In the long and eventful career of this charming writer is so essentially involved the literary and political history of the present century, that it is impossible to give adequate consideration to any one of its varied aspects without occupying a larger space than I can here afford to all. Thus I can only offer a "fierce abridgment," leaving much that occurs to me altogether untouched; for, like Dr. Johnson, I find it more easy to be abstinent than temperate.
JAMES HENRY LEIGH HUNT, — for such was his name in extenso, — was born at Southgate, in Middlesex, — his father a West Indian, and his mother a Philadelphian, — October 19th, 1784. Like his life-long friends, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and Barnes, afterwards editor of the Times, he was educated at Christ's Hospital, London; and while yet a schoolboy evinced his natural bent for literature by the composition of numerous pieces of poetry, which were published by his father in 1802, under the title of Juvenilia: or a Collection of Poems written between the Ages of Twelve and Sixteen a volume a good deal sought for now-a-days on account of its fine frontispiece by Bartolozzi. At the age of fifteen, he left the Hospital; and after a short time passed in the office of one al his brothers, a lawyer, he obtained an appointment in the War Office. About this period, his elder brother, John, had established a weekly paper called The News; and to this he contributed a series of criticisms on the drama, in a style entirely new, a selection of which he republished in 1807, under the title of Critical Essays on the Performances of the London Theatres. These papers entitle their author to a high rank as a dramatic critic, — the highest, indeed, after Hazlitt himself. His judgments are marked by refinement of taste, felicity of expression, and nicety of discrimination; and the little volume is charming reading, even at this lapse of time. I am not, however, unaware that the author seems to have looked upon it with some disfavour, and says that "if he thought that it had a chance of survival, he should regret and qualify a good deal of uninformed judgment in it respecting the art of acting."
In 1808 he resigned his appointment at the War Office, to become joint editor and proprietor of the Examiner newspaper, — a journal which, under the management of the brothers, soon acquired a high reputation for the liberality of its politics and the ability of its criticism. But these were troublous times, and although his articles were rather literary than political in their motive, his paper managed to get involved in three several Government prosecutions. The first was in 1810, for an article on the Regency in which the rule of George III. was commented on in a manner that gave offence: this prosecution was, however, abandoned. The second was in the following year, when the casus belli was a leader in which flogging in the army was denounced. He and his brother were tried before Lord Ellenborough, but, being defended by Brougham, were acquitted by the jury. The third occasion, however, paid for all. Hunt, in a rather severe article, called the Prince Regent an "Adonis of Fifty," and awoke the spretae injuria of the "first gentleman of Europe." Here the sentence was a fine of £500 each, and two years' imprisonment. Like Beranger in La Force, Leigh Hunt passed the period of durance not unpleasantly amid books and flowers; solaced by public sympathy and cheered by the visits of friends such as Byron, Moore, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Cowden Clarke, Jeremy Bentham, "Aristophanes" Mitchell, Barnes of the Times, Alsager and others. The fine sonnet by John Keats, "written on the day that Mr. Hunt left prison," is a proof of the affection and respect with which the prisoner was regarded by his friends. He employed his enforced leisure in literary composition; and The Descent of Liberty, a Masque (1815), — The Feast of the Poets, with Notes, and other Pieces in Verse (1815), — and the Story of Rimini (1816), — published after his release, — gave him a high place among the poets of the day. In 1818, appeared his Foliage, or Poems Original and Translated from the Greek of Homer, Theocritus, Bion, Moschus and Anacreon, and from the Latin of Catullus.
He who judges, will be judged by others. Hunt made bitter enemies by his Feast of the Poets, — greatly abridged and modified in succeeding seditions, as also are many of his other pieces, the original issues of which should be sought for. His severe remarks on Sir Walter Scott, repented of afterwards, and among the passages cancelled, brought down upon him the undying enmity of the Scotch critics, who were never tired of laughing at his alleged Cockneyisms, his immortal "yellow breeches" and the "Cockney School of Poetry" generally. The matchless impudence of these Northern lights, themselves imbued with the narrowest provinciality, is amusing enough; and we can afford to laugh at their Petrarchian Sonetto, in the great Edinburgh magazine:—
Signor Le Hunto, gloria di Cocagna,
Chi scrive il poema della Rimini,
Che tutta apparenza ha, per Gemini,
D'esser cantato sopra la montagna
Di bel Ludgato, o nella campagna
D'Amsted, o sulla margi Serpentinini
Com'esta Don Giovanni d'Endyimini,
Il gran poeta d'Ipecacuanha?
