1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

Anonymous, "Leigh Hunt" The Scourge 4 (August 1812) 108-11.



James Henry Leigh Hunt has long been remarkable for the ludicrous airs of self-importance that characterise his newspaper compositions, and we naturally suspected that the natural progress of vanity would launch into some ludicrous exhibition of his weakness as open and deplorable as that which he has just committed. And what are the splendid merits, and the mighty labours that claim for their possessor, and their author, the admiration of the community? The composition of four volumes of a respectable Sunday newspaper! When a boy at the Blue-coat school, like many other little boys, he indited verses, and unlike many other little boys, he was so foolish as to publish them. His Juvenilia are now forgotten. Their publication was succeeded by the composition of theatricals for the News, and his quarrel with the proprietors of that paper, by the establishment of the Examiner: a journal of which the theatricals are nearly on a level with those in the Times, and the political articles display greater elegance of composition than usually distinguishes the Sunday newspapers. Now, allow him all the praise that he deserves; let it be admitted that he is an ingenious dramatic critic, and that his style is elegant and correct, though deformed by affectation, and never distinguished by the lofty or commanding energy of genius; what is the amount of his deserts, or who will deny that his self-importance is a deplorable proof of human imbecility? Having done something well, he forgets that the admiration of mankind can only be demanded when the object to be fulfilled is as important as the talents devoted to its attainment are transcendant: possessing a moderate share of merit as a journalist, he forgets how mean a rank he holds in the scale of general intellect and exertion. As a scholar, an orator, or a political investigator, he is in no respect above the level of his rivals: he is utterly unqualified to enter into the regular and systematic exemplification of an abstract subject, to throw new light on a complex and intricate question, or to enlighten the understanding by the comprehensive splendour of his general views. To gossip with fluency on the detached and popular topics of the day, and to express with propriety, and sometimes with elegance, truths that are generally known, but unskilfully embodied, is his only talent. He can descant on the vices of the Regent, and write a very pretty essay on a tavern dinner; but when the Catholic, or the bullion question, or any ether topic requiring acuteness of investigation, profundity of thought, the habit of referring to general principles, and comprehensive knowledge, comes before him, he is brief and nerveless; impotent, superficial, and contradictory.

Now, compare this man and his labours with those of Mr. Cobbett. It may be allowed that Mr. Hunt has more claim to the praise of consistency, and is more remarkable for those humble virtues which are necessary to the man of humble talent, and give ten-fold weight and energy to the man of genius. But taking into consideration only their political and literary talents, the distance between them is immeasurable. You might as well compare Apollo in his chariot to a teacher of music in his one-horse chaise. A native and unconquerable energy, the faculty of disentangling perplexities, and seeing the most common objects in a new and original point of view, combined with the practical dexterity of the able politician, are the great characteristics of Mr. Cobbett's writings. His faults indeed are as observable as his excellencies; his grossness, his inelegance, his want of arrangement and compression, and his vanity, are so obtrusive, that they could only be excused in an individual of extraordinary powers. But it may justly be said of him, that he touches upon no subject without making it clearer than it was before, or without exhibiting it in a variety of views, in which we should not have observed it without his assistance; and that in every page of his writings there is the most evident testimony of multifarious knowledge, patient thought, and exhaustless ingenuity. You might cut Leigh Hunt and a hundred other scribblers out of a corner of Cobbett's mind; the guests at dinner had too much sense to prefer the pretty-looking flummery of blanc mange, to the more solid viands in its neighbourhood: Mr. Cobbett is a portly pudding, well stuffed with plums, and fulfilling by its hidden treasures its promise to the eye; Mr. Hunt is a plate of blanc mange, neatly served up, and tempting enough on the counter of the confectioner; but to the lovers of better fare, stimulating, yet unsatisfactory; a milk and water compound, affording neither gratification to the appetite, nor nourishment to the body; and regarded as a pretty thing to fill up a table, rather than as an article of utility or necessity.