1811
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Feast of the Poets.

The Reflector 2 No. 4 (1811) 314-23.

Leigh Hunt


A Menippean symposium: Apollo descends to take stock of the English poets, and invite the chosen few to a meal. Crabbe, Wordsworth, and Coleridge are rejected, and, after paying respects to Dryden, Thomas Campbell, Robert Southey, Walter Scott, and Thomas Moore are invited to enjoy a repast in which they drink a toast those four old masters, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, along with other bards of repute. Leigh Hunt's poem, originally anonymous, changed considerably in a later editions as the notes were expanded and four additional bards are invited to supper. Byron, it is to be noted, had yet to publish Childe Harold when The Feast of the Poets first appeared.

Preface: "Like most of the poetical inventions of modern times, the idea of Apollo holding Sessions and Elections is of Italian origin; but having been treated in it's most common-place light, with a studious degradation of the God into a mere critic or chairman, it has hitherto received none of those touches of painting, and combinations of the familiar and fanciful, of which it appears to be so provocative, and which the following trifle is an attempt to supply. The pieces it has already produced in our language, are the Session of the Poets by Sir John Suckling, another Session by an anonymous author of the first volume of State Poems, the Trial for the Bays by Lord Rochester, and the Election of a Poet Laureate by Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham" p. 313.

Leigh Hunt supplied several later prefaces to the poem, discussing Spenser's stanza in conjunction with Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming in 1815: "The style perhaps is not so much an imitation of Spenser, as of Thomson, the imitator of Spenser; but the want of originality is certainly not lessened by this remove from the fountain-head. In Spenser's style and stanza there is undoubtedly a great deal of harmony and dignity, and specimens of almost every kind of writing may be found in them; but they will hardly be pleasing now-a-days in a poem of any length, unless the subject involves a portion of the humourous or satirical, as in the School-Mistress and the Castle of Indolence, where the author looks through his seriousness with a smile, and the quaintness of the old poetry fall in with his lurking archness or his assumed importance. And the reasons would seem to be obvious; for not to dwell upon the inherent and unaccommodating faults of the stanza in a long English poem, such as it's tendency to circumlocution and its multitude of similar rhymes, it has always an air of direct imitation, which is unbefitting the dignity of an original seriousness; and it's old words and inversions contradict that freshness and natural flow of language, which we have a right to expect in the poet that would touch our affections. We demand, — not the copy of another's simplicity, but the simplicity of the speaker himself; — we want an unaffected, contemporaneous language, such as our ears and our hearts shall equally recognize, and such as our own feelings would utter, were they as eloquent as the poet's" pp. 69-70.

Leigh Hunt: "The Feast of the Poets was (perhaps I may say, is) a jeu-d' esprit suggested by the Session of the Poets of Sir John Suckling. Apollo gives the poets a dinner; and many verse-makers, who have no claim to the title, present themselves, and are rejected. With this effusion, while thinking of nothing but showing my wit, and reposing under the shadow of my 'laurels' (of which I expected a harvest as abundant as my self-esteem), I made almost every living poet and poetaster my enemy, and particularly those among the Tories. I speak of the shape in which it first appeared, before time and reflection had moderated its judgment. It drew upon my head all the personal hostility which had hitherto been held in a state of suspense by the vaguer daring of the Examiner; and I have reason to believe that its inconsiderate, and, I am bound to confess, in some respects, unwarrantable levity, was the origin of the gravest and fare less warrantable attacks which I afterward sustained from my political antagonists, and which caused the most serious mischief to my fortunes" Autobiography (1850) 1:252-53.

Port Folio [Philadelphia]: "Although the Feast of the Poets appears anonymously, ye it will be recognised on the slightest inspection as the work of an accomplished poet; and were we to hazard a conjecture as to the author, we should incline from internal evidence alone, to ascribe it to Lord Byron" S3 3 (January 1814) 52.

The Stranger [Albany]: "At the request of a number of our subscribers, we insert the following article. Its attic wit, and nice discrimination of poetick merit, has met the applause of every man of taste. With all the deference to the editors of the Port Folio, we must differ with them as it respects the authorship of the Poem. Judging from internal evidence, we see no traits of the pen of Lord Byron, but should be disposed to refer it to that of the authors of Rejected Addresses and Horace in London" 1 (21 May 1814) 376.

Lord Byron to Leigh Hunt: "Your poem I read long ago in the Reflector, and it is not too much to say it is the best 'Session' we have, and with a more delightful subject, for we are neither so good nor so bad (taking the best and worst) as the wits of the olden times" 9 February 1814; in Letters and Journals ed. Prothero (1898-1901) 3:28.