Tu sei il Re del Cocknio Parnasso,
Ed egli il herede apponente,
Tu dei un gran Giacasso ciertamente,
Ed egli ciertamente Giacasso!
Tu sei il Signor del Examinero;
Ed egli soave Signor del Glystero!
Besides the stings of these Scottish gad-flies, Leigh Hunt was long the chosen mark for the Zoili of his own city, all eager to strike the politician through the poet. Thus Gifford, the cobblering editor of the Quarterly, whose unmanly sneer at the crutches of poor Mary Robinson, actress, poetess, and cast-off mistress of the Prince Regent, — had excited the indignation of the poet, went on misquoting and ridiculing the Story of Rimini, till pilloried by its author in his pamphlet Ultra Crepidarius (1823, 8vo, pp. 4to), reviewed, savagely of course, in Blackwood (vol. xv p. 86), where its writer is politely styled "the weakest and wishy-washyest satirist, without exception, whose pen ever dribbled," etc.
There is a choice page of ribaldry, too, in The Age Reviewed of "Satan" Montgomery (p. 196), which I must leave my reader to search out for himself, if he thinks it worth his trouble. It was nothing but his friendship with Leigh Hunt that brought doom on poor Keats. The alliance between the men was well known, and the fiat went forth that he must be slain, as Byron has it:—
Who killed John Keats?
"I," says the Quarterly,
So savage and tartarly,
"It was one of my feats!"
It was in 1822, just before the publication of this satire, that Leigh Hunt made his memorable visit to Italy, on the invitation of Shelley and Byron, to assist them in carrying on the Liberal, a magazine, the opinions of which, both in literature and politics, were to be in entire accordance with its title. The death of Shelley, by drowning at sea, just upon his arrival (July 1822), was a great blow to his fortunes. He was one of the sad party that assisted at the cremation of the poet, and his companion in fate, Captain Williams, on the desolate sea-shore of Via Reggio. It must have been an impressive and melancholy ceremony. The marble mountains behind, — the yellow sand and the blue sky, — the tideless wave before, — Byron, Trelawney, Captain Shenley, and the soldiers of the guard standing over the burning pile, — Leigh Hunt remaining in Byron's carriage, "now looking on, now drawing back with feelings that were not to be witnessed — the fire "bearing away towards heaven in vigorous amplitude, waving and quivering with a brightness of inconceivable beauty," — but yet which had no power over the poet's heart, which, asbestos-like, remained unconsumed, though the pyre was fanned by the soft sea-breeze, and fed with salt, wine, frankincense, and the volume of Keats which was found hand-clutched in Shelley's bosom.
Byron, in a letter to Murray, speaks of the desolate condition of Hunt and his family. "I have done all for him," he wrote, "since he came here, but it is almost useless, — his wife is ill, his six children not very tractable, and in the affairs of this world he himself is a child. The death of Shelley left them totally aground, and I could not see them in such estate without using the common feelings of humanity, and what means were in my power, to set them afloat again." Hunt lived, indeed, for a time under Byron's roof, but friendship was hardly possible where, as the latter says, there was little or no community of feeling, thought or opinion. They parted, with less of mutual good feeling than when they met. The Liberal was discontinued; Byron himself died in 1824; and by and by the Hunts returned to England. In 1828 was published the well-known Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author's Life and his Visit to Italy (8vo, 2 vols.); a work which seemed a stumbling-block and foolishness to the friends of Byron, especially his biographer Moore, and broached opinions regarding the character and habits of the noble poet which their author afterwards admitted were unnecessarily harsh and unjust. The book, indeed was, a serious mistake, and hurt his reputation.
While still in Italy, and at a period of his life beset with trials and difficulties, Leigh Hunt had employed himself by the composition of a volume, which, of great subjective interest, is now a bibliographic curiosity of no small value. This is entitled Christianism, or Belief and Unbelief Reconciled, and consists of a series of cardiphonic thoughts, feelings and aspirations, connected with the best hopes and interests of man, both with regard to this world and the next. The manuscript of this having come under the eye of John Forster, this faithful friend and admirer of the author conceived that by printing it, and ensuring its circulation among men of letters, the real state of Leigh Hunt's opinions upon points on which he had been greatly misunderstood, would be made known, and an ultimate benefit conferred upon the literary world. The author readily gave his consent, and Mr. Forster, — the circumstance is not generally known, but I do not think that I am wrong in the attribution, — printed seventy-five copies only, at his own expense, and stated, in an anonymous preface, the circumstances attendant on the issue of the volume.
