1818 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

John Taylor Coleridge, Review of Hunt, Foliage; Quarterly Review 18 (January 1818) 324-35.



Winter has at length, passed away: spring returns upon its, like a reconciled mistress, with redoubled smiles and graces; and even we poor critics, "in populous city pent," feel a sort of ungainly inspiration from the starved leaflets and smutty buds in our window-pots; what, then, must be the feelings with which the Arcadian Hunt,

half-stretched on the ground,
With a "cheek-smoothing air coming taking him round," — p. lxxxi.

must welcome the approach of the "fair-limbed" goddess to his rural retreat at Hampstead? He owes her indeed especial gratitude; and it would be unpardonable in him to suffer his "day-sweet' voice, and "smoothing-on" "sleeking-up" harp to be mute upon this occasion. The spring is to Mr. Hunt, what the night was to Endymion, the season for receiving peculiar favours; the "smiling Naiads," and even the "coy Ephydriads" will soon again admit him "in sun-sprinkled ease" to their bath and toilette; while the bolder "Nephehads" will leave their chariots in the air to kiss with "breathless lips serene" their "little ranting" favourite adoncino d'amore.

Mr. Hunt's offering to the season (we do not mean the bookmaking and bookselling season) consists of "foliage" and "evergreens." Of each in order, — but first a few words of the dedication and preface. The former is addressed to a gentleman, of whom we know nothing, but who deserves, we doubt not, more than his friend's delicacy permitted him to record in his praise. Yet the good qualities which are with exquisite judgment selected, as entitling him to the honourable post which he occupies, must we think a little surprize even the possessor himself.

"You are not one of those, who pay the strange compliment to heaven of depreciating this world, because you believe in another; you admire its beauties both in nature and art." These are certainly very uncommon merits; but further — "A rational piety and a manly patriotism does (do) not hinder you from putting the Phidian Jupiter over your organ, or flowers at the end of your room." While we give the writer all due credit for the admirably close connection between the first and last part of this sentence, we must be excused if we hesitate to believe in the existence of magnanimity so superhuman. The partiality of the friend is but too manifest in such praise; indeed Mr. Hunt seems to feel this himself, for he concludes by soothing the offended modesty of his hero — "Pray pardon me this public compliment, for my own sake, and for sincerity's."

The dedication is followed by a very entertaining preface; but we will take shame to ourselves, and honestly confess, that a certain beautiful and indefinite vagueness in the expression has made it difficult for us to understand parts — while the excursiveness of Mr. Hunt's mind prevents our following him so as to connect the whole. We are aware of the ready answer — "intellectum non adfero," and we bow to it; but as a specimen of what we mean in both ways, we quote the following passage. It follows a few remarks on the downfall of the French school of poetry and the consequences of that downfall, with a definition of the true principles of poetry.

"An unattractive creed, however the hypocritical or envious may affect to confound the cheerful tendencies of our nature with vicious ones, or the melancholy may be led really to do so, is an argument against itself. Shall we never have done with begging the question against enjoyment, and denying or doubting the earthly possibility of the only end of virtue itself, with a dreary wilfulness that prevents our obtaining it? The fatality goes even farther — for let them say what they please to the contrary, they who are most doubtful of earth, are far from being the most satisfied with regard to heaven. Even when they think they have got at their security in the latter respect, it is through the medium of opinions which make humanity shudder; and this, except with the most brutal selfishness, comes round to the same thing. The depreciators of this world — the involuntary blasphemers of Nature's goodness — have tried melancholy and partial systems enough, and talked enough of their own humility. It is high time for them and for all of us to look after health and sociality; and to believe that although we cannot alter the world with an ipse dixit, we need not become desponding, or mistake a disappointed egotism for humility. We should consider ourselves as what we really are — creatures made to enjoy more than to know, to know infinitely nevertheless in proportion as we enjoy kindly, and finally to put our own shoulders to the wheel, and get out of the mud upon the green sward again, like the waggoner, whom Jupiter admonishes in the fable. But we persist in being unhealthy, body and mind, and taking our jaundice for wisdom, and then because we persist, we say we must persist on. We admire the happiness, and sometimes the better wisdom of children; and yet we imitate the worst of their nonsense — 'I can't — because I can't.'" — p. 15.