Christopher Lake Moody: "the reader will perceive that it is full of most playful imagination; and the notes, which occupy the bulk of the volume, contain a variety of strictures which may be read with profit by those persons who are the subjects of them. They are, however, often too keen to be pleasant: but the most satirical strokes of a man of genius and discernment are of real value, and ought not to be contemptuously scouted. Mr. Hunt's notes may be considered as lectures for the modern school of poetry" Monthly Review NS 75 (September 1814) 103.

Thomas Noon Talfourd: "In the autumn of this year, the establishment of a Quarterly Magazine, entitled the 'Reflector,' opened a new sphere for Lamb's power as a humorist and critic. Its editor, Mr. Leigh Hunt, having been educated in the same school, enjoyed many associations and friendships in common with him, and was thus able to excite in Lamb the greatest motive for exertion in the zeal of kindness. In this Magazine appeared some of Lamb's noblest effusions; his essay 'On Garrick and Acting,' which contains the character of Lear, perhaps the noblest criticism ever written, and on the noblest human subject; his delightful 'Essays on Hogarth;' his 'Farewell to Tobacco,' and several of the choicest of his gayer pieces" Letters of Charles Lamb (1837) 1:321.

There is a brief discussion of Spenser in Reflector 2 (1811): "His fairy visions are not fuller of fancies than realities, of fable and fiction, than of historical knowledge and philosophical truth: like a rich, convertible field, that bears in succession every variety of grain, and whose flowers are not weeds stinting any useful produce, but beautiful grasses which at once adorn the scene and fructify the soil" p. 356.

In this vein, compare Richard Polwhele's yet-unpublished "Visitation of the Poets" (1800): in a single decade there had been a thorough turnover of popular poets as the elder generation departed the scene. An imitation of sorts, "The Feast of the Poets; or, Apollo in New York," was published in the Ladies' Literary Cabinet NS 2 (16, 23 December 1820) 48, 55. See also "The Feast of Apollo" in The Monthly Recorder [New York] 1 (June 1813) 156-64.



T' other day as Apollo sat pitching his darts,
Through the clouds of November by fits and by starts,
He began to consider how long it had been,
Since the bards of Old England a session had seen.
"I think," said the God recollecting, (and then
He fell twiddling a sunbeam, as I may my pen),
"I think — let me, see — yes, it was, I declare,—
As far back as the time of that Buckingham there.
And yet I can't see why I've been so remiss,
Unless it may be — and it certainly is—
That since Dryden's true, English and Milton's sublime,
I have fairly been sick of their reason and rhyme.
There was Collins, 'tis true, had a good deal to say,
But the dog had no industry — neither had Gray:
And Thomson, though best in his indolent fits,
Either slept himself stupid, or bloated his wits.
But ever since Pope, spoil'd the ears of the town,
With his cuckoo-song verses, one up and one down,
There has been such a whining, or prosing, — by Jove,
I'd as soon have gone down to see Kemble in love.
However, of late as they've rous'd them anew,
I'll e'en go and give them a lesson or two,
And as nothing's done there now-a-days without eating,
See how many souls I can muster worth treating."
So saying, the God bade his horses walk for'ard,
And leaving them, took a long dive to the nor'ard;
Tow'rds the Shakspeare he shot; and, as nothing could hinder,
Came smack on his legs through the drawing-room window.

And here I could tell, if it was'nt for stopping,
How all the town shook as the godhead went pop in,
How the poets' eyes sparkled, and brisk blew the airs,
And the laurels shot up in the gardens and squares.
But fancies so grave, — though I've stories to supply me—
I'd better keep back for a poem I've by me;
And shall merely observe, that the girls look'd divine,
And the old folks in-doors exclaim'd, "Bless us, how fine!"

Apollo no sooner had taken a chair,
And rung for the landlord to order the fare,
Than he heard a strange noise, and a knock from without,
And scraping and bowing, came in such a rout!
There was Reynolds, and Arnold, Hook, Dibdin and Cherry,
All grinning as who should say "Shan't we be merry?"
And mighty dull Cobb, lumb'ring just like a bear up,
And sweet Billy Dimond, a patting his hair up.
The God, for an instant, sat fix'd as a stone,
'Till recov'ring, he said in a good natur'd tone,
"Oh, the waiters, I see — ah, it's all very well;—
Only, one of you'll do Just to answer the bell."
But lord! to see all the great dramatists' faces!
They look'd at each other and made such grimaces!
Then turning about, left the room in vexation;
And one, I'm told, couldn't help mutt'ring "Damnation!"
'Twas lucky for Colman he wasn't there too,
For his pranks would have certainly met with their due;
And Sheridan's also, that finish'd old tricker;
But one was in prison, and both were in liquor.

