1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

R. T., "Our Metropolitan School of Poets. No. I. The Poetry of Mr. Leigh Hunt" Imperial Magazine 3 (November-December 1821) 969-76, 1068-73.



There is a peculiar propriety in thus introducing Mr. H. as number one, merely in reference to the singularity and egotism of his writings. He is, in truth, the centre of a system, and sheds his own light on all be looks upon. His men, and women, his horses, his trees, his ships, trumpeters, summerhouses, hawks, thoughts, feelings, sentiments, and expressions, are all perfectly his own, perfectly original, for "their like were never seen" before in nature or in books. He sheds over every object which he touches the spirit of his own imagination, and in his hands nobility becomes common, grandeur low, feeling vulgar, and simplicity contemptible. He does not possess a Midas-like faculty, for every thing he touches is converted into dross. There is not throughout the whole compass of his writings (and, we challenge our readers to produce a single instance of it) one passage which bears the stamp of a great mind. Affectation and conceit are little vices — they are the errors of diminutive intellects — they are passions, which are intended to supply, in a man's own eyes, that importance which the world will never yield him. The truly high and magnificent mind, is often conscious of the possession of powers, to which the sickly abilities of Mr. Leigh Hunt are as a wart to Ossa, and yet hears itself with an unoffending dignity, which doubles the world's respect; while the importunate egotism of a conceited mind sinks the possessor even beneath the world's contempt. All the splendour of Milton's great mind, shone forth in those words of his, in which he declared, that it had ever been his hope and conviction "that by labour and intense study, joined with the strong propensity of nature, he might leave something, so written, to after times, that they should not willingly let it die." Does a spirit like this animate the labours of Mr. Leigh Hunt?

In all his Poetry, Mr. Leigh Hunt's chief aim is to level himself to what he calls the truth of nature. This he accomplishes, but it is unfortunately to his own nature, that he renders every thing conformable. Now, nature is the simplicity of naked truth, and true nature is perfect propriety. Poetry, like every thing else, has a nature of its own, not the nature of common life, or of common feelings, but something infinitely above both. The beings of a poetical world are not the same, either in flesh or spirit, with "any mortal mixture of earth's mould." They are of a race above mankind, sublimer in sentiments, purer in purpose, more powerful in action, and loftier in language: their passions, indeed, are lighted at that fire, which kindles the human affections, but then they burn with a brilliancy which is not of the earth. In virtue, in weakness, and in wickedness, the children of Poetry rise above the passions of mortality. To this more elevated nature, every other component part of Poetry should be rendered conformable. It is in the infancy of art only, that we observe those painful and minute imitations of nature, which render the works of the early painters almost ridiculous. If Mr. Leigh Hunt undertakes, merely to give us a faithful representation of that nature which comes immediately under his own observation; if he is to dress the miserable specimens of mortality which he sees around him, in a poetical garb, baptize them with some Italian name, endue them with the thoughts and feelings, which, in his opinion, are such as generally arise in the human mind, the world will hardly feel indebted to him for the labour he has expended.

One of our Poet's stoutest opinions, and in which he seems to entrench himself very resolutely, is, that we have no need of a better nature than we at present possess. "The image of a glorious human creature," is, in his idea, the most perfect image which can be imagined. He has no wish, no eye, for a purer, higher existence. He is earth-bound, and would not exchange his prison for an Eden. The cant of humanity runs throughout all his works. There is, moreover, in all this, something too much of "Epicurus' Sty," and, in reading such passages, we cannot help thinking of the spirit and words of Comus, which, we shall not pay so poor a compliment to our readers as to quote. Nobody can accuse H. of severity and austere principles in his writings, and we thus never find him "praising the lean and sallow abstinence." There is little of moral truth in any thing that he says, except indeed, that he inculcates the principle of happiness and enjoyment, and even there he mistakes the means of gaining them.