Now we would humbly ask how all this is connected with that which precedes it; or passing over the transition, we would beg Mr. Hunt to tell us what it means by itself. Is nothing intended which the mere words do not express? Is all this argumentation lavished on a few gloomy and disordered ascetics, who will never read Mr. Hunt's book, and could not be benefited by it if they should? We suspect he would disclaim such beating of the air; and when we find him asserting in the next page that the story of Rimini was written with a moral aim; and shortly after talking of a man's "posing his apprehension with these involved riddles and enigmas of the Divinity, with incarnation and resurrection"; when we are told in a Sonnet on degrading Notions of the Deity, without limitation or caution, that men in general have set up

A phantom swelled into grim size
Out of their own passions and bigotries,
And then for fear proclaim it meek and sage!
And this they call a light and a revealing — " p. cxxii.

when we consider too the compositions of many of those with whom he has recorded his sympathy and agreement in this volume, we fear there can be no want of charity in assigning to this passage, and to many others scattered of set purpose through the book, a far more important, but a more offensive object. It may seem a wild apprehension to talk of the systematic revival of Epicureism amongst us in this age of the world; yet something very like it both speculatively and practically, and that too in its most dangerous because least offensive form, seems to be inculcated in all the writings we have alluded to. Lucretius is the philosopher whom these men profess most to admire; and their leading tenet is, that the enjoyment of the pleasures of intellect and sense is not to be considered as the permitted, and regulated use of God's blessings, but the great object, and duty of life. Strip Mr. Hunt of his "leafy luxuries," "his flowrets," "his wine, music, and sociality," and this is the bare maxim on which he builds. He may himself perhaps, partly from a namby-pamby disposition, partly from circumstances, and still more we should hope from the force of early principles, live on the safe side of his own theory; but we are greatly mistaken if as much can be affirmed even of all the first preachers of this new sect; and we are quite sure that it ought not to be expected from their followers. There are many obvious reasons why the author of a dangerous moral tenet may himself escape the danger — Epicurus, we believe, did so; but they who have neither the intellectual pride of a first discovery to compensate them for self-restriction, nor the ardent anxiety for the reputation of an infant sect to support them against their own principle, will certainly soon push it, as the Epicureans did, to its legitimate consequences, all impurity and all impiety.

Upon the reasoning of the particular passage quoted it would be a waste of time to argue; yet a few words may be allowed us. The term "unattractive creed" is a very vague one for a philosophical reasoner — creeds are attractive or not according to the state of heart and mind in which the subject is to whom they are proposed. The Tupinamban Indian found a creed unattractive, that would not tolerate cannibalism; and the Caffre does not easily renounce his filth and garbage: so the vain and disappointed man, the factious citizen, the adulterer — and he, if such there be, who thinks even adultery vapid unless he can render it more exquisitely poignant by adding incest to it, all these must find a creed unattractive, that enjoins humility, order, purity of heart and practice. But Mr. Hunt is in a state of deplorable ignorance for himself, if he thinks that Christianity is an unattractive creed to the sincere Christian, or that it demands from him any sacrifice, which is not conducive to his real enjoyment even of this life. On this subject we cannot express ourselves so well as in the words of one of the brightest ornaments of this age and nation. "Rich and multiplied are the springs of innocent relaxation. The Christian relaxes in the temperate use of all the gifts of Providence. Imagination and taste and genius, and the beauties of creation, and the works of art, lie open to him. He relaxes in the feast of reason, in the sweets of friendship, in the endearments of love, in the exercise of hope, of confidence, of joy, of gratitude, of universal good will, of all the benevolent and generous affections, which by the gracious ordination of our Creator, while they disinterestedly intend only happiness to others, are most surely productive to ourselves of complacency and peace. Little do they know of the true measure of enjoyment, who can compare these delightful complacencies with the frivolous pleasures of dissipation, or the coarse gratifications of sensuality."

