Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 7. Joseph Hall: Virgidemiarum

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 7. Joseph Hall: Virgidemiarum

In 1597, Joseph Hall, then a young fellow of Emmanuel college, claimed the honour of being the first English satirist with Virgidemiarum. It is possible that Hall’s satires existed in manuscript as early as 1591, and, again, it is just conceivable that he was unacquainted with the work of Wyatt, Gascoigne, Donne and Lodge. But, in any case, the boast of originality was partly justified, inasmuch as Hall discovered Juvenal as the true model for Elizabethan and Jacobean satire. In the hands of Horace, the Roman Satura was little more than a series of desultory conversations, dominated by an unembittered scepticism of human activities. Juvenal, however, was a rhetorician, who devoted a life’s training in oratory to the task of making out a case against society. As such, his satires have all the uncompromising sweep of an indictment and are enforced with every artifice of arrangement and expression. Both his systematic thoroughness and his aggressive indignation, though largely a pose, were adapted to this contentious age, and Hall may fairly claim to be the first who reproduced his method and spirit in English verse.

But this originality of imitation did not fetter a very living interest in the questions of his own day. This was an age when all educated men discussed literary criticism, and Hall devotes the first book of his satires to these debatable topics. He merely champions the poetic reaction of the “nineties,” when he censures the insipidity of love poetry, declaring that Cupid has now made himself a place among the muses, who begin to tolerate “stories of the stews.” Academic circles, however, must already have been preparing the way for the Augustan age, when Hall ridicules such poets as Spenser for compiling “worm-eaten stories of old time,” full of invocations and strange enchantments, and when, in a graphic description of a play-house, he represents “Turkish Tamberlaine” stalking across the stage, declaiming verses of half Italianised English, and followed by a “selfe misformed lout,” who mimics his gestures, disgraces the tragic muse and sets all his spectators in a roar. The second and third books deal with more general abuses. But the commonplaces of satire gain new force and directness from the spirit of cultured irony with which Hall invests them. The time-honoured accusation against the feeserving physician reappears in the form of a sarcastic commendation. The impostures of astrology are ridiculed by a maliciously absurd calculation on the issue of a love affair. We have the inevitable satire on the gallant, but the form is new. Ruffio is seen disporting himself in “Pawles,” “picking his glutted teeth since late noontide.” Yet, on closer inspection, we find that his face is pinched and his eye sunken, and we realise that the youth is starving himself to buy clothing, the fantastic embellishments of which give him the appearance of a scarecrow. And Hall’s most perfect piece of workmanship is a mock advertisement in which a “gentle squire” looks for a “trencher-chaplaine,” and, in return for abject servility and unremitting toil, offers him “five markes and winter liverie.”

The first three books of Virgidemiarum are termed “toothless satires,” because they aim at institutions, customs or conventionalities. The last three are styled “byting,” since they attack individuals under pseudonyms which were probably no disguise to contemporaries. The composition is even more defective. Some pieces suggest the incoherences and obscurities of the rough copy. But the future bishop had studied human nature in the provinces, where a moralist may trace the ravages of a vicious propensity through all the actions of a man’s life. And so, among the confusions and solecisms of his thought and diction, we find a few sketches of misspent lives fully charged with mordant irony. There is the story of old drivelling Lollio, toiling night and day in poverty and squalor, extracting every groat from the land, in order that his son may study at the inns of court and have means to cultivate the dissipated refinements of the cavalier. The son revels in the pleasures of the capital, where he is too proud to recognise his father’s acquaintances. But, when visiting his home, he is an object of admiration to the simple rustics. That is his father’s reward. By and bye, the old man dies, the son succeeds to the property and proves more grasping than his sire. Hall entitles this sketch Arcades Ambo. Then there is Gallio, whose self-indulgence is regulated by an effeminate regard for his well-being. He is a glutton at heart, but considerations of health keep him from coarser food than plovers’ wings. Others may turn soldier or pirate from lust for blood or hope of booty. Gallio must pick roses, play tennis and wed in early adolescence. What though his children be puny? Virginius delayed too long and now regrets that he cannot marry. Lastly, there is the picture of the glittering hall along the roadside. You knock at the gates but, like Maevius’s Italianate poetry, all is showy without but empty within. No smoke comes from the chimneys, the sign of old-fashioned hospitality. The truth is that hunger and death are now abroad, and the rich, who should make head against them, have fled, leaving the poor to bear the brunt.