1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 212-18.



The great original English school of poetry — English in its language, sentiments, style, and subjects — was that commencing with the graphic Canterbury Tales of Chaucer; and including Shakspeare, with the constellation of dramatists immediately before and after him — Webster, Marlow, Massinger, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ford, and Shirley. The second was that of Dryden, Prior, Swift, and Pope, by which the canons of French criticism were acknowledged; where art superseded nature; where, even in dramatic compositions, rhyme took the place of blank verse; and in whose subjects the conventionalities of society held a place superior to the great originating principles of human action. The third great school was that whose merits I have just imperfectly discussed; and which, finding our literature at the lowest ebb, succeeded in raising it to a pitch of splendour, whether we look to grace or originality, power or variety — at least nearly equalling the first. Its primal seeds, especially in the writings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Scott, seem traceable to Germany: not so in Crabbe, Moore, Southey, Wilson, or Byron; and it ripened into a harvest, whose garnered-up riches are destined for the intellectual provender of many succeeding ages. Fostered in the shadow of its noonday brilliance, and for a time attracting only secondary notice, a fourth school began to exhibit itself about thirty years ago, and since then has been gradually gaining an ascendancy. Somewhat modified since its commencement it may be said to be, that at present existing, — we dare not say flourishing, — seeing what we have seen in that which immediately preceded it, when, verily, there were giants in the land; not influencing merely a class or a coterie, but stirring popular feeling even to its profoundest depths, and enthroning poetry for a season above every other branch of literature. The source of this new composite school was at first very distinctly Italian; next blending itself with the literature of France; and, lastly, with that of Germany. Such has been its influence that, sad it is to say, but little of the flavour of the original British stock is now perceptible among our risen or rising poets.

I do not think we can trace an origin to this school — which soon comprehended among its disciples Keats, Shelley, and Barry Cornwall, with others of less note — farther back than 1816, when it showed itself in full-blown perfection in the Story of Rimini, by Leigh Hunt — a poem which to this day remains probably the very best exemplar alike of its peculiar beauties and its peculiar faults.

Although previously well known as an acute dramatic critic, and a clever writer of occasional verses, it was by the production of the Story of Rimini that Leigh Hunt put in his successful claim to a place among British poets. That he is himself truly a poet, a man of original and peculiar genius, there can he no possible doubt; but the fountains of inspiration from which his urn drew much light, were Boccaccio, "he of the hundred tales of love;" Dante, in whose Inferno is to be found the exquisite episode of Francesca, which he expanded; and Ariosto, from whose sparkling and sprightly pictures he took many of the gay, bright colours with which he emblazoned his own.

With acute powers of conception, a sparkling and lively fancy, and a quaintly curious felicity of diction, the grand characteristic of Leigh Hunt's poetry is word-painting; and in this he is probably without a rival, save in the last and best productions of Keats, who contended, not vainly, with his master on that ground. In this respect, nothing can be more remarkable than some passages in Rimini and in his collection entitled. Foliage, — much of which he has since capriciously cancelled; and he also exercised this peculiar faculty most felicitously in translations from the French and Italian, although, in some instances, he carried it to the amount of grotesqueness or affectation. His heroic couplet has much of the life, strength, and flexibility of Dryden — of whom he often reminds us; and in it he follows glorious John, even to his love for triplets and Alexandrines. Hunt's taste, however, is very capricious; and in his most charming descriptions, some fantastic or incongruous epithet is aver and anon thrust provokingly forward to destroy the unity of illusion, or to mar the metrical harmony. His landscapes are alike vividly coloured and sharply outlined; and his figures, like the quaint antiques of Giotto and Cimabue, are ever placed in attitudes sharp and angular — where striking effect is preferred to natural repose. The finest passages in the Story of Rimini, are the descriptions of the April morning with which canto first opens; of the Ravenna pine-forest, with its "immemorial trees," in canto second; and of the garden and summer-house in canto third. Indeed, the whole of the third canto overflows alike with classic elegance and natural feeling; and it would be difficult anywhere to find, in an English poet, an equal number of consecutive lines so thoroughly excellent. The account of the funeral procession of the lovers, at the conclusion of the poem, is also conceived in a spirit of picturesque beauty, as well as of solemn and deep-toned tenderness:—

