Some thirty years ago, three youths went forth, one fine summer's day, from the quiet town of Mansfield, to enjoy a long luxurious ramble in Sherwood forest. Their limbs were full of youth — their hearts of the ardour of life — their heads of dreams of beauty. The future lay before them, full of brilliant, but undefined achievements in the land of poetry and romance. The world lay around them, fair and musical as a new paradise. They traversed long dales, dark with heather — gazed from hilltops over still and immense landscapes — tracked the margins of the shining waters that hurry over the clear gravel of that ancient ground, and drank in the freshness of the air, the odours of the forest, the distant cry of the curlew, and the music of a whole choir of larks high above their heads. Beneath the hanging boughs of a wood-side they threw themselves down to lunch, and from their pockets came forth, with other good things, a book. It was a new book. A hasty peep into it had led them to believe that it would blend well in the perusal with the spirit of the region of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and with the more tragical tale of that Scottish queen, the grey and distant towers of one of whose prison-houses could be descried from their resting-place, clad as with the solemn spirit of a sad antiquity. The book was The Story of Rimini. The author's name was to them little known; but they were not of a temperament that needed names — their souls were athirst for poetry, and there they found it. The reading of that day was an epoch in their lives. There was a life, a freshness, a buoyant charm of subject and of style, that carried them away from the sombre heaths and wastes around them to the sunshine of Italy — to gay cavalcades and sad palaces. Hours went on, the sun declined, the book and the story closed, and up rose the three friends, drunk with beauty, and with the sentiment of a great sorrow, and strode homewards with the proud and happy feeling that England was enriched with a new poet. Two of those three friends have for more than five and twenty years been in their graves; the third survives to write this article.
For thirty years and more from that time the author of Rimini has gone on adding to the wealth of English literature, and to the claims on his countrymen to gratitude and affection. The bold politician, when it required moral bravery to be honest; the charming essayist; the poet, seeming to grow with every new effort only more young in fancy and vigorous in style — he has enriched his country's fame, but his country has not enriched him. It is still time to think of it, and it might save many future regrets, if a government, becoming daily more liberal, were to show that it knows the wishes of the public, and is glad to fulfil them.
We have the authority of Mr. Leigh Hunt himself, in a memoir written six and thirty years ago, for the fact that he was born in 1784, at Southgate. His parents were the Rev. J. Hunt, at that time tutor in the family of the Duke of Chandos, and Mary, daughter of Stephen Shewell, merchant of Philadelphia, whose sister was the lady of Mr. President West. Thus the poet was by his mother's marriage nearly related to the great American painter; and here, he says, he could enlarge seriously and proudly; but this boasting, it turns out very characteristically, is not of any adventitious alliance with celebrated names, but of a triter and more happy cause of gratulation: — "If any one circumstance of my life could give me cause for boasting, it would be that of having had such a mother. She was, indeed, a mother in every exalted sense of the word — in piety, in sound teaching, in patient care, in spotless example. Married at an early age, and commencing from that time a life of sorrow, the world afflicted, but it could not change her: no rigid economy could hide the native generosity of her heart, no sophistical skulking injure her fine sense, or her contempt of worldly-mindedness, no unmerited sorrow convert her resignation into bitterness. But let me not hurt the noble simplicity of her character by a declamation, however involuntary. At the time when she died, the recollection of her sufferings and virtues tended to embitter her loss; but knowing what she was, and believing where she is, I now feel her memory as a serene and inspiring influence, that comes over my social moments only to temper cheerfulness, and over my reflecting ones to animate me in the love of truth."
That is a fine filial eulogy; but still finer and more eloquent has been the practical one of the life and writings of the son. Whoever knows anything of these, perceives how the qualities of the mother have lived on, not only in the grateful admiration of the poet, but in his character and works. This is another proud testimony added to the numerous ones revealed in the biographies of illustrious men, of the vital and all-prevailing influence of mothers. What does not the world owe to noble-minded women in this respect? and what do not women owe to the world and themselves in the consciousness of the possession of this authority? To stamp, to mould, to animate to good, the generation that succeeds them, is their delegated office. The are admitted to the co-workmanship with God; his actors in the after age are placed in their hands at the outset of their career, when they are plastic as wax, and pliant as the green withe. It is they who can shape and bend as they please. It is they — as the your, beings advance into the world of life, as passions kindle, as eager desires seize them one after another, as they ire alive with ardour, and athirst for knowledge and experience of the great scene of existence into which they are thrown — it is they who can guide, warn, inspire with the upward or the downward tendency, and cast through them on the future ages the blessings or the curses of good or evil. They are the gods and prophets of childhood. It is in them that confiding children hear the Divinity speak; it is on them that they depend in fullest faith; and the maternal nature, engrafted on the original, grows in them stronger than all other powers of life. The mother in the child lives and acts anew; and numberless generations feel unconsciously the pressure of her hand. Happy are they who make that enduring pressure a beneficent one; and, though themselves unknown to the world, send forth from the heaven of their hearts poets and benefactors to all future time.
