1828
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[Lord Byron's Opinion of Spenser.]

Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries; with Recollections of the Author's Life, and of his Visit to Italy. By Leigh Hunt. Two Volumes.

Leigh Hunt


If Leigh Hunt's account is to believed, Byron had not read Spenser prior to his visit to Italy in 1817 when he borrowed the Faerie Queen from Hunt. He returned it the next day, commenting, "Here Hunt, here is your Spenser. I cannot see anything in him." It is most unlikely that Byron would not have read Spenser before 1818; he purchased Anderson's British Poets as a young man and certainly knew such portions of the Faerie Queene as were anthologized in Knox's Elegant Extracts. But no edition of Spenser's works appears in the 1816 or 1827 auction catalogues of Byron's books.

William Harrison Ainsworth to James Crossley: "I suppose you have not seen the Signor Leigh Hunto's fat quarto; it is really a bad book, and has affronted every body. Lockhart is preparing a truculent review for the next Quarterly, which will be amusing from containing all Byron's letters in which mention is made of the Signor, and in which, you may rest assured, he is not spared" January 1828; in S. M. Ellis, W. H. Ainsworth (1911) 1:173.

Literary Chronicle: "We had given Mr. Hunt credit for a superiority to petty resentments and vindictive feelings, and here we find, as far at least as concerns Lord Byron, very little else. We, who have been refreshing our memories as to all that Mr. Hunt has, on various occasions, written of Lord Byron, in which his poetical genius, his liberal politics, his 'rank worn simply,' and his 'total glorious want of vile hypocrisy,' were earnestly applauded, cannot help persuading ourselves that the portrait now presented would have been more favourable, had the painter been freer from impulses, which it is very natural for him to possess, but which cannot tend to the interests of the public, or to the development of truth" 10 (January 26 1828) 49.

John Gibson Lockhart: "Mr. Hunt tells his readers that Lord Byron threw him back his Spenser, saying 'he could make nothing of him': but whether are we to believe that the noble lord, sickened (as all Mr. Hunt's readers have been for twenty years past) with Mr. Hunt's endless and meaningless chatter about the half dozen poets, good, bad, and indifferent, whom he patronizes, was willing to annoy Mr. Hunt by the cavalier treatment of one of his principal proteges, or that the author of one of the noblest poems that have been written in the Spenserian stanza was both ignorant of the Faery Queen, and incapable of comprehending anything of its merits? No man who knew anything of Lord Byron can hesitate for a moment about the answer. Lord Byron, we have no sort of doubt, indulged his passion for mystifying, at the expense of this gentleman, to an improper and unjustifiable extent. His delight was at all times in the study of man, 'Since I remember, (says he in one of his letters,) I have made it my business to trace every feeling, every look, to its root.' What a study must the author of these Memoirs, staring about him at Pisa with his Paddington optics, have presented to this practised dissector! and it seems to us extremely probable that the practitioner used both scalpel and probe with all the coolness of another Majendie. Hence, and hence only, we are persuaded, the egregious nonsense with which Lord Byron appears to have crammed habitually the most uninitiated of listeners. Hence, most assuredly, his sneers at Shakspeare, Milton, and Spenser; and hence, it is not improbable, his applause of Rimini, and his 'respectful mention of Mr. Keats'" Quarterly Review 37 (March 1828) 415-16.

Oliver William Bourne Peabody: "Mr. Hunt's name and writings, by a very easy and natural association, remind us of the decline of poetry in public estimation; and we intend to take advantage of this opportunity to account for it, as well as to give our opinion of the poets and poetry of the present age; a subject amply discussed by Mr. Hunt in his Recollections. We take it that the parade of Lord Byron's name, in the title page, was intended to gain a sale for the work; though we would by no means charge such an unworthy artifice on the author, who evidently regards himself, as the most delightful source of interest in his book. The other characters are made to revolve round himself, in a system like that of Ptolemy, representing the most lack-lustre body as the centre of the whole" in "The Decline of Poetry" North American Review [Boston] 28 (January 1829) 3.

Thomas Babington Macaulay: "For the great old masters of the art he had no very enthusiastic veneration. In his Letter to Mr. Bowles he uses expressions which clearly indicate that he preferred Pope's Iliad to the original. Mr. Moore confesses that his friend was no very fervent admirer of Shakspeare. Of all the poets of the first class, Lord Byron seems to have admired Dante and Milton most. Yet in the fourth canto of Childe Harold he places Tasso — a writer not merely inferior to them, but of quite a different order of mind — on at least a footing of equality with them. Mr. Hunt is, we suspect, quite correct in saying, that Lord Byron could see little or no merit in Spenser" Edinburgh Review 53 (June 1831) 563.

John Wilson: "Byron pretended not to love him [Spenser] much, or even to admire — yet he did both, and having adopted his sweet and stately, his rich and sweeping stanza, he would have emulated the celestial soul that bathes it in music, had he durst; but jealousy and envy are sometimes passions of the strong as well as of the weak, and the Childe chose, rather than be outshone by that star, to wander, sometimes forlorn, through our earthly world, which his woes, often majestic, did, however ennoble, in place of the Spiritual Region that Spenser, with a holy feeling, called Faery Land" "Spenser" in Blackwood's Magazine 34 (1833) 806.

Thornton Hunt: "One of the most successful works in this period, the Recollections of Lord Byron, had scarcely gone forth to the public, ere it drew upon the author comments hostile and injurious. And he was the more pained at this outburst of reproach, since, on reflection, he saw that the work had been dictated, in some degree, by feelings of temper on his own part" Correspondence of Leigh Hunt (1862) 1:255.




Lord Byron's collection of books was poor, and consisted chiefly of new ones. I remember little among them but the English works published at Basle, (Kames, Robertson, Watson's History of Philip II. &c.) and new ones occasionally sent him from England. He was anxious to show you that he possessed no Shakspeare and Milton; "because," he said, "he had been accused of borrowing from them!" He affected to doubt whether Shakspeare was so great a genius as he has been taken for, and whether fashion had not a great deal to do with it; an extravagance, of which none but a patrician author could have been guilty. However, there was a greater committal of himself at the bottom of this notion than he supposed; and, perhaps, circumstances had really disenabled him from having the proper idea of Shakspeare, though it could not have fallen short of the truth as he pretended. Spenser he could not read; at least he said so. All the gusto of that most poetical of the poets went with him for nothing. I lent him a volume of the "Fairy Queen," and he said he would try to like it. Next day he brought it to my study-window, and said, "Here, Hunt, here is your Spenser. I cannot see any thing in him:" and he seemed anxious that I should take it out of his hands, as if he was afraid of being accused of copying so poor a writer. That he saw nothing in Spenser is not very likely; but I really do not think that he saw much. Spenser was too much out of the world, and he too much in it. It would have been impossible to persuade him, that Sandys's Ovid was better than Addison's and Croxall's. He wanted faith in the interior of poetry, to relish it, unpruned and unpopular. Besides, he himself was to be mixed up somehow with every thing, whether to approve it or disapprove. When he found Sandys's "Ovid" among my books, he said, "God! what an unpleasant recollection I have of this book! I met with it on my wedding-day; I read it while I was waiting to go to church." Sandys, who is any thing but an anti-bridal poet, was thenceforward to be nobody but an old fellow who had given him an unpleasant sensation. . . .


[pp. 45-46]