The God fell a laughing to see his mistake,
But stopp'd with a sigh for poor Comedy's sake;
Then gave mine host orders, who bow'd to the floor,
And presented three cards that were brought to the door.
Apollo just gave them a glance with his eye —
"Spencer, — Rogers, — Montgom'ry" — and putting them by,
Begg'd the landlord to give his respects to all three,
And say he'd be happy to see them to tea.

"Your Majesty then," said the Gaius, "don't know
That a person nam'd Crabbe has been waiting below;
He's been looking about him this hour, I dare say."
"Indeed!" said Apollo: "Oh, pray let him stay:
He'll be much better pleas'd to be with 'em down stairs,
And will find ye all out with your cookings and cares;—
But mind that you treat him as well as you're able,
And let him have part of what goes from the table."

A hem was then heard, consequential and snapping,
And a sour little gentleman walk'd with a rap in;
He bow'd, look'd about him, seem'd cold, and sat down;
And said, "I'm surpris'd that you'll visit this town;
To be sure, there are two or three of us who know you,
But as for the rest, they are all much below you:
So stupid in gen'ral the natives are grown,
They really prefer Scotch reviews to their own;
So that what with their taste, their reformers, and stuff,
They have sicken'd myself and my friends long enough."
"Yourself and your friends!" cried the God, in high glee;
"And pray, my frank visitor, who may you be?"
"Who he!" cried the other; — "why really — this tone—
William Gifford's a name, I think, pretty well known."
"Oh, now I remember," said Pheebus — "ah, true—
My thanks to that name are undoubtedly due:
The rod that got rid of the Cruscas and Lauras—
That plague of the butterflies — sav'd me the horrors;
The Juvenal too stops a gap in one's shelf,
At least, in what Dryden has not done himself;
And there's something, which even distaste must respect,
In the self-taught example that conquer'd neglect.
But not to insist on the recommendations
Of modesty, wit, and a small stock of patience,
My visit, just now, is to poets alone,
And not to small critics, however well known."
So saying, he rang, to leave nothing in doubt;
And the sour little gentleman bless'd himself out.

Next came Walter Scott, with a look of high meaning,
For soon as his visage the tavern was seen in,
The diners and bar-maids all crowded to know him,
And thank him, with smiles, for "that sweet pretty poem!"
However the moment his senses he found,
He look'd adoration, and bow'd to the ground;
For his host was a God, — what a very great thing!
And what was still greater in his eyes, — a King!
Apollo smil'd shrewdly, and bade him sit down,
With, "Well, Mr. Scott; — you have manag'd the town;
Now, pray, copy less — have a little temerity;
—Try, if you can't also manage posterity.
—All you add now only lessens your credit;
And how could you think too of taking to edite?
A great deal's endur'd where there's measure and rhyme;
But prose such as your's, is a pure waste of time,—
A singer of ballads subdu'd by a cough,
Who fairly talks on, till his hearers walk off.
Be original, man; study more, scribble less;
Nor mistake present favour for lasting success;
And, remember, if laurels are what you would find,
The crown of all effort is freedom of mind.—

"And here" cried Apollo, is one at the door,
Who shall prove what I say, or I'm prophet no more.
Ah, Campbell, you're welcome; well, how have you been
Since the last time I saw you on Sydenham Green?
I need not ask after the plans you've in view;
'Twould be odd, I believe, if I had'nt 'em too.
But there's one thing I've always forgotten to mention;
Your versification — pray give it invention;
A talent, like your's, to create or combine,
The Goldsmiths and others, at least, should decline;
Their streamlets are sweet; but the true liquid fire
And depth of our English runs backward much higher."

