1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

Anonymous, "J. H. Leigh Hunt" La Belle Assemblee NS 27 (1823) 5-9.



To any cause rather than that of his genius may Mr. Hunt's celebrity be ascribed; often as he has told us he is a poet, we still remain sceptical on the subject, and for all we see of him are likely to remain so; nevertheless, as he has had ingenuity or good fortune enough to get himself placed on the list, it is our business to review him as such. There are, perhaps, few instances of such consummate vanity and conceit as he presents; and his affectation is even still more offensive, a fault the more conspicuous, from its being the very one he pointedly disclaims. There is no remark more true than that modesty is always the concomitant of genius: the petty pretender must put a good face upon the matter, and himself appear confident to infuse a disposition to confidence into others. This mode of acting has carried many a paper skull through the world with a tolerable reputation; for nine-tenths of the multitude will accept the appearance of a thing for the reality of it, and take up ready-made opinions, sooner than be at the trouble of forming one of their own. But with the discriminating part of society their impudence is even more intolerable than their ignorance; the latter standing by itself may be pitied or overlooked, but when it is in company with the former, it at once provokes chastisement and contempt.

How Mr. Hunt ever contrived to establish his absurd school of poetry, it is difficult to conceive; some of his imitators, too, really men of sense and talent. It can only be ranked among those follies of a day, which, with the infatuation of a mania, prevail for a time, and then sink into oblivion, thus will it be with Mr. Hunt and all

Procurers of th' extravagancy,
And crazy ribaldry of fancy.

Novelty will often lend a charm to that which has no intrinsic merit, and there is no folly that fashion will not sanctify. The Ethiopian courtiers, when their king was maimed in any of his limbs, maimed themselves in the same; and it seems Mr. Hunt's imitators have gone much upon the same plan, and knowing the paucity of his brains, instituted a drawback upon their own. It is a wonder none of them thought of composing a dictionary of the words and phrases they and their "mighty master" have so industriously coined or revived; but they probably shrunk from initiating the vulgar into the divine mysteries of their school, and obscurity is a cheap substitute for sublimity.

John Keats was a man of genius, and the want of judgment that led him to seek a model in Leigh Hunt, must be forgiven and imputed to the immaturity incident to his years, had time been allowed, he would have proved an ornament to English literature. Cornelius Webbe is another whom this rage of imitation has spoiled: some of his sonnets are exquisitely beautiful, but slurred here and there with Huntean phrases. The productions which have appeared under the name of Barry Cornwall have merit, but have been praised far beyond their deserts. But it is not with his imitators, but with Mr. Hunt himself we have to do at present. He was educated at the Blue-coat school, and so precocious was his talent, that he was looked on by his friends as little less than the eighth wonder of the world — it is no wonder if they have since changed their opinion. His first poetical step on the grand theatre of life was "Juvenilia," stated to have been written between his fifteenth and eighteenth year. Under those circumstances it purchases an immunity from the severity of criticism. But we cannot forbear saying it is dull, heavy, and common-place, unirradiated by one ray of incipient genius, while the advertisement shows the budding of that overweaning conceit which is now full blown. It is, however, free from the gross absurdities which characterise his subsequent productions. For some time he filled a subordinate situation under government, which was for some cause or other exchanged for the profession of authorship. He wrote for the daily prints, especially "The News." In conjunction with his brother he then set up the paper called "The Examiner;" and in the course of time published "The Feast of the Poets," a piece possessing some merit; "Liberty," a Masque; and "The story of Rimini," which we will take the trouble to examine, and to paraphrase Mardonius's compliment to Xerxes, is not only the most absurd thing that ever was, but that ever will be written.

That no part of this curious morceau may he lost, we will begin with the dedication to Lord Byron, which is, to our feeling, in a strain of offensive familiarity; this, however, may be false delicacy, since, if they are really on terms of intimacy, it is nothing more than the tone which intimates commonly assume to each other. But we feel the immeasurable distance too strongly — it is a pigmy affecting to walk with careless arm-in-arm ease with a giant. We would remind Mr. Hunt of the fate of the frog in the fable. He besides libels his lordship in asserting that be (Lord Byron) "likes his verses." It is very probable that politeness may have extorted some words of unmeaning approbation, for what are you to say to a man when he pops those home questions about himself, which such opinionated and egotistical beings as Leigh Hunt are so apt to do? The most fastidious lover of truth will forgive his lordship in such a case. "You have yourself," he continues, "set the example of poet dedicating to poet, and it is under that nobler title, &c. &c. I address you." Who does not see the effort to establish equality, and "who but must smile?" It seems he should not have written the dedication, had he not felt convinced, "the poem was capable of standing on its own bottom," and proceeds to add, that having vindicated his "fellow dignity," and "put on his laurel, (how got he this same laurel?) to meet his lordship in public," he takes it off again to recur to the "humanities" of private life. This is surely the ne plus ultra of self-sufficiency, yet we cannot help fancying we see beneath this bombast a conscious sense of inferiority, which the writer vainly endeavours to shake off; aware that no one else would do it for him, cost him what labor it might, he determined to raise himself to the elevation of the greatest genius of the age; but, alas, it is "Love's (self-love's) labor lost!" How weak, how impolitic to provoke such a comparison.