So early as 1818, he had set on foot a modest weekly periodical of essays, after the model of the Spectator of Addison, and the Rambler and Idler of Dr. Johnson. This was called The Indicator; and he now (1828), while contributing largely, with Lamb, Hazlitt and others to the serials of the day, including the London Magazine, determined to issue a kind of sequel to this, which was appropriately called the Companion. The two, which had become scarce, were republished together in 1834; and again by Moxon, in 1841, together with a collection of fugitive papers from The London Journal, The Liberal, The Monthly Repository, The Tatler, The Round Table, etc., under the title of The Seer, or Common Places Refreshed, — the whole constituting one of the most delightful volumes of light and fanciful essays in the language. It was, indeed, as an ESSAYIST that the genius of Leigh Hunt especially shone. As a JOURNALIST he cannot be placed in the foremost rank. His thought was refined, rather than vigorous; and his strong individuality was unfavourable to united working for a common object. He was, nevertheless, a hardy and pungent writer, who made the literature of politics respected. He was a fearless Liberal, striking those in high places where the blow was merited; and one who fought well for us that long fight for political freedom, the results of whose victory we enjoy to-day. But that which was, in some sort, the defect of his political writings, is the very charm of his light and discursive essays. With much of the quaint humour of Charles Lamb, though perhaps somewhat inferior to that unique genius in form and mode of expression, he has an equal, if not a greater breadth of thought, reminding us at times of Addison and Steele, with a delicacy and sensitiveness which is sometimes even morbid. He made himself the friend of those whom he addressed, and loved to regard his subject in all its bearings. Truth was to him a polygon, courting examination at each of its angles, and changing its character with the various standpoints at which it was seen. Many of these Essays will live with the language, and be the delight of great men of other generations, as they were of those who are gone. Thus, the favourite paper of Hazlitt was that on Sleep, Charles Lamb loved Coaches and their Horses, the essay on the Death of Little Children, and Thoughts and Guesses on Human Nature; Carlyle held in especial favour the charming paper, My Books, written while the author was in Italy; the humour of Shelley was captivated by Fair Revenge; and Keats loved the piece on a hot summer day, entitled A 'Now'; while the prime favourites of Lord Holland were The Old Gentleman, and The Old Lady.
I must pass with rapid pen over the subsequent literary career of this voluminous writer. In 1834, he founded another serial, the London Journal, which he continued to edit during that and the following year. In 1835, he published for the first time separately his celebrated poem Captain Sword and Captain Pen. In 1840, he gave to the world his Legend of Florence, which previously neglected as it had been by a leading manager, was a great favourite with the Queen, who went several times to see it at Covent Garden, and commanded its performance before her at Windsor; and he also edited the Dramatic works of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar. In earlier life, Leigh Hunt had a propensity to write for the stage, and had produced certain other blank verse plays, of which, inasmuch as they were, even in his own recorded opinion, failures, much need not be said. One was called The Secret Marriage (afterwards The Prince's Marriage); another, Lover's Amazements, in three acts; a third, The Double, a piece of mixed prose and verse in two acts; a fourth, Look to your Morals, a prose afterpiece, or petty comedy. Of these, Lover's Amazements appeared upon the stage at the Lyceum Theatre so late as 1858, and met with a reception as favourable as that which greeted the Legend of Florence. In 1842, we have The Palfrey, a Love Story of Old Times; and in 1843, One Hundred Romances of Real Life, Selected and Translated. Next came a more important work of fiction, Sir Ralph Esher, or Memoirs of a Gentleman of the Court of Charles II., reprinted in 1850. I must content myself also with a bare enumeration of still later literary labours, either original works or compilations. Imagination and Fancy, an analytical examination of the older poets, with a preliminary essay, appeared in 1844. Wit and Humour, a sort of companion, in 1846. Stories from the Italian Poets, with Lives, came out in 1846, and exhibit, in marked degree, his admirable quality, previously and elsewhere displayed, as a translator from the Italian. In this respect Leigh Hunt is truly "facile princeps." In his hands our rugged Northern idiom is as flexible as the German. His Bacchus in Tuscany (1825, small 8vo), which I might have mentioned earlier, from the fine dithyrambic of Francesco Redi, is as far as my knowledge extends, the best translation in verse in the language; and his version of the exquisite Lutrin of Boileau is, in its way, hardly less excellent. In 1846 also, he published an edition of the Dramatic Works of Sheridan, with biography and notes. In 1847 appeared Men, Women and Books, a Selection of Sketches, Essays and Critical Memoirs; and in the same year, A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla, to which the woodcut illustrations of Doyle have given an added charm and value. Horatio Smith bought the book, unwitting, till he opened it, that it was dedicated to himself, — a compliment which he felt very acceptable. "I cannot," he wrote to the author, "imagine anything more pleasant than to be thus embalmed in a Jar of Honey, and such honey, and such a jar!"