The poet to this was about to reply,
When Moore, coming in, caught the Deity's eye,
Who gave him his hand, and said, "Shew me a sight
That can give a divinity sounder delight,
Or that earth should more prize, from its core to the poles,
Than the self-improv'd morals of elegant souls.
Repentant I speak it, — though when I was wild,
My friends should remember, the world was a child,—
That customs were diff'rent, — and young people's eyes,
Had no better examples than those in the skies.
But soon as I learnt how to value these doings,
I've never much favour'd your billings and cooings;
They only make idle the best of my race;
And since my poor Daphne turn'd tree in my face,
There are very few poets, whose caps or whose curls
Have obtain'd such a laurel by hunting the girls.
So it gives me, dear Tom a delight beyond measure
To find how you've mended your notions of pleasure;
For never was poet, whose fanciful hours
Could bask in a richer abstraction of bowers,
With sounds and with spirits, of charm to detain
The wonder-eyed soul in their magic domain:
And never should poet, so gifted and rare,
Pollute the bright Eden Jove gives to his care,
But love the fair Virtue that with it is given,
And keep the spot pure for the visits of heaven."

He spoke with a warmth, but his accent was bland;
And the poet bow'd down with a blush to his hand;
When all on a sudden there rose on the stairs
A noise as of persons with singular airs;
You'd have thought 'twas the Bishops or Judges a coming,
Or the whole court of Aldermen, hawing and humming,
Or at least my Lord Colley with all his grand brothers,—
But 'twas only Bob Southey and three or four others.
As soon as he, saw him, Apollo seem'd pleas'd:
But as he had settled it not to be, teaz'd
By all the vain rhymers from bed-room and brook,
He turn'd from the rest without even a look;
For Coleridge, had vex'd him long since, I suppose,
By his idling, and gabbling, and muddling in prose;
And as to that Wordsworth! he'd been so benurst,
Second childhood with him had come close on the first.
These worthies, however, long us'd to attack,
Were not by contempt to be so driven back,
But follow'd the God up, and shifting their place,
Stood full in his presence, and look'd in his face,
When one began spouting the cream of orations,
In praise of bombarding one's friends and relations,
And t'other some lines he had made on a straw,
Shewing how he had found it, and what it was for,
And how when 'twas balanc'd, it stood like a spell,—
And how when 'twas balanc'd no longer, it fell!
A wild thing of scorn, he describ'd, it to be—
But said it was patient to heaven's decree:
Then he gaz'd upon nothing, and looking forlorn,
Dropt a natural tear for that wild thing of scorn!
Apollo half laugh'd betwixt anger and mirth,
And cried, "Were there ever such asses on earth?"
It is not enough that this nonsense, I fear,
Has half turn'd the fine head of my friend Robert here,
But another bright promise must fairly be lost,
And the gifts of a God by this madman be crost.
What! think ye a bard's a mere gossip who tells
Of the ev'ry-day feelings of ev'ry one else;
And that poetry lies, not in something select,
But in gath'ring the refuse that others reject?
Depart and be modest, ye driv'llers of pen,
My feasts are for masculine tastes, and for men."
Then turning to Bob, he said, "Sit down, I beg;"
But Billy grew sulky and stirr'd not a peg;
While Sam, looking soft and politely dejected,
Confess'd with a tear, that "'twas what he expected,
Since Phoebus had fatally learnt to confide in
Such prosers as Johnson and rhymers as Dryden."
But wrath seiz'd Apollo, and turning again,
"Whatever," he cried were the faults of such men,
Ye shall try, wretched mortals, how well ye can bear
What Dryden has witness'd, unsmote with despair."

He said; and the place all seem'd swelling with light,
While his locks and his visage grew awfully bright;
And clouds, burning inward. roll'd round on each side
To encircle his state as he stood in his pride;
Till at last the full Deity put on his rays,
And burst on the sight in the pomp of his blaze!
Then a glory beam'd round as of fiery rods,
With the sound of deep organs and chorister gods;
And the faces of bards, glowing fresh from their skies,
Came thronging, about with intentness of eyes;
And the Nine were all heard, as the harmony swell'd;
And the spheres pealing in, the long rapture upheld;
And all things, above, and beneath, and around,
Seem'd a world of bright vision, set floating in sound.

