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Saeva Indignatio in Donne, Hall and Marston Webster, Linda

Abstract

The formal satire of the late English Renaissance is a complex phenomenon, modelled upon the classical genre but also profoundly influenced by medieval homily and Complaint. It is connected with other literary vehicles for social criticism and is a means of protesting against change, embodying the struggle between hierarchy and mobility that marks the period. Types are represented in a realistic manner and assigned parts in miniature dramas unified by the presence of a narrator, by imagery and often by a thesis statement. Critical theories about the derivation of the term "satire" and the nature of the genre helped to shape the form, tone and organization of these poems. This study focuses on the major writers of Elizabethan formal satire, Donne, Hall and Marston, and examines their relative merits. Donne is easily the most complex and the greatest poet, but the problem of which is the most effective satirist has yet to be resolved. Donne creates "humourous" and brilliantly sardonic portraits of types and with exhaustive detail localizes the satiric scene in Elizabethan London. However, his satires are a kind of metaphysical poetry, concerned with first principles and the narrator's psychological processes. Intense subjectivity and metaphysical subtlety are perhaps better suited to lyric and devotional verse than to social satire, in spite of the poet's mastery of the art of caricature. Hall's style, lending an Augustan quality to Virgidemiae, is the measure of the differences among the writers. Hall's assimilations of classical sources, modified Neo-Stoicism, intense conservatism and references to a Golden Age and academic retreat fuse together in a witty and amusing satiric creation marked by the quiet insult, the polite sneer, contempt for the targets. Marston's use of language foreshadows certain important trends in the early Jacobean drama. Although he is sometimes incoherent in his efforts to combine satirical rage and the pose of the malcontent with moral exhortation, Marston produces an impressive, ultimately unified structure and vision of man dominated by his animal nature. In conclusion, Donne is the superior poet, Hall the most effective satirist, while Marston writes the most dramatic works, and only his lack of artistic control prevents him from surpassing his contemporaries' satire.

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