1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Joseph Hall

John Churton Collins, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:537-39.



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.

Hall's 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 all 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. Hall's 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 she sixteenth century. His sketches are vivid and singularly realistic, for he has the are are 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 so 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 Hall's 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 she fourth book, and of the fourth satire of the same book, are passages in question. In consulting the interests of propriety we are, see must add, not consulting the interests of Hall's fame as a satirist, though the shade of a Father of the Church will we trust forgive the injury.

Besides these Satires he was the author of a few miscellaneous poems, chiefly of a religious and elegiac character, but they are not of much value.