Gabriel Harvey's poem Gorgon, or the Wonderfull Yeare was for some time mistakenly read as a reference to the death of Christopher Marlowe. As Charles Nicholl demonstrated, however, in his book The Reckoning, this reading was mistaken. I now hope to show that the poem was very much a part of Harvey's ongoing 'pamphlet war' with the author Thomas Nashe. In my interpretation 'Gorgon' is a mocking Awful Warning to Nashe of the fate that befalls over-confident bigmouths. I set out this argument below.

[PLEASE NOTE: Though we read very different meanings into 'Gorgon', this page owes a debt to Peter Farey's examination of the same work, since I have copied his version of 'Gorgon' and also benefited from his notes, especially the translations of the Latin tags which were provided by the late Robert Stonehouse. My gratitude to both.]

reclaiming Harvey's 'goggle-eyed' sonnet for Nashe

"I say not, what aileth thy Gorgon's head? or what is become of thy Sampsons locks?"
(Gabriel Harvey, addressing Thomas Nashe in Pierces Supererogation)

Some background to the writing of Gorgon, or the Wonderfull Yeare:

By April 1593 Gabriel Harvey had largely finished Pierces Supererogation, his answer to the attacks made on him by Thomas Nashe the year before in Strange Newes. He subsequently brought the manuscript to London to prepare it for the press. According to Nashe, throughout the summer of 1593 Harvey lodged at the house of his publisher John Wolfe, despite the plague deaths occurring all around him, overseeing the publication of his reply:

" the deadest season that might be, hee lying in the ragingest furie of the last Plague, where there dyde aboue 1600. a week in London, incke-squittring and printing against me at Wolfe's in Powle's Churchyard."

Sometime after July 16 Harvey returned to his home in Saffron Walden, and from there on September 16 he sent a last letter up to Wolfe in London before Pierces Supererogation was published. This letter, under the title A New Letter of Notable Contents, was itself eventually published along with Pierces Supererogation. With it Harvey included a long-winded and obscure poem, Gorgon, or the Wonderfull Yeare.

This 'Gorgon' poem has been much misinterpreted, and no wonder: Harvey, writing at speed, chose a rather arch and allusive style. I think though that a contemporary who was au fait with the literary scene would have understood him well enough - after a bit of thought. In modern times however Gorgon was very wrongly interpreted, largely for two reasons. It refers amonst other things to the recent death of a noted figure on the London scene, and it describes this notable dead man as 'the Tamburlaine of Paul's'. Now it so happens that a month or three before Gorgon was written the death of Christopher Marlowe had taken place in violent circumstances at Deptford: and Marlowe of course was the author of Tamburlaine. It was quite natural therefore for modern readers to suppose that "the Tamburlaine of Paul's" must be Christopher Marlowe, though it was puzzling that Harvey seemed to believe he had died of the plague, and also dragged in a baffling reference to a 'Shakerley rash-swash'.

Only after Charles Nicholl published his biography of Marlowe, The Reckoning, was the confusion cleared up. There had been another newsworthy death in London, more recent than Marlowe's, and it was to this that Harvey referred. The man who had died was a grandiose eccentric who haunted the area of St Paul's Churchyard, centre of the book trade, and his name was Peter Shakerley. Shakerley and his recent demise however are not really Harvey's principal concern, they are illustrations of the poem's main theme. The theme is 'surprising upsets'. Harvey begins by observing that sometimes amazingly unexpected things happen, and sometimes things which are confidently predicted to happen never do. To accompany this theme Harvey brings in Shakerley's recent death from plague, using it as an example of the downfall of a boastful fool. But Harvey's real target is someone quite different from the ridiculous Shakerley. Unsurprisingly, the poem is aimed at the man who was the principal motive for the writing of the pamphlet to which it was appended: Thomas Nashe

Why the poem is called Gorgon:

