1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Joseph Hall

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:9-13.



This distinguished man must not be confounded with John Hall, of whom all we know is, that he was born at Durham in 1627, — that he was educated at Cambridge, where he published a volume of poems, — that he practised at the bar, and that he died in 1656, in his twenty-ninth year. One specimen of John's verses we shall quote:—

THE MORNING STAR.
Still herald of the morn: whose ray
Being page and usher to the day,
Doth mourn behind the sun, before him play;
Who sett'st a golden signal ere
The dark retire, the lark appear;
The early cocks cry comfort, screech-owls fear;
Who wink'st while lovers plight their troth,
Then falls asleep, while they are loth
To part without a more engaging oath:
Steal in a message to the eyes
Of Julia; tell her that she lies
Too long; thy lord, the Sun, will quickly rise.
Yet it is midnight still with me;
Nay, worse, unless that kinder she
Smile day, and in my zenith seated be,
I needs a calenture must shun,
And, like an Ethiopian, hate my sun.

John's more celebrated namesake, Joseph, was born at Bristowe Park, parish of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, in 1574. He studied and took orders at Cambridge. He acted for some time as master of the school of Tiverton, in Devonshire. It is said that the accidental preaching of a sermon before Prince Henry first attracted attention to this eminent divine. Promotion followed with a sure and steady course. He was chosen to accompany King James to Scotland as one of his chaplains, and subsequently attended the famous Synod of Dort as a representative of the English Church. He had before this, while quite a young man, (in 1597,) published, under the title of Virgidemiarum, his Satires. In the year 1600 he produced a satirical fiction, entitled, Mundus alter et idem; in which, while pretending to describe a certain "terra australis incognita," he hits hard at the existent evils of the actual world. Hall was subsequently created Bishop of Exeter, where he exposed himself to obloquy by his mildness to the Puritans. "Had," Campbell justly remarked, "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." Yet Hall was a zealous Episcopalian, and defended that form of government in a variety of pamphlets. In the course of this controversy he came in collision with the mighty Milton himself, who, unable to deny the ability and learning of his opponent, tried to cover him with a deluge of derision.

Besides these pamphlets, the Bishop produced a number of Epistles in prose, of Sermons, of Paraphrases, and a remarkable series of Occasional Meditations, which became soon, and continue to be, popular.

Hall, who had in his early days struggled hard with narrow circumstances and neglect, seemed to reach the climax of prosperity when he was, in 1641, created by the King Bishop of Norwich. But having, soon after, unfortunately added his name to the Protest of the twelve prelates against the authority of any laws which should be passed during their compulsory absence from Parliament, he was thrown into the Tower, and subsequently threatened with sequestration. After enduring great privations, he at last was permitted to retire to Higham, near Norwich, where, reduced to a very miserable allowance, he continued to labour as a pastor, with unwearied assiduity, till, in 1656, death closed his eyes, at the advanced age of eighty-two.

Bishop Hall, if not fully competent to mate with Milton, was nevertheless a giant, conspicuous even in an age when giants were rife. He has been called the Christian Seneca, from the pith and clear sententiousness of his prose style. His Meditations, ranging over almost the whole compass of Scripture, as well as an incredible variety of ordinary topics, are distinguished by their fertile fancy, their glowing language, and by thought which, if seldom profound, is never commonplace, and seems always the spontaneous and easy outcome of the author's mind. In no form of composition does excellence depend more on spontaneity than in the meditation. The ruin of such writers as Hervey, and, to some extent, Boyle, has been, that they seem to have set themselves elaborately and convulsively to extract sentiment out of every object which met their eye. They seem to say, "We will, and we must meditate, whether the objects be interesting or not, and whether our own moods be propitious to the exercise, or the reverse." Hence have come exaggeration, extravagance, and that shape of the ridiculous which mimics the sublime, and has been so admirably exposed in Swift's Meditation on a Broomstick. Hall's method is, in general, the opposite of this. The objects on which he muses seem to have sought him, and not he them. He surrounds himself with his thoughts unconsciously, as one gathers burs and other herbage about him by the mere act of walking in the woods. Sometimes, indeed, he is quaint and fantastic, as in his meditation

UPON THE SIGHT OF TWO SNAILS.

There is much variety even in creatures of the same kind. See these two snails: one hath a house, the other wants it; yet both are snails, and it is a question whether case is the better; that which hath a house hath more shelter, but that which wants it hath more freedom; the privilege of that cover is but a burden — you see if it hath but a stone to climb over with what stress it draws up that artificial load, and if the passage proves strait finds no entrance, whereas the empty snail makes no difference of way. Surely it is always an ease and sometimes a happiness to have nothing. No man is so worthy of envy as he that can be cheerful in want.

