Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John Churton Collins
Joseph Hall (15741656)
[Joseph Hall, successively Bishop of Exeter and Norwich, was born July 1st, 1574, at Bristow Park, near Ashby de la Zouch, in Leicestershire. His prose writings, which are very voluminous, have gained him the title of the Christian Seneca. His polemical works brought him into collision with Milton; his sermons rank among the most eloquent in our language; his characters of Virtues and Vices were the delight of Lamb; and his Occasional Meditations still maintain their popularity. He terminated a life of much usefulness and many troubles at Higham, near Norwich, September 8th, 1656, in the eighty-second year of his age. As a poet Hall is known only by his Satires, which were written when he was a very young man. They came out in two instalments, the first of which was entitled Virgidemiarum, First three Bookes of Toothlesse SatyrsPoetical, Academical, Moral, and appeared in 1597; the second, entitled Virgidemiarum, The three Last Bookes of Byting Satyrs, were published in the following year. Both parts were reprinted in 1599, and again in 1602.]
HALL boasts that he was the first English satirist. This is not true. To say nothing of the fathers of our tongue, and of the satires of Barklay, Skelton, Roye, and Gascoigne, he had been anticipated in his own walk by Thomas Lodge, whose Fig for Momus appeared in 1593. Hall has however a higher claim to praise. He was the founder of a great dynasty of satirists. He made satire popular, and he determined its form. Marston immediately succeeded him as his disciple; the author of Skialetheia, the author of Microcynicon, and innumerable other anonymous satirists followed in rapid succession, till we reach Donne and Jonson, Wither and Marvel, Dryden and Oldham. In all these poets the influence of Hall is either directly or indirectly perceptible. Dryden had in all probability perused him with care, and Pope was so sensible of his merits that he not only carefully interlined his copy of Hall, but expressed much regret that he had not been acquainted with his Satires sooner.
Halls abilities, not only as a satirist, but as a descriptive writer and as a master of style, are of a high order. His models were, he tells us, Horace, Juvenal, and Persius. With the first he has little in common; he has none of his sobriety, none of his grace, none of his urbanity. To the influence of the third is to be attributed his most characteristic defect, obscurity, an obscurity which arises not from confusion or plethora of thought, but from affectation in expression, from archaic phraseology, from unfamiliar combinations, from recondite allusions, from elliptical apostrophes, and from abrupt transitions. To Juvenal his obligations were great indeed. He borrows his phrases, his turns, his rhetorical exaggerations, his trick of allusive and incidental satire, his reflections, his whole method of dealing with and delineating vice. But borrowing he assimilates. Halls satire is distinguished by its vehemence and intrepidity. He has himself described the savage delight with which he applied himself to satirical composition, and every fervid page testifies the truth of his confession. He never seems to flag: his energy and fertility of invective are inexhaustible. He has in his six books bared and lashed every vice in the long and dreary catalogue of human frailty; but the reader, soon surfeited, is glad to leave him to pursue his ungrateful task alone. Nor is Hall more attractive when painting the minor foibles of mankind; for his humour is hard, his touch heavy, and his wit saturnine. As a delineator of men and manners he will always be interesting. His Satires are a complete picture of English society at the end of the sixteenth century. His sketches are vivid and singularly realistic, for he has the rare art of being minute without being prolix, of crowding without confusing his canvas; and he united the faculty of keen observation to great natural insight. History is indeed almost as much beholden to him as satire.
His style is, for the age at which his poems appeared, wonderful. Though marred by the defects to which we have referred, it is as a rule at once energetic and elegant, at once fluent and felicitous, at once terse and ornate. He carried the heroic couplet almost to perfection. His versification is indeed sometimes so voluble and vigorous, that we might, as Campbell well observed, imagine ourselves reading Dryden. To cull one or two examples:
Fond fool! six feet shall serve for all thy store,
And he that cares for most shall find no more.
Nay, let the Devil and St. Valentine
Be gossips to those ribald rhymes of thine.
And each day dying lives, and living dies.
He is the first of our authors to evince decided powers of epigrammatic expression, and to diversify the heroic couplet by the introduction of the triplet. It is much to be regretted that Halls most vigorous and most successful writing is of such a character as makes it impossible to be presented to general readers in our day. The conclusion of the first satire of the fourth book, and of the fourth satire of the same book, are passages in question. In consulting the interests of propriety we are, we must add, not consulting the interests of Halls fame as a satirist, though the shade of a Father of the Church will we trust forgive the injury.