1823
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Book of Beginnings.

The Liberal 2 (1823) 97-135.

Leigh Hunt


A critical rhapsody in 55 ottava rima stanzas discoursing on the opening passages of a series of mostly romance poems. Spenser's Faerie Queene figures as one of Leigh Hunt's "magic books": "I must have light refreshment, relishes quick, | Fruits that I can dispatch with a brief eating. . . | When I want more, I go and wrap me round | In Milton's, Chaucer's, Spenser's holy ground" p. 98. The reflections continue in twenty pages of appended notes, where Hunt observes that Spenser has imitated Virgil in the opening lines of the Faerie Queen (pp. 120-21) and also the opening of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura in Faerie Queene 4:10: "He lengthens the original into a strain of voluptuous languor, like the incense fuming up from the altars at which it is sung; for the scene is laid in Venus's temple" p. 131. The long quotation in Italian is from Forteguerri's tragicomic romance "Ricciardetto."

John Wilson: "HOGG. There, it's just lighted on the bunker! ODOHERTY. Not among the Liberals I hope. — Ah! 'tis safe. Have you seen the last Pisan Hogg? HOGG. Peezan! — Pushan, say rather — it's a' dirt now. Lord Byron, I aye said, wadna put up wi' sic company lang — and ye laughed at me; but you see I'm right after a'. ODOHERTY. Me laugh at you? I only wonder what the deuce it can have been, that made him countenance them even for the little time he did. His articles were libellous sometimes, (these fellows, by the way, can no more libel than a tailor can ride,) but they had no connection with, or resemblance to the sort of trash the Cockneys stuffed them in the heart of —. The last number contains not one line of Byron's. — Thank God! he has seen his error, and kicked them out. HOGG. I canna gie him up. I canna thole't. I aye think he'll turn ower a new leaf, and be himself ere lang. ODOHERTY. Quod felix faustumque! — But as to these drivellers, they are all in their old mire again. — Just Rimini Hunt, and three or four more— HOGG. 'Lewd fellows of the baser sort,' — to use scriptural language, touching a most unscriptural crew. TICKLER. And whether you take 'lewd' in the old or the new sense, you could not have hit on a fitter epithet for the authors of some of these disgusting faragos" Blackwood's Magazine (May 1823) in Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 1:315.

George Gilfillan: "Of The Liberal, Hazlitt was the home-editor. No one can have forgotten the history of this unfortunate periodical. It was meant for a bomb-shell, to be cast — and by such spirits! Byron, Shelley, Hazlitt, and Hunt — among the inflammable materials of England; but went off prematurely, and scorched and blistered only their own hands. Byron's proud stomach sickened of it. Poor Shelley was drowned. Hunt became dyspeptic and dull. And to Hazlitt, already a broad mark for the arrows of political and literary attack, was left the double and difficult task of bearing the brunt of its odium, and fulfilling the prestige of its fame. In fact, with the exception of the Vision of Judgment, and the fragments by Shelley from Faust, his essays are the only readable things in it" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 55.

Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "The Liberal, a quarterly magazine and review, published at Pisa, and edited by Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, with assistance from Hazlitt. In the earlier numbers, several of Shelley's poems had appeared. His death, in July, 1822, sealed the fate of this periodical which had very few redeeming features" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 1:315n.

Oliver Elton: "The famous periodical, The Liberal (1822-23), published at Pisa, lived a year under his [Hunt's] conduct, and contained 'The Vision of Judgment,' Shelley's translations from Faust, and many other good things, but involved Hunt in difficulties with Byron. He stayed till 1825 in Italy, deepening his native sympathy with the gayer and more gracious sides of its life and scenery" Survey of English LIterature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:228.



"Twenty sweet summers I will tie together,"
Said the rejoicing bridegroom in the play,
Who was to have one month of honied weather,
And then, to please the tyrant, die next day.
The vile, hard-hearted — yet I don't know either—
However, what I was about to say
Was this, — that in these light poetic spinnings,
I tie together twenty sweet beginnings.

Exordiums are my theme. — Thou great "O thou!"
Whoe'er thou art, whom poets thou by thousands,
Whether thou sit'st upon the Olympian brow
Of epic bard, or wonderest at the cow's hands
Of rude invoker, rhyming any how,
Allow me to be clerk for both advowsons;
For if my own rhyme's nothing of itself,
It sings of others worthy of thy shelf.

