1816 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

John Wilson Croker, Review of Hunt, Rimini; Quarterly Review 14 (January 1816) 475-81.



A considerable part of this poem was written in Newgate, where the author was some time confined, we believe for a libel which appeared in a newspaper, of which he is said to be the conductor. Such an introduction is not calculated to make a very favourable impression. Fortunately, however, we are as little prejudiced as possible on this subject: we have never seen Mr. Hunt's newspaper; we have never heard any particulars of his offence; nor, should we have known that he had been imprisoned but for his own confession. We have not, indeed, ever read one line that he has written, and are alike remote from the knowledge of his errors or the influence of his private character. We are to judge him solely from the work now before us; and our criticism would be worse than uncandid if it were swayed by any other consideration.

The poem is not destitute of merit; but — and this, we confess, was our main inducement to notice it — it is written on certain pretended principles, and put forth as a pattern for imitation, with a degree of arrogance which imposes on us the duty of making some observations on this new theory, which Mr. Leigh Hunt, with the weight and authority of his venerable name, has issued, ex cathedra, as the canons of poetry and criticism.

These canons Mr. Hunt endeavours to explain and establish in a long preface, written in a style which, though Mr. Hunt implies that it is meant to be perfectly natural and unaffected, appears to us the most strange, laboured, uncouth, and unintelligible species of prose that we ever read, only indeed to be exceeded in these qualities by some of the subsequent verses; and both the prose and the verse are the first eruptions of this disease with which Mr. Leigh Hunt insists upon inoculating mankind.

Mr. Hunt's first canon is that there should be a great freedom of versification — this is a proposition to which we should have readily assented; but when Mr. Hunt goes on to say that by freedom of versification he means something which neither Pope nor Johnson possessed, and of which even "they knew less than any poets perhaps who ever wrote," we check our confidence; and, after a little consideration, find that by freedom Mr. Hunt means only an inaccurate, negligent, and harsh style of versification, which our early poets fell into from want of polish, and such poets as Mr. Hunt still practise from want of ease, of expression, and of taste.

License he means, when he cries liberty.

Mr. Hunt tells us that Dryden, Spenser and Ariosto, Shakepeare and Chaucer, (so he arranges them,) are the greatest masters of modern versification; but he, in the next few sentences, leads us to suspect that he really does not think much more reverently of these great names than of Pope and of Johnson; and that, if the whole truth were told, he is decidedly of opinion that the only good master of versification, in modern times, is — Mr. Leigh Hunt.

Dryden, Mr. Hunt thinks, is apt to be artificial in his style; or, in other words, he has improved the harmony of our language from the rudeness of Chaucer, whom Mr. Hunt (in a sentence which is not grammar, p. xv.) says that Dryden (though he spoke of and borrowed from him) neither relished nor understood. Spenser, he admits, was musical from pure taste, but Milton was only, as he elegantly expresses it, "learnedly so." Being learned in music, is intelligible, and, of Milton, true; but what can Mr. Hunt mean by saying that Milton had "learnedly a musical ear?" "Ariosto's fine ear and animal spirits gave a frank and exquisite tone to all he said" — what does this mean? — a fine ear may, perhaps, be said to give, as it contributes to, an exquisite tone; but what have animal spirits to do here? and what, in the matter of tones and sounds, is the effect of frankness? We shrewdly suspect that Mr. Hunt, with all his affectation of Italian literature, knows very little of Ariosto; it is clear that he knows nothing of Tasso. Of Shakespeare he tells us, "that his versification escapes us because he overinformed it with knowledge and sentiment," by which it appears, (as well, indeed, as by his own verses,) that this new Stagyrite thinks that good versification runs a risk of being spoiled by having too much meaning included in its lines.

To wind up the whole of this admirable, precise, and useful criticism by a recapitulation as useful and precise, he says, "all these are about as different from Pope as the church organ is from the bell in the steeple, or, to give him a more decorous comparison, the song of the nightingale from that of the cuckoo." — p. xv.