That sight and that music might not be sustain'd
But by those, who a glory like Dryden's had gain'd;
And even the four, who had graciousness found,
After gazing a while, bow'd them down to the ground.
What then could remain for that feeble-ey'd crew?
Through the door in an instant they rush'd and they flew,
They rush'd and they dash'd, and they scrambled and stumbled,
And down the round staircase like lunatics tumbled,
And never once thought which was head or was feet,
And slid through the hall, and fell plump in the street.
So great was the panic they struck with their fright,
That of all who had come to be feasted that night,
Not one ventur'd up, or would stay near the place;
Even Croker declin'd, notwithstanding his face;
And old Peter Pindar turn'd pale, and suppress'd,
With a death-bed sensation, a blasphemous jest.
But Wordsworth can scarcely yet manage to speak;
And Coleridge, they say, is excessively weak;
Indeed he has fits of the painfulest kind:
He stares at himself and his friends, till he's blind;
Then describes his own legs, and claps a long stilt on;
And this he calls lect'ring on "Shakspeare and Milton."
But Phoebus no sooner had gain'd his good ends,
Than he put of his terrors, and rais'd up his friends,
Who stood for a moment, entranc'd to behold
The glories subside, and the, dim-rolling gold;
And listen'd to sounds, that with ecstacy burning
Seem'd dying far upward, like heaven returning.
Then "Come," cried the God in his elegant mirth,
Let us make us a heav'n of our own upon earth,
And wake with the lips that we dip in our bowls
That divinest of music, — congenial souls."
So saying, he led through the dining-room door,
And, seating the poets, cried, "Laurels for four!"
No sooner demanded, than lo! they were there;
And each of the bards had a wreath in his hair.
Tom Campbell's with willow and poplar was twin'd,
And Southey's with mountain-ash, pluck'd in the wind;
And Scott's with a heath from his old garden stores,
And with vine-leaves and Jump-up-and-kiss-me, Tom Moore's.
Then Apollo put his on, that sparkled with beams;
And rich rose the feast as an epicure's dreams;
Not epicure civic, or grossly inclin'd,
But such as a poet might dream as he din'd;
For the God had no sooner determin'd the fare,
Than it turn'd to whatever was racy and rare.
The fish and the flesh, for example, were done,
On account of their fineness, in flame from the sun;
The wines were all nectar of different smack,
To which Muskat was nothing, nor Virginis Lac;
No, nor Lachryma Christi, though clearly divine,
Nor Montepulcilano, though king of all wine.
Then, as for the fruits, you might garden for ages,
Before you could raise me such apples and gages;
And all on the table no sooner were spread,
Than their cheeks next the God blush'd a beautiful red.
'Twas magic in short and deliciousness all—
The very men-servants grew handsome and tall;
To velvet-hung iv'ry the furniture turn'd;
The service with opal and adamant burn'd;
Each candlestick chang'd to a pillar of gold,
While a bundle of beams took the place of the mould;
The decanters and glasses pure diamond became,
And the corkscrew ran solidly round into flame.
In a word, so completely forestall'd, were the wishes,
Ev'n harmony struck from the noise of the dishes.

It can't be suppos'd I should think of repeating
The fancies that flow'd at this laureat meeting;
I haven't the brains, and besides was not there;
But the wit may be easily guess'd, by the chair.
Suffice it to say that 'twas keen as could be;
Though it soften'd to prettiness rather at tea.
I must mention, however, that during the wine,
The mem'ry of Shakspeare was toasted with nine;
To Chaucer were five, and to Spenser one more,
And Milton had seven, and Dryden had four;
Then follow'd, the names, in a cursory way,
Of Fletcher, of Otway, of Collins, and Gray,
Of Cowley, Pope, Thomson and Cowper, and Prior,
And one or two wore of a genuine fire.
Then says Bob, "If the chair will not think me a gander,
I'll give a great genius — one Mr. Landor;"
And Walter look'd up too, and begg'd to propose
A particular friend of his — one Mr. Rose;
But the God look'd at Southey, and clapping his shoulder,
Cried, "When, my good friend, will you try to grow older?"
Then nodding to Scott, he said, "Pray be as portly,
And rich as you please, but a little less courtly!"
So, changing the subject, he call'd upon Moore,
Who sung such a song, that they shouted, "Encore!"
And the God was so pleas'd with his taste and his tone,
He obey'd the next call, and gave one of his own,
At which you'd have thought, — 'twas so witching a warble,—
The guests had all turn'd into listening marble;
The wreaths on their temples grew brighter of bloom,
As the breath of the Deity circled the room,
And the wine in the glasses went rippling in rounds,
As if follow'd and fann'd by the soft-winged sounds.

Thus in wit and in singing they sat till eleven,
When Phoebus shook hands, and departed for heaven;
"For poets" he said, "who would cherish their powers,
And hop'd to be deathless, must keep to good hours."
So off he betook him the way that he came,
And shot up the north like an arrow of flame:
For the Bear was his inn; and the comet, they say,
Was his tandem in waiting to fetch him away.
The others then parted, all highly delighted;
And, so shall I be, when you find me invited.

[pp. 314-23]