I want, in fact, to finish a whole poem
At once; and to write properly, I find
I can't have flow'rs as quickly as I sow 'em:
Something will still take place, not to my mind,
Some weakness, lameness, some hard buddings (blow 'em!),
Some graftings, which I hate to leave behind:
So I must take my time with such grave matters,
And sow, meanwhile, my cresses in these tatters.

I must have light refreshment, relishes quick,
Fruits that I can dispatch with a brief eating,
And yet that I can eat too in the thick
Of trees and gardens; sketches of one sitting,
But then of looks, at which a painter's stick
Might feel the life return to it, ev'n to beating.
When I want more, I go and wrap me round
In Milton's, Chaucer's, Spenser's holy ground.

I'm like a knight of old. I'm fierce to-day,
Desperate and grim, in middle of the fight;
Nothing will serve me but to hack my way
At kings and chieftains, tramplers of the right:
Anon, I'm gentle as a morn of May,
Am all for flow'rs, and loving dreams at night,
And must go waken blossoms in the bushes,
Warblings of birds, and worlds of rosy blushes.

See, — the word "May" disturb'd my simile,
And took me with it, like a lass-led boy.
I meant to say, that as the knight would be
Now all for fighting, and the terrible joy
Of riding plumed battle like a sea,
And now would be rapt off, far from annoy,
Into the arms of fairies and their bowers,
So frown and smile my party-colour'd hours.

So when my turn comes to repose, I read
My magic books, and then with a bird's eye
Dart me far off, as he does to his bed,
Now to some piping vale of Arcady,
Now to some mountain-top, which I've heard said,
Holds the most ghastly breath in Tartary;
And then I'm cradled 'twixt my Apennines,
Spying the blue sky through the yellow vines.

And then I'm all with Ovid and his changes,
Or all with Spenser and his woods, or all
With Ariosto and his endless ranges,
Riding his Hippogriff, till I grow too small
For eye to see: — then lo! I'm by the Ganges,
Quick as that fatal wight, who gave a call
To Solomon to send him out o' the way
Of Death, and met him there that very day.

And then again I'm playing fast and loose
With girls, in isles that stud the Grecian sea:
And then I'm in old Greece, and Oedipus
Holding his blind eyes up, creeps quietly
By his dear daughter's side, whom I would chuse
Were I a god, my worshipp'd wife to be:
And then I'm in the valley, "wonder deep,"
Where the cold waters lull old Sleep to sleep.

And then I'm all for Araby, my first love;
I'm Giafar, I'm a "genie," I'm a jar;
I'm Sindbad in some very horrid grove,—
Which is delicious: I'm the Calendar,
Who with the lady was one hand and glove;
I am the prince, who shot his bow so far,
And found that cellar, with a stock divine
Of lips to kiss, still redder than the wine.

And then I take a pen, pluck'd from the wing
Of the rich hour, and let my fancy flow,
Dipping delighted in my ebony spring,
(For Sindbad would have call'd my ink-stand so);
And first of all (which you will think a thing
Not needing to be mention'd, but 'tis though,
For it's my subject, and I hold me in,
Not to have done too quickly) I begin!

Beginnings are high moments. I appeal
To you, musicians, when you're all prepar'd
To pour some storm of harmony you know well;
Painters, to you, when after studying hard,
You've got a subject, that you're sure you feel;
Readers, to you, when suddenly your regard
Is cast upon a packet, square, tight, brown,—
"Ah, you mean books?" — I do, — the new from town.

"Dinner on table" after a long walk
Has its exordium: so has going to sleep,—
Fading by fine degrees from a friend's talk:
Reaching a wood is not to be held cheap,
After a ride through sun, and dust, and chalk:
Rut the beginning the most sweet and deep,
The first of firsts, — ah, you know what it is,—
Is the first trembling, touching, trusting kiss.

I give up that. But not the breathing wood,
Entered, with hat off, after sun and dust;
Not going to sleep in smiling gratitude;
Nor meal that we approach, as walkers must;
Not cutting string from books; nor subject good,
Hit on by finger'd pencil; nor the gust
Of Philharmonic winds, waked all at once,
Touch like a bard's pen, tilted for the nonce.

Gravely I feel it, lightly though I say.
All bards have felt it, great as well as small,
And show the proud delight with which they lay
Their hand to pen. Lo, listen first of all,
To Homer, opening his triumphant way!
What Horace says of modesty withal
And meek beginnings, must be read "cum grano,"
Or what becomes of arms "virumque cano?"