In a very different style he discourses

UPON HEARING OF MUSIC BY NIGHT.

How sweetly doth this music sound in this dead season! In the day-time it would not, it could not so much affect the ear. All harmonious sounds are advanced by a silent darkness: thus it is with the glad tidings of salvation. The gospel never sounds so sweet as in the night of preservation or of our own private affliction — it is ever the same, the difference is in our disposition to receive it. O God, whose praise it is to give songs in the night, make my prosperity conscionable and my crosses cheerful!

Hall fulfilled one test of lofty genius: he was in several departments an originator. He first gave an example of epistolary composition in prose, — an example the imitation of which has produced many of the most interesting, instructive, and beautiful writings in the language. He is our first popular author of Meditations and Contemplations, and a large school has followed in his path — too often, in truth, "passibus iniquis." And he is unquestionably the father of British satire. It is remarkable that all his satires were written in youth. Too often the satirical spirit grows in authors with the advance of life; and it is a pitiful sight, that of those who have passed the meridian of years and reputation, grinning back in helpless mockery and toothless laughter upon the brilliant way they have traversed, but to which they can return no more. Hall, on the other hand, exhausted long ere he was thirty the sarcastic material that was in him; and during the rest of his career, wielded his powers with as much lenity as strength.

Perhaps no satirist had a more thorough conception than our author of what is the real mission of satire in the moral history of mankind; — that is, to show vice its own image — to scourge impudent imposture — to expose hypocrisy — to laugh down solemn quackery of every kind — to create blushes on brazen brows and fears of scorn in hollow hearts — to make iniquity, as ashamed, hide its face — to apply caustic, nay cautery, to the sores of society — and to destroy sin by showing both the ridicule which attaches to its progress and the wretched consequences which are its end. But various causes prevented him from fully realising his own ideal, and thus becoming the best as well as the first of our satirical poets. His style — imitated from Persius and Juvenal — is too elliptical, and it becomes true of him as well as of Persius that his points are often sheathed through the remoteness of his allusions and the perplexity of his diction. He is very recondite in his images, and you are sometimes reminded of one storming in English at a Hindoo — it is pointless fury, boltless thunder. At other times the stream of his satiric vein flows on with a blended clearness and energy, which has commanded the warm encomium of Campbell, and which prompted the diligent study of Pope. There is more courage required in attacking the follies than the vices of an age, and Hall shews a peculiar daring when he derides the vulgar forms of astrology and alchymy which were then prevalent, and the wretched fustian which infected the language both of literature and the stage.

Whatever be the merits or defects of Hall's satires, the world is indebted to him as the founder of a school which were itself sufficient to cover British literature with glory, and which, in the course of ages, has included such writers as Samuel Butler, with his keen sense of the grotesque and ridiculous — his wit, unequalled in its abundance and point — his vast assortment of ludicrous fancies and language — and his form of versification, seemingly shaped by the Genius of Satire for his own purposes, and resembling heroic rhyme broken off in the middle by shouts of laughter; — Dryden, with the ease, the animus, and the masterly force of his satirical dissections — the vein of humour which is stealthily visible at times in the intervals of his wrathful mood-and the occasional passing and profound touches, worthy of Juvenal, and reminding one of the fires of Egypt, which ran along the ground, scorching all things while they pursued their unabated speed; — the spirit of satire, strong as death, and cruel as the grave, which became incarnate in Swift; — Pope, with, his minute and microscopic vision of human infirmities, his polish, delicate strokes, damning hints, and annihilating whispers, where "more is meant than meets the ear;" — Johnson, with his crushing contempt and sacrificial dignity of scorn; — Cowper, with the tenderness of a lover combined in his verse with the terrible indignation of an ancient prophet; — Wolcot, with his infinite fund of coarse wit and humour; — Burns, with that strange mixture of jaw and genius — the spirit of a "caird" with that of a poet — which marked all his satirical pieces; — Crabbe, with his caustic vein and sternly-literal descriptions, behind which are seen, half-skulking from view, kindness, pity, and love; — Byron, with the clever Billingsgate of his earlier, and the more than Swiftian ferocity of his later satires; — and Moore, with the smartness, sparkle, tiny splendour, and minikin speed of his witty shafts. In comparison with even these masters of the art, the good Bishop does not dwindle; and he challenges precedence over most of them in the purpose, tact, and good sense which blend with the whole of his satiric poetry.