In 1848, Leigh Hunt published a work on a subject which his various and extensive knowledge of London and its celebrities enabled him to invest with a peculiar charm and interest. This was The Town: its Remarkable Characters and Events (2 vols. 8vo), a most delightful book of gossip about the streets of the metropolis, and the notable men who have inhabited them. Passing over The Religion of the Heart, a Manual of Faith and Duty (1853), — an expanded reprint of the privately printed volume, Christianism, to which I have already referred at length, — and a series of Stories in Verse, collected from his earlier writings (1855), we come to another pair of charming volumes, which form a companion to the Town. These were entitled The Old Court Suburb, or Memorials of Kensington, Regal, Critical and Anecdotical (1858), — since republished in a single volume.
In 1850, Leigh Hunt gave to the world his Autobiography, in 3 vols 8vo, — of which, just ten years later, appeared "a new edition, revised by the author, with further revision, and an introduction, by his eldest son," in one volume, 8vo. This is a charming book. The career of its writer had not been marked by striking events, — except, indeed, the Examiner attack on the Regent, the consequent imprisonment for two years in Horsemonger Lane Gaol, and the visit to Italy, — and the interest consists in its subjective tone of thought, and the literary gossip about the brilliant men who were his friends and contemporaries. What Thomas Carlyle thought of the book may be seen by an extract from a letter, written "out of the fulness of the heart" after perusal, to its author, — than which a more generously appreciative and large-hearted expression is not to be found in the entire range of epistolary literature:—
"Well, I call this an excellent good book, by far the best of the autobiographic kind I remember to have read in the English language; and indeed, except it be Boswell's of Johnson, I do not know where we have such a picture drawn of human life, as in these three volumes." Again: — "A pious, ingenious, altogether human and worthy book imaging with graceful honesty and free felicity, many interesting objects and persons on your life-path, and imaging throughout, what is best of all, a gifted, gentle, patient, human soul, as it buffets its way through the billows of time, and will not drown, though often in danger; cannot be drowned, but conquers, and leaves a track of radiance behind it; that, I think, comes out more clearly to me than in any other of your books; — and that, I can venture to assure you, is the best of all results to readers in a book of written record. In fact, this book has been like a written exercise of devotion to me; I have not assisted at any sermon, liturgy, or litany, this long while, that has had so religious an effect on me. Thanks in the name of all men."
On the 28th of February, 1847, an amateur performance was held at the Theatre Royal, Liverpool, for the benefit of Leigh Hunt, who was described in the programme as being "in unprosperous worldly circumstances, and in bad health." The play was Ben Jonson's comedy, Every Man in his Humour, and the "cast" might well Justify a "vidi tantum" boast. I had the good fortune to be present, and the mise-en-scene comes vividly before me as I write. "Kiteley" was John Forster; "Old Knowell," G. H. Lewes; "Young Knowell," Frederick Dickens; "Wellbred," T. J. Thompson; "Master Stephen," Douglas Jerrold; "Master Matthew," John Leech; "justice Clement," Dudley Costello; "Downright," Frank Stone; "Captain Bobadil," Charles Dickens; "Cash," Augustus Dickens; "Formal," George Cruikshank; "Cob," Augustus Egg; "Brainworm," Mark Lemon; "Mrs. Kiteley," Miss Emmeline Montague; "Bridget," Mrs. A. Wigan; and Cob's wife, Mrs. Caulfield. The interlude was Turning the Tables; and the entertainment concluded with Peake's farce of Comfortable Lodgings, or Paris in 1750, when the same actors took part. An admirable address in verse, written for the occasion by Sir E. L. Bulwer Lytton, at that time personally unacquainted with Hunt, was delivered, after the overture, by John Forster, who occupied the same post on the Examiner, as theatrical critic, which the beneficiary had held in former days. The following passage occurs in it:—
So comes this night to no rebellious throng,
That kingliest claim, the poverty of song!
The base may mock, the household asp may sting,
The bard, like Lear, is "every inch a king."