The opening, like the ending, must be settled
By nature and the occasion. Homer, treating
Of the wise wanderer, and how well he battled
Through his long ills by patient wit (and cheating),
As calmly brings him in; but when the high-mettled
And fierce Achilles is to give us greeting,
He strikes a trumpet up in his first line,
Fit for the coming of a wrath divine.

Beginnings please us, some for the mere style,
Some for the sentiment, and some for both.
All should be musical; and most, the while,
Seem full of a sure pleasure, nothing loth,
Whether their business be to mourn or smile,
Whether the Delphic voice be sweet or wroth:
For 'tis a task so noble, that of verse,
It aye must taste the pleasure it confers.

Hesiod's Theogony commences well,
He puts the Muses first with such delight,
Their bathings, and their dances amiable,
And that delicious voice they send at night
Over the mountain-tops on which they dwell,
Like choral nuns, and take a hymning flight.
He heard them under Helicon, he says
A shepherd; and they filled his hand with bays.

E'en Burns's holly must submit to this,
True as it is, and blithe with berries red;
For Hesiod really pass'd those nights of his
Under the mountain with its laurell'd head
Where those fair birds were thought to live in bliss.
But fancies are facts too: — let that be said.
Besides, we've Fairy-land. The Muse, I grant her,
Kept house in Greece; but then we've Tam o' Shanter.

Dante's first lines are simple, grave, sincere,
Too full of awe for shew: — Milton's the same.
Dryden's Religio Laici takes my ear
With an exordium, that should put to shame
All the monotonous lines we hold so dear,
Time-beaters for dull heads. Think not I blame
Nevertheless the glorious Rape o' the Lock,
The airiest wit that ever raised a joke.

Pope was a true-born poet, modified
By his infirm complexion and small sphere;
But then so great in that, that he could hide
Scores of us dwarfs in our savannahs here:
His rooms were not mere rooms, but worlds beside
Of spirits, who hung pearls in every ear.
Wit, lover, friend, his lays were like his lawns;
His face, as rich and sensitive as a fawn's.

Yet what is fit for miniature, may not suit
With oils, and lets more trifling copiers pass.
But to return. The learn'd will think me a brute,
But I must own, such is my taste, alas!
For what is natural, and new to boot,
That I could wish it proved (granting it was
As foreign to his subject too as Pegu)
That Virgil did begin with "Ille ego."

The bard was a dear lover of the woods,
He loved their loving nymphs, he lov'd their dreams;
Glens and philosophy were his two great goods;
And when he thought of quitting his mild streams
For seats of war and their ensanguined floods,
It was as natural he should turn his beams
Once more to look on what he left, as men,
When the drum calls them, kiss their wives again.

Lucretius opens nobly with his hymn
To Venus, and her warm Daedalian sway:
You bask in it; nor wonder that Mars grim
Doats on her face in that devouring way.
I like all poets, who thus seem to swim
Into their subject, proud of the sweet play:
The lordly swan, let out on his own river,
Feels not the dimpling with a sweeter shiver.

"Le donne, I cavalier, l'arme, gli amori,
Le cortesi, l'audici imprese, io canto,
Che furo al tempo che passaro I Mori
D'Africa il mare, e in Francia nocquer tanto,
Seguendo l'ire e I giovenil furore
D'Agramante lor re, che si die vanto
Di vendicar la morte di Trojano
Sopra re Carlo, imperator Romano."

"Ladies, and cavaliers, and loves, and arms,
And courtesies, and haughty deeds I sing,
What time the Moors of Africa in swarms
Came o'er the sea with Agramant their king,
And did such harm in France, and blew the alarms
He made in his young rage, vowing to bring
To fierce account, for his old father slain,
The illustrious Roman emperor, Charlemagne."

So enters on his task, with gallant joy
The Ferrarese, whose very name's a pleasure.
Nor scarcely less charms he, who chose to employ
His time in polishing another's treasure:
He brings his wine, like the Idaean boy;
Like pleasant friendship, comes he on our leisure;
For our own sakes he comes, as well as his,
Touching a brilliant lute; — and here he is:—

"Leggiardri amanti, e donne innamorate,
Vaghe d'udir piacevol cose e nuove,
Benignamente, vi prego, ascoltate
La bella istoria, che'l mio canto muove;
E udirete l'opre alte e lodate,
Le gloriose, egregie, inelite pruove,
Che fece il conte Orlando per amore,
Regnando in Francia Carlo imperadore."

"Gallants in love, and ladies touch'd as they,
Who love to hear delightful things, and new,
Benignly lend your gentle ears, I pray,
To the high story I'm preluding to;
And you shall hear the great, the glorious way,
In which a thousand wonders were gone through
By County Orlando, for a loving glance,
What time the Emperor Charles was king in France."