Though it refers by name only to Shakerley it is Nashe who is the poem's real subject, and this is indicated by its title, 'Gorgon'. As can be seen in the quote from PSat the top of this page, Harvey had already described Nashe as having a 'Gorgon's head'. We may wonder why Dr. Harvey would associate a fearsome, glaring, snaky-haired monster with with a small and beardless 25-year-old Cambridge graduate, but there were evidently two points of similarity between the pair which suggested themselves to Harvey: they both thought they could scare people stiff just by looking at them, and they both had long tangled locks. As is indicated in the 1597 woodcut above, and mentioned more than once by Harvey, Nashe favoured a bohemian hairstyle. He wore his hair rather shaggy and long. This might seem a matter of personal taste to us, but to Harvey it spoke volumes about Nashe's character and showed he was more of a blackguard than a scholar. One of Harvey's repeated gripes against Nashe's associate Robert Greene had been that he dressed like a raffish man-about-town and not with decent, academic sobriety. The Doctor evidently felt the same about Nashe. Naturally Harvey would object to Nashe's laddish hairstyle and poke fun at it. With Greene, Harvey had dwelt on his trendy beard: Nashe had no beard, trendy or otherwise, so Harvey zeroed in on his hair. In Pierces Supererogation Harvey first ties the 'Gorgon' label onto Nashe, sarcastically asking

"I say not, what aileth thy Gorgon's head? or what is become of thy Sampsons locks?"
And not only does he attack it in Pierces Supererogation, but the image is still in his mind when he writes the New Letter of Notable Contents, in which he remarks how unsuitable it is for someone of Nashe's louche appearance to be writing a work of penitential piety like Christs Teares:
Shall I be plain? Methinks the ranging eyes under that long hair (which some would call ruffianly hair) should scarcely yet be bathed in the heavenly tears of Christ, or washed in the divine tears of penitence. Irish hair,... (A New Letter of Notable Contents)
In Pierces Superogation he had first toyed with two derisive images for this 'ruffianly' style, likening Nashe both to a Gorgon and suggesting his hair is like Sampson's locks. (It's worth noting that as well as referring to Nashe's lamentable appearance, both these sarcastic comparisons reflect on what Harvey believes is Nashe's self-delusion that he is someone powerful and frightening. Indeed, in the quote above we also have the reference to "the ranging eyes" - the threatening Gorgon stare. ) For the purposes of his sonnet however Harvey wisely drops Samson and concentrates on the Gorgon reference. Sampson after all was an admirable character in the bible but Gorgon was just a hideous monster. Moreover, Harvey is also set on comparing the crowing, boastful young Nashe of Pierce Penilesse to the recently-dead Peter Shakerley, famous for his strutting arrogance and foolish bravado. Shakerley too had thought he was scary, too big and tough to die of the plague, whereas in reality he was a known fool.

So the gist of this peculiar sonnet is this: 'Gorgon' Nashe may think he's scaring everyone stiff, but 1593 is a year of comeuppances, and like the recently-departed Mr Shakerley he is doomed to get his.

St Fame dispos'd to cunnycatch the world,
       Uprear'd a wonderment of Eighty Eight:
       The Earth addreading to be overwhurld,
What now availes, quoth She, my ballance weight?
The Circle smyl'd to see the Center feare:
The wonder was, no wonder fell that yeare.

False rumour felt like conning the whole world and predicted '88 would be a year of dreadful upheaval. The world was panicked into thinking it would be turned upside down: but calm, all-knowing Heaven smiled at that. The truly amazing thing about '88 was that nothing very major happened at all.
('Nothing happened in '88' seems an odd thing for Harvey to say, since of course the Spanish Armada attacked that year. The Armada was shipwrecked however before it could do any damage and so there was no invasion, no major overturning of the state. In that sense, contrary to wild popular expectation, "nothing happened" in '88.
But why is Harvey talking about 1588 anyway? I think he is reminding readers of another non-event of that year. As Cambridge men would recall, 1588 was when Thomas Nashe turned his back on the university which didn't want him and set off boldly for London to seek fame and fortune as a writer. And promptly dropped off the radar for three years.)

Wonders enhaunse their powre in numbers odd:
       The fatall yeare of yeares is Ninety Three:
       Parma hath kist: De-Maine entreates the rodd:
       Warre wondreth, Peace in Spaine and Fraunce to see.
       Brave Eckenberg, the dowty Bassa shames:
       The Christian Neptune, Turkish Vulcane tames.

Navarre wooes Roome: Charlmaine gives Guise the Phy:
       Weepe Powles, thy Tamberlaine voutsafes to dye.

'93, not '88, is the destined year of change. Look at all these foreign events featuring astonishing reversals of the expected! and here at home, sadly, even the 'Tamburlaine' of Pauls has bitten the dust.
('Tamburlaine' of course was the name of the king in Marlowe's famous play of the same name, a loud and domineering tyrant, played to the hilt by Edward Alleyn. But who is the 'Tamberlaine' of Paul's? 'Paul's', or St Paul's churchyard, was the centre of the book trade, so might the 'Tamberlaine' of Paul's be Tamburlaine's creator Marlowe, who had died some four months earlier?)

