1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

Mary Russell Mitford, in "Poetry that Poets Love. Walter Savage Landor — Leigh Hunt — Percy Bysshe Shelley — John Keats" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 309-15.



The days are happily past when the paltry epithet of "Cockney Poets" could be bestowed upon Keats and Leigh Hunt: the world has outlived them. People would as soon think of applying such a word to Dr. Johnson. Happily, too, one of the delightful writers who were the objects of these unworthy attacks has outlived them also; has lived to attain a popularity of the most genial kind, and to diffuse, through a thousand pleasant channels, many of the finest parts of our finest writers. He has done good service to literature in another way, by enriching our language with some of the very best translations since Cowley. Who ever thought to see Tasso's famous passage in the "Amyntas" so rendered?

ODE TO THE GOLDEN AGE.
O lovely age of gold!
Not that the rivers rolled
With milk, or that the woods wept honey-dew;
Not that the reedy ground
Produced without a wound,
Or the mild serpent had no tooth that slew;
Not that a cloudless blue
Forever was in sight;
Or that the heaven which burns,
And now is cold by turns,
Looked out in glad and everlasting light;
No, nor that even the insolent ships from far
Brought war to no new lands, nor riches worse than war.

Who, again, ever hoped to see such an English version of one of Petrarch's most characteristic poems, conceits and all?

PETRARCH'S CONTEMPLATIONS OF DEATH IN THE BOWER OF LAURA.
Clear, fresh, and dulcet streams,
Which the fair shape who seems
To me sole woman, haunted at noontide;
Fair bough, so gently lit,
(I sigh to think of it)
Which lent a pillar to her lovely side;
And turf and flowers bright-eyed,
O'er which her folded gown
Flowed like an angel's down;
And you, O holy air and hushed,
Where first my heart at her sweet glances gushed,
Give ear, give ear, with one consenting,
To my last words, my last, and my lamenting.

If 'tis my fate below
And heaven will have it so,
That love must close these dying eyes in tears,
May my poor dust be laid
In middle of your shade,
While my soul, naked, mounts to its own spheres.
The thought would calm my fears
When taking, out of breath,
The doubtful step of death;
For never could my spirit find
A stiller port after the stormy wind;
Nor in more calm abstracted borne
Slip from my traveled flesh, and from my bones outworn.

Perhaps, some future hour,
To her accustomed bower
Might come the untamed, and yet gentle she;
And where she saw me first,
Might turn with eyes athirst
And kinder joy to look again for me;
Then, oh the charity!
Seeing amidst the stones
The earth that held my bones,
A sigh for very love at last
Might ask of heaven to pardon me the past;
And heaven itself could not say nay,
As with her gentle vail she wiped the tears away.

How well I call to mind,
When from those boughs the wind
Shook down upon her bosom flower on flower;
And there she sat meek-eyed,
In midst of all that pride,
Sprinkled and blushing through an amorous shower.
Some to her hair paid dower,
And seemed to dress the curls
Queenlike with gold and pearls;
Some snowing on her drapery stopped,
Some on the earth, some on the water dropped;
While others, fluttering from above,
Seemed wheeling round in pomp and saying, "Here reigns love."

How often then I said,
Inward, and filled with dread,
"Doubtless this creature came from paradise!"
For at her look the while,
Her voice, and her sweet smile
And heavenly air, truth parted from mine eyes;
So that, with long-drawn sighs,
I said, as far from men,
"How came I here, and when?"
I had forgotten; and alas!
Fancied myself in heaven, not where I was;
And from that time till this, I bear
Such love for the green bower, I can not rest elsewhere.

In justice to Mr. Leigh Hunt, I add to these fine translations, of which every lover of Italian literature will perceive the merit, some extracts from his original poems, which need no previous preparation in the reader. Except Chaucer himself, no painter of processions has excelled the entrance of Paulo to Ravenna, in the story of Rimini.

'Tis morn, and never did a lovelier day
Salute Ravenna from its leafy bay;
For a warm eve and gentle rains at night
Have left a sparkling welcome for the light;
And April with his white hands wet with flowers
Dazzles the bridemaids looking from the towers:
Green vineyards and fair orchards far and near
Glitter with drops; and heaven is sapphire clear,
And the lark rings it, and the pine-trees glow,
And odors from the citrons come and go;
And all the landscape-earth and sky and sea—
Breathes like a bright-eyed face that laughs out openly.

'Tis nature, full of spirits, waked and loved.
E'en sloth to-day goes quick and unreproved;
For where's the living soul, priest, minstrel, clown,
Merchant or lord, that speeds not to the town?
Hence happy faces, striking through the green
Of leafy roads, at every turn are seen;
And the far ships, lifting their sails of white
Like joyful hands, come up with scattered light;
Come gleaming up — true to the wished-for day—
And chase the whistling brine, and swirl into the bay.