It is what we could hardly have expected, that Leigh Hunt is descended of a high Church and Tory stock. On his father's side his ancestors were Tories and Cavaliers, who fled from the tyranny of Cromwell, and settled in Barbadoes. For several generations they were clergymen. His grandfather was rector of St. Michael's, in Bridgetown, Barbadoes. His father was intended for the same profession, but being sent to college at Philadelphia, he there commenced, on the completion of his studies, as a lawyer, and married. It was, again, curious, that the Revolution breaking out, the conservative propensities of the family broke out so strong in him, as to cause him to flee for safety to England, as his ancestors had formerly fled from it. He had been carted through Philadelphia by the infuriated mob, only escaped tarring and feathering by a friend taking the opportunity of overturning the tar-barrel set ready in the street, and, being consigned to the prison, he escaped in the night by a bribe to the keeper. On the arrival of his wife in England, some time afterwards, she found him who had left America a lawyer, now a clergyman, preaching from the pulpit, tranquillity. Mr. Hunt seems to have been one of those who are not made to succeed in the world. He did not obtain preferment, and fell into much distress. At one time he was a very popular preacher, and was invited by the Duke of Chandos, who had a seat hear Southgate, to become tutor to his nephew, Mr. Leigh. Here he occupied a house at Southgate called Eagle Hall; and here his son, the poet, was born, and was named after Mr. Leigh, his father's pupil.
Mr. Hunt, in his autobiography, describes his mother as feeling the distresses into which they afterwards fell very keenly, yet bearing them patiently. She is represented as a tall, lady-like person, a brunette, with fine eyes, and hair blacker than is seen of English growth. Her sons much resembled her.
At seven, Leigh Hunt was admitted into the grammar school of Christ's hospital, where be remained till he was fifteen, and received a good foundation in the Greek and Latin languages. Mr. Hunt describes very charmingly the two houses where, as a boy, he used to visit with his mother; one of these being that of West, the painter, who had married his mother's aunt; the aunt, however, being much of the same age as herself: the other was that of Mr. Godfrey Thornton, of the great mercantile house of that name. "How I loved," says Leigh Hunt, "the graces in the one, and everything in the other! Mr. West had bought his house not long, I believe, after he came to England; and he had added a gallery at the back of it, terminating in a couple of lofty rooms. The gallery was a continuation of the hall passage, and, together with the rooms, formed three sides of a garden, very small, but elegant, with a grass-plot in the middle, and busts upon stands under an arcade, in the interior, the gallery made an angle at a little distance as you went up it; then a shorter one, and then took a longer stretch into the two rooms; and it was hung with his sketches and pictures all the way. In a corner between the two angles, and looking down the lower part of the gallery, was a study, with casts of Venus and Apollo on each side of the door. The two rooms contained the largest of the pictures; and in the further one, after stepping softly down the gallery, as if respecting the dumb life on the walls, you generally found the mild and quiet artist at his work; happy, for he thought himself immortal." West, it is well known, was brought up a Quaker, and had been so poorly educated that he could hardly read. Leigh Hunt states his belief that West did a great deal of work for George III. for very little profit; then, as since, the honour was thought of itself nearly enough.
"As Mr. West," continues Leigh Hunt, "was almost sure to be found at work in the farthest room, habited in his white woollen gown, so you might have predicated, with equal certainty, that Mrs. West was sitting in the parlour reading. I used to think that if I had such a parlour to sit in, I should do just as she did. It was a good-sized room, with two windows looking out on the little garden I spoke of, and opening into it from one of them by a flight of steps. The garden, with its busts in it, and the pictures which you knew were on the other side of its wall, had an Italian look. The room was hung with engravings and coloured prints. Among them was the Lion's Hunt, by Rubens; the Hierarchy, with the Godhead, by Raphael, which I hardly thought it right to look at; and two screens by the fireside, containing prints from Angelica Kauffman, of the Loves of Angelica and Medoro, which I could have looked at from morning till night."
Here Mrs. West and Mrs. Hunt used to sit talking of old times and Philadelphia. West never made his appearance, except at dinner and tea-time, retiring again to his painting-room directly afterwards; but used to contrive to mystify the embryo poet with some such question as, "Who was the father of Zebedee's children?" "The talk," he says, "was quiet; the neighbourhood quiet; the servants quiet; I thought the very squirrel in the cage would have made a greater noise anywhere else. James the porter, a fine athletic fellow, who figured in his master's pictures as an apostle, was as quiet as he was strong. Even the butler, with his little twinkling eyes, full of pleasant conceit, vented his notions of himself in half tones and whispers."