We have but one more remark to add on this head: Mr. Hunt may flatter himself with possessing a finer eye, and a warmer feeling for the loveliness of nature, or congratulate himself on the philosophic freedom with which he follows her impulses — he may look upon us and all who differ from him as dull creatures, who have no right to judge of his privileged opinions. Our path indeed may be a plain and beaten one, but at least it keeps us from some things, that seem to be grievous errors — new names and specious declamations do not easily deceive us. We should not, for instance, commend as singularly amiable the receiving great and unmerited favours to be returned with venomous and almost frantic hatred; we are at a loss for the decency which rails at marriage, or the honour which pollutes it; and we have still a reluctance to condemn as a low prejudice the mysterious feeling of separation, which consecrates, and draws to closer intimacy the communion of brothers and sisters. We maybe very narrow-minded, but we look upon it still as somewhat dishonourable to have been expelled from a University for the monstrous absurdity of a "mathematical demonstration of the non-existence of a God:" according to our understandings, it is not proof of a very affectionate heart to break that of a wife by cruelty and infidelity; and if we were told of a man, who, placed on a wild rock among the clouds, yet even in that height surrounded by a loftier amphitheatre of spire-like mountains, hanging over a valley of eternal ice and show, where the roar of mighty waterfalls was at times unheeded from the hollow and more appalling thunder of the deep and unseen avalanche, — if we were told of a man who, thus witnessing the sublimest assemblage of natural objects, should retire to the cabin near, and write [Greek characters] after his name in the album, we hope our own feeling would be pity rather than disgust; but we should think it imbecility indeed to court that man's friendship, or to celebrate his intellect or his heart as the wisest or warmest of the age. Mr. Hunt may trace in all these things the loftier spirits that are to exalt mankind; but if this he all that he has gained by the euphrasy and rue with which his visual nerve is purged, he must not be offended if we say with blind Tiresias, [Greek characters.]

We have already, without intending it, filled the limits to which Mr. Hunt is entitled; but he might complain of us, if we took no notice, as we promised, of the poems which form the body of his volume. And this is a more agreeable part of our task, because, with much to blame in some of them, there is also something to praise in others, and we shall be enabled to lay an extract or two before our readers, which may in some measure compensate for the dullness of our preceding remarks. Mr. Hunt's faults are a total want of taste, and of ear for metrical harmony; an indulgence of cant terms to a ridiculous excess, an ignorance of common language, a barbarous and uncouth combination of epithets, an affectation of language and sentiment, and what is a far more serious charge, though it occurs but seldom, an impurity of both. He may amuse or deceive himself with distinctions between voluptuousness and grossness, but will he never learn that things indifferent or innocent in themselves may become dangerous from the weakness or corruption of the recipient? An author is bound to consider not how Adam and Eve in Paradise would have been affected by this or that description, but how in the present state of society it may operate on those for whom he writes. If the thing be practically pernicious, its abstract innocence is but a slight compensation; and however he may plead a compact theory of his own, no man in a work of fancy is justified in writing that which a modest woman cannot hear without pain.

Mr. Hunt's merits are a general richness of language, and a picturesque imagination; this last indeed, the faculty of placing before us, with considerable warmth of colouring, and truth of drawing, the groups which his fancy assembles, he possesses in an eminent degree — we doubt whether he does not exercise it even to a faulty excess, when the result is an involuntary idea in our minds, that the whole scene has been actually copied from some old painting, rather than grown up under the creative hand of the poet himself. This idea has several times intruded itself on our minds in reading the "Nymphs," the first poem in the collection; the following lines are however free from the objection, and entitled to praise — they form part of the account of the Dryads.

They screen the cuckoo when he sings, and teach
The mother blackbird, how to lead astray
The unformed spirit of the foolish boy,
From thick to thick, from hedge to layery beech,
When he would steal the huddled nest away
Of yellow bills up-gaping for their food,
And spoil the song of the free solitude.
And they at sound of the brute insolent horn
Hurry the deer out of the dewy morn;
And take into their sudden laps with joy
The startled hare, that did but peep abroad;
And from the trodden road
Help the bruised hedge-hog. But when tired, they love
The back-turned pheasant hanging from the tree
His sunny drapery;
And handy squirrel, nibbling hastily,
And fragrant-living bee
So happy, that he will not move, not he,
Without a song; and hidden amorous dove
With his deep breath; and bird of wakeful glow
Whose louder song is like the voice of life
Triumphant o'er death's image, but whose deep
Low, lovelier note is like a gentle wife,
A poor, a pensive, yet a happy one,
Stealing, when day-light's common tasks are done
An hour for mother's work, and singing low,
While her tired husband and her children sleep. — p. x.

