Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. I. Chaucer to Donne
Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by William Minto
John Marston (1575?–1634)
[Marston has been identified with an Oxford man of that name who was admitted B.A. in 1593, and with Maxton or Mastone, ‘the new poet’ mentioned in Henslowe’s Diary in 1599. But nothing is known of his private life. He published The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image and Certain Satires in 1598, and The Scourge of Villany, Three Books of Satires, in the same year. He was conjoined with Chapman and Jonson in the composition of the play called Eastward Ho! which had unpleasant consequences for its authors, and he wrote several plays by himself, the dates of which range from 1602 to 1613.]  1
IF we were asked whether Marston should be classed as a satirist or as a dramatist, it would be difficult to give a satisfactory answer. His plays are full of satiric power, and his satires are not without evidences of the dramatist’s way of looking at life. The personages of his dramas, though boldly and fully pourtrayed, are set up as types of base or noble humanity, to be vehemently disliked or liked. The author is far from being impartial in his exhibition of their character; the reader seems to be aware of him standing by with a stern moral purpose to emphasize their vices and their virtues. In his satires, on the other hand, he has a habit of turning round upon himself which may truly be called dramatic. He rails, and then rails at himself for railing; pours forth torrents of abuse upon the objects of his dislike,—dancing, fencing, sonnetteering dandies, apish scholars, pedants, gulls, perfumed inamoratos,—the vices, the effeminacies, the affectations of the time,—and then vituperates himself no less roundly as a vile, snarling, canker-eaten, rusty cur, who will rake everything into his tumbril, and cannot see good in anything. The Elizabethan time was too large and full-blooded, too full of sanguine aspiration, of prosperous bustle and variety, to be favourable to the production of satire. It was not sufficiently out of temper with itself to encourage the satirist Marston’s so-called satires are rather wild buffooneries, than the offspring of deep-seated and savage indignation. Though the language is strong enough to warrant the idea that he was much offended by the profligacy and apish fopperies of the gilded youth of the time, and he makes himself out to be a terrible cynic, ‘who cannot choose but bite,’ he does not really bite, but only belabours with a clown’s cudgel of inflated skin.  2
  The eloquence of Hall’s satires makes one hesitate to say that the language had not then been developed into a fitting instrument for polished satire, but, however this may be, Marston made no attempt at rapier-like thrusts of cynical wit. He guffawed at Hall’s ‘worthless satires,’ and the graceful archaism of his style, which seemed to him as contemptible as any of the minor vices which the satirist undertook to expose. Hall in one of his satires expressed a wish that he could use the freedom of speech of the ancient satirists. Marston gratified this wish without scruple, to such an extent that he has been stigmatised as the most filthy and scurrilous writer of his time. To the first of these epithets Marston has some claim, but to call him scurrilous conveys an imputation of ill-nature which would be most undeserved. That he could write better things than the coarse, rugged, furious, ribald, broadly-humorous couplets which he called satires, and which he estimated himself at their true value, when he took his ‘solemn congé of this fusty world,’ may be seen by any one who consults Charles Lamb’s extracts from his plays, or better still, the plays themselves.  3

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