'Tis music truly, — 'tis a myrtle tree,—
Incense lit up, — a bunch of heart's-ease roots:
Remember too, these rhymes of Italy
Once on a time were really sung to lutes:
Petrarch sung his: and such a taste had he,
Not only in voice, which warbled like a flute's,
Or rather was brimful of liquid power,
But his own airs were sung in every bower.

Our only lyrist, now-a-days, in the sense
Of Greece and Tuscany, is Thomas Moore:
But all should write, as under influence
Of modulated sounds and their full store;
And then, and only then, they may commence
With their "O Thou's," — "I sing's," — and harps of yore;
And this reminds me of that prelate merry,
Who has a name so militant, Forteguerri.

Emmi venuta certa fantasia,
Che non posso cacciarmi da la testa,
Di scriver un istoria in poesia
Affatto ignota, o poco manifesta.
Non e figlia del Sol la Musa mia,
Ne ba cetra d'oro, o d'ebano contesta:
E rozza villanella, e si trastulla
Cantando a aria, conforme le frulla.

"Ma con tutto che avezza a le boscaglie,
E beva acqua di rio, e mangi ghiande,
Cantar vuole d'eroi e di battaglie,
E d'amori e di'imprese memorande;
E se avverra, che alcuna volta sbaglie,
Piccolo fallo e in lei ogni error grande,
Perche non studio mai; e il suo soggiorno
Or fu presso un abete, or presso un orno.

"E intanto cantera d'armi e d'amori,
Perche in Arcadia nostra oggi son scesi
Cosi sublimi e nobili pastori,
Che son di tutte le scienze intesi:
Vi son poeti, vi sono oratori
Che passan quelli de gli altri paesi:
Or ella, che fra loro usa e di stare
Se e messo in testa di saper cantare.

"Ma, come voi vedrete, spesso spesso
S'imbrogliera ne la geografai,
Come formica in camminar su gesso,
O su la polve, o farina che sia;
O come quel pittor, ch' alto cipresso
Nel bel turchino mare coloria,
E le balene poi su gli erti monti;
Cosi forse saranno I suoi racconti.

"Ma non per questo maltrattar si dee,
Ne farle lima lima, e vella vella:
La semplicetta non lia certe idee,
Che fan l'istroia luminosa e bella;
Ne lesse mai in su le carte Achee,
Ovver di Roma, o di nostra favella,
Le cose belle che cantar' coloro,
Ch' ebber mente divina e plettro d'oro.

"Ma cantar per istar allegramente,
E accio che si rallegri ancor chi l'ode:
Ne sa, ne bada a regole niente,
Sprezzatrice di biasimo e di lode,
Che tiraneggia contanto la gente;
Che v'e infino ehi l'ugna si rode,
E il capo si stropiccia, e'l crin si strazia,
Per trovar rime ch' abbian qualche grazia.

"Voi la vedrete ancor (tanto e ragazza)
Or qua, or la, saltar, come un ranocchio;
Ne in cio la biasmo, ne fa cosa pazza;
Che da gli omeri infin sotto il ginocchio
La poesia ha penne onde svolazza;
E va piu presto che in un batter d'occhio
Or quinci, or quindi; e cosi tiene attente
L'orecchie di chi l'ode, e in un la mente.

"Cosi veggiamo ne furor de l'armi,
Tra il sangue, tra le stragi e le ruine,
In un momento rivoltarsi i carmi
Ai dolci amori; e quindi a le divine
Cose, e parlar di templi e sagri marmi;
Indi volare su l'onde marine,
E raccontar le lagrime e il cordoglio
D'Arianna lasciata in su lo scoglio.

"Ma gia si e posta in man la sua zampogna,
E canta sotto voce, e none si attenta.
Non le guardate ancor, che si vergongna:
E come rosa il volto le diventa:
Principato che ell' ha, non si spaventa:
E gia incomincia: or noi, dov' ella siede,
Taciti andiamo, ed in punta di piede."

"A certain freak has got into my head,
Which I can't conquer for the life of me,
Of taking up some history little read,
Or known, and writing it in poetry.
My Muse is no Sun's daughter, be it said;
She has no harp of gold and ebony:
She is a little clown, one of your singers
Who sport it to the snapping of the fingers.

"And yet for all she has been used to keep
Within the woods, drinks water, and eats nuts,
She's fain to sing of arms and soldiership,
And loves, and lofty cuttings of one's throats;
So that, if any time she makes a slip,
You must not give her very savage cuts;
Because she never studied. Her degrees
Have all been taken underneath the trees.