Our next extract shall be of a different nature, and one perhaps which will be more generally interesting, it is an address to his son at the age of six years during a sickness; and must come home, we think, to the feelings of every father.

Sleep breathes at last from out thee,
My little patient boy,
And balmy rest about thee
Smooths off the day's annoy.
I sit me down and think
Of all thy winning ways,
Yet almost wish, with sudden shrink,
That I had less to praise.

Thy side-long pillowed meekness,
Thy thanks to all that aid,
Thy heart, in pain and weakness,
Of fancied faults afraid;
The little trembling hand
That wipes thy quiet tears,
These, these are things, that may demand
Dread memories for years.

Sorrows I've had, severe ones—
I will not think of now,
And calmly, midst my dear ones,
Have wasted with dry brow;
But when thy fingers press
And pat my stooping head,
I cannot bear the gentleness—
The tears are in their bed.

Ah! first born of thy mother,
When life and hope were new,
Kind playmate of thy brother,
Thy sister, father too:
My light, where'er I go,
My bird when prison-bound,
My hand-in-hand companion — no—
My prayers shall hold thee round.

To say — "he has departed,"—
"His voice — his face — is gone,"
To feel impatient hearted,
Yet feel we must bear on,—
Oh! I could not endure
To whisper of such woe,
Unless I felt this sleep ensure
That it will not be so.

Yes, still he's fixed and sleeping!
This silence too the while—
Its very hush and creeping
Seem whispering us a smile—
Something divine and dim
Seems going by one's ear,
Like patting wings of Cherubim—
Who say — we've finished here. — p. xlvii.

We will not spoil the effect of these pleasing stanzas by any verbal criticism, but we may be allowed without offence to hintto Mr. Hunt, that he might have found the "unattractive creed" a very consoling one under the sorrows and apprehensions which gave rise to the poem; and therefore, for the sake of others who may be visited in the same way if not for his own, he should hesitate before he lifts up his voice to undermine its influence.

But what shall we say of the next poem, addressed to J. Hunt four years old? — surely this must have been a real effusion for the nursery, and have crept into the volume by accident.

Ah, little ranting Johnny,
For ever blithe, and bonny,
And singing nonny, nonny,
With hat just thrown upon ye—
Ah Jack, ah Gianni mio,
As blithe as laughing Trio.
Sir Richard too, you rattler,
So christened from the Tatler,
My Bacchus in his glory
My little cor-di-fiori,
My tricksome Puck, my Robin,
Who in and out come bobbing
As full of feints and frolic as
That fibbing rogue Autolycus,
And play the graceless robber on
Your grave-eyed brother Oberon—
Ah, Dick — ah, Dolce Riso,
How can you — can you be so? — p. liii.

How master Dick "can be so?" may be matter of wonder; but it seems to us far more strange, how master Dick's father could be so ill-advised as to publish nearly a hundred lines such as those last quoted, that have neither fancy nor prettiness to recommend them, not even homely verity and simplicity to excuse them — nothing, in short, but affectation and silliness to distinguish them: they are neither a poet's address to his child, nor a nurse's lullaby — but just what might have been expected from a pert, forward boarding-school girl in her seventh or eighth year. Mr. Hunt however delights in such effusions; in the next page, or hearing a little musical box, he breaks out in this exquisite manner—

Hallo — what? where? — what can it be
That strikes up so deliciously?—
I never in my life — what no!
That little tin-box playing so.

If "Master Dick loquitur" had stood at the head of this poem, there would have been at least a dramatic propriety in it; and it as we shrewdly suspect, the lines really were dictated by him, is a little unfatherly to deprive him of the honour of their production.

But our limits oblige us to have done; we therefore pass over the remainder of the "foliage," that we may give our readers a specimen of the "evergreens," as Mr. Hunt is pleased to denominate his translations from the poets of antiquity, imagining, we suppose, that copies however taken would retain the perpetual bloom of their originals. Mr. Hunt shall here be his own critic. "In the translations from Homer my object is to give the intelligent reader, who is no scholar, a stronger sense of the natural energy of the original, than has yet been furnished him." This is the rule, now for the example; we refer our readers who are scholars to the 253d line of the last book of the Iliad; and those who are not, to the corresponding passage 'in that elegant mistake of Pope's in two volumes octavo, called Homer's Iliad.

