1815
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Descent of Liberty. A Masque.

The Descent of Liberty. A Masque.

Leigh Hunt


Poetry "waves her wand" and visionary scenes arise; Spenser appears in a catalogue of poets (Pulci, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser). "The following piece was written, partly to vary the hours of imprisonment and ill health, partly to indulge the imagination of the author during a season of public joy" preface. The preface also discusses Spenser's Masque of Cupid in the Faerie Queene. Not seen.

John Hamilton Reynolds to John F. M. Dovaston: "My Friend Hunt is again at Liberty, and his freedom is welcomed by his Muse with one of the most spirited Poems that has come before the Public for many years. The Descent of Liberty is a Mask in which he has loosed his Fancy to revel as gaily as she can and wherever she may choose. He sent me a Copy last week with a very handsome Note and I sat up half the Night before I went to read what was so suited to my taste — it enraptured me! ... His descriptions of flowers are as fresh as growing flowers and as brilliant. His personifications are amazingly fine — in short the Poem (to give it a proper praise) has very much of the sunny richness of fancy which beams in Comus" 25 February 1815; in Letters from Lambeth (1981) 130-31.

Lord Byron to Leigh Hunt: "Thanks for the Mask; there is not only poetry and thought in the body, but much research and good old reading in your prefatory matter. I hope you have not given up on your narrative poem, of which I heard you speak as in progress. It rejoices me to hear of the well-doing and regeneration of the Feast [of the Poets], setting aside my own selfish reasons for wishing it success" Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 3:200.

The Champion: "The Descent of Liberty is, in its plan and execution, a legitimate mask, and although this sort of composition is addressed to the purest lovers of poetry, and Mr. Hunt never truckles for the sake of popularity, yet, as it is undoubtedly by far the finest celebration that has appeared, of one of the most extraordinary events of these extraordinary times, — as it is full of beautiful English feeling, — exuberant in poetic thoughts and imagery, and altogether delightful in poetic thoughts and imagery, and altogether delightful as as a piece of glowing creation, bearing the impress of an exquisitely gifted and cultivated, and a finely disposed creating mind, — we anticipate that it will meet with proper success" (26 March 1815) 102.

Monthly Review: "We were so much gratified by Mr. Hunt's beautiful little poem, The Feast of the Poets ... that we took up the present volume with a persuasion that we should derive considerable entertainment from its perusal: but we have been not a little disappointed. His account of the Origin and Nature of Masks will convey information, and be gratefully received by those who wish to know something respecting this species of entertainment: but we cannot add that Mr. Hunt has afforded us such a specimen of 'the Mask,' in his Descent of Liberty, that it ought to be exhibited on the stage. So far from making such a report, were we to offer our opinion of its merits in two words, those two words would be 'aegri somnia.' Imagination, indeed, scampers at large, without reason, though not without rhyme. The plan is ludicrously wild" NS 77 (August 1815) 434.

Leigh Hunt: "There is a note in the fifth volume of my Spenser, which I was then reading [in prison], in these words: 'February 4th, 1813,' The line to which it refers is this: 'Much dearer be the things which come through hard distresse'" Autobiography (1850) 1:291.

Leigh Hunt: "I have spoken of a masque on the downfall of Napoleon, called the Descent of Liberty, which I wrote while in prison. Liberty descends in it from heaven, to free the earth from the burthen of an evil magian. It was a compliment to the Allies, which they deserved well enough, inasmuch as it was a failure; otherwise they did not deserve it at all; for it was founded on a belief in premises which they never kept. There was a vein of something true in the Descent of Liberty, particularly in passages where the domestic affections were touched upon; but the poetry was too much on the surface. Fancy (encouraged by the allegorical nature of the mask) played her part too entirely in it at the expense of imagination" Autobiography (1850) 2:14-15.




Here Poetry waves her wand, and several stately and gorgeous visions pass through the air, the actual back-ground of the scene changing with them. For the first, the back-ground changes into groves, temples, and mountains, such as those of Delphos and Parnassus; and a music striking up, consisting of pipes, lyres, and timbrels, with a smell of incense accompanying, there passes through the air a line of ancient deities, Jupiter, the Muses, Venus, Apollo, Mercury, Cupid and Psyche, &c. who, vanishing all at once, are succeeded by the forms of Homer, Pindar, Theocritus, and the Greek tragedians, all crowned with laurel, and seated on a cloud in chairs of marble.

These vanish in the same manner; the back-ground shifts into a delicious scene of gardens and palaces, with castles at intervals and spots of wildness; and the music, after a short and rustic amatory strain on the harp, changes into an ardent flourish of trumpets, when a vision, in two groups, of horse and horsemen appears, part riding with dignity, others with a lightsome ease, others with a forward or rearing eagerness. The horses are variously trapped, but the horsemen all mantled with red cloaks over their suits of armour; and by their banners are recognized, in the first group, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Launcelot, Tristan, &c. and in the second, Charlemagne and his Peers, Roland, Rinaldo, and others. They are followed by bearded enchanters attired in long cloaks, and riding on griffins and other animals, with wands and books in their hands; when the whole suddenly vanishing are succeeded by the forms of Pulci, Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, crowned with laurel and seated on thrones of tapestry.

The back-ground then changes, for the third time, to an ethereal scene, in which hangs the Earth like a planet with the Moon moving round it; and to the sound of various and delightful music, a troop of fairies first cross the air with gestures of quaint pretension and tricksome loveliness, — then a company of ordinary human beings from the king to the peasant, — and then again, creatures of the fancy, Ariel, Caliban, Comus, &c. ending with the majestic but melancholy form of Satan, sailing along in a swarthy mist. These vanishing in their turn, are replaced by three Gothic seats, in which are enthroned the shapes of Chaucer, Shakspeare, and Milton, crowned with laurel, and holding globes in their hands, — the first a terrestrial, the third a celestial, and the second a double one of both. The whole then disappears; a tremulous and small music is heard as in conclusion: and while the original scene is returning in the back-ground, Poetry descends on the wing, and seats herself in a reclining posture, on an upper part of the cloud, a little behind the head of Liberty.


[from Scene III; Milford (1923) 304-05)]