John Marston began his literary career as a poet. In 1598, when he was in his early twenties, he published The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image, a sexy and satirical narrative poem about Pygmalion’s love for a statue. This was ascribed to ‘W.K.’ or ‘W. Kinsayder’—an alias which probably means ‘castrator of dogs.’ Since testicles were known as ‘stones’ in this period the pseudonym suggests ‘mar stone’. The volume also included five verse satires. Later in the same year Marston published ten more satires in The Scourge of Villainy. These he signed as ‘Theriomastix’, or ‘the beast whipper’. They were rapidly reprinted together with a new satire, and by 1600 many lines from this volume had been printed in the anthology England’s Parnassus, and ascribed to Marston by name. He had arrived, and it was through poetry that he made his name.
Marston’s satires tapped into a fashion among highly educated young men in the later 1590s—including the young John Donne—for verse satires which imitated those of Horace, Persius and Juvenal. Marston’s are driven along by a distinctive rage. In modernising the poems it’s sometimes difficult to be sure whether the letter ‘I’ represents a personal pronoun or a cry of rage and frustration (‘Aye’): should ‘I cannot hold, I cannot I endure’ (Scourge, 2.1) be modernized as ‘I cannot hold, I cannot aye endure’ or ‘I cannot hold, I cannot, I, endure’? That tiny difficulty reveals a lot about the poems. They burst with an uncontrollable rage. And throughout the satires it is often not quite clear who the ‘I’ might be who is speaking. Is it Marston? A rugged satirical persona? Poetic rage? A critical friend? Or is it one of the many vividly drawn characters or ‘humours’ depicted in the poems?
For all their polyvocality, Marston’s satires do have a philosophical core. He had read the Stoic Epictetus (whose name he used as a signature at the end of Certain Satires), as well as Diogenes Laertius’s account of the life and sayings of the Cynic Diogenes. He had also studied Aristotle’s ethics and logic at Brasenose College, Oxford. He was convinced that human weaknesses and characterising obsessions (‘humours’ in the language of the age) obscured the light of reason by which people ought ideally to live. But that core of ideas is overlayered in the satires by sexual innuendo, by wild lexical innovations (which were frequently parodied by contemporaries including Ben Jonson), and by Marston’s awareness that he is as much a victim of passions and vices as the people he satirises. As a result readers have often come away from these poems unsure how to take them. Their ability to generate uncertainty—who is speaking? can we take this voice seriously?—is what makes them still immensely unsettling to read. They were among the greatest productions of the articulate, sexually and socially frustrated angry young men who flocked around the Inns of Court in later Elizabethan London. And they provide the stylistic and philosophical foundations of the plays Marston went on to write for the boy companies, which so artfully exploit the convergence of self-mockery and savagery.
The satires sometimes seem like monologues or set pieces from the early plays of Ben Jonson: characters strut on and demand attention, or the satirist impatiently calls for another fool to rebuke. But all of Marston’s verse was produced in dialogue with his times, and sometimes that dialogue was a dangerous one. According to Marston’s own account, the Cambridge satirist Joseph Hall wrote an epigram describing Marston as a mad dog, and had it pasted into all copies of Pygmalion sold in Cambridge. Marston responded to that act of physical aggression against his book by reprinting his satires with new additions which attacked Hall. Certain Satires contains a ‘Reactio’ to Hall, and the second edition of The Scourge of Villainy adds a ‘Satyra Nova’, or new satire, which responds to Hall’s attack. As a result the books of satires seem to sprawl and grow from Marston’s arguments with his world.
The arguments, however, finally got too heated even for Marston. Elizabethan satirists insisted (like their classical predecessors) that they criticised vices rather than individuals. They used generic names (Coscus, Rufus, and so on) to describe people with highly idiosyncratic quirks—obsessions with music, or fencing, or their mistress’s corsets. This encouraged readers to identify the names with people they knew, but at the same time ensured that any identification could be denied by the author. This was a highly dangerous game to play, especially when, as is the case in Marston’s satires, the people satirised included corrupt vicars and hypocritical puritans. Marston’s career as a satirist abruptly ended in June 1599 when the entire genre of satire was banned by the Bishops of London and Canterbury. This was probably a response to the growing obscenity of satire in the 1590s, but also to the frequency with which it touched on religious disputes. Volumes of Marston’s satires were called in and burnt by the public hangman. His poems were transformed overnight from a hot literary property into ash.
Although after the ban of 1599 much of Marston’s satiric energy went into writing plays, he did not stop writing poems. In 1601 he collaborated with his fellow poet-dramatists Jonson, Chapman, and Shakespeare over a collection of dedicatory verses appended to a strange poem by Robert Chester called Love’s Martyr. The dedicatory poems were modestly described on their title-page as by ‘the best and chiefest of our modern writers’. They were indeed among the most remarkable poems of the period. A group of young poets, who described themselves as chorus vatum, a chorus of poet-prophets, wrote both solo pieces and collaborative verses which explored the miraculous union of the phoenix with the turtle dove. Shakespeare’s ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’ is the most famous contribution to this collaborative venture. But Marston’s—which rejoice in their inspired obscurity, and reach out towards a metaphysical style—indicate why he belonged among this elite group of ‘the best and chiefest of our modern writers’ in 1601. He was a poetic sparring-partner and collaborator with the greatest writers of his age.