A peep at the preface, and then to the poem. "With the endeavour to recur to a freer spirit of versification, I have joined one of still greater importance, — that of a free and idiomatic cast of language ... made an attempt to describe natural things in a language becoming them, and to do something towards the revival of what appears to me a proper English versification." Peace to its manes! may it rest for ever, if it is such as we find in "The Story of Rimini." The poem commences with a description of a cavalcade coming to take the bride from Ravenna. It was a fine morning, there was a "crystal clearness all about," the leaves were "sharp," "the hills looked out," very much delighted, of course, with the pageant, and "a balmy briskness came upon the breeze."

And all the scene, in short-sky, earth, and sea,
Breathed like a bright-eyed face, that laughs out openly.

It seems the roads were "leafy," a word we could have comprehended, had the season been autumn instead of spring; and "the deep talk heaved," and "with heaved out tapestry the windows glowed;" at length

—from the walls
Firm, and at once a silver answer calls,
Then heaved the crowd.

This, and many other "rude heaves from side to side," is all for the heavers (whether coalheavers or not is left to imagination) to see the "procession proud" of the bride. Among the objects worthy of notice on that brilliant day, it seems there was a young man "With the poet looking out in his earnest face." The bride had a "clipsome waist," and the people gazed at her with "tiptoe looks." In the course of two pages we meet the following repetitions:

Which tell us they look backward in the wind,
The bearings of the knights that ride behind.

Which thrown apart, and hanging loose behind,
Rests on his steed, and ruffles in the wind.

But all are wide and large, and with the wind,
When it comes fresh, go sweeping far behind.

The horses of the Prince's cavalcade are described as having "their jauntiness behind, and strength before." The procession passes where the Princess is seated, and after an interval of "stately length," comes by "a troop of steeds,"

Milk-white and unattired, Arabian bred,
Each by a blooming boy "lightsomely" led.

Which same beautiful animals "Lend their streaming tails to the fond air," at how much an hour is not stated. After a minute narration of all that passes, it appears there is another interval, not as before, of "stately length," but of "a lordly space," and "A pin-drop silence strikes o'er all the place." At length the young Prince, who comes as his brother's proxy, appears: "Never was nobler finish to fine sight." This prince is uncommonly handsome, and he "Lightsomely dropt in, his lordly back," his thigh

"Was heaped with strength."
But above all, so meaning is his look,
"Full, and as readable as open book,"
And so much easy dignity there lies
"In the frank lifting of his cordial eyes."

That this hero is a most wonderful fellow, may be guessed from the circumstance, that in spite of the rearing and prancing of his stead, he

—on his back sits still,
"And looks where'er he likes," and sways him at his will.

The prince distinguishes in the crowd the poet with "the earnest face," and sends him a jewel, and on receiving it, "the youth smiles up." The circumstance on which the story hinges is, that the Princess mistakes the proxy for the real husband, hence the foundation of a passion which terminates so fatally. When the parade was over, there was some dissatisfaction among the people,

Who got in clumps, or paced the measured streets,
"Filling, with earnest hum, the noontide heat."

Who does not feel the elegance of the following lines descriptive of the Princess's sentiments: "She had stout notions on the marrying score." She finds the Prince Giovanni very different from his brother, but she resolves on a strict performance of her duties. We almost forgot to mention, in the course of her journey to Rimini, she met with a great natural curiosity — "an old religious tree." Her dangerous friendship with her brother-in-law continues; they are much together, and she is the perpetual contemplation of charms of no common order,

A graceful nose — lightsomely brought
Down from a forehead of clear-spirited thought.

It was a face, "in short," seemed made to shew

"How far the genuine flesh and blood could go."