And well may all the world come crowding there,
If peace returning and processions rare,
And to crown all, a marriage in the spring,
Can set men's hearts and fancies on the wing:
For on this beauteous day Ravenna's pride,
The daughter of their prince, becomes a bride;
A bride to ransom an exhausted land;
And he whose victories have obtained her hand
Has taken with the dawn, so flies report,
His promised journey to the expecting court,
With knightly pomp, and squires of high degree
The bold Giovanni, Lord of Rimini.

The road that way is lined with anxious eyes,
And false announcements and fresh laughters rise;
The horsemen hastens through the jeering crowd,
And finds no horse within the gates allowed:
And who shall tell the drive there and the din?
The bells, the drums, the crowds yet squeezing in.
The shouts from mere exuberance of delight,
And mothers with their babes in sore affright,
And armed hands making important way
Gallant and grave, the lords of holyday;
Minstrels and friars and beggars many a one
That pray and roll their blind eyes in the sun,
And all the buzzing throngs that hang like bees
On roofs and walls and tops of garden trees.

With tapestries bright the windows overflow
By lovely faces brought that come and go,
Till by their work the charmers take their seats
Themselves the sweetest pictures in the streets,
In colors by light awnings beautified;
Some re-adjusting tresses newly tied,
Some turning a trim waist, or o'er the flow
Of crimson cloths hanging a hand of snow:
Smiling and talking some, and some serene,
But all with flowers, and all with garlands green,
And most in fluttering talk impatient for the scene.

At length the approaching trumpets, with a start
On the smooth wind come dancing to the heart.
The crowd are mute; and from the southern wall
A lordly blast gives answer to the call.
Then comes the crush; and all who best can strive
In shuffling struggle toward the palace drive,
Where balustered and broad, of marble fair,
Its portico commands the public square:
For there Count Guido is to hold his state
With his fair daughter, seated o'er the gate.
But far too well the square has been supplied:
And, after a rude heave from side to side,
With angry faces turned and nothing gained,
The order first found easiest is maintained;
Leaving the pathways only for the crowd,
The space within for the procession proud.

For in this manner is the square set out:—
The sides half-deep are crowded round about
And faced with guards who keep the horseway clear
And round a fountain in the midst appear—
Seated with knights and ladies in discourse—
Rare Tuscan wits and warbling troubadours,
Whom Guido, for he loved the Muse's race,
Has set there to adorn his public place.
The sets with boughs are shaded from above
Of bays and roses — trees of wit and love.
And in the midst fresh whistling through the scene
The lightsome fountain starts from out the green
Clear and compact; till at its height o'errun
It shakes its loosening silver in flit sun.
———*———*———*———*———*———
Another start of trumpets with reply;
And o'er the gate a crimson canopy
Opens to right and left its flowing shade,
And Guide issues with the princely maid
And sits. The courtiers fall on either side
But every look is fixed upon the bride,
Who seems all thought at first, and hardly hears
The enormous shout that springs as she appears;
Till, as she views the countless gaze below,
And faces that with grateful homage glow,
A home to leave and husband yet to see
Are mixed with thoughts of lofty charity:
And hard it is she thinks to have no will;
But not to bless these thousands harder still.
With that a keen and quivering sense of tears
Scarce moves her sweet proud lip and disappears;
A smile is underneath and breaks away
And round she looks and breathes as best befits the day.

What need I tell of cheeks and lips and eyes
The locks that fall, and bosom's balmy rise?
Beauty's whole soul is here, though shadowed still
With anxious thought and doubtful maiden will;
A lip for endless love should all prove just;
An eye that can withdraw into as deep distrust.

While thus with earnest looks the people gaze,
Another shout the neighboring quarters raise;
The train are in the town, and gathering near
With noise of cavalry and trumpets clear,
A princely music, unbedimmed with drums,
The mighty brass seems opening as it comes.
And now it fills and now it shakes the air,
And now it bursts into the sounding square,
At which the crowd with such a shout rejoice,
Each thinks he's deafened with his neighbor's voice.
Then with a long-drawn breath the clangors die,
The palace trumpets give a last reply;
And clustering hoofs succeed with stately stir
Of snortings proud and clinking furniture;—
The most majestic sound of human will:
Naught else is heard some time, the people are so still.

I would fain go on with this procession, which the art of the poet continues to make us see and hear and almost feel, so vividly does he describe the pageantry, the noise, and the jostling. But it fills the whole canto, and there is yet another poem for which I must make room. Every mother knows these pathetic stanzas; I shall never forget attempting to read them to my faithful maid; the hemmer of flounces, whose fair-haired Saxon boy, her pet and mine, was then fast recovering from a dangerous illness. I attempted to read these verses, and did read as many as I could for the rising in the throat, the "hysterica passio" of poor Lear, and as many as my auditor could hear for her own sobs. No doubt they have often extorted such praises-the truest and the most precious that can be given.

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 think
Of all thy winning ways;
Yet almost wish with sudden shrink
That I had less to praise.

Thy sidelong 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 can not 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!
Ah, I could not endure
To whisper of such woe,
Unless I felt this sleep insure
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 mine ear
Like parting wings of Seraphim
Who say, "We've finished here."