Already we have seen that some of our earliest humorists were ecclesiastics, and it would be unfitting that we should here overlook three eminent men, Donne, Hall, and Fuller. Pleasantry was with them little more than a vehicle of instruction; the object was not to entertain, but to enforce and illustrate their moral sentiments. Hence their sober quaintness never raises a laugh, much less does it border upon the profane or indelicate.
Donne was born in 1573, in London, and was educated, as was not then uncommon, first at Oxford, and then at Cambridge. His ability in church controversy attracted the attention of James, and he was made chaplain to the King. He became preacher at Lincoln’s Inn, and afterwards was made Dean of St. Paul’s. He lived to be fifty-eight.
His sermons are full of antitheses and epigrammatic diction. There is an airy lightness in his letters and poems, but he scarcely ever actually reaches humour. The following poem, an epistle to Sir Edmund Herbert at Juliers, will give an idea of his style.
“Man is a lump, where all beasts
Wisdom makes him an ark where all agree;
The fool in whom these beasts do live at jar,
Is sport to others, and a theatre.
Nor scapes he so, but is himself their prey,
All which was man in him is eat away,
And now his beasts on one another feed,
Yet couple in anger, and new monsters breed.
How happy’s he, which hath due place assigned
To his beasts, and disaforested his mind!
Empaled himself to keep them out, not in,
Can sow, and dares trust corn where they’ve been;
Can use his horse, goat, wolf, and every beast,
And is not ass himself to all the rest.”
Bishop Hall was born in 1574, and commenced his extensive literary labours by writing when twenty-three years of age, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, three books of satires called Virgidemiae. These books he calls “Toothless Satyres, poetical, academical, and moral,” and he attacks bad writers, astrologers, drunkards, gallants, and others. Alluding to the superabundance of indifferent poetry in his days, he says:—
“Let them, that mean by bookish
To earn their bread, or holpen to profess
Their hard-got skill, let them alone for me
Busy their brains with deeper bookery.
Great gains shall bide you sure, when ye have spent
A thousand lamps, and thousand reams have rent
Of needless papers; and a thousand nights
Have burned out with costly candle-lights.”
In the following year, he produced three books of “Byting Satyres.” In these he laughs at the effeminacy of the times—the strange dresses and high heels.