Be quicker — do — and help me, evil children,
Down-looking set! Would ye had all been killed
Instead of Hector at the ships! Oh me,
Curs'd creature that I am! I had brave sons
Here in wide Troy, and now I cannot say
That one is left me. Mestor like a God
And Troilus my fine hearted charioteer,
And Hector, who for mortal was a God,
For he seemed born not of a mortal man,
But of a God — yet Mars has swept them all,
And none but these convicted knaves are left me,—
Liars and dancers, excellent time-beaters,
Notorious pilferers of lambs and goats.
Why don't ye get the chariot ready and set
The things upon it here, that we may go? — p. 12.

We hardly know whether to admire most the spirit or the fidelity of this rendering; but however good this is, Mr. Hunt is more confident of the other pieces, and he thinks he may venture to say, that the reader who does not feel something pathetic in the Cyclops, something sunny and exuberant in the Rural Journey, and even some of the gentler Greek music in the elegy on the death of Bion, would not be very likely to feel the finer part of it in the originals. All, however, that he answers for is, that "he has felt them himself, like the sunny atmosphere which they resemble." Now for the example again, and it shall he of the sunny and exuberant kind.

Dear Lycidas, cried I, you talk indeed
Like one whom all agree, shepherd and reaper,
To pipe among them nobly — which delights me—
And yet I trust I am your equal too.
It is a feast we're going to. Some friends
Keep one to day to the well-draperied Ceres,
Mother of Earth, and offer their first fruits
For gratitude, their garners are so full.
But come, as we have lighted on each other,
Let us take mutual help, and by the way
Pastoralize a little; for my mouth
Breathes also of the muse, and people call me
Greatest of living song — a praise however
Of which I am not credulous — no by earth—
For there's Philetas and our Samian too
Whom I no more pretend to have surpassed,
Than frogs the grasshoppers. — p. 25.

Who does not feel a glow reflected on him from the "sunny atmosphere" of these lines? A few hundred of them carefully packed and hermetically sealed would be a valuable addition to the stores of the Dorothea and Isabella, if, in spite of our hopes and predictions, they should chance to be frozen up in the polar basin.

We have done, and we trust Mr. Hunt "will pardon us these public compliments for our own sakes, and for sincerity's." He possesses talents, which might have made him a useful citizen, and a respectable writer; but he wants sound principle and Christian humility; and the want of them has made him as a citizen what we do not like to name, and as a writer only not contemptible because he is sometimes pernicious. Had he been thoroughly well principled, and properly humble, he might still have been anxious to improve the taste and manners of his countrymen as well as to correct the abuses of their government; but he would not have undertaken the task without a due sense of its difficulty, and a diffidence, at least, of his own ability to perform it. Instead of rushing with boy-like presumption to his task, he would have passed years in silent study and diligent observation; instead of panting with womanish impatience for immediate notoriety, and courting it in the poor publicity of a weekly paper, instead of demanding perpetually-renewed gratification for a diseased vanity, protruding every fresh fancy crude as it came from the brain, and sacrificing every thing for the worthless applause of the mob, he would, like Achilles, have abstained from the battle till he had possessed himself of the heavenly armour; in the mean time he would have derived ample enjoyment from his cause, and his conscience, and if he desired any other reward, it would have been the applause of the few now, and undisputed and immortal fame hereafter. How painful is it to turn our eyes upon the contrast before us! Mr. Hunt is indeed a most pitiable man, and whatever he may think or say of us, we do pity him most sincerely. He began life, we doubt not, with pure and lofty dreams; he must now feel that he has taken the wrong course, that he can never realize them — he has put on himself his own trammels, he knows that he has done so, they gall him, but he can never break them. Henceforth all will be wormwood and bitterness to him: he may write a few more stinging and a few more brilliant periods, he may slander a few more eminent characters, he may go on to deride venerable and holy institutions, he may stir up more discontent and sedition, but he will have no peace of mind within, he will do none of the good he once hoped to do, nor yet have the bitter satisfaction of doing all the evil he now desires; he will live and die unhonoured in his own generation, and, for his own sake it is to be hoped, moulder unknown in those which are to follow.