Now we own that what there is so indecorous in the first comparison, or so especially decorous in the second, we cannot discover; neither can we make out whether Pope is the organ or the bell — the nightingale or the cuckoo; we suppose that Mr. Hunt knows that Pope was called by his contemporaries the nightingale, but we never heard Milton and Dryden called cuckoos; or, if the comparison is to be taken the other way, we apprehend that, though Chaucer may be to Mr. Hunt's ears a church organ, Pope cannot, to any ear, sound like the church bell.

But all this theory, absurd and ignorant as it is, is really nothing to the practice of which it affects to be the defence.

Hear the warblings of Mr. Hunt's nightingales.

A horseman is described—

The patting hand, that best persuades the check,
"And makes the quarrel up with a proud neck,"
The thigh broad pressed, the spanning palm upon it,
And the jerked feather "swaling" in the "bonnet." — p. 15.

Knights wear ladies' favours—

Some tied about their arm, some at the breast,

"Some, with a drag, dangling from the cap's crest." — p. 14.

Paulo pays his compliments to the destined bride of his brother—

And paid them with an air so frank and bright,
As to a friend "appreciated at sight;"
That air, in short, which sets you at your ease,
Without "implying" your perplexities,
That "what with the surprize in every way,"
The hurry of the time, the appointed day,—
She knew "not how to object" in her confusion. — p. 29.

The meeting of the brothers, on which the catastrophe turns, is excellent: the politeness with which the challenge is given would have delighted the heart of old Caranza.

May I request, Sir, said the prince, and frowned,
Your ear a moment in the tilting ground?
"There," brother? answered Paulo with an "air"
Surprized and "shocked." Yes, "brother," cried he, "there."
The word smote "crushingly." — p. 92.

Before the duel, the following spirited explanation takes place.

The prince spoke low,
And said: Before "you answer what you can,"
I wish to tell you, "as a gentleman,"
That what you may confess—
Will implicate no person known to you,
More than disquiet in its sleep may do. — p. 93.

Paulo falls — and the event is announced in these exquisite lines:

Her "aged" nurse—
Who, shaking her "old" head, and pressing close
Her withered "lips" to "keep the tears" that rose— p. 101.

"By the way," does Mr. Leigh Hunt suppose that the aged nurses of Rimini weep with their mouths? or does he mistake crying for drivelling? — In fact, the young lady herself seems to have adopted the same mode of weeping:

With that, a keen and "quivering glance" of tears
Scarce moves her "patient mouth," and disappears.

But to the nurse. — She introduces the messenger of death to the princess, who communicates his story, in pursuance of her command—

Something, I'm sure, has happened — tell me what—
I can bear all, though "you may fancy not."
Madam, replied the squire, you are, I know,
All sweetness — "pardon me for saying so."
My Master bade me say then, resumed "he,"
That "he" spoke firmly, when he told it "me,"—
That I was also, madam, to your ear
Firmly to speak, and you firmly to hear,—
That he was forced this day, "whether or no,"
To combat with the prince; — p. 103.

The second of Mr. Hunt's new principles he thus announces:

"With the endeavour to recur to a freer spirit of versification, I have joined one of still greater importance, — that of having a free and idiomatic cast of language. There is a cant of art as well as of nature, though the former is not so unpleasant as the latter, which affects non-affectation." — (What does all this mean?) — "But the proper language of poetry is in fact nothing different from that of real life, and depends for its dignity upon the strength and sentiment of what it speaks. It is only adding musical modulation to what a fine understanding might actually utter in the midst of its griefs or enjoyments. The poet therefore should do as Chaucer or Shakspeare did, — not copy what is obsolete or peculiar in either, any more than they copied from their predecessors, — but use as much as possible an actual, existing language, — omitting of course mere vulgarisms and fugitive phrases, which are the cant of ordinary discourse, just as tragedy phrases, dead idioms, and exaggerations of dignity, are of the artificial style, and yeas, verilys, and exaggerations of simplicity, are of the natural." — p. xvi.

This passage, compared with the verses to which it preludes, affords a more extraordinary instance of self-delusion than even Mr. Hunt's notion of the merit of his versification; for if there be one fault more eminently conspicuous and ridiculous in Mr. Hunt's work than another, it is, — that it is full of "mere vulgarisms" and "fugitive phrases," and that in every page the language is — not only not "the actual, existing language," but an ungrammatical, unauthorised, chaotic jargon, such as we believe was never before spoken, much less written.