But, dismissing the question of the useful tendency of his Poems, it becomes us to inquire a little more particularly into his merits as an author. It is difficult, at first, to say on what models he has formed his style; but, on further examination, we may discover that he has paid considerable attention to our older Poets, particularly Shakspeare, and amongst those of a later age, to Dryden. His style may fairly be said to be formed from an imitation of these two Poets, though he has, perhaps, added sufficient of his own, to entitle him to some originality. This imitation, by the bye, is the great characteristic of the Metropolitan School. They have ransacked the wardrobes of our elder Dramatists and Poets, and they now walk into public with a ruff round their necks, and a splendid cloak, like that Sir Walter Raleigh spread before Queen Elizabeth, dangling over a pair of Cossack trowsers, and Wellington boots. The incongruity of the thing is evident and ridiculous.

In his love for the homeliness of nature, nothing is too low or common for Mr. Leigh Hunt; any vulgar sentence or simile, which he imagines to he pretty expressive, he presses into his service without hesitation; and these have, evidently, not crept into his Poetry fortuitously, but have been diligently sought for, to give it an air of truth and nature. The instances which his poems contain are almost innumerable. — Thus:

A "pin-drop" silence strikes o'er all the place,
He kept no reck'ning with his "sweets and sours,"
Yet "somehow or another," on that day,
Baungin, what "bustle's that" I seem to hear?"

Besides this strange homeliness of phrase, Mr. L. H.'s vulgarity extends through whole passages, or, more properly, through his whole writings. — What a picture have we here!

There "talking with the ladies" you may see
Standing about, or sealed, frank and free,
Some of the finest warriors of the court."
RIM. p. 8.

If our readers have never had the good fortune to see the band of the horse-guards mounted on their grey horses, they have not seen what Mr. Leigh Hunt evidently has.

First come the trumpeters clad all in white,
Except the breast, which wears a scutcheon bright,
"By four and four they ride on horses grey,"
And as they sit along their easy way,
Stately and heaving to the sway below,
Each plants his trumpet on his saddle bow.
RIM. p. 8, 12.

The two brothers in Rimini are portraits in Mr. L. Hunt's best style, of nature, or its caricature.

—Giovanni was the graver,
Paulo the livelier, and the more in favour.

though we certainly feel inclined to prefer the former, for

A graceful nose was his, lightsomely brought
Down from a forehead of clear-spirited thought.

And besides, Giovanni was

Wanting on the "generous score."

In spite of this, however, his wife was tolerably complaisant to him, and used kindly to ask him "How his new soldiers pleased him in reviewing?" The considerate kindness which the lady thus displayed, and the interest she took in her husband's occupations, seem to have wrought on his flinty heart, and we are told,

He was not slow in common
To accept the attentions of this lovely woman.

Francesca appears to be a lady after Mr. Leigh Hunt's own heart.

The two divinest things the world has got,
A lovely woman in a rural spot.

Francesca, too, was, like Hunt, a lover of nature,

For in all things with nature did she hold,

so much so, that having worked a knot for Prince Giovanni,

While 'twas "being worked," her fancy was
Of sunbeams mingling with a tuft of grass.

videlicet, it was of green and gold!

The meeting of the two brothers, their deadly quarrel and combat, is perhaps the weakest part of the story of Rimini. It is all told in that maudlin style of affected feeling, which has no effect upon the heart of the reader. Giovanni, the injured and offended brother, very leisurely "dresses," takes his "sword," and seeks his brother. "His squire awaked, attends," and they go to his "brother's room." "His squire calls him up too," and they come forth, like modern Frenchmen, on a point of honour, discussing the question,

May I request, Sir, said the Prince, and frown'd
Your ear a moment in the tilting ground.

Giovanni on the tilting ground addresses his brother thus,

—Before you answer what you can,
I wish to tell you as "a gentleman,"
That what you may confess (and as he spoke
His voice with breathless and pale passion broke,)
Will implicate no person known to you.

The death of Paulo is not told in much better style, and we can hardly sympathize with Francesca, who dies just as Mr. Leigh Hunt might be supposed to wish her. Duke Guido, however, the father of the Princess, excites a good deal of commiseration, for, "He lost hiss old wits for ever."