The hugest miracle remaines behinde,
       The second Shakerley Rash-Swash to binde.

The real wonder of 93 is still to come - sorting out the second Shakerley.
(No, it seems the 'Tamburlaine' who recently died is not Marlowe but someone called 'Shakerley'. We know from references in both Harvey, Nashe and Meres that a man named Shakerley, sometimes referred to as 'Shakerley of Paul's', was notorious for his eccentric behaviour. This included a habit of stalking about with a pompous stride, in the best Tamburlaine manner. Thomas Campion wrote a Latin epigram on this:

'Shaecherlaee, deos tua celsa gradatio manes/erret ne tectum corruat in capita': 'Shakerley, your lofty strut frightens the underworld gods lest the roof fall on their heads'.
Moreover, this Shakerley is newly dead: the name Peter Shakerley is listed in the burial register of St-Gregory-by-St-Pauls for the date September 18 1593. So it is this strutting Peter Shakerley, then, who is the deceased 'Tamberlaine' of Paul's. Which prompts the question - if the real Shakerley is dead, then who is the second Shakerley who also has to be tamed by superhuman effort this year? Well, Harvey refers to Shakerley in relation to Nashe at least three times in 'Pierces Supererogation': he also threatens throughout PS that a forthcoming publication written by a lady friend of his will utterly humiliate that impudent writer. In other words, the 'second Shakerley' who is about to be 'bound' is Thomas Nashe.

A Stanza declarative: to the Lovers
       of admirable Workes

Pleased it hath, a Gentlewoman rare,
       With Phenix quill in diamant hand of Art,
       To muzzle the redoubtable Bull-bare,
       And play the galiard Championesses part.
Though miracles surcease, yet Wonder see
       The mightiest miracle of Ninety Three.

Verse declaration: to anyone interested in good writing

A wonderful lady who writes like an angel has graciously undertaken to do this task, taming the dreaded hooligan. The age of miracles is over, but this is going to be the most amazing sight of the year.

Vis consilii expers, mole ruit sua.

'Force without wisdom falls by its own weight'

(This is a quotation from a Latin poem on the subject of the Titans, strong-but-dim giants who foolishly thought they could challenge the gods and tried to climb up to heaven by piling one mountain on another. The gods cast them down to destruction. The Titans are emblems of over-aspiring pride receiving due punishment - which in Harvey's eyes makes them appropriate as references to Thomas Nashe.)

The Writers Postscript: or a frendly Caveat
       to the Second Shakerley of Powles.


Slumbring I lay in melancholy bed,
       Before the dawning of the sanguin light:
       When Echo shrill, or some Familiar Spright
Buzzed an Epitaph into my hed.

Magnifique Mindes, bred of Gargantuas race,
In grisly weedes His Obsequies waiment.
Whose Corps on Powles, whose mind triumph'd on Kent,
Scorning to bate Sir Rodomont an ace.

P.S. : A friendly warning to the Second Shakerley of Paul's:
I was lying in bed just before dawn, when some rumour or spirit tattled an epitaph into my head: Bellowing blowhards, Gargantua's boys, mourn in your scariest clothes the death of the one who lorded it over Paul's in body and over Kent in spirit, boasting every bit as loud as Sir Rodomont!

I mus'd awhile: and having mus'd awhile,
Jesu, (quoth I) is that Gargantua minde
Conquer'd, and left no Scanderbeg behinde?
Vow'd he not to Powles A Second bile?

What bile, or kibe? (quoth that same early Spright ?)
Have you forgot the Scanderbegging wight?

I thought this over, and said: My god, has The Incredible Hulk really gone? Left us no Supermouth Scanderbeg to take his place? Didn't he bequeath a second pain to Paul's?
Talk about a pain?
said the same early Spirit. Have you forgotten the Scanderbeggar?*

('Scanderbeg' and the 'Scanderbegging wight' are, obviously, two different men - one dead, one alive. Harvey uses the name 'Scanderbeg', meaning an absurdly aggressive boaster, in reference to Shakerley, a man who by all accounts out-Heroded Herod. 'Can Scanderbeg really be gone, no-one left to take his place?' But the Spright quickly asks if Harvey's forgotten that Paul's still has a 'Scanderbegging wight' left. This is Nashe, who not only made bigmouthed threats in 'Strange Newes' - and is thus qualified to be described as a 'Scanderbeg' - but is also often referred to by his most famous persona, 'Pierce Penniless': hence he is not just a Scanderbeg but also a Scanderbegging wight. Harvey always affects to take Nashe's/Pierce's complaints of dire poverty at face value - 'beggarly rakehell' (PS, p41) See also note on 'bull-beggar' below.)


