contempt, scornfully], shaked her speare at him, and threatened his sauciness [impudence, disrespect].  (Edmund Spenser, Shepeardes Calendar (October, 1579)

Harvey's full reference is as follows:

  “The stay of the publication resteth only at my instance: who can conceive small hope of any possible account, or regard of mine own discourses, were that fair body of the sweetest Venus in print, as it is redoubtedly armed with the complete harness of the bravest Minerva. When his necessary defence hath sufficiently accleared him, whom it principally concerneth to acquit himself, she shall no sooner appear in person, like a new star in Cassiopeia, [this reference to Mary Sidney, as a new star, referred to in Jonson’s eulogy] but every eye of capacity Avill see a conspicuous difference between her and other mirrors of eloquence, . . . (p. 210)

At the end of Pierce's Supererogation, Harvey concludes with a mock dedication, referencing the epistle dedication made to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, in the publication of Venus and Adonis.  The dedication reads: “If your honor seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised and vow to take advantage of all idle hours till I have honored you with some graver labor.”

In his mock dedication, Harvey writes:

"And so for this present [gift, in the form of my book], I surcease to trouble your gentle courtesies: of whose patience I have . . .  in every part simply, in the whole tediously presumed under correction. I write only at idle hours that I dedicate only to Idle Hours: or would not have made so unreasonably bold in no needfuller discourse than The Praise or Supererogation of an Ass.

Though Harvey’s words are inconclusive (and clearly designed to be that way), his triplicate reference to the publication of Venus and Adonis, suggests a) that he was among the ‘inner circle’ (at Wilton House) who was privy to the publication before it was published, b) that his Gentlewoman, Mary Sidney, was the author of Venus and Adonis, and c) that the reference to Minerva/Pallas, who was known to shake a spear,  was the penname under which Venus and Adonis was going to be published.

Additional praise of Mary Sidney in Pierce's Supererogation:

Though my scribblings may fortune to continue awhile, and then have their desert, according to the laudable custom, (what should toys or dalliances live in a world of business?) yet I dare undertake with warrant, whatsoever she writeth must needs remain an immortal work ; and will leave in the activest world an eternal memory of the silliest vermin, that she shall vouchsafe to grace with her beautiful and allective style, as ingenious as elegant.  

Touching the manner, I take it a nice and frivolous curiosity for my person, to bestow any cost upon a trifle of no importance; and am so overshadowed with the flourishing branches of that heavenly plant, that I may seem to have purposely prevented all comparison, in yielding that homage to her divine wit, which at my hands she hath meritoriously deserved. Albeit, I protest she has neither bewitched with entreaty, nor juggled with persuasion, nor charmed with any corruption; but only moved with the reason which the equity of my cause, after some little communication, in her unspotted conscience suggested. They that long to advance their own shame, (I always except a phoenix or two) may bravely enter the lists of Comparison, and do her the highest honour in despite, that they could possibly devise in a serviceable devotion. She hath in my knowledge read the notablest histories of the most singular women of all ages, in the Bible, in Homer, in Virgil, (her three sovereign books, the divine Archetypes of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman valour) ; in Plutarch, in Polyen, in Petrarch, in Agrippa, in Tyraquell, in whom not, that have specially tendered their diligent devoir, to honour the excellentest women that have lived in the world ; and commending the meanest, extolling the worthiest, imitating the rarest, and, approving all, according to the proportion of their endowments, envieth none, but Art in person, and Virtue incorporate, the two preciousest creatures that ever flourished upon earth. Other women may yield to Penelope ; Penelope to Sappho, Sappho to Arachne, Arachne to Minerva, Minerva to Juno, Juno to none of her sex : she to all that use her and hers well : to none, of any sex, that misuse her or others. She is neither the noblest, nor the fairest, nor the finest, nor the richest lady : but the gentlest, and wittiest, and bravest, and invinciblest gentlewoman that I know. Not such a wench in Europe, to unswaddle a fair Baby, or to swaddle a foul puppy. Some of you may aim at her personage ; and it is not the first time that I have termed her style the tinsel of the daintiest Muses and sweetest Graces : but I dare not particularise her description, according to my conceit of her beau-desert, without her licence or permission, that standeth upon masculine, not feminine terms, and is respectively to be dealt withal, in regard of her courage rather than her fortune. And what if she can also publish more works in a month, than Nash hath published in his whole life, or the pregnantest of our inspired Heliconists can equal ? Could I dispose of her recreations, and some other exercises, I nothing doubt but it were possible (notwithstanding the most curious curiosity of this age) to breed a new admiration in the mind of Con- tempt, and to restore the excellentest books into their wonted estate, even in integrum. Let me be notoriously condemned of partiality and simplicity, if she fail to accomplish more in gallant performance, (now she hath condescended to the spinning up of her silken task) than I ever promised before, or may seem to insinuate now. Yet she is a woman; and for some passions may challenge the general privilege of her sex, and a special dispensation in the cause of an affectionate friend, devoted to the service of her excellent desert, whom he hath found no less than the handmaid of Art, the mistress of Wit, the gentlewoman of right Gentleness, and the lady of right Virtue. Howbeit, even those passions she hath so ordered and managed, with such a witty temper of violent, but advised motions, full of spirit and blood, but as full of sense and judgment, that they may rather seem the marrow of reason, than the froth of affection: and her hottest fury may fitly be resembled to the passing of a brave career by a Pegasus, ruled with the reins of a Minerva's bridle. Her pen is the very Pegasus indeed, and runneth like a winged horse, governed with the hand of exquisite skill.  (p. 206 – 08)

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