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

§ 9. “Humours”

But, quite apart from personal animosity, formal satire was bound to thrive among the upper classes. As we have seen, this form of classical imitation originated in a reaction from love poetry, but its subsequent developments were due to a deeper movement. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, a sense of disillusionment was prevading the nation, caused, partly, by the corruption of the governing classes, and, even more, by the bitter social and religious antagonisms among the people themselves. They began to lose faith in high ideals and heroic sentiments, and, as the passions and deeds of men lost their hold on the imagination, the petty curiosities and materialised interests, inseparable from city life, came out of the shadow. Attention was drawn more and more to the commonplace side of human nature. This tendency is already noticeable in Nashe, and, by the death of Elizabeth, the moods and idiosyncrasies of people were becoming the commonest themes of creative literature. As the physicians had explained temperament to be dependent on the predominance of one of the four humours or moistures—phlegm, blood, choler and melancholy—which pervaded the physiology of man, it became fashionable to dignify any mental characteristic or even pose with the name of “humour,” and to deem the most miserable affectations worthy of literary comment.

The debasement of thought was accompanied by a growing preoccupation in form and style. Seneca’s maxim in hoc omnis hyperbole extenditur ut ad verum mendacio perveniat began to be universally abused. It will be pointed out elsewhere how this decadence affected the theatre and caused the unsympathetic and exaggerated portrayal of types to take the place of the humour and pathos of incident. But it concerns us to notice here that this artificiality of sentiment and expression, which caused the decay of comedy, stimulated an enormous output of tractarian literature. A vast number of miscellaneous pamphlets began to appear. They treated the “humours” of men hardly less effectively than the theatre, and they offered endless opportunity for experiments in style and classical imitation, which the theatre did not offer.

Juvenalian satire fell under this influence and became a fashion. A large number of writers wrote in this style with elaborate and suggestive titles. Even R. C., author of The Times Whistle, chose the decasyllabic couplet as the vehicle for his homilies on such subjects as atheism, pride, avarice, gluttony and lasciviousness. His moralisations, like some of George Wither’s, are unsuited to dramatic form, but so vitalising was the study of London “humours,” that, while his denunciations of the more heinous vices are dull to the extreme, his character sketches of men’s weaknesses and affectations are bright and vivid.