The house of the Thorntons was a different one, and a more socially attractive place. "There was quiet in the one; there were beautiful statues and pictures; and there was my Angelica for me, with her intent eyes at the fireside. But, besides quiet in the other, there was cordiality, and there was music, and a family brimful of hospitality and good-nature; and dear Almeria T., now Mrs. P—e, who in vain pretends that she is growing old. These were indeed holidays on which I used to go to Austin Friars. The house, according to my boyish recollections, was of the description I have been ever fondest of; large, rambling, old-fashioned, solidly built; resembling the mansions about Highgate and other old villages. It was furnished as became the house of a rich merchant and a sensible man, the comfort predominating over the costliness. At the back was a garden with a lawn; and a private door opened into another garden, belonging to the Company of Drapers; so that, what with the secluded nature of the street itself; and these verdant places behind it, it was truly rus in urbe, and a retreat. When I turned down the archway, I held my mother's hand tighter with pleasure, and was full of expectation, and joy, and respect. My first delight was in mounting the staircase to the rooms of the young ladies, setting my eyes on the comely and sparkling face of my fair friend, with her romantic name, and turning over for the hundredth time, the books in her library."
The whole description of this charming and cordial family, is one of those beautiful and sunny scenes in human life, to which the heart never wearies of turning. It makes the rememberer exclaim: — "Blessed house! May a blessing be upon your rooms, and your lawn, and your neighbouring garden, and the quiet old monastic name of your street; and may it never he a thoroughfare; and may all your inmates he happy! Would to God one could renew, at a moment's notice, the happy hours we have enjoyed in last times, with the same circles, in the same houses!"
But a wealthy aunt, with handsome daughters, came from the West Indies, and Great Ormond-street, and afterwards Merton, in Surrey, where this aunt went to live, became a new and happy resort for him.
After Leigh Hunt quitted Christchurch, of which, and of the life there, he gives a very interesting description, at the age of sixteen was published a volume of his schoolboy verses. He then spent some time in what he calls "that gloomiest of all 'darkness palpable'" — a lawyer's office; he became theatrical critic in a newly established paper, the News; and his zeal, integrity, and talent, formed a striking contrast to the dishonest criticism and insufferable dramatic nonsense then in public favour. In 1805, an amiable nobleman, high in office, procured him an humble post under government but this was as little calculated for the public spirit of honest advocacy which lived in him as the lawyer's office. He soon threw it up, having engaged with his brother in the establishment of the well-known newspaper, the Examiner. The integrity of principle which distinguished this paper, was as ill-suited to the views of government at that dark and despotic period, as such integrity and boldness for constitutional reform were eminently needed by the public interests. He was soon visited with the attentions of the Attorney-General; who, twice prosecuting him for libel, branded him "a malicious and ill-disposed person." It is now matter of astonishment for what causes such epithets and prosecutions were bestowed by government at that day. On one occasion, in quoting an account of some birth-day or levee, to the fulsome statement of the hireling court scribe, that the Prince Regent "looked like an Adonis," he added the words "of fifty" — making it stand "the Prince looked like an Adonis of fifty!" This was cause enough for prosecution, and an imprisonment of two years in Horsemonger-lane jail. It was here, in 1813, that Lord Byron and Moore dined with him. They found him just as gay, happy, and poetical, as if his prison was a shepherd's cot in Arcadia, and there was no such thing as "an Adonis of fifty" in the world. The "wit in the dungeon," as Lord Byron styled him in some verses of the moment, had his trellised flower garden without, and his books, busts, pictures, and piano-forte within. Byron has recorded his opinion at that time of Mr. Hunt, in his journal, thus: — "Hunt is an extraordinary character, and not exactly of the present age. He reminds me more of the Pym and Hampden times: much talent, great independence of spirit, and an austere, yet not repulsive aspect. If he goes on 'qualis ab incepto,' I know few men who will deserve more praise, or obtain it. He has been unshaken, and will continue so. I don't think him deeply versed in life: he is the bigot of virtue (not religion), and enamoured of the beauty of that 'empty name,' as the last breath of Brutus pronounced, and every day proves it."
What a different portrait is this to that of the affected, finicking, artificial cockney, which the critics of that day would fain have made the world accept for Leigh Hunt. Lord Byron was a man of the world as well as a poet; he could see into character as well as anybody when there were no good-natured souls at his elbow to alarm his aristocratic pride. He was right. Mr. Hunt has gone on 'qualis ab incepto'; and deserved and done great things. The critic-wolves have long ceased to howl; the world knows and loves the man.