We have found a match to an instance of elegance, which we noticed above, speaking of Giovanni's disposition, we are told he was not "wanting on the generous score." The Princess is often described with a "downward cheek," and a "double smile," which never having had the pleasure of seeing, we are at a loss to conceive them. In the course of time) however, her smiles were reduced, we suppose, to single ones. Among her luxuries she had a beautiful summerhouse, situated at the end of a wood, to add to the climax of its beauty, "Indeed the whole was leafy," whenever you pleased you had the power of turning off "into a leafy walk," and there the buds kept "leafy houses," the summer-house itself "Looked lordly forth with many window'd ken." This was the Princess's favorite retreat, and one summer evening she went there through "the low-talking leaves;" she sat in musing melancholy some time, and then

—reached o'er-head, and took her down a book,
"And fell to reading with a fixed air."

Paulo, her brother-in-law, strolls by chance to the same place, and stood some time viewing her through the window, and at length cries, "May I come in?" "His smiling voice" made her start, but she replied, "O yes, certainly." The hitherto virtuous wife falls from her innocence, and the short transport of a guilty passion is succeeded by bitterness and sorrow. Francisca betrays the secret to her husband, by some words she utters in her sleep, and he flies off to his brother's room,

"May I request, sir," said the Prince, and frowned,
Your ear a moment on the tilting ground?"

"There, brother?" answered Paulo with an air surprised and shocked. "Yes, brother," cried he "there." They proceed to the place appointed, where the Prince said

Before you answer as 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.

Paulo for a long time parries his brother's efforts to make him fight, during which the dialogue is contemptible, at last he is provoked to draw his sword, but he rather plays than fights.

Paulo retired, and warded, turned on heel,
And led him, step by step, "round like a wheel."

At length he manages to throw himself on Giovanni's sword, who utters a long soliloquy in praise of the deceased, very weak and very dull. Paulo's squire informs Francisca of his fate; she receives the mournful news with fortitude, and gives the bearer of it a ring, he accepts it with tears,

And looking on it once, gently "up started,"
And in his reverent stillness, so departed.

Francisca died that night, and that the lover's may be buried in the same graves, their remains are carried to Ravenna, where the hapless Duke Guido receives them.

He clasped his hands, "and looking round the room,
Lost his old wits forever." From that morrow
None saw him after. "But no more sorrow."

In mercy to our readers we have omitted to notice many absurd passages, but they must already have had sufficient. Never had a poem fewer counterbalancing beauties, but it is but justice that we should endeavour to see if there is a brighter side of the picture. It appears that Mr. Hunt has sometimes very tolerable ideas, but he is always a bungler at giving them expression, his best passages are deformed with affected or obsolete phraseology, the following is pretty:

And in the midst fresh whistling thro' the scene,
A lightsome fountain starts from out the green,
Clear and compact, till, at its height o'errun,
"It shakes its loosening silver in the sun."

The apostrophe to Francisca is even still more unexceptionable,

But ill prepared was she, in her hard lot,
To fancy merit where she found it not.—
She, who had been beguiled, — she who was made
Within a gentle bosom to be laid,—
To bless and to be blessed — to be heart-bare,
To one who found his better likeness there,—
To think for ever with him like a bride,—
To haunt his eye like taste personified,—
To double his delight, to share his sorrow,
And, like a morning beam, wake to him every morrow.

"The story of Rimini" is a fair specimen of our author's style and talents, and we shall therefore have too much regard for our limits to enter into an examination of any other of his futile productions; he is so possessed with ridiculous affectation, that he cannot write twenty continuous lines of plain sense, and heaven defends us from the ornaments of his verse. His song of "Mary, dear Mary, list, awake," has been very much admired, but it partakes largely of all his faults — it is full of false imagery, and sound in the place of sense. From any other writer we might hope amendment — might suffer ourselves to anticipate future efforts from a mind purified by the ordeal of criticism: not so with Mr. Hunt, his errors are rather burnt in than eradicated by censure, however judicious or well meant, and we may therefore be allowed most devoutly to hope he will write no more. We may hope, but dare not expect such an event; for, if he pleases no one else, he certainly does himself to the utmost point of satisfaction. If we have been free with Mr. Hunt, let it be remembered it is only in his literary capacity, with his private character we do not meddle; and if he had kept his muse at home to amuse "little ranting Johnny," who, according to his father's account, sings "Nonny nonny," we should certainly have neither felt a right nor an inclination to have interfered with it.