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

§ 8. Marston’s Satires

Although Hall’s moral earnestness found few imitators in verse satire, others were not slow to recognise the possibilities of Juvenalian invective as a literary exercise. Edward Guilpin produced a volume entitled Skialetheia or A Shadowe of Truth (1598), possibly influenced by Du Bartas’s Semaines, in which he vigorously protested against the emasculated poetry of his age, and claimed that satires and epigrams were the only antidote. John Marston, in the same year, coupled a very erotic poem, The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image, with Certaine Satyres, which were probably composed in haste to keep up with the new trend of literary taste. The work of both writers bears the mark of academic fabrication. Yet both are unmistakably influenced by the London around them. These satires are not moral denunciations, but studies in hypocrisy, affectation and compromise—vices peculiar to urban society—which they illustrate with lifelike silhouettes culled from the court, the ordinary, the street and the aisle of St. Paul’s. Marston adds zest to these character sketches by a literary controversy with Hall, who had satirised him as Labeo; and, next year, abandoning love poetry once for all, he produced another volume of satires, The Scourge of Villanie (1599), in which the hypocrisy of the sensualist is exhibited in its most offensive forms. The tract is memorable for an “essay in criticism” and a “Dunciad” combined, in the sixth satire. After ingeniously accounting for The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion as an object-lesson against erotic verse, Marston turns on his literary confrères, ridiculing the invocations of some, the dreams and visions of others and the bathos to which the over-inspired descend. The critics are even more contemptible. When Capro approves, we know that he has found a line which “incends his lustful blood”; Muto, the fop, admires what he cannot understand; Friscus, in criticising a book, always pretends to recognise passages from Horace and Juvenal, though he has never read a line of either. In these and similar productions, scurrility was rapidly becoming an end and object in itself. The spirit of the Tudor “flytings,” which had reappeared in the Marprelate controversy and the Harvey-Nashe feud, was now taking yet another lease of life under the stimulating influence of Roman satire. But the licensers became alarmed at this recrudescence of envy and hatred, and, before the end of 1599, an order was issued to suppress the offensive works of Nashe, Harvey, Hall, Guilpin, Marston and others. However, the edict by no means brought peace and goodwill into literature. A “flyting” arose over The Scourge of Villanie within two years of its suppression, and gladiatorial combats continued, in the world of letters, to be the recognised resource of the intellectually unemployed.