In process of time the Examiner was made over to other parties, and Mr. Hunt devoted his pen more exclusively to literary subjects. His connexion with Byron and Shelley led him to Italy, where the Liberal, a journal the joint product of the pens of those three celebrated writers, was started but soon discontinued; and Leigh Hunt, before his return, saw the cordiality of Lord Byron towards him shaken, and witnessed one of the most singular and solemn spectacles of modern times — the burning of the body of his friend Shelley on the sea-shore, where he had been thrown up by the waves.
The occasion of Leigh Hunt's visit to Italy, and its results, have been placed before the public, in consequence of their singular nature, and of the high standing of the parties concerned, in a more prominent position than any other portion of his life. There has been much blame and recrimination thrown about on all sides. Mr. Hunt has stated his own case, in his work on Lord Byron and his Contemporaries. The case of Lord Byron has been elaborately stated by Mr. Moore, in his Life and Letters of the noble poet. It is not the place here to discuss the question; but posterity will very easily settle it. My simple opinion is, that Mr. Hunt had much seriously to complain of, and, under the circumstances, has made his statement with great candour. The great misfortune for him, as for the world, was, that almost immediately on his arrival in Italy with his family, his true and zealous friend, Mr. Shelley, perished From that moment, any indifferent spectator might have foreseen the end of the connexion with Lord Byron. He had numerous aristocratic friends, who would, and who did spare no pains to alarm his pride at the union with men of the determined character of Hunt and Hazlitt for progress and free opinion. None worked more earnestly for this purpose, by his own confession, than Moore. From that hour there could be nothing for Mr. Hunt but disappointment and mortification. They came fast and fully. With all the splendid qualities of Lord Byron, whether of disposition or intellect, no man of sensibility would willingly have been placed in any degree of dependence upon him; no man of genius could be so without undergoing the deepest possible baptism of suffering. Through that Leigh Hunt went, and every generous mind must sympathize with him. Had Shelley lived, how different would have been the whole of that affair, and the whole of his future life. He died — and all we have to do is now simply to notice the residences of Leigh Hunt in Italy, without further reference to these matters.
The chief places of Mr. Hunt's Italian sojourn were Pisa, Genoa, and Florence. At Leghorn he and his family landed, and almost immediately went on with Shelley to Pisa, where Byron joined them; but at Monte Nero, near Leghorn, was at once introduced to a curious scene of mixed English and Italian life. "In a day or two, I went to see Lord Byron, who was in what the Italians call villeggiatura, at Monte Nero; that is to say, enjoying a country house for the season. I there met with a singular adventure, which seemed to make me free of Italy and stilettos, before I had well set foot in the country. The day was very hot; the road to Monte Nero was very hot, through dusty suburbs; and when I got there, I found the hottest-looking house I ever saw. Not content with having a red wash over it, the red was the most unseasonable of all reds, a salmon colour. Think of this flaming over the country in a hot Italian sun.
"But the greatest of all the heats was within. Upon seeing Lord Byron, I hardly knew him, he was grown so fat; and he was longer in recognising me, I was grown so thin. He was dressed in a loose nankeen jacket and white trowsers, his neckcloth open, and his hair in thin ringlets about his throat; altogether presenting a very different aspect from the compact, energetic, and curly-headed person whom I had known in England.
"He took me into an inner room, and introduced me to a young lady in a state of great agitation. Her face was flushed, her eyes lit up, and her hair, which she wore in that fashion, looked as if it streamed in disorder. This was the Countess Guiccioli. The Conte Pietro, her brother, came in presently, also in a state of agitation, and having his arm in a sling. I then learned, that a quarrel having taken place among the servants, the young count had interfered, and been stabbed. He was very angry; Madame Guiccioli was more so, and would not hear of the charitable comments of Lord Byron, who was for making light of the matter. Indeed, there was a look in the business a little formidable for though the stab was not much, the inflictor of it threatened more, and was at that minute keeping watch under the portico, with the avowed intention of assaulting the first person that issued forth. I looked out of the window, and met his eye glaring upwards like a tiger. The fellow had a red cap on like a sans cullote, and a most sinister aspect, dreary and meagre, a proper caitiff. Thus, it appeared, the house was in a state of blockade; the nobility and gentry of the interior all kept in a state of impassability by a rascally footman.