It may, perhaps, be objected to us, that the few quotations we have made, are not fair specimens of Mr. Leigh Hunt's Poetry; there are other passages, we confess, not so exceptionable, but we have selected these, as giving the liveliest idea of some of this gentleman's peculiarities. The writer of an article in one of our Metropolitan Magazines (and, we think, we can trace the hand of one of Mr. H.'s disciples in it,) has ventured to come pare that gentleman's productions with the Apollo Belvidere and the Venus de Medici. Can we read such things "without our special wonder!!!" Is the blameless beauty of antiquity's highest efforts, to be drawn into comparison with the nauseous overflowings of Mr. Leigh Hunt's perverted imaginations? In his whole composition, there is not one single spark of the chaste classical severity of Grecian song. He runs through Tooke's Pantheon, and babbles of gods and goddesses, and dresses up an ancient story in modern garments; but he has not the slightest idea of the spirit of antiquity.

We will venture to say, Mr. L. Hunt never lost himself in the feelings which his subject excited; he is never overcome, even by enthusiasm; one idea is always at the top of all the rest; that it becomes him to write something Leigh Huntish and natural, but it must bear his own stamp first, and nature's after. He is determined to notice things which other people have neglected, to describe things which others have despised, and to use words which others have never heard of. If it were not for this perpetual straining, this attempt to create a new nature expressly for the use of Mr. Leigh Hunt, this firm resolve, not only to say new things, but to say them, moreover, in a new way, his Poetry might be pleasing, for, after all, there is a sort of quickness of perception about it, and an ease, and sometimes a power of description, which display considerable merit. By no chance, however, could he become a great Poet, for he is far from what Aristotle calls [Greek characters]; he is certainly not high-souled, and his Poetry partakes of the voluptuousness and animal qualities of the Epicurean's, rather than the grandeur and sternness of the Stoic's philosophy. Thus he may, in some degree, succeed in describing beautiful objects and picturesque scenery with effect, as well as the lighter, finer, and more transient feelings of the human heart; but when he comes to deal with the intensity of the passions, to search the depths of the soul, and to express such feelings as fill the heart of Byron, he finds the strings of his weak and slender lyre miserably unstrung. Deep feeling disdains affectation. Mr. Leigh Hunt cannot serve two such masters — conceit and a true poetic spirit are essentially distinct. Such a Poet may be the master of a new school, the idol of a coterie, or the fashion of a day, but he has no claim to a relationship with fame and with posterity....

But having now discharged the most unpleasing part of our critical duty, in pointing out the blemishes of our author, we approach the more delightful one of doing justice to his merits. "Audi alteram partem" is an observation no less applicable to criticism than to law. Though Mr. H. cannot be allowed a very high place in comparison with many of his greatest contemporaries, he must still be allowed to possess no small share of positive excellence, and this of a very original stamp. There is a liveliness and clearness of thought and expression in his whole manner, which cannot be easily mistaken. This is no less manifested in his poetic than in his prose composition, and is what entitles hint to the character of a remarkable, if not of an able, writer. As an editor of periodical papers, either in politics or literature, whether Examiners or Indicators, he is distinguished for a degree of ability and information in conducting them, not only highly respectable, but which we have seldom seen surpassed. The "Indicator" embraces a range of literary subjects, equally amusing and original, and occasionally treated in a very happy manner. On the "Examiner," and the more tender ground of politics, we do not choose to touch, further than to remark, that Mr. L. H.'s own hand is easily discernible in it, from its peculiar characteristics of shrewdness and of force, of flippancy and of singularity.

His earlier poems are still more original than his later productions, with less correctness and cultivation, and a stronger tincture of quaintness and familiarity. These qualities, with an air of youthful vigour and freshness of character, are strikingly manifested in the poems entitled "Foliage," in his "Hero and Leander," and several other of his minor pieces. Of this originality and liveliness of genius, we shall subjoin a few specimens, which may not be wholly uninteresting to our readers. The description of our poet's favourite village retreat, is at once characteristic of the beauty and singularity of his manner. It is in the height of Mr. H.'s natural description. but has something too much like a bird's-eye view of the scenery he delineates.

