Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Joseph Hall (15741656)
[Bishop Joseph Hall was born at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in 1574, educated at Emanuel College, Cambridge, and, after spending several years at the University, became Rector of Halsted, in Suffolk, in 1601. After travelling with Sir Edmund Bacon in the Low Countries, and having already given to the world his Satires (written in imitation of Persius) and his Meditations, he attracted the notice of Henry, Prince of Wales. From Halsted he was collated to Waltham, where he remained twenty-two years, during which he was more than once employed abroad, most notably as the representative of King James in the ecclesiastical contentions of the Netherlands. In 1608 he became involved in controversy with the Brownists: and this controversy served as a counterbias to the puritanical inclination, which for a time rendered him an object of some suspicion to the party of Archbishop Laud. In 1627 he became Bishop of Exeter; and his controversial faculty was still further sharpened by the Smectymnuus dispute as to the divine right of Episcopacy, in which he had Milton for one of his opponents. After the meeting of the Long Parliament, and the more violent steps taken against the Church, his position as defender of Episcopacy made him the object of bitter hatred on the part of the Parliamentary party. He was translated to the See of Norwich in 1641. But his time there was short and troubled. The most severe measures were dealt out to him by the victorious faction, whose theories he had combated. He was imprisoned and stript of all the temporalities of his see, and died in 1656, before the Restoration reversed the fate of the struggle.]
JOSEPH HALLS father was the agent and representative of the Earl of Huntingdon, and was thus in a position to secure for his son some patronage of the kind to which so many notable men of the time in Church and State were indebted for their University training. But Hall seems to have been most influenced by the character of his mother, whose portrait, which her son has painted in a few striking lines, gives us the impression of greater force than attractiveness. She emulated the famous women of antiquity in her sanctity, which had more than a tincture of puritanic gloom in its composition. Much of each day was spent in private devotion: whence, says her son, she would still come forth, with a countenance of undesembled mortification. Other symptoms which he describes as proof of her indubitable piety, savour strongly of hypochondria; but gloomy as she must have made her surroundings, she undoubtedly retained a strong hold upon the reverence and affection of her son, and to her he doubtless owed that early puritanic leaning, which subsequent experience curbed, but did not altogether eradicate.
From a home where the chief impression was one of sincere but gloomy and melancholy piety, Hall passed to the University of Cambridge, where he evidently acquired a position such as would nowadays be gained by one who secured the highest honours of the Schools. He was one of the teaching staff of his college; and his literary reputation, as the author of the Satires, must have given him some position and notoriety, although in his own reminiscences we hear nothing of these early efforts. His later years were occupied with other fights, carried on with very different weapons; and as the Satires were cast up as a reproach to him by Milton in the Smectymnuus controversy, Hall found it neither convenient nor congenial to recall these youthful poems. Criticism of the Satires does not fall within the scope of the present notice; but they have much interest for any one who would appreciate Halls later prose work. They are not only remarkable as the productions of a youth who was little past his majority (they were published in 1597), but they also link Hall with the literature of a previous generation. His compeers then were the last of the Elizabethan dramatists; the chief object of his admiration was Spenser. In language the Satires are artificially archaic: and the tone that pervades them has very little in common with the spirit of his later work. But they brought a freedom and a vigour to his prose style which it never lost, and the practice which they gave him in his early years not only added force and liveliness to his later controversial style, but also gave to his religious writings the quick movement, the variety and the lavish illustration, which are their chief characteristics.
Hall thus combined some elements which are rarely found in combination. Educated amongst puritanic influences and under the shadow of a religion that regarded each individual accident as brought about by the special intervention of providence; passing from this to the classical influences of the University, and finding his models in antiquity; thrusting himself as a youth into the literary struggles of the dayhe brought to his later work as a divine some unique qualities. His earliest religious writings are devout and earnest, but they borrow their illustrations largely from secular sources; they have no strongly marked dogmatic features, and their language has a freedom and a force that are peculiar. Hating the Romanists he was nevertheless most conspicuously the opponent of the sects that accused the Church of England of Romanist inclination. During a great part of his life, Hall strove to maintain a position which had much to commend it, which was inspired by right-minded charity, which had entirely good objects, but which inevitably exposed him to misconstruction, involved him in disputes with his ecclesiastical superiors, and necessarily gave to his writing, in spite of its force and freedom, something of incompleteness in point of logic. He strove to maintain a middle course. He talked much of the evils of uncharitable judgment. He deprecated division, except upon what he deemed to be fundamentals, forgetting that the most complete cleavage between man and man must necessarily arise from differences as to what is, and what is not, fundamental. Undoubtedly this gives to his religious writings something of platitude, which is not saved by the freedom and force of his literary touch. There is a want of conviction, which no earnestness can quite supply. Yet side by side with this, there is the self-satisfaction which comes from the puritanical tenet, that all his life is ordered for him by providence, and that the misfortunes which befall an opponent are the contrivance of divine power. He preaches on the one hand the duty of charity, and on the other the evils of laxity, from a standpoint which is none the less narrow because it is midway between two extremes. If, he says, men be allowed a latitude of opinions in some unnecessary verities, it may not be endured that in matter of religion every man should think what he lists, and utter what he thinks, and defend what he utters, and publish what he defends, and gather disciples to what he publisheth. This liberty, or rather licentiousness, would be the bane of any church. He forgets that men cannot be brought to agree as to what are verities, but yet unnecessary; and that no utterance such as this brings us, for practical purposes, one whit nearer to agreement.
No wonder that he was suspected by such a man as Laud; no wonder that he writes as an outsider, and that his devotional writings often reflect the pagan moralist. In the end, fate was too strong for him: and when the flood-gates were opened, he speaks like a man, overwhelmed and confounded by the fierceness of controversies, the logical importance of which he never rightly appreciated. Yet at times, baffled as he is between authority and private judgment, he hits the mark with unerring accuracy, as a student of human nature. The Romanists, he says are all for blind obedience: the Romanists therefore go away with peace, without truth; ours, under pretence of striving for some truths, abandon peace.
Besides his devotional writings we have from Hall some treatises on casuistry. Such treatises have never thriven in England. They do not appeal to a wide audience, and are therefore scarcely literature in the proper sense. Halls casuistical writings lack the subtlety of the Romanist casuists, and they have none of his own special characteristics. They have none of the free and almost reckless vigour of his controversial writing; little of the variety of illustration of his devotional treatises; and only now and then, as when he covertly attacks Milton, in dealing with the question of divorce, do they show any of the vigour which we associate with his pen.
His most striking prose works are those of devotion and of Scriptural exegesis, which are often wordy, but always free and flowing in point of composition. They bear the impress of pulpit oratory, in which, as he tells us himself, he followed the practice of composing the whole sermon beforehand, but delivering it from memory and not from a manuscript. Never, he says, durst I climb into the pulpit to preach any sermon, whereof I had not before, in my poor and plain fashion, penned every word in the same order, wherein I hoped to deliver it; although in the expression I listed not to be a slave to syllables.