"How long things had continued in this state I cannot say but the hour was come when Lord Byron and his friends took their evening ride, and the thing was to be put all end to somehow. Fletcher, the valet, had been despatched for the police, and was not returned.... At length we set out, Madame Guiccioli earnestly entreating 'Bairon' to keep hack, and all of us uniting to keep in advance of Conte Pietro, who was exasperated. It was a curious moment for a stranger from England. I fancied myself pitched into one of the scenes in the Mysteries of Udolpho, with Montoni and his tumultuous companions. Everything was new, foreign, and violent. There was the lady, flushed and dishevelled, exclaiming against the 'scelerato'; the young count, wounded and threatening; the assassin waiting for us with his knife; and last, not least in the novelty, my English friend metamorphosed, round-looking, and jacketted, trying to damp all this fire with his cool tones, and an air of voluptuous indolence. He had now, however, put on his loose riding coat of mazarine blue, and his velvet cap, looking more lordly then, but hardly less foreign. It was an awkward moment for him, not knowing what might happen; but he put a good face on the matter; and as to myself, I was so occupied with the novelty of the scene, that I had not time to be frightened. Forth we issued at the door, all squeezing to have the honour of being the boldest, when a termination is put to the tragedy by the vagabond throwing himself on a bench, extending his arms, and bursting into tears. His cap was half over his eyes; his face gaunt, ugly, and unshaven; his appearance altogether more squalid and miserable than an Englishman could conceive it possible to find in such an establishment. This blessed figure reclined weeping and wailing, and asking pardon for his offence, and to crown all, he requested Lord Byron to kiss him."
This was a curious introduction to Italian life. Leghorn, Mr. Hunt says, is a polite Wapping, with a square and a theatre. The country around, though delightful to a first view, from its vines hanging from the trees, and the sight of the Apennines, is uninteresting, when you become acquainted with it. They left here and proceeded to Pisa. There they occupied the ground floor of the Casa Lanfranchi, on the Lung' Arno. The house is said to have been built by Michael Angelo, and is worthy of him. It is, says Mr. Hunt, in a bold and broad style throughout, with those harmonious graces of proportion which are sure to be found in an Italian mansion. The outside is of rough marble.
Here poor Shelley saw his friends settled in their apartments, and took his leave for ever! Here they spent their time in the manner which has been made so well known by the Life and Letters of Lord Byron, — talking or reading till afternoon in the house; then riding out to a wood or a vineyard, and firing pistols, after which they would occasionally alight at a peasant's cottage, and eat figs in the shade-returning to dinner. "In the evening," observes Mr. Hunt, "I seldom saw Byron. He recreated himself in the balcony, or with a book; and at night when I went to bed, he was just thinking of setting to work with Don Juan."
In the autumn, they left Pisa for Genoa; and in their way visited the deserted house of Shelley. Wild as the place is, it now seemed additionally so. It was melancholy, its rooms empty, and its garden neglected, "The sea fawned upon the shore, as though it could do no harm."
Genoa now became, as it would appear, the residence of Leigh Hunt for the greater part of the time that he continued in Italy, for he describes himself as quitting it for Florence, three years afterwards. Mrs. Shelley had preceded them thither, and had furnished houses both for herself and Lord Byron, in the village of Albaro. With her they took up their residence in the Casa Negroto. There were forty rooms in it, some of them such as would be considered splendid in England, and all neat and new, with borders and arabesques. The balcony and staircase were of marble; and there was a little flower garden. The rent was twenty pounds a year. Byron paid for his twenty-four pounds. It was called the Casa Saluzzi, was older and more imposing, with rooms in still greater plenty, and a good piece of ground. Mr. Hunt describes himself as passing a melancholy time at Albaro, walking about the stony alleys, and thinking of Shelley. Here the first number of that unfortunate publication, The Liberal, reached them; here they prepared the few numbers which succeeded it, and here the coldness between Byron and Hunt grew to its height, and they parted.
We next, and lastly, find Mr. Hunt at Florence. "I hailed it," he says, "as a good omen in Florence, that the two first words that caught my ears were, flowers and women — 'fiori' and 'donne.' The night of our arrival, we put up at an hotel in a very public street, and were kept awake by songs and guitars. It was one of the pleasantest pieces of the south we had experienced; and, for the moment, we lived in the Italy of books. One performer, to a jovial accompaniment, sang a song about somebody's fair wife — 'bianca moglie' — which set the street in roars of laughter. From the hotel, we went into a lodging in the street of beautiful women — Via delle Belle Donne — a name which is a sort of tune to pronounce. We there heard one night a concert in the street, and looking out, saw music stands, books, etc. in regular order, and amateurs performing as in a room. Opposite our lodging was an inscription on a house, purporting that it was the Hospital of the Monks of Vallombrosa. Wherever you turned was music, or a graceful memory. From the Vie delle Belle Donne, we went to live in the Piazza Santa Croce, next to the church of that name, containing the ashes of Michael Angelo. On the other side of it was the monastery in which Pope Sixtus V. went stooping as if in decrepitude; 'looking,' as he said afterwards, 'for the keys of St. Peter.' We lodged in the house of a Greek, who came from the island of Andros, and was called Dionysius; a name which has existed there, perhaps, ever since the god who bore it."
