Leigh Hunt's distinction as a poet is to be inspired by pleasure which never steals from his senses the freshness of boyhood, and never darkens his heart with the shadow of unsatisfied desire. Hazlitt spoke of "the vinous quality of his mind," which, with his natural gaiety and sprightliness of manner and his high animal spirits, "produce an immediate fascination and intoxication in those who come in contact with him." This vinous quality is in all Leigh Hunt's verse, but it is not that of the heady liquor Hazlitt describes; it is a bright, light wine,
Tasting of Flora. and the country-green.
Dance, and Provencal song, and sun-burnt mirth!
For his chief poem, The Story of Rimini, he chose a passionate and piteous theme; but it was, as he says, to steady his felicity when, released from imprisonment, he visited the English south coast with his wife and their first beloved child.
A clear bright happiness in duty Leigh Hunt found; his industry was that of a bird building its nest. He had dared in a troubled time to libel the girth of the first gentleman in Europe, to call Adonis corpulent; and when sentence of two years' imprisonment was pronounced, there was some sinking at his heart. But by and by his room in the prison infirmary began to blossom into an Arcadian bower — "I papered the wall with a trellis of roses. I had the ceiling covered with clouds-and sky; the barred windows I screened with Venetian blinds; and when my book-cases were set up with their busts, and flowers and a pianoforte made their appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room an that side the water." It must have come out of a fairy tale, said Charles Lamb. On one bookshelf lay a solid "lump of sunshine," the Parnaso Italiano in fifty-six duodecimo volumes.
All Mount Hybla and the
Vale of Enna were in his cell.
The Parnaso Italiano accompanied him later to Italy. His earlier masters had been Spenser, the youthful Milton, and, in chief, Dryden. He speaks of his "fine manner" and of his growth in inward perception of poetical requirement; as he advanced in years he became fastidious, rejecting altogether many charming pieces of earlier date. But in truth, although sallies of vivid phraseology were less frequent as his animal spirits lost the licence of boyhood, his style was from first to last in essentials one and the same. The wine was the same, but it had grown mellower. His poetry was not the poetry of thought and passion, which we have in Shakespeare; nor — to use Leigh Hunt's own words — that of "scholarship and a rapt ambition," which we have in Milton. He could have passed his whole life writing eternal new stories in verse, part grave, part gay, of no great length, but "just sufficient," he says, "to vent the pleasure with which I am stung on meeting with some touching adventure, and which haunts me till I can speak of it somehow."
Strolling in the meadows near northern London, a Spenser or a volume of the Parnaso under his arm, Leigh Hunt — a Cockney poet, as were Milton, Chaucer, and Spenser — gathered honey for his hive. When seated at his desk a blissful still excitement possessed him; his cheek flushed, his breath came irregularly, yet all seemed to be calmed and harmonised by some sweet necessity. In such a vivid composure the fine phrase, the subtle image emerged, to be welcomed and caressed:
A ghastly castle, that eternally
Holds its blind visage out to the lone sea:
—after such words the poet's breast might drink a deep inspiration.
A few cattle looking up askance
With ruminant meek mouths and sleepy glance—
there again he had liberated his perception and his pleasure, and might pause for a happy moment. So he flitted on with steady purpose, and a happy industrious imagination storing his hive. His verses, though less rich and deep in loveliness than those of Keats, seem, as he so finely said of Keats's lines, "to take pleasure in the progress of their own beauty, like sea-nymphs luxuriating in the water." He loved the triplet because it prolonged this luxury.
Leigh Hunt's reverence for literature was of the finest temper. It would have pleased him to be a servant in the train of Ariosto. His loyalty to Keats was generous and constant, untouched by a shadow of ignoble rivalry. To him, the elder of the two, Keats offered his first printed verses. And Shelley withdrew, as fearing by sigh or tear to wrong the deeper grief of him, the "gentlest of the wise," who "taught, soothed, loved, honoured" dead Adonais.