1877 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

Bryan Waller Procter, in Procter: An Autobiographical Fragment (1877) 195-201.



When I first visited Leigh Hunt (1817), he lived at No. 8, York Buildings, in the New Road. His house was small, and scantily furnished. In it was a tiny room, built out at the back of the drawing-room or first floor, which he appropriated as a study, and over the door of this was a line from the Faery Queen of Spenser, painted in gold letters. On a small table in this study, covered with humble green baize, Leigh Hunt sat and wrote his articles for the Examiner and Indicator, and his verses. He had very few books, an edition of the Italian Poets in many volumes, Spenser's works, and the minor poems of Milton (edited by Warton) being, however, amongst them. I don't think that there was a Shakespeare. There were always a few cut flowers, in a glass of water, on the table.

Hunt was a little above the middle size, thin and lithe. His countenance was very genial and pleasant. His hair was black; his eyes were very dark, but he was short-sighted, and therefore perhaps it was that they had nothing of that fierce glance which black eyes so frequently possess. His mouth was expressive, but protruding; as is sometimes seen in half-caste Americans. It was shortly after my first visit that I first met Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Peacock, Walter Coulson, and others at supper there. Hunt never gave dinners, but his suppers of cold meat and salad were cheerful and pleasant; sometimes, the cheerfulness (after a "wassail bowl") soared into noisy merriment. I remember one Christmas or New Year's evening, when we sat there till two or three o'clock in the morning, and when the jokes and stories and imitations, so overcame me that I was nearly falling off my chair with laughter. This was mainly owing to the comic imitations of Coulson, who was usually so grave a man. Coulson knew everything. We used to refer to him as to an encyclopedia, so perpetually, indeed, that Hunt always spoke of him afterwards as "The Admirable Coulson." The "vis comica" left him for the most part in later life, when he became a distinguished lawyer.

Leigh Hunt was always in trouble about money; but he was seldom sad, and never sour. The prospect of poverty did not make much impression on him who never possessed wealth. Otherwise he would probably have pursued some regular laborious employment. He deceived himself, when he said that he could not understand accounts. He had a good logical head and great quickness, but he liked the tasks to which he devoted his life. He liked to display his worship for Spenser, to criticise poetry, and to write of May-day and of rural pleasures. I believe that he seldom if ever undertook a task to which he was originally disinclined. There is no doubt that some of his voluntaries became wearisome before completion, but the work was always commenced because it was attractive to him.

Hunt had a crotchet or theory about social intercourse (between the sexes), to which he never made any converts. He was at one time too frequently harping on this subject. This used to irritate Hazlitt, who said, "D— him; it's always coming out like a rash. Why doesn't he write a book about it, and get rid of it." Hunt did not press these opinions upon any one to a pitch of offence. He himself led a very domestic and correct life. And I am bound to say that, during an intimacy of many (forty) years, I never heard him utter an oath, although they were then very common; and I never heard from him an indelicate hint or allusion. Notwithstanding he indulged himself occasionally in pet words, some of which struck me as approaching almost to the vulgar. He was essentially a gentleman in conduct, in demeanour, in manner, in his consideration for others indeed, in all things that constitute the material of a gentleman. He was very good tempered; thoroughly easy tempered. He saw hosts of writers, of less ability than himself, outstripping him on the road to future success, yet I never heard from him a word that could be construed into jealousy or envy; not even a murmur. This might have arisen partly from a want of susceptibility in his constitution; not altogether from that stern power of self-conquest, which enables some men to subdue the rebellious instincts which give rise to envious passions.

Apart from this question, however, Leigh Hunt possessed a great fund of positive active kindness. He bestowed praise on the great and on the small with a liberal hand. He placed on record his liking for writers, who differed so materially from himself in merit, that the promulgation of this was likely to suggest a doubt as to the validity of his own pretensions. To persons whose ability was not yet admitted, or who had encountered enmity in letters, he was always, generous, never taking the mean or ill-natured view, where the brighter might be adopted. Although he was a careful and just critic (never praising or blaming a book without reading it throughout), he always looked on the tender part of man's nature and on the pleasanter side of things.

He had no vanity, in the usually accepted meaning of the word. I mean, that he had not that exclusive vanity which rejects almost all things beyond self. He gave as well as received; no one more willingly. He accepted praise less as a mark of respect from others, than as a delight of which all are entitled to partake, such as spring weather, the scent of flowers, or the flavour of wine. It is difficult to explain this; it was, like an absorbing property in the surface of the skin. Its possessor enjoys pleasure almost involuntarily, whilst another of colder or harder temperament is sensible to it. He had good, but not violent impulses. He was soon swayed, less by his convictions than by his affections. His mind had not much of the debating element in it. His smiles and tears were easy.

Yet Leigh Hunt was sometimes persistent in his opinions; especially in reference to books and music which he loved. But his comparative estimates of authors were perhaps sometimes at fault. He liked Milton more, and Spenser far more, than Shakespeare. I never saw a volume of that greatest of dramatists and poets in his house; but the beloved Spenser was always there, close at hand, for quotation or reference. I suspect that his reading was not very extensive, and that he therefore made up his mind upon too confined a view. He became a, critic and a pronouncer of his own opinions too early. It is best to begin life by becoming a disciple. Hunt was never an undergraduate. He became a dispenser of praise and blame too soon after his departure from Christ's Hospital School.

He had not time to form and build up opinions. They were in fact sometimes, little more than guesses, which had not been matured into fixed ideas. It was too much the case throughout his life. Hunt treated all people fairly, yet seldom or never looked up to any one with much respect; he treated all men as equals, dissenting freely from their conclusions, however laboriously formed, whenever they jarred with his own thoughts. If I say his mind was feminine rather than manly, I do not intend to speak disrespectfully of his intellect, nor of the intellect of women, which by nature is perhaps generally equal to that of men.

Leigh Hunt had nothing of the dramatic faculty, and I do not consider that The Legend of Florence disproves this. But it does not stand in the foremost rank of his writings. He did not love the drama as he loved the Faery Queen. Next to Spenser was his great and unfeigned love for music.