"The church of Santa Croce," says Mr. Hunt, "would disappoint you as much inside as out, if the presence of great men did not always cast a mingled shadow of the awful and beautiful over our thoughts." He then adds, "agreeably to our old rustic propensities, we did not stop long in the city. We left Santa Croce to live at Maiano, a village on the slope of one of the Fiesolan hills, about two miles off. I passed there a very disconsolate time; yet the greatest comfort I experienced in Italy was from being in that neighbourhood, and thinking, as I went about, of Boccaccio. Boccaccio's father had a house at Maiano, supposed to have been situate at the Fiesolan extremity of the hamlet. That divine writer, whose sensibility outweighed his levity a hundred fold — as a divine face is oftener serious than it is merry — was so fond of the place, that he not only laid the two scenes of the Decamerone on each side of it, with the valley his company resorted to in the middle, but has made the two little streams that embrace Maiano, the Affrico and the Mensola, the hero and heroine of his Nimphale Fiesolano. A lover and his vestal mistress are changed into them, after the fashion of Ovid. The scene of another of his works is on the banks of the Mugnone, a river a little distant; and the Decamerone is full of the neighbouring villages. Out of the windows of one side of our house, we saw the turret of the Villa Gherardi, to which his 'joyous company' resorted in the first instance; a house belonging to the Macchiavelli was nearer, a little on the left; and farther to the left, amongst the blue hills, was the white village of Settignano, where Michael Angelo was born. The house is still remaining in the possession of the family. From our windows on the other side, we saw, close to us, the Fiesole of antiquity and of Milton, the site of the Boccaccio house before mentioned still closer, the valley of Ladies at our feet; and we looked towards the quarter of the Mugnone, and of a house of Dante, and in the distance beheld the mountains of Pistoia. Lastly, from the terrace in front, Florence lay clear and cathedraled before us, with the scene of Redi's Bacchus rising on the other side of it, and the villa of Arcetri, illustrious for Galileo.
"But I stuck to my Boccaccio haunts, as to an old home. I lived with the divine human being, with his friends of the Falcon and the Basil, and my own not unworthy melancholy; and went about the flowery hills and lanes, solitary, indeed, and sick to the heart, but not unsustained. * * My almost daily walk was to Fiesole, through a path skirted with wild myrtle and cyclamen; and I stopped at the cloister of the Doccia, and sate on the pretty melancholy platform behind it, reading, or looking though the pines down to Florence. In the valley of Ladies, I found some English trees, — trees not vine and olive, — and even a bit of meadow; and these, while I made them furnish me with a bit of my old home in the north, did no injury to the memory of Boccaccio, who is of all countries, and finds his home wherever we do ourselves, in love, in the grave, in a desert island."
In the twenty-third article of the Wishing Cap, Mr. Hunt gives us this further description of Fiesole and the valley of Ladies:—
"Milton and Galileo give a glory to Fiesole beyond even its starry antiquity: nor perhaps is there a name eminent in the best annals of Florence, to which some connexions cannot be traced with this favoured spot. When it was full of wood, it must have been eminently beautiful. It is at present indeed full of vines and olives, but this is not wood woody: not arboraceous, and properly sylvan. A few poplars and forest trees mark out the course of the Affrico; and the convent ground contrived to retain a good slice of evergreens, which make a handsome contrast on the hill-side with its white cloister. But agriculture, quarries, and wood-fires have destroyed the rest. Nevertheless, I now found the whole valley beautiful. It is sprinkled with white cottages; the corn-fields presented agreeable paths, leading among vines and fig-trees; and I discovered even a meadow; a positive English meadow, with the hay cut, and adorned with English trees. In a grassy lane, betwixt the corn, sat a fair rustic, receiving the homage of three young fellows of her acquaintance. In the time of Boccaccio, the Affrico formed a little crystal lake, in which (the said lake behaving itself, and being properly sequestered) the ladies of his company, one day, bathe themselves. The gentlemen, being informed of it, follow their example in the afternoon; and the next day the whole party dine there, take their siesta under the trees, and recount their novels. This lake has now disappeared before the husbandman, as if it were a fairy thing, of which a money-getting age was unworthy. Part of the Affrico is also closed up from the passenger by private grounds; but the rest of it runs as clearly as it did; and under the convent, a remnant of the woodier part of the valley, a delicious remnant, is still existing. The stream jumps into it, as if with delight, and goes slipping down little banks. It is embowered with olives and young chestnut-trees, and looks up to the long white cloister, which is a conspicuous object over the country.
