We are pleased to announce that Oliver Pickering's new book The Poems and Songs of Henry Hall of Hereford: A Jacobite Poet of the 1690s will be published by Legenda.
Before the first proper English census in 1841, the odds are against finding out much about our ancestors. For a servant or a farm labourer, the typical haul is two out of three of the dates of birth, marriage, and death, from parish registers or Bishop's rolls. The chances go up if the figure in question was rich, or well-connected. But even then, sometimes the most you can hope for is a side-note by a clerk recording a minor court case, as with Shakespeare.
It helps, too, if the shadowy figure we are pursuing lived in an age of cheaper printing than Shakespeare's. Poems by Henry Hall (1656?-1707) were printed sporadically throughout his life, and he was consequential enough to appear in official records, if only just. A child of the Restoration, and a boy chorister at the Whitehall court of Charles II, Hall became Organist at Exeter and then Hereford Cathedrals, reaching the zenith of his career just as James II was deposed in 1689. Brought up to see the Stuarts as the saviours of England from the wicked Cromwell, he was — to put it mildly — dismayed by the Glorious Revolution.
Hall's friend Henry Purcell followed the new party line. Consider Dido and Aeneas, first performed that same year: "When Monarchs unite how happy their State, / They Triumph at once o'er their Foes and their Fate." But another notable change from the age of Shakespeare was that printers no longer had their thumbs cut off for publishing political satire. If you thought William III an illegitimate Dutch adventurer who had deposed the rightful king and then blundered about Europe, pointlessly settling old scores with the aid of corrupt and incompetent place-men — well then, you could say so, though anonymity was a great advantage. And friends like Dr Broughton would keep your amusing, scabrous verse letters, rather than burning them. Friends are always important, if you want to be remembered.
Oliver Pickering has been a good friend to Henry Hall, and has pieced together a remarkable archive of that life. Hall's poems are, as you'd expect, often quite singable in their metre, but they were not written for choirs. They were barbs to be sung or read aloud in drinking clubs or coffee houses, and to be handed round in manuscript so that other people could make copies. Like all bygone politics, they take some deciphering now. (Imagine a scholarly edition of a random week's broadcast of The News Quiz being published in the year 2350: how many footnotes would it need?) So in these pages, you can learn what Hogen-mogens were (they were Dutchmen) and how much Peter the Great drank when his state visit to England coincided with the great snows of 1698. (A lot.)
Hall also wrote some faintly surprising love poems. Here he is, the organist of Hereford cathedral, on a Sunday when the prettiest girl in the congregation hasn't turned up:
Is Lesbia not at church today?
The organ’s dull, the musick’s flat,
The prayers goe down too like chopt hay,
Nor can I tast Magnificat.
The Poems and Songs of Henry Hall of Hereford is due out in autumn 2022.