Want but anoints his head with holier balms—
He claims your tribute, not implores your alms!
Mild amid foes, amidst a prison free,
He comes, — our grey-hair'd bard of Rimini!
Comes with the pomp of memories in his train,
Pathos and wit, sweet pleasure and sweet pain!
Comes with familiar smile and cordial tone,
Our hearth's wise cheerer!—Let us cheer his own.
Mr. Forster gives an account of these amateur performances in his Life of Charles Dickens (vol. ii. p. 342), and expressing his inability to find a copy of Bulwer's prologue, questions whether it was ever in print. Of course it was; I have it before me, and transcribe from it. On the Monday following, the same company performed with the same object at Manchester. On this occasion the opening address, of which I have also a printed copy, was written by Mr. Serjeant Talfourd.
But though Leigh Hunt was poor, he cannot be said to have been in circumstances of destitution. It was his fortune, by reason of protracted days, to see effected much of that change in public feeling and opinion which he had worked so strenuously to speed. In 1847, the same Government which forty years before had consigned him to a prison, found him worthy of a pension. Carlyle, it is pleasant to know, was one of the most strenuous promoters of the movement to obtain this, and the "Memoranda concerning Mr. Leigh Hunt," drawn up by him, is a most interesting document, equally honourable to himself and his friend. Here, inter alia, we are informed:—
"That Mr. Hunt is a man of most indisputably superior worth; a Man of Genius in a very strict sense of that word, and in all the senses which it bears or implies; of brilliant varied gifts, of graceful fertility, of clearness, lovingness, truthfulness; of childlike open character; also of most pure, and even exemplary private deportment; a man who can be other than loved only by those who have not seen him, or seen him from a distance through a false medium....
"That such a man is rare in a Nation, and of high value there; not to be procured for a whole Nation's Revenue, or recovered when taken from us; and some £200 a year is the price which this one, whom we now have, is valued at; with that sum he were lifted above his perplexities perhaps saved from nameless wretchedness! It is believed that, in hardly any other way could £200 abolish as much suffering, create as much benefit to one man, and through him to many and all."
The matter, thus advocated, was at length brought to a successful issue; and the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, "in whom," says Carlyle, "great part of England recognizes (with surprise at such a novelty) a man of insight, fidelity, and decision," had the gratification of informing the veteran of literature that an annuity Of £200 a year should be settled upon him from the funds of the Civil List, — adding: — "the severe treatment you formerly received, in times of unjust persecution of liberal writers, enhances the satisfaction with which I make this announcement." He also enjoyed an annuity of half this amount, settled upon him, in the same year, by Sir Percy Shelley, in accordance with the known wish of his illustrious father, — in defence of whom were the last words he ever wrote.
With this provision for the quiet evening of that day whose heat and burthen had been so well and bravely borne, Leigh Hunt continued to enjoy, in his Hammersmith cottage, his old books, and such old friends as time had spared him. He contributed occasionally to the serials of the day, — to Household Words, — and to The Spectator, for which he wrote a paper the week before his death. In 1859, he was planning a removal to London, to be nearer to his eldest son, and other friends; but rapidly failing health seeming to render immediate change of air desirable, he was induced to remove to the house of his friend, Mr. Reynell, at Putney, — the printer, by the way, of The Examiner, the paper which he had founded just half a century before, — and here he breathed his last, without suffering, in the possession of all his faculties, and without a sigh or struggle, on Sunday, August 28th, 1859, in the seventy-fifth year of his age. He was buried in the place of his choice) the cemetery at Kensall Green, where his funeral was attended by his sons and grandsons, — Severn, the friend of Keats in Italy, — and Trelawney, the "Younger Son," the associate of Byron and Shelley. For the space of ten years there was nothing to mark the spot where he slept; but at length, mainly through the exertions of S. C. Hall, the disgrace has been removed. A sum was raised by subscription; and on October 19th 1869, a graceful monument by Joseph Durham, A.R.A., was placed on the spot, and formally presented to the family in an impressive and eulogistic address by Lord Houghton. On one side of this memorial may be read the date of his birth and death; on the other, the line "Write me as one who loves his fellow-men," — from the beautiful little poem, Abou Ben Adhem, — significant as embodying his own theory of religion, in which theology is conspicuous by its absence — contributed by him many years before to the album of Mrs. S. C. Hall. With regard to the scope and tendency of his long literary career, it would be impossible, — as I regard it, — to convey, a more correct and adequate idea than that expressed in the concluding sentence of his son's Introduction to the edition of the Autobiography, published by him: — "To promote the happiness of his kind, to minister to the more educated appreciation of order and beauty, to open more widely the door of the library, and more widely the window of the library looking out upon nature, — these were the purposes that guided his studies, and animated his labour to the very last."