"A white convent, a woody valley, chestnut-trees intensely green, a sky intensely blue, a stream at which it is a pleasure to stop and drink, — behold a subject fit for a day in August.
"This then is the 'Valle delle Donne.' If Boccaccio's spirit ever visits his native country, here must it repose. It is a place for a knight in romance to take his rest in, his head on his elbow, and the sound of the water in his ear.
"I whisk to England in my Wishing Cap, and fetch the reader to enjoy the place with me.
"How do you like it? Is it not a glen most glen-icular? a confronting of two leafy banks, with a rivulet between? Shouldn't you like to live in the house over the way where the doves are? If you walk a little way to the left through the chestnut trees, you see Florence. The convent up above us on the right, is the one I spoke of. There is nobody in it now, but a peasant for housekeeper. Look at this lad coining down the path with his olive complexion and black eyes. He is bringing goats. I see them emerging from the trees; huge creatures, that when they rise on their hind legs to nibble the boughs, almost look formidable. There is Theocritus for you. And here is Theocritus or Longus, which you will; for a peasant-girl is with him, one of the pleasantest countenances in the world, with a forehead and eyes fit for a poetess; as they all have. I wish the fellow were as neat as his companion, but somehow these goatherds look of a piece with their goats. They love a ragged picturesque."
From this charming and celebrated spot of earth, Leigh Hunt turned northward and homeward through Switzerland and France. Every lover of true poetry and of an excellent and high-hearted man, must regret that his visit to Italy was dashed by such melancholy circumstances, for no man was ever made more thoroughly to enjoy that fine climate and classical land. Yet as the friend of Shelley, Keats, Charles Lamb, and others of the first spirits of the age, Mr. Hunt must be allowed, in this respect, to have been one of the happiest of men. It were no mean boon of providence to have been permitted to live in the intimacy of men like these; but, besides this, he had the honour to suffer, with those beautiful and immortal spirits, calumny and persecution. They have achieved justice through death — he has lived injustice down. As a politician, there is a great debt of gratitude due to him from the people, for he was their firm champion when reformers certainly did not walk about in silken slippers. He fell on evil days, and he was one of the first and foremost to mend them. In literature he has distinguished himself in various walks; and in all he has manifested the same genial, buoyant, hopeful, and happy spirit. His Sir Ralph Esher, a novel of Charles II's time, is a work which is full of thought and fine painting of men and nature. His Indicator, and his London Journal, abound with papers which make us in love at once with the writer and ourselves. There is a charm cast over every-day life, that makes us congratulate ourselves that we live. All that is beautiful and graceful in nature, and love-inspiring in our fellow-men, is brought out and made part of our daily walk and pleasure. His Months, a calendar of nature, bears testimony to his intense love of nature, which breathes equally in every page of his poetry. In these prose works, however, as well as in some of his earlier poetry, we find certain artificialities of phrase, fanciful expressions, and what are often termed conceits, which the critics treated as cockneyisms, and led them to style him the head of the Cockney school. There are certainly many indications, particularly in The Months, of his regarding the country rather as a visitor than an inhabitant. His "Standpunct," as the Germans call it, his point of standing, or in our phraseology, his point of view from which he contemplates nature, is the town. He thus produces to a countryman a curious inversion of illustration. For instance, he compares April to a lady watering her flowers at a balcony; and we almost expect him, in praising real flowers, to say that they are nearly equal to artificial ones. But these are but the specks on a sun-disc, all glowing with the most genuine love of nature. In no writer does the love of the beautiful and the good more abound. And, after all, the fanciful epithets in which he endeavours to clothe as fanciful notions, are, as he himself has explained, nothing whatever belonging to London or the land of Cockayne, but to his having imbued his mind long and deeply with the poetry, and, as a matter of course, with the poetic language of our older writers. In a wider acquaintance with nature, the world, and literature, these have vanished from his style; and I know of no more manly, English, and chastely vigorous style than that of his poems in general. In conformity with the strictures of various critics, he has, moreover, rewritten his fine poem Rimini. It was objected that the story was not very moral, and he has now, in the smaller edition published by Moxon, altered the story so is to palliate this objection as much as possible, and, as he says, to bring it, in fact, nearer to the truth of the case. For my part, I know not what moral the critics would have, if wretchedness and death as the consequence of sin, be not a solemn moral, if the selfish old father, who deceives his daughter into a marriage by presenting to her the proxy as the proposed spouse, is punished by finding his daughter and this proxy prince, who went out from him with pomp and joy, soon come back to him in a hearse, and with all his ambitious projects thus dashed to the ground, is not held as a solemn warning, where shall such be found? However, the poet has shown his earnest desire to set himself right with the public, and the public has now the poem in its two shapes, and can accommodate its delicate self at its pleasure. I regret that the space allowed for this notice does not permit me to point out a number of those delightful passages which abound in his beautiful and graceful poems. The graphic as well as dramatic power of Rimini, the landscape and scene-painting of that poem, are only exceeded by the force with which the progress of passion and evil is delineated. The scene in the gardens and the pavilion, where the lovers are reading Lancelot du Lac, is not surpassed by anything of the kind in the language. The sculptured scenes on the walls of this pavilion are all pictures living in every line: "The sacrifice By girls and shepherds brought, with reverend eyes, of sylvan drinks and foods, simple and sweet, And goats with struggling horns and planted feet."