The days were then at close of autumn — still,
A little rainy, and towards nightfall chill;
But now there was a moaning air abroad;
And ever and anon, over the road,
The last few leaves came fluttering from the trees,
Whose trunks, bare, wet, and cold, seemed ill at ease.
The people who, from reverence, kept at home,
Listened till afternoon to hear them come;
And hour on hour went by, and naught was heard
But some chance horseman or the wind that stirred,
Till towards the vesper hour; and then, 'twas said,
Some heard a voice that seemed as if it read;
And others said, that they could hear a sound
Of many horses trampling the moist ground.
Still nothing came: till, on a sudden, just
As the wind opened with a rising gust,
A voice of chaunting rose, and, as it spread,
They plainly heard the anthem for the dead.
It was the choristers, who went to meet
The train, and now were entering the first street.
Then turned aside that city young and old,
And in their lifted bands the gushing sorrow rolled.

Of Leigh Hunt's other narrative poems — which are all immeasurably inferior to Rimini — it is not necessary to say much. Hero and Leander is a version of the old classic legend, in his own simple, earnest, although occasionally mannered style, and with all its peculiar characteristics of quaintness and word-painting. The Palfrey, a story founded on the antique lay of the minstrel Huon le Roi, is in a lighter and more buoyant strain. The Feast of the Poets, and The Feast of the Violets, written with equal gracefulness and spirit, record his critical and candid estimate of the excellencies of those who have recently adorned British poetry, male and female. Captain Sword and Captain Pen is a poem denouncing war, and exhibiting some good passages, but written in a rambling measure, which, like a cork floating on a sea-wave, is ever bumping up and down, in sad discordance with the gravity of the subject. Of his miscellaneous pieces, the finest are, To T. L. H., six years old, during sickness, which overflows with natural pathos; the Oriental morceaux entitled Mahmoud, and Abou Ben Adhem and the Angel, full of picturesque yet delicate beauty of thought and language; and several of the translations from the Italian and French; but it cannot be said that Leigh Hunt has quite fulfilled the promise of his early genius. Instead of concentrating his powers, and setting himself indefatigably to the rearing of some great and glorious edifice, combining the poet's invention with the artist's skill, he has contented himself with here a honeysuckle cottage, and there a woodbine grotto. He shunned the solemn and severe, and took to the light and familiar; and has at all times, and on all subjects, been most uncertain and capricious, alike in selection and in handling. With the most perfect sincerity for the time, with a fine genius, and the most cordial dispositions, this infirmity of purpose — as it was with Coleridge — has been his drawback and his bane. With all his diffuseness, with all his occasional languor, and all his provoking conceits, affectations, and mannerisms, it may be proudly claimed for Leigh Hunt that he is never commonplace; he could not be, if he so desired it; and in his happier passages, he delights by his fine tact, his boyish enthusiasm, his impressive imagery, his genial sociality, his unpretending pathos, and his picturesque detail.

That Leigh Hunt can at will throw off much of his mannerism, the following spirited stanzas sufficiently show:—

King Francis was a hearty king, and loved a royal sport,
And one day, as his lions fought, sat looking on the court;
The nobles filled the benches, and the ladies in their pride,
And 'mongst them sat the Count de Lorge, with one for whom he sighed;
And truly 'twas s gallant thing to see that crowning show,
Valour and Love, and a king above, and the royal beasts below.

Ramped and roared the lions, with horrid laughing jaws;
They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams — a wind went with their paws;
With wallowing might and stifled roar they rolled on one another,
Till all the pit, with sand and mane, was in a thunderous smother;
The bloody foam above the bars came whisking through the air;
Said Francis then — "Faith, gentlemen, we're better here than there."

De Lorge's love o'erheard the king — a beauteous lively dame,
With smiling lips and sharp bright eyes, which always seemed the same:
She thought, "the Count, my lover, is brave as brave could be;
He surely would do wondrous things to show his love for me:
King, ladies, lovers, all look on; the occasion is divine;
I'll drop my glove to prove his love — great glory will be mine."

She dropped her glove to prove his love, then looked at him and smiled;
He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
The leap was quick — return was quick — he has regained the place,
Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady's face.
"By heaven!" said Francis, "rightly done" and he rose from where he sat—
"No love," quoth he, "but vanity, sets love a task like that."

Schiller's version of this striking anecdote is nearer the original, copied by St. Foix from Brantome; but Leigh Hunt has certainly improved it in spirit and picturesqueness.