The assertion is made to this day, and will be repeated in the future, that Dickens, in Bleak House, pilloried his friend for public contempt, by grafting his incapacity for business, his airy frivolities and childish mannerisms, upon the selfishness and dishonesty of Harold Skimpole. As Dickens warmly repudiated the imputation, and so affectionately referred to Leigh Hunt in Household Words, we are bound to believe that he had no such intention. It is not, however, denied, either by Dickens or his apologists, that "some of the innocent eccentricities of the fictitious character had been suggested by some of the humorous qualities of the poet's air, temper, etc.;" and the question remains how far it was consistent with gentlemanliness of feeling to make such use of those peculiarities of his friend, which private and confidential intercourse alone could have made him acquainted with, and thus, without his knowledge or permission, exhibit his portrait, caricatured or not, to the world. I imagine that if John Tenniel, in a Punch cartoon, chose to surmount the body of a gorilla with the head of Gladstone, he would have some difficulty in convincing the public, that he had no intention of bringing contempt on the Minister.
What a fine stanza that is of Shelley, in his Adonais, where he depicts Leigh Hunt, — much as he was, says G. L. Craik, "to the last, in outward form, forty years later:"—
What softer voice is hushed o'er the dead?
Athwart what brow is that dark mantle thrown?
What form leans sadly o'er the white death-bed,
In mockery of monumental stone,
The heavy heart heaving without a moan?
If it be he, who, gentlest of the wise,
Taught, soothed, loved, honoured the departed one;
Let me not vex with inharmonious sighs,
The silence of that heart's accepted sacrifice.
It was to Leigh Hunt that Shelley dedicated his fine tragedy, The Cenci. He says in his prose epistle: "Had I known a person more highly endowed than yourself with all that it becomes a man to possess, I had solicited for this work the ornament of his name. One more gentle, honourable, innocent and brave; one of more exalted toleration for all who do and think evil, and yet himself is free from evil; one who knows better how to receive, and how to confer a benefit, though he must ever confer far more than he can receive; one of simpler, and in the highest sense of the words, of purer life and manners, I never knew; and I had already been fortunate in friendships when your name was added to the list."
Shelley elsewhere describes his friend as—
—one of those happy souls,
Which are the salt of the earth, and without whom
This world would smell like what it is, a tomb;
Who is, what others seem.
I have already spoken of Leigh Hunt as a JOURNALIST, an ESSAYIST a THEATRICAL CRITIC and a DRAMATIST. There is yet another aspect in which he may be regarded.
As a TALKER, he was pre-eminently great, and had the faculty of throwing "light as from a painted window" on any subject which occupied his attention. How well does his friend Hazlitt bring before us his style and manner: — "Hunt has a fine vinous spirit about him. He sits at the head of a party with great gaiety and grace; has an elegant manner and turn of features, has continual sportive sallies of wit or fancy; tells a story capitally; mimics an actor or an acquaintance to admiration; laughs with great glee and good humour at his own and other people's jokes; understands the point of an equivoque or an observation immediately; has a taste for, and a knowledge of, books, of music, of medals; manages an argument adroitly; is genteel and gallant; and has a set of by-phrases and quaint allusions always at hand to produce a laugh." Keats, too, was mindful of the varied charms of his friend's discourse:—
He who elegantly chats and talks,
The wrong'd Libertas, — who has told you stories
Of laurel chaplets, and Apollo's glories
Of troops chivalrous marching through a city,
And tearful ladies made for love and pity.
As a POET, Leigh Hunt has written much that will live with the language, and crystallized into expression many a thought that assuredly will
—on the stretch'd forefinger of all Time
Sparkle for ever.
The Story of Rimini (1816) is the longest, and perhaps the best of his poems, and being, as Professor Craik observes, "indisputably the finest inspiration of Italian song that had yet been heard in our modern English literature," it gave its author a high and distinct place of his own among the poets of his day. It may, indeed, be pronounced one of the finest, if not the very finest, narrative poem in the language since Dryden. Its charm is its simple beauty and delicacy of expression; and although these qualities are obsolete in a day of spasm, fleshliness, ruggedness and obscurity, they will embalm it for the admiration of a future time when—
Multa renascentur quae jam cecidere, cadentque
Quae nunc sunt in honore poemata.