In what vernacular tongue, for instance, does Mr. Hunt find a lady's waist called "clipsome," (p. 10.) — or the shout of a mob "enormous," (p. 9.) — or a fit, "lightsome;" — or that a hero's nose is "'lightsomely' brought down from a forehead of clear-spirited thought," (p. 46.) — or that his back "drops lightsomely in," (p. 20.) Where has he heard of a "quoit-like drop" — of "swaling" a jerked feather — of "unbedimmed" music, (p. 1l.) — of the death of "leaping" accents, (p. 32.) — of the "thick reckoning" of a hoof, (p. 33.) — of a "pin-drop" silence, (p. 17.) — a "readable" look, (p. 20.) — a "half indifferent wonderment," (p. 37.) — or of

"Boy-storied" trees and "passion-plighted" spots, — p. 38.

of

Ships coining up with "scattery light," — p. 4.

or of self-knowledge being

"Cored," after all, in our complacencies? — p. 38.

We shall now produce a few instances of what "a fine understanding might utter," with "the addition of musical modulation," and of the dignity and strength of Mr. Hunt's sentiments and expressions.

A crowd, which divided itself into groups, is—

—the multitude,
Who "got" in clumps — p. 26.

The impression made on these "clumps" by the sight of the Princess, is thus "musically" described:

There's not in all that croud one "gallant" being,
Whom, if his heart were whole, and "rank agreeing,"
It would not "fire" to "twice of what he is." — p.10.

Dignity and strength—

First came the trumpeters—
And as they "sit along" their easy way,
Stately and "heaving" to the croud below. p. 12.

This word is deservedly a great favourite with the poet; he heaves it in upon all occasions.

The deep talk heaves. — p. 5.
With heav'd out tapestry the windows glow. — p. 6.
Then heave the croud. — id.
And after a rude heave from side to side. — p. 7.
The marble bridge comes heaving forth below. — p. 38.

Fine understanding—

The youth smiles "up," and with a "lowly" grace,
"Bending" his "lifted" eyes — p. 22.

This is very neat:

No peevishness there was—
But a "mute" gush of "hiding" tears from one,
Clasped to the "core" of him who yet shed none. — p. 83.

The heroine is suspected of wishing to have some share in the choice of her own husband, which is thus elegantly expressed:

She had stout notions on the marrying "score." — p. 27.

This noble use of the word "score" is afterwards carefully repeated in speaking of the Prince, her husband—

—no suspicion could have touched him more,
Than that of wanting on the generous "score:" — p. 48.

But though thus punctilious on the "generous score," his Highness had but a bad temper,

And kept no reckoning with his "sweets and sours." — p. 47.

This, indeed, is somewhat qualified by a previous observation, that—

"The worst of Prince Giovanni," as his bride
Too quickly found, was an ill-tempered pride.

How nobly does Mr. Hunt celebrate the combined charms of the fair sex, and the country!

"The two divinest things this world HAS GOT,"
A lovely woman in a rural spot! — p. 58.

A rural spot, indeed, seems to inspire Mr. Hunt with peculiar elegance and sweetness: for he says, soon after, of Prince Paulo—

For welcome grace, there rode not such another,
"Nor yet" for strength, except his lordly brother.
Was there a court day, or a sparkling feast,
Or better still — "to my ideas, at least!"—
A summer party in the green wood shade. — p. 50.

So much for this new invented strength and dignity: we shall add a specimen of his syntax:

But fears like these he never entertain'd,
And had they crossed him, would have been disdain'd. — p. 50.

But that we may not be suspected of making malicious extracts, we shall quote, in extenso, two of the most important passages of the poem, that our readers may judge for themselves. The first is the story of Launcelot of the Lake, on which the plot of Rimini hinges.

