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The Sillie Worme – a phrase from Thomas Nash’s The Choise of Valentines (or, Nash his dildo), published as a manuscript in the early 1590s.

A long poem – bawdy, satirical, comic – probably composed for subscribers rather than a wide audience.



The story: Tomalin visits a brothel and, once “the coast is clear”, gets down to some Tudor rumpy-pumpy with the gentle mistress Francis. This passage (ll.93-156) gives the ins-and-outs, but then … impotence:

With that she sprung full lightlie to my lips,
And fast about the neck me colle’s and clips.
She wanton faint’s, and falle’s upon hir bed,
And often tosseth too and fro hir head.
She shutts hir eyes, and waggles with hir tongue :
Oh, who is able to abstaine so long?
I com, I com ; sweete lyning be thy leaue,
Softlie my fingers, up theis curtaine, heaue
And make me happie stealing by degreese.
First bare hir leggs, then creepe up to hir kneese.
From thence ascend unto hir mannely thigh.
(A pox on lingring when I am so nighe)
Smock climbe a-pace, that I maie see my ioyes,
Oh heauen, and paradize are all but toyes,
Compar’d with this sight, I now behould,
Which well might keepe a man from being olde.
A prettie rysing wombe without a weame,
That shone as bright as anie siluer streame;
And bare out lyke the bending of an hill,
At whose decline a fountaine dwelleth still,
That hath his mouth besett with uglie bryers
Resembling much a duskie nett of wyres.
A loftie buttock barred with azure veine’s,
Whose comelie swelling, when my hand distreine’s,
Or wanton checketh with a harmeless stype,
It makes the fruites of loue eftsoone be rype ;
And pleasure pluckt too tymelie from the stemme
To dye ere it hath seene lerusalem.
Oh Gods, that euer anie thing so sweete
So suddenlie should fade awaie and fleete.
Hir arme’s are spread, and I am all unarm’d
Lyke one with Ouids cursed hemlock charm’d,
So are my limm’s unwealdie for the fight,
That spend their strength in thought of hir delight.
What shall I doe to shewe my self a man?
It will not be for ought that beawtie can.
I kisse, I clap, I feele, I view at will,
Yett dead he lyes not thinking good or ill.
Vnhappie me, quoth shee, and wilt’ not stand?
Com, lett me rubb and chafe it with my hand.
Perhaps the sillie worme is laboured sore,
And wearied that it can doe no more.
If it be so (as I am greate a-dread)
I wish tenne thousand times, that I were dead.
How ere it is; no meanes shall want in me,
That maie auaile to his recouerie.
Which saide, she tooke and rould it on hir thigh,
And when she lookt’ on’t, she would weepe and sighe,
And dandled it, and dance’t it up and doune,
Not ceasing, till she rais’d it from his swoune.
And then he flue on hir as he were wood,
And on hir breeche did thack, and foyne a-good;
He rubd’, and prickt, and pierst hir to the bones,
Digging as farre as eath he might for stones.
Now high, now lowe, now stryking short and thick ;
Now dyuing deepe he toucht hir to the quick.
Now with a gird, he would his course rebate ;
Streite would he take him to a statelie gate,
Plaie while him list ; and thrust he neare so hard
Poore pacient Grisill lyeth at hir warde,
And giue’s, and take’s as blythe and free as Maye,
And ere-more meete’s him in the midle waye.
On him hir eyes continualy were fixt,
With hir eye-beames his melting looke’s were mixt …

Impotence overcome – the triumph of Woman. Then Francis gets stuck in with a dildo, the first know reference in English.

Is this a feminist tract? No chance, luv.

Valentines is part of a Renaissance revival of impotence poems from ancient Rome. The reference to “Ovid’s cursed hemlock” must come from the Roman poet’s Amores 3:7 – “it was as though my members had been rubbed with chilling hemlock [cicuta] and knew no more the way to do their duty“.*

On first read Valentines is funny, stimulating – the hustling brothel madam, the sexual gymnastics, the failure to launch, and the last surprising resort. But there is a nasty touch. The description of the prostitute’s “mannely thigh” is a joke – except it just puzzled me. Was Nash ambivalent? Did he like women? And the reference to bryers/wyres reminded me of the mocking Shakespeare sonnet, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun …” – but without the final recovery.

Overall I find Valentines stirring but a bit wrong – it celebrates, but nothing much. What else to expect from a brothel poem? There is also a derivative observation on the debasement of Nash’s talent and his resentment of his audience – from this academic treatment.


A PDF of the poem in modern spelling.

Plus annotation here – pp.257ff.

* This is the best English version of Ovid I’ve found – it’s anonymous and seems Elizabethan (doesn’t translate hemlock).