The poem also is worthy of especial note and study as a leading specimen of that fourth, or composite school, to which Shelley, Keats and "Barry Cornwall" also belong. In origin, Italian, it has also received an influence from France and Germany, and is probably destined to be, in its further development, the cardinal mode of poetical expression among us. Byron selected the couplet on a fountain, in this poem, as one of the most poetical descriptions of a natural object he was acquainted with:—
Clear and compact, 'till at its height o'errun
It shakes its loosening silver in the sun.
Of Leigh Hunt's other poems, at which I have already glanced, I can only speak generally, worthy, as many of them are, of separate and extended notice. Genius is apparent in all that he wrote; originality marks his handling of the commonest things. His pronounced individuality; his keen perception of delicacies and refinements, unessential and often unremarked; his penetrative insight into the subtleties of art, and his vast literary culture, enabled him, in spite of mannerism, and even occasional puerility, to inform every sentence which he wrote, as it were, with a living soul. While speaking, even thus briefly, of his poems, one fact should be noticed. The later editions of these earlier pieces differ greatly, from capricious alterations and cancellings, from the original issues. Of those especially in Rimini, the author spoke with regret in his Autobiography, and intimated his intention to restore the narrative to its first course. It was right, perhaps, to reverse some of the harsher and more palpably erroneous judgments in The Feast of the Poets, and we are thus afforded the very curious study of comparing the growth and alteration of opinion in the writer's mind. He had planned "a complete and final edition" of his poetical Works, and had brought his task almost to a close, so far as arrangement, classification and selection were concerned, when it was broken off by his death. The volume, edited by his eldest son, was published by Routledge in 1860, and in typography, illustrations, binding and general "get up," is a wretched, tawdry, vulgar affair, utterly unworthy of the poet and the poetry. But what annoys one the most is to find that the author, with that discritical perversity which made Hogarth think that by his Sigismunda he had rivalled Correggio, Milton that his Paradise Regained was superior to his greater and earlier epic, Liston and Charles Mathews that their true sphere was tragedy, and George Cruikshank that he was intended by nature to be an historical painter, has left out some of his very best and most characteristic pieces! That the mother's favourite is the most ill-favoured bantling is a matter of daily notice, and possibly a wise ordination; still it is remarkable that Leigh Hunt, with all his known capriciousness of feeling, should have excluded, as "not equal in conception or execution, to the estimate of his own maturer judgment," the very piece which was selected by a very competent critic — the late Professor Craik, — as a characteristic specimen of the poet's manner and style of treatment, "attesting as powerfully as anything he has ever produced, the master's triumphant hand, in a style which he has made his own, and in which, with however many imitators, he has no rival. But the reader, — who will thank me the more for preserving the piece, inasmuch as he will not find it where he would naturally look for it, — shall judge for himself:—
THE FANCY CONCERT.
They talk'd of their concerts, their singers, and scores,
And pitied the fever that kept me indoors;
And I smiled in my thought, and said, "O ye sweet fancies,
And animal spirits! that still in your dances
Come bringing me visions to comfort my care,
Now fetch me a concert,—imparadise air.
Then a wind, like a storm out of Eden, came pouring
Fierce into my room, and made tremble the flooring,
And fill'd, with a sudden impetuous trample
Of heaven, its corners; and swell'd it to ample
Dimensions to breathe in, and space for all power;
Which falling as suddenly, lo! the sweet flower
Of an exquisite fairy-voice open'd its blessing;
And ever and aye, to its constant addressing,
There came, falling in with it, each in the last,
Flageolets one by one, and flutes blowing more fast,
And hautboys, and clarinets, acrid of reed,
And the violin, smoothlier sustaining the speed
As the rich tempest gather'd, and buzz-ringing moons
Of tambours, and huge basses, and giant bassoons;
And the golden trombone, that darteth its tongue
Like a bee of the gods; nor was absent the gong,
Like a sudden fate-bringing oracular sound
Of earth's iron genius, burst up from the ground,
A terrible slave come to wait on his masters
The gods, with exultings that clank'd like disasters;
And then spoke the organs, the very gods they,
Like thunders that roll on a wind-blowing day;
And, taking the rule of the roar in their hands,
Lo! the Genii of Music came out of all lands;
And one of them said, "Will my lord tell his slave
What concert 'twould please his Firesideship to have?"