"But she must sing of warriors and amours,
Because of late so many noble swains
Have come down to this Arcady of ours,
Who've been through all the sciences and their reigns:
There are your poets, there your orators,
Not to be found on any other plains!
Now she being used to hear them, the vain thing,
Has got it in her head, she too can sing.

"But, as you'll find, she wilt embroil herself
Often and often with geography,
Just like an ant poking about a shelf
Midst plaister, dust, and bits of cookery;
Or as the painter did, who in a gulf
Of fine blue water put a cypress-tree,
And made his craggy mountains produce whales:
Such, very probably, will be her tales,

"But you must not abuse her for all that,
Nor keep on finding fault, and teazing her:
The little simpleton was never pat
At things that render histories fine and clear;
She never read Greek books, never looked at
Latin ones, nay, knows not one's own, poor dear!
She never knew the fine things, new or old,
Done by the mind divine and harp of gold.

"All that she sings is for her own pure pleasure,
Including, it is true, the hearer's too:
She neither knows nor cares for rules and measure;
Deaf to the blames or praises, false or true,
Which makes such holes in other people's leisure,
Making this bite his nails, and that look blue,
And t' other claw his head and tear his hair,
For rhymes that may look pretty here and there.

"You'll find her also (she is such a romp)
Leaping, like frog, about her on all sides;
And yet you mustn't set her down "non comp.,"
For every Muse has feathers which she hides,
Enabling her at will to frisk and jump;
And in the twinkling of an eye she glides,
Now here, now there; and so in occupation
Holds all that witness her divine flirtation,

"Thus we shall see, amidst the rage of arms,
Midst blood and slaughter and huge overthrow,
That in a wink she'll turn with all her charms
To love and joy, and then get up and go
To church, and talk of shrines and saints in swarms;
And then she'll whisk me to the sea-shore, lo!
And tell us of the tears and the sad shock
That Ariadne met with on the rock.

"But see, — her hand is placed upon her reed;
She preludes "sotto voce," — she composes;—
Don't you look yet; — she'll blush, — she will indeed;
Her little cheeks will be all over roses;
'Tis but a touch of bashfulness, soon fled;
When once begun, there's nothing she refuses.
Now she begins; — there, — now then let us go
Near where she sits, — but softly, — on tip-toe."

The reason why I turn this toy so long,
Is, that I took it up but t' other day.
It spins, as it proceeds, too coarse a song;
But then refines, and makes a pretty play
Of giddy colours. You may think it wrong
To say, he came to scoff, but stayed to pray;
But the fact is, our laugher at romance
Grew fond of his wild partner in the dance.

How could he help it, seeing that she had
Through all her laughing ways so sweet an eye,
Such stories for him, grave as well as glad,
And unaffected tears, when grief went by;
A face, as Chaucer said, "sweet, glad, and sad?"
I'm none of those who take to misery
To rouse a callous palate; but the very
Profoundest want of mirth's profoundly merry.

Our lively prelate, living in a sphere
Of hypocrites, and courtiers, and gay nothings,
And having got perhaps he scarce knew where,
Was much inclined to laugh at high and low things;
But being in his nature kind, sincere,
And much a man, for all his lordly clothings,
He grew in love with his romantic shelves,
And only mocked the hypocrites themselves.

Tyrannous ills, that patriots would pull down,
Slaveries, and slaughters, inequalities
Extreme and insolent, and of use to none,
Cause tears indeed, that from all human eyes
Brave hands should seek to wipe; but if but one
Huge, glaring, broad-eyed mirth laughed in our skies,
'Twould dry up all kind things, tears, smiles, and flowers,
And make our hearts as wither'd as our bowers.

Alas! I need not speak in the behalf
Of tears, the very best, I who have long
Seen what a cup the world consents to quaff,
Doing sweet smiles and sacred nature wrong:
'Tis Melancholy's laugh, and Mockery's laugh,
I speak of; and ev'n they utter a strong
And shuddering voice against the ills they clasp,
E'en while they kiss the beldams, and cry "Grasp!"

But I digress, so here I stop; for "Finis
Coronat opus," — "a good end's a crown;"
A maxim, that in my mind so divine is,
That heartily, and with "devocioun,"
As Chaucer says, I wish that every Highness
And Majesty (but ours) may soon lie down,
And treat their realms with the sole coronations
That give a perfect finish to their stations.

[pp. 97-115]