'Twas Launcelot of the Lake, a bright romance,
That like a trumpet, made young pulses dance,
Yet had a softer note that shook still more
She had begun it but the night before,
And read with a full heart, half sweet half sad,
How old King Ban was spoiled of all he had
But one fair castle: how one summer's day,
With his fair queen and child he went away
To ask the great King Arthur for assistance:
How reaching by himself a bill at distance
He turned to give his castle a last look,
And saw its far white face: and how a smoke,
As he was looking, burst in volumes forth,
And good King Ban saw all that he was worth,
And his fair castle, burning to the ground,
So that his wearied pulse felt over-wound
And he lay down, and said a prayer apart
For those he loved, and broke his poor old heart.
Then read she of the queen with her young child,
How she came up, and nearly had gone wild,
And how in journeying on in her despair,
She reached a lake and met a lady there,
Who pitied her, and took the baby sweet
Into her arms, when lo, with closing feet
She sprang up all at once like bird from brake,
And vanished with him underneath the lake.
The mother's feelings we as well may pass
The fairy of the place that lady was,
And Launcelot (so the boy was called) became
Her inmate, till in search of knightly fame
He went to Arthur's court, and played his part
So rarely, and displayed so frank a heart,
That what with all his charms of look and limb,
The Queen Geneura fell in love with him:—
And here, with growing interest in her reading,
The princess, doubly fixed, was now proceeding. — p. 74, 76.

The other is the speech of the injured husband over the dead body of his brother, whom he has just slain in a duel, for incest and adultery.

But noble passion touch'd Giovanni's soul;
He seemed to feel the clouds of habit roll
Away from him at once, with all their scorning;
And OUT HE SPOKE in the clear air of morning:—
"By heaven, by heaven, and all the better part
Of us poor creatures with a human heart,
I trust we reap at last, as well as plough;—
But there, meantime, my brother, liest thou;
And, Paulo, thou wert the completest knight
That ever rode with banner to the fight;
And thou wert the most beautiful to see,
That ever came in press of chivalry;
And of a sinful man, thou wert the best,
That ever for his friend put spear in rest;
And thou wert the most meek and cordial,
That ever among ladies eat in hall
And thou wert still, for all that bosom gored,
The kindest man, that ever struck with sword." — p. 99, 100.

This passage, however, like that which precedes it, are mere — versifications — we were about to say, but — metrical adjustments of what Mr. Leigh Hunt found in the Specimens of Early English Romances. The first is too long for our purpose; the second stands thus; and the reader, if he thinks it worth his while, may compare it with the new version. To us, the old romance has far more of poetry, of sentiment and of nature.

"And now, I dare say," (it is Sir Bohort who speaks,) "that ther thou lyest, Sir Lancelot, thou were never matched of none earthly Knight's hands. And thou were the curteist knight that ever bore shielde: and thou were the truest freende to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou were the truest lover, of a synful man, that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever stroke with swerde. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among prece (press) of knyghtes. And thou were the meekest man, and the gentilest that ever eate in hal among ladies. And thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortall foe that ever put spere in the rest." — vol. i. p. 387.

After these extracts, we have but one word more to say of Mr. Hunt's poetry; which is, that amidst all his vanity, vulgarity, ignorance, and coarseness, there are here and there some well-executed descriptions, and occasionally a line of which the sense and the expression are good — The interest of the story itself is so great that we do not think it wholly lost even in Mr. Hunt's hands. He has, at least, the merit of telling it with decency; and, bating the qualities of versification, expression, and dignity, on which he peculiarly piques himself, and in which he has utterly failed, the poem is one which, in our opinion at least, may be read with satisfaction after GALT'S Tragedies.

Mr. Hunt prefixes to his work a dedication to Lord Byron, in which he assumes a high tone, and talks big of his "fellow-dignity" and independence: what fellow-dignity may mean, we know not; perhaps the dignity of a fellow; but this we will say, that Mr. Hunt is not more unlucky in his pompous pretension to versification and good language, than he is in that which he makes, in this dedication, to proper spirit, as he calls it, and fellow-dignity; for we never, in so few lines, saw so many clear marks of the vulgar impatience of a low man, conscious and ashamed of his wretched vanity, and labouring, with coarse flippancy, to scramble over the bounds of birth and education, and fidget himself into the stout-heartedness of being familiar with a LORD.