1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

Anonymous, "The Cockney's Letter" 1823; The Albion [New York] 2 (3 January 1824) 227 [reprinted from John Bull].



MY DEAR —,
I am astonished at what you write me. So then, notwithstanding all the strong articles in our last Liberal Magazine, neither Government nor people has made a stir; England is still a monarchy, England is still a monarchy, and not even a single change in the ministry has been effected! Jeffrey, (Byron's new friend,) who is always sanguine, thinks the next Number must do it, but I begin to despair; and the worry-one's-soul-out, as it were, effect of the disappointment on my health is very visible, I pine, and grow thinner and paler every day. My appearance, by the way, is very interesting and Tasso-like, and I think an engraving of me would sell well in England, where a "how-does-he-look" sort of enquiry must be in very body's mouth just now. But let that pass for the present, I have matter of still greater moment for you.
The only subject of conversation now in England and indeed all those parts of Europe where tyrants are not as yet allowed to send in fellows with bayonets to stop people's mouths whenever they mention my name, must be the coolness between me and Byron, and it is proper the rights of it should be known, which is better than folks going about with a he-said-this — and then he-said-t'other sort of report of it. The fact is, that Byron is the aggressor, for he began first, as the children say, and all about a piece of patrician pride, very unbecoming among us radicals. Some time ago, seeing him in conversation with the Earl of —, at the end of the Stradi di —, I hopped down the street, and, just to show the intimacy which subsisted between us, slapped him on the back with a "Ha! Byron my boy!" He darted at me one of his look-you-through sort of glances, and turned from me without speaking; and it was not till after a decided cut of eight or ten days that, wanting something done, he sent for me. I went, he began by a tread-you-to-dirtish, as it were taking of me to ask, said something about the coarse familiarity of your radicals; and then told me that I might stop and dine with him that day, which I did. You will gather from this that these Lords are not to be depended upon, they are but a half and half sort of Radicals — the cloven foot of nobility is perpetually peeping out, they wont give altogether into that hail-fellow-well-metishness, which we expect from them. Again: at dinner that day, happening to say to him "I and you Byron, who are called the Satanic school:" he cut me short unceremoniously, and said, "Who the h-ll ever called YOU Satanic? — Cockney, if you please;" and reminded me of the fable of the apples swimming. Now, putting radicalism out of the question, this was very ungenteel from one great poet to another — then he is jealous of me. We have had a disagreement about which of us should have the most room to write in the Liberal Magazine. He wanted all; which (though I never contradict him or he'd have cut me long ago,) I almost remonstrated against, so he he allowed me a corner here and there as it were. Thus he flatly attributes our slow sale to my poetry — then to my prose — and in short, he was lately so insulting that I had "ever such a mind" (as we used to say at school) to tell him the fault was all his own; for between ourselves he has grown as stupid and as vulgar as the best of us. But worst of all, I find he has been making a mere tool of me, and he quizzes me to my very face. Some weeks ago I told him I had thoughts of writing his life, to which he replied with a smile "Do;" but when I added that he ought in return to write mine, he exclaimed with a sneer "Tooh," and went away in a turn-on-the-heel sort of fashion. But this is of a piece with his refusing to call me Tasso and Ariosto in exchange for my calling him Dante in our next poems.
Doubtless you have heard of the verses I addressed to him; I suppose there is an I-wish-I-could-get-'em sort of anxiety about them in England, so I send you a copy.

LINES TO MY FRIEND BYRON.
Dear Byron, while you're out walking, I'll just say
Something about ourselves in my off-hand way,
Easy and Chaucer-like; in that free rhyme
They used to warble in the olden time,
And which you so chucklingly listen to when I
Pour out a strain of it, as 'twere, chirplingly;
Full of all sorts of lovely, graceful things,
Smacking of fancy, pretty imaginings,
Which I trick out with a Titian-like sort of air,
And a touch of Michael Angelo here and there;
For though the graceful's wherein I excel,
I dash off the sublime, too, pretty well.

