1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Joseph Hall

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 67-68.



JOSEPH HALL, who for his ethical eloquence, has been sometimes denominated the Christian Seneca, was also the first who gave our language an example of epistolary composition in prose. He wrote besides a satirical fiction, entitled Mundus alter et idem, in which, under pretence of describing the Terra Australis Incognita, he reversed the plan of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, and characterized the vices of existing nations. Of our satirical poetry, taking satire in its moral and dignified sense, he claims, and may be allowed, to be the founder: for the ribaldry of Skelton and the crude essays of the graver Wyat, hardly entitle them to that appellation. Though he live till beyond the middle of the seventeenth century, his satires were written before, and Mundus alter et idem about, the year 1600: so that his antiquity, no less than his strength, gives him an important place in the formation of our literature.

In his Satires, which were published at the age of twenty-three, he discovered not only the early vigour of his own genius, but the powers and pliability of his native tongue. Unfortunately, perhaps unconsciously, he caught, from studying Juvenal and Persius as his models, an elliptical manner and an antique allusion, which cast obscurity over his otherwise spirited and amusing traits of English manners; though the satirist himself was so far from anticipating this objection, that he formally apologizes "for too much stooping to the low reach of the vulgar." But in many instances he redeems the antiquity of his by their ingenious adaptation to modern manners; and this is but a small part of his praise; for in the point and volubility, and vigour of Hall's numbers, we might frequently imagine ourselves perusing Dryden. This may be exemplified in the harmony and picturesqueness of the following description of a magnificent rural mansion, which the traveller approaches in the hopes of reaching the seat of ancient hospitality, but finds it deserted by its selfish owner.

But the broad gates, a goodly hollow sound,
With double echoes, doth again rebound;
But not a dog doth bark to welcome thee,
Nor churlish porter canst thou chafing see.
All dumb and silent like the dead of night,
Or dwelling of some sleepy Sybarite;
The marble pavement hid with desert weed,
With house-leek, thistle, dock, and hemlock seed....
Look to the towered chimneys, which should be
The wind-pipes of good hospitality,
Through which it breatheth to the open air
Betokening life and liberal welfare,
Lo, there the unthankful swallow takes her rest,
And fills the tunnel with her circled nest.

His satires are neither cramped by personal hostility, nor spun out to vague declamations on vice, but give us the form and pressure of the times exhibited in the faults of coeval literature, and in the foppery or sordid traits of prevailing manners. The age was undoubtedly fertile in eccentricity. His picture of its literature may at first view appear to be overcharged with severity, accustomed as we are to associate a general idea of excellence with the period of Elizabeth, but when Hall wrote there was not a great poet firmly established in the language except Spenser, and on him he has bestowed ample applause. With regard to Shakspeare, the reader will observe a passage in the first satire, where the poet speaks of resigning the honours of heroic and tragic poetry to more inspired geniuses; and it is possible that the great dramatist may be here alluded to, as well as Spenser. But the allusion is indistinct, and not necessarily applicable to the bard of Avon. Shakspeare's Romeo and Juliet, Richard II. and III. have been traced in print to no earlier date than the year 1597, in which Hall's first series of satires appeared; and we have no sufficient proof of his previous fame as a dramatist having been so great as to leave Hall without excuse for omitting to pay him homage. But the sunrise of the drama with Shakspeare was not without abundance of attendant mists in the contemporary fustian of inferior playmakers, who are severely ridiculed by our satirist. In addition to this, our poetry was still haunted by the whining ghosts of the Mirror for Magistrates, while obscenity walked in barbarous nakedness, and the very genius of the language was threatened by revolutionary prosodists.

From the literature of the age Hall proceeds to its manners and prejudices, and among the latter derides the prevalent confidence in alchymy and astrology. To us this ridicule appears an ordinary effort of reason; but it was in him a common sense above the level of the times. If any proof were required to illustrate the slow departure of prejudices, it would be found in the fact of an astrologer being patronised, half a century afterward, by the government of England.

During his youth and education he had to struggle with poverty; and in his old age he was one of those sufferers in the cause of episcopacy whose virtues shed a lustre on its fall. He was born in the parish of Ashby de la Zouche, in Liecestershire, studied and took orders at Cambridge, and was for some time master of the school of Tiverton, in Devonshire. An accidental opportunity which he had of preaching before Prince Henry seems to have given the first impulse to his preferment, till by gradual promotion he rose to be bishop of Exeter, having previously accompanied King James, as one of his chaplains to Scotland, and attended the Synod of Dort at a convocation of the protestant divines. As bishop of Exeter he was so mild in his conduct towards the puritans, that he, who was one of tho last broken pillars of the church, was nearly persecuted for favouring them. Had such conduct been, at this critical period, pursued by the high churchmen in general, the history of a bloody age might have been changed into that of peace; but the violence of Laud prevailed over the milder counsels of a Hall, an Usher, and a Corbet. When the dangers of the church grew more instant, Hall became its champion and was met in the field of controversy by Milton, whose respect for the bishop's learning is ill concealed under the attempt to cover it with derision.

By the little power that was still left to the sovereign in 1641, Hall was created bishop of Norwich; but having joined, almost immediately after, in the protest of the twelve prelates against the validity of laws that should be passed in their compelled absence, he was committed to the Tower, and, in the sequel, marked out for sequestration. After suffering extreme hardships, he was allowed to retire, on a small pittance, to Higham, near Norwich, where he continued, in comparative obscurity, but with indefatigable zeal and intrepidity, to exercise the duties of a pastor, till he closed his days at the venerable age of eighty-two.