In the second of this series of neo-Addisonian essays, Leigh Hunt, writing anonymously, rails against philistine tastes that fail to appreciate the beauties of the elder poets: "Chaucer is considered as a rude sort of poet, who wrote a vast while ago, and is no longer intelligible; and Spenser, a prosing one, not quite so old, who wrote nothing but allegories. They startle to hear, that the latter has very little need of a glossary, and is dipt in poetic luxury; and that the former, besides being intelligible with a little attention, is in some respects a kindred spirit with Shakspeare for gravity as well as for mirth, and full of the most exquisite feeling of all kinds, especially the pathetic."
While the taste and manners that Leigh Hunt objects to are those introduced by the Tatler and the Spectator, he was surely aware that it was Addison and Steele who first brought Spenser to popular attention a century earlier. The Round Table is thus a rather curious exercise in imitation in its own right. It is not too much too see Hunt and Hazlitt as the Addison and Steele of the romantic era — less successful in bending the public ear, but true descendents as essayists, aestheticians, and political pamphleteers.
Essay No. XVI, "Of Chaucer," discusses a correspondent's proposal for completing the Squire's Tale. Hunt rejects the idea of using the Spenserian stanza for such a purpose: "We have an infinite regard for Spenser; but, in despite of our love for Italian romance, all stanzas, particularly those that are remarkable as such, appear to us to be as unfit for the ease and freedom of narrative poetry, as a horse which should have a trick of stopping at every twenty yards, whether you wanted him to or not. The couplet, we think, would be the best" 1:132. Hunt gives no indication that he is aware that in the last century Ogle, Boyse, and Sterling had completed the tale in (Prior) Spenserians. A couplet version, "The Squire's tale imitated from Chaucer" was published in the Monthly Magazine 2 (Supplement, 1796) 987-92.
Taste, as was inevitable, has sympathised completely with this superficial state of manners. In proportion as men were all to resemble each other, and to have faces and manners in common, their self-love was not to be disturbed by any thing in the shape of individuality. A writer might be natural, but he was to be natural only as far as their sense of nature would go, and this was not a great way. Besides, even when he was natural, he hardly dared to be so in language as well as idea; — there gradually came up a kind of dress, in which a man's mind, as well as body, was to clothe itself; and the French, whose wretched sophisticated taste had been first introduced by political circumstances, saw it increasing every day under the characteristic title of polite criticism, till they condescended to acknowledge that we were behaving ourselves well, — that Mr. Pope was a truly harmonious poet, and that Mr. Addison's Cato made amends for the barbarism of Shakspeare. The praises, indeed, bestowed by the French in these and similar instances, went in one respect to a fortunate extreme, and tended to rouse a kind of national contradiction, which has perhaps not been without its effect in keeping a better spirit alive: but it must not be concealed, that both Shakspeare and Milton have owed a great part of their reputation of late years to causes which, though of a distinct nature, have been unconnected with a direct poetical taste. I allude to the art of acting with regard to the former, and to certain doctrines of religion with respect to the latter, both of which have no more to do with the fine spirit of either poet, than a jack-o'-lantern or a jugged hare. Milton still remains unknown to the better classes, in comparison with succeeding writers; and Chaucer and Spenser, the two other great poets of England, who have had no such recommendations to the pursuits or prejudices of society, are scarcely known at all, especially with any thing like an apprehension of their essential qualities. Chaucer is considered as a rude sort of poet, who wrote a vast while ago, and is no longer intelligible; and Spenser, a prosing one, not quite so old, who wrote nothing but allegories. They startle to hear, that the latter has very little need of a glossary, and is dipt in poetic luxury; and that the former, besides being intelligible with a little attention, is in some respects a kindred spirit with Shakspeare for gravity as well as for mirth, and full of the most exquisite feeling of all kinds, especially the pathetic. It is curious, indeed, to see the length to which the levelling spirit in manners, and the coxcombical sort of exclusiveness it produces, have carried people in their habitual ideas of writers not of their generation. Nothing is young and in full vigour but themselves. Shakspeare may enjoy a lucky perpetuity of lustihead by means of school-compilations and stage-players; and Milton, in their imaginations, is a respectable middle-aged gentleman, something like the clergyman who preaches on Sundays; but Spenser is exceedingly quaint and rusty; and Chaucer is nothing but "old" Chaucer or honest Geoffrey, which is about as pleasant, though not intended to be so, as the lover's address to the sun in the Gentle Shepherd:—
And if ye're wearied, honest light,
Sleep, gin ye like, a week that night.
You will even find them talking, with an air of patronage, of having found something good now and then in "these old writers," — meaning the great masters above mentioned, and the working heads that present them to their minds as so many old gentlemen and grandfathers, half-doating; and, for aught I know, would think of Apollo himself in the same way, if it were not the inheritance of immortal genius! As if a great poet could ever grow old, as long as Nature herself was young!
But I must restrain myself on this subject, or I shall exceed my limits. The reader will see that we are prepared to say a great deal of "these old poets;" and we are so, — not because they are old, but because they are beautiful and ever fresh. . . .