Now, let me see — I have it — I'll suppose
(Though you're there in the garden plucking a rose,)
That, after travelling many and many a day,
You are wandering in some country far away,
When, being tired, you stretch beneath a tree,
And take from your pocket my Rimini,
And read it through and through, and think of me;
And then you take some other work of mine,
And con it daintily, tasting it line by line,
Pausing 'tween whiles, as one does drinking port,
And smack your lips, saying, "This is your right sort."
And, when it has grown too dark for you to see,
You close the book and wish for your dear Leigh:
Then comes a little bird, fluttering near,
And perches, fairy like, on the tip of your ear;
Then up you jump and would hunch it away,
But, spite of all, the little bird will stay,
And then — (But what I'm writing all this while
Is a fancy in my wild Ariosto style)—
And thus this little bird turns into me,
And you rush forward to me in extasy,
And grasp my hand, as it were, clutchingly,
And call me your "dear Leigh;" while I, e'en bolder,
Cry, "Ah, my dear Byron!" clapping you on the shoulder,
E'en just as I might be supposed to do,
If this were not a Poet's dream, but true.

Now, I expected this would have procured me a sonnet at least in return, but he did not even deign ever once to notice it, spite of all my attempts to draw him out about it. You, who know what an excessively sensitive creature I am, will easily conceive the heart-in-one's-mouthiness of my sensations, when I found out his real opinion of me. It happened one day that he left me alone in his study. He had no sooner turned his back than I began to fumble among his books and paper. What I most earnestly sought was the copy I gave him of of my "Story of Rimini," thinking to find it full of notes in his own hand-writing. It was not even half cut open! A proof he had not half read it. Against "my dear Byron," in the dedication (for you know I dedicated it to him) I found written "Familiar Cockney," and in the last leaf cut — that is as far as I presume he had read, was written the following critique:—

O! Jemini, Crimini!
What a mimini, pimi,
Story of Rimini!

This you will say was sufficiently cut-one-to-the-heartish, but this was little compared with what follows. Among other things, I found the MS. of the Twelfth Canto of Don Juan, which will shortly appear. By the way, it is rather unfair in him, to say no less of it, to throw cockney in my teeth at every turn, considering that I have now quite given up talking of Highgate and Primrose-hill, ever since I have seen the Apennines — and to a friend too! But it is my friend Byron's way: he calls and uncalls all his friends round, once in every four or five years, or so. But to my extract from his next canto:—

—Filthy scum!
These Hunts, Despards, Thistlewoods, and Ings!
These worms with which we politicians angle,
We leave at last on Ketch's line to dangle.

Poor driveling dupes! and can they think that we—
By birth ennobled, and no little proud
Of our nobility, would stoop to be
Companion'd with the base, plebeian crowd;
Or that the crack-brained Byshe, or cockney Leigh,
Or gentle Johnny e'er had been allow'd
To sicken us with their familiarity,
Forgetful of their distance and disparity.

But that we turn'd them to our dirty uses?
My tool I've lately plac'd upon the shelf,
So patronize my cockney now who chooses;
I've ta'en to do my dirty work myself.
I find, too, that in fashion my abuse is,
And brings — not that I value it — the pelf;
But, let me hint, there's need of cash to victual ye
E'en in the cheapest of all countries — Italy.

I've turn'd him off! He's gone! I've made the ninny stir
His stumps! For on my stomach his pathetic,
His cockney rurals, drivellings, phrases sinister
And affectations act as an emetic.
Besides, he thinks he's fit to be prime minister!
The whimpering, simpering, Horse-monger ascetic!
And there he's grown so horribly familiar,
And paws and "dears" one so — I vow 'twould kill you.

There, my dear friend — and this is from one radical to another! — the root of all this is, that I did once hint to him that I thought myself a better poet than he; more antique and to-the-heartish, giving my verses an Italian twang, and so forth. As to his allusion to my thinking myself fit to be prime minister, I merely threw out an idea that way, once when we were re-modelling. No. V. of our Liberal Magazine will appear shortly. Let tyrants tremble! — yours ever.