Then I said, in a tone of immense will and pleasure;
"Let orchestras rise to some exquisite measure;
And let there be lights and be odours; and let
The lovers of music serenely be set;
And then, with their singers in lily-white stoles;
And themselves clad in rose-colour, fetch me the souls
Of all the composers accounted divinest,
And, with their own hands, let them play me their finest."
Then lo! was perform'd my immense will and pleasure,
And orchestras rose to an exquisite measure;
And lights were about me and odours; and set
Were the lovers of music, all wondrously met;
And then, with their singers in lily-white stoles,
And themselves clad in rose-colour, in came the souls
Of all the composers accounted divinest,
And, with their own hands, did they play me their finest.
Oh! truly was Italy heard then, and Germany,
Melody's heart, and the rich brain of Harmony;
Pure Paisiello, whose airs are as new,
Though we know them by heart, as May-blossoms and dew;
And nature's twin-son, Pergolesi; and Bach,
Old father of fugues, with his endless fine talk;
And Gluck, who saw gods; and the learned sweet feeling
Of Haydn; and Winter, whose sorrows are healing;
And gentlest Corelli, whose bowing seems made
For a hand with a jewel; and Handel array'd
In Olympian thunders, vast lord of the spheres,
Yet pious himself, with his blindness in tears,
A lover withal, and a conqueror, whose marches
Bring demigods under victorious arches;
Then Arne, sweet and tricksome; and masterly Purcell,
Lay-clerical soul! and Mozart universal,
But chiefly with exquisite gallantries found,
With a grove in the distance of holier sound;
Nor forgot was thy dulcitude, loving Sacchini;
Nor love, young and dying, in shape of Bellini;
Nor Weber, nor Himmel, nor Mirth's sweetest name,
Cimarosa; much less the great organ-voiced fame
Of Marcello, that hush'd the Venetian sea;
And strange was the shout, when it wept, hearing thee,
Thou soul full of grace as of grief, my heart cloven,
My poor, my most rich, my all-feeling Beethoven.
O'er all, like a passion, great Pasta was heard
As high as her heart, that truth-uttering bird;
And Banti was there; and Grassini, that goddess;
Dark, deep-toned, large, lovely, with glorious bodice;
And Mara; and Malibran, stung to the tips
Of her fingers with pleasure; and rich Fodor's lips
And, manly in face as in tone, Angrisani
And Naldi, thy whim; and thy grace, Tramezzani;
And was it a voice? — or what was it? — say—
That, like a fallen angel beginning to pray,
Was the soul of all tears and celestial despair!
Paganini it was, 'twixt his dark and flowing hair.
So now we had instrument, now we had song—
Now chorus, a thousand-voiced one-hearted throng;
Now pauses that pamper'd resumption, and now—
But who shall describe what was play'd us, or how?
'Twas wonder, 'twas transport, humility, pride;
'Twas the heart of the mistress that sat by one's side;
'Twas the Graces invisible, moulding the air
Into all that is shapely, and lovely, and fair,
And running our fancies their tenderest rounds
Of endearments and luxuries, turn'd into sounds;
'Twas argument even, the logic of tones;
'Twas memory, 'twas wishes, 'twas laughter, 'twas moans;
'Twas pity and love, in pure impulse obey'd;
'Twas the breath of the stuff of which passion is made.
And these are the concerts I have at my will;
Then dismiss them, and patiently think of your "bill."—
(Aside) Yet Lablache, after all, makes me long, to go, still.
Leigh Hunt complained sadly, we are told, of the "pickpocket look, which the malice, or want of skill, of an engraver had conferred on that copy of his countenance which decorated his book about Lord Byron." Here we have him from the pencil of Maclise, somewhat later on, and already "beyond that 'mezzo cammin' of which Dante sings," — in his own words:—
The thigh broad spread, the pressing thumb upon it,
And the jerk'd feather swaling in the bonnet;—
"pursuing all the cockneyisms of his youth, fresh and verdant as when first they flourished in all the pride of amber-coloured silk inexpressibles, over the 'half mountain region of Hampstead.'" There is no lack of other portraits; of which I have several, but they are artists' proofs, and I cannot indicate the painters or engravers. His face, — worn and sensitive as that of Pope, — is seen to advantage in the vignette by Armytage, after a drawing by W. F. Williams, prefixed to the Autobiography; and there is a characteristic likeness of him, book in hand, photographed from the unfinished picture, painted from the life, in 1837, by Samuel Lawrence, in The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt, edited by his eldest son (London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1862, 2 vols. 8vo).