Is it a Dreame? or is the Highest minde,
That ever haunted Powles, or hunted winde,
Bereaft of that same sky-surmounting breath,
That breath, that taught the Timpany to swell?

He, and the Plague contended for the game:
The hawty man extolled his hideous thoughtes,
And gloriously insultes upon poore soules,
That plague themselves: for faint harts plague themselves.

The tyrant Sicknesse of base-minded slaves
Oh how it dominers in Coward Lane?
So Surquidry rang-out his larum bell,
When he had girn'd at many a dolefull knell.


Is it all a dream? or is the most arrogant mind that ever hung round Paul's, or filled his lungs, now eternally out of breath? - that megapompous breath, that could give the Dropsy lessons in how to swell? He and the Plague went head-to-head. The arrogant man extolled his own tough attitude and sneered down his nose at anyone who fell sick: "They give themselves the plague by being so scared of it. Plague only gets a grip on weaklings. Look how it rules the roost in Coward Lane!" So Mr Big rang his own loud warning-bell**, after he'd pulled contemptous faces at many a man's deathknell.

The graund Dissease disdain'd his toade Conceit,
And smiling at his tamberlaine contempt,
Sternely struck-home the peremptory stroke.
He that nor feared God, nor dreaded Div'll,
Nor ought admired, but his wondrous selfe:
Like Junos gawdy Bird, that prowdly stares
On glittring fan of his triumphant taile:
Or like the ugly Bugg, that scorn'd to dy,
And mountes of Glory rear'd in towring witt:
Alas: but Babell Pride must kisse the pitt.

The Great Disease despised his disgusting arrogance and, smiling at his Tamburlaine-like boasting, cut him down where he stood - that man, who feared neither God nor the Devil, who was impressed by nothing but his marvellous self, like a peacock bewitched by his own gorgeous tail, or like the ugly monster that had no fear of death and raised splendid mountains in its vaunting cleverness.*** Ah well: even the Tower of Babel had to come crashing to the ground.


Powles steeple, and a hugyer thing is downe:
Beware the next Bull-beggar of the towne.

Fata immatura vagantur

To sum up:- Paul's steeple fell: now an even bigger thing is down: better watch out the next London Loudmouth!

'Early death is roaming around...'


*'Scanderbeg' Historically Scanderbeg or Skanderbeg (c. 1403-68) was the Albanian patriot Iskander Beg, or 'Alexander Bey'. A Christian taken by the Turks at the age of seven and obliged to convert to Islam, he later reverted to Christianity and in 1443 drove the Turks out of Albania. Although a heroic figure in late-medieval Christianity, Skanderbeg's representation on stage as a threatening but exotically 'eastern' champion led to his name being associated with wild posturing.

**I think Harvey implies Shakerley drew the Plague's attention to himself by boasting he was immune. This may sound nonsense, but perhaps from an orthodox 16th century viewpoint makes sense. The plague was not random: Almighty God is above all. The plague enacts the divine will, so by attributing personal survival to his own mental toughness Shakerley was effectively dismissing Providence. This would tie in with what Harvey says in the last verse about Shakerley not fearing God, and with the subsequent images of the Titans and the Tower of Babel - both acts of defiance against heaven.

***I think we're back with the Titans here, piling Pelion on Ossa with the not-so-smart idea of climbing to heaven and attacking the gods - see the quote from Horace above. The War of the Titans would lead Harvey to think of another famous example of pride challenging Heaven, and being cast down for it, Babel: it's a natural step from the falling Tower of Babel to think of the falling steeple of Paul's, to the downfall of boastful Peter Shakerley, and lastly the imminent downfall of boastful Nashe at the hands of Harvey and his Gentlewoman.

****The very last line of 'Gorgon' advises the "next bull-beggar of the town" to watch out. "Bull-beggar" seems to be a term popular with the Harveys: Gabriel's brother Richard uses the same word to describe John Penry, the Welsh agitator mixed up in the Martinist pamphlet war. In his poem added to Pierces Supererogation, 'An other occasionall admonition', Harvey calls Nashe the 'Bull-begging knight'