The opening of the poem, beginning—
The sun is up, and 'tis a morn of May
Round old Ravenna's clear-shown towers and bay,—
all life, elasticity, and sunshine; — and the melancholy ending—
The days were then at close of autumn — still,
A little rainy, and towards night-fall chill:
There was a fitful moaning all abroad;
And ever and anon over the road,
The last few leaves came fluttering from the trees, etc.
are passages of exquisite beauty, marking the change from joy to sorrow in one of the loveliest poems in the language. We have in it the genuine spirit of Chaucer, the rich nervous cadences of Dryden, with all the grace and life of modern English. But it is in vain here to attempt to speak of the poetic merits of Leigh Hunt. A host of fine compositions comes crowding on our consciousness. The Legend of Florence, a noble tragedy; the Palfrey; Hero and Leander; the Feast of the Poets; and The Violets; numbers of delightful translations from the Italian, a literature in which Leigh Hunt has always revelled; and above all, Captain Sword and Captain Pen. We would recommend everybody, just now that the war spirit is rising amongst us, to read that poem, and learn what horrors they are rejoicing over, and what the Christian spirit of this age demands of us. But we must praise the lyrics of the volume: — the pathos of the verses "To T. L. H., six years old, during a sickness," and the playful humour of those "To J. H., four years old," call on us for notice; and then the fine blank verse poems, Our Cottage, and Reflections of a Dead Body, are equally importunate. If any one does not yet know what Leigh Hunt has done for the people and the age, let him get the pocket edition of his poems and he will soon find himself growing in love with life, with his fellow-men, and with himself. The philosophy of Leigh Hunt is loving, cheerful, and confiding in the goodness that governs us all. And when we look back to what was the state of things when he began to write, and then look round and see what it is now, we, must admit that he has a good foundation for so genial a faith.
It remains only to take a glance or two at his English homes. To several of these we can trace him. Soon after his quitting Horsemonger-lane prison, he was living at Paddington, having a study looking over the fields towards Westbourne-green. In this he had a narrow escape one morning of being burnt, owing his escape to some "fair cousin" not named. There he was visited by Lord Byron and Wordsworth. At one time he was living at 8, York-buildings, New-road, Marylebone. In the London Journal of January 7, 1835, Mr. Hunt gives a very charming account of a very happy Twelfth Night spent there, and in commemoration of it planted some young plane trees within the rails by the garden gate. Under these trees, but a year or two ago, he had the pleasure of seeing people sheltering from the rain; but they are now cut down. Here he first had the pleasure of seeing John Keats, and here he was visited by Foscolo. At other times he lived in Lisson-grove; at Hampstead, in the Vale of Health, where, as already observed, Keats wrote Sleep and Poetry; at Highgate, near Coleridge; and at Woodcote-green, near Ashstead-park, in Surrey, where he laid the scene, and I believe wrote the romance, of Sir Ralph Esher.
Since his return to England he has lived chiefly in the suburbs of London, in what Milton called "garden houses;" for some years in Chelsea, near Thomas Carlyle; and now in Edwardes-square, Kensington, a square of small, neat houses, built by a Frenchman, it is said in expectation of the conquest of England by Buonaparte, and with a desire to be ready settled, and with homes for his countrymen of more limited means against that event. The speculation failing with the mightier speculation of Napoleon, the poor Frenchman was ruined.
Such, is a hasty sketch of the many wanderings and sojourns of Leigh Hunt. May his age be rewarded for the services of his youth. In closing this article I would, also with this wish, express another, and that is, that he would some time publish that small, but most beautiful manual of domestic devotion, called by him Christianism, and printed only for private circulation, some years ago. The object of this little work seems to be, to give to such as had not full faith in Christianity an idea of what is excellent in it, and by which they might be benefited and comforted, even though they could not attain full belief in its authenticity. The spirit and style of it are equally beautiful.