SONNET. — DESCRIPTION OF HAMPSTEAD.
A steeple issuing from a leafy rise,
With farmy fields in front, and sloping green,
Dear Hampstead, is thy southern face serene,
Silently smiling on approaching eves
Within, thine over-shifting looks surprise,
Streets, hills, and dells, trees overhead now seen,
Now down below with smoking roofs between,
A village revelling in varieties.
Then northward, what a range with heath and pond,
Nature's own ground; woods that let mansions through,
And cottaged vales with pillowy fields beyond,
And clump of dark'ning pines, and prospects blue,
And that clear path thro' all, where daily meet
Cool cheeks and brilliant eyes, and morn elastic feet.

There is much affectionate feeling, mingled with a tinge of affectation, in the following tender lines to his little boy:

TO T. L. H. SIX YEARS OLD, DURING A SICKNESS.
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 thank
Of all thy winning ways;
Yet almost wish with sudden shrink
That I had less to praise.

Thy sidelong pillow'd meekness,
Thy thanks to all that aid,
Thy heart in pain and weakness,
Of fancied faults afraid;
The little tender 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.

But we cannot afford to give the whole, or one that follows, much more lively and singular, to his other little boy. The spirit of it is, indeed

Full of little loves for ours,
Full of songs and full of flowers;

but we have promised to cull from the poet's "Foliage," a few only of the brightest and the greenest leaves, forming a fresh and glowing wreath for the poet's brow. We have pretty stoutly insisted on his faults, and we now take the more pleasure in exhibiting his merits.

We were much struck with some lines in a tribute to the memory of the late Princess Charlotte. It is entitled "His Departed Love, to Prince Leopold." (set to music by Vincent Novello.)

The Princess is supposed to address her beloved Consort:—

I know, dear love, thou canst not see
The face that looks on thine,
Thou can'st not touch or come to me,
But all this pow'r is mine;
And I can touch that bosom still
And now I do so by that thrill."

The night I past thee from my clay,
And kiss'd thy brow's despair,
I met upon my moonlight way
A hundred spirits fair.
A hundred brides, who all like me
Died in that first sweat agony.

And we inhabit wondrous bow'rs,
Which, though they cannot fade,
Have sympathy with the sweet pow'rs
Of those our smiles obey'd;
For as on earth ye spread delight,
The leaves are thick and flow'rs grow bright.

Then turn thee to thy wonted will,
Dry thine and others tears;
And we will build our palace still,
With tops above the spheres;
And when thou too art fancied dead,
There, there shall be our bridal bed.

Such lines are expressive of much feeling, and no little poetic power, while there is less of Mr. H.'s peculiarities observable than usual. But it is not in the descriptive or pathetic only that he excels, he can occasionally strike a bolder chord, which vibrates on some of the strongest feelings of our nature. His natural style of expression is also well adapted to give clear and forcible versions of some of the great poets of antiquity. Thus in his translations of some very pathetic parts of the great father of poetry, Homer himself, he has succeeded far beyond our expectations. It is really too good to omit. Priam, in anguish for the loss of Hector, and getting ready to go and ransom the body, vents his temper on his subjects and children. We think Mr. H. very powerfully preserves the feeling and spirit of the original: — Priam speaks.

Off, with a plague, you scandalous multitude:
Convicted knaves, have you not groans enough
At home, that thus you come oppressing me?
Or am I mocked because Saturnian Jove
Has smitten me, and taken my best boy?—
But ye shall feel yourselves; for ye will be
Much easier for the Greeks to rage among,
Now he is gone; but I, before I see
That time, and Troy laid waste and trampled on,
Shall have gone down into the darksome house.

So saying, with his stick he drove them off,
And they went out, the old man urged them so,
And he called out in anger to his sons,
To Helemes and Paris, god-like Agathon,
And Pamnon, and Antiphonus, and Polites
Loud in the tumult, and Deiphobus,
Hippothous, and the admirable Dius,
These nine, he gave his orders to in anger:

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 fire-hearted charioteer,
And Hector, who for mortal, was a god,
For he seem'd 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?

He said, and the young men took his rebuke
With awe, and brought the rolling chariot forth.

But perhaps the following is even superior, both in the subject and execution of it. The poor old king approaches the tent of Achilles to petition for the body of his favourite son, whom he had slain.

Great Priam came, without their seeing him,
And kneeling down he grasped Achilles' knees,
And kissed those terrible hands, man-slaughtering,
Which had depriv'd him of so many sons.
And as a man who is pressed heavily
For having slain another, flies away
To foreign lands, and comes into the house
Of some great man, and is beheld with wonder;
So did Achilles wonder to see Priam,
And the rest wonder'd, looking at each other,
But Priam, praying to him, spoke these words.

"God-like Achilles, think of thine own father,
Who is, as I am, at the weary door
Of age: and tho' the neighbouring chiefs may vex him,
And he has none to keep his evils off,
Yet, when he hears that thou art still alive,
He gladdens inwardly, and daily hopes
To see his dear son coming back from Troy.
But I, forbidden creature! I had once
Brave Sons in Troy, and now I cannot say
That one is left me. Fifty children had I
When the Greeks came; nineteen were of one womb;
The knees of many of these, fierce Mars has loosened;
And he who had no peer, Troy's prop and theirs,
Him hast thou kill'd now, fighting for his country,
Hector; and for his sake am I come here
To ransom him, bringing a countless ransom.
But thou, Achilles, fear the gods and think
Of thine own father, and have mercy on me;
For I am much more wretched, and have borne
What never mortal bore, I think, on earth,
To lift unto my mouth the band of him
Who slew my boys."

He spoke; and there arose
Sharp longing in Achilles for his father;
And taking Priam by the hand, he gently
Put him away; for both shed tears to think
Of other times: the one most bitter one
For Hector, and with wilful wretchedness
Lay right before Achilles; and the other
For his own father now, and now his friend;
And the whole house might hear them as they moan'd.
But when divine Achilles had refresh'd
His soul with tears, and sharp desire had left
His heart and limbs, he got up from his throne,
And raised the old man by his hand, and took
Pity on his grey head and his grey chin.

To this specimen of Mr. L. H.'s powers as a translator, we must beg leave to add a no less admirable one from the Italian. It is Torquato Tasso's celebrated Ode on the Golden Age, sung by the chorus in the beautiful pastoral drama of the Aminta:

CHORUS.
O, lovely age of gold!
Not that the rivers roll'd
With milk, or that the woods dropp'd honeydew;
Not that the ready ground
Produc'd without a wound
Or the mild serpent had no teeth that slew;
Not that a cloudless blue
For ever was in sight,
Or that the heav'n which burns,
And now is cold by turns,
Look'd out in glad and everlasting light:
No, nor that even the insolent ships from far
Brought war to no new land, and riches worse than war;

But solely that that vain
And breath-invented pain,
That idol of mistakes, that worshipp'd cheat,
That honour, — since so call'd,
By vulgar minds appall'd,
Play'd not the tyrant with our nature yet.
It had not come to fret
The sweet and happy fold
Of gentle human kind;
Nor did jts hard law bind
Souls nurs'd in freedom; but that law of gold,
That glad and golden law, all free and fitted,
Which nature's own hand wrote — what pleases is permitted.
Then among streams and flowers
The little winged powers
Went sinking carols without torch or bow:
The nymphs and shepherds sat
Mingling with innocent chat
Sports and low whispers; and with whispers low
Kisses that would not go.
———*———*———
Our sorrows and our pains,
These are thy noble gains!
But oh thou love's and nature's masterer,
Thou conqueror of the crown'd,
What dost thou on this ground,
In small a circle for thy mighty sphere?
Go, and make slumber dear
To the renown'd and high;
We here, a lowly race,
Can live without thy grace
After the use of mild antiquity:
Go, let us love; since years
No trace allow, and life soon disappears, &c.

But we must here interrupt our visions of the "golden prime," and take our leave of the poetry of Mr. H. to pursue more serious duties, and fulfil the higher and more useful objects of our work. Though moral and religious views, and the promotion of "peace and good will to man," with christian knowledge and humility, be the chief aim of our uniform and unremitting efforts, we are occasionally glad to season our instruction with the glad voice and the fresh and invigorating spirit of the muse. In accomplishing this, however, we shall endeavour to bring before our readers only such of our distinguished poets, whose works are equally celebrated for taste and genius, as for the purer qualities and more ennobling principles of humanity, morals, and religion.

R. T.