1828
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[Studies at Christ's Hospital.]

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


In a long chapter, Leigh Hunt describes the routine and characters of Christ's Hospital, from which Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb had recently graduated. Hunt gives an account of his studies, the Latin and Greek poets who were part of the official curriculum, and the English poets, including Spenser and Milton, Collins and Gray, who were not. It was at Christ's Hospital that Hunt wrote the imitations published in Juvenilia (1801).

Monthly Review: "In closing the book, we shall only add, that however unworthy of the author it is in many respects, we believe it will be very generally read at first, and then very soon forgotten. Personal history is the rage of the day, particularly when it is seasoned, as this work is, with much of the spice of scandal; but happily for the interests of mankind, that is a spice which often keeps but badly, and upon repetition, becomes too disgusting to be endured. We would not at the same time be understood as saying, that Lord Byron's character is not here, in some respects, placed in its natural colours before the reader. It presents him in his dishabille, stripped of the court costume in which some of his biographers have represented him; and we do not deny, that it renders him a more intelligible, though a more common-place being, than we had been hitherto taught to imagine. There is a portrait of him fronting the title-page, which is a good likeness. It is merely a copy of that which appeared in all the print-shop windows some time since, representing his lordship after his return from riding. It was originally cut in paper by Mrs. Leigh Hunt. Portraits of Keats and Lamb also appear in this work, with as much pertinence to the main subject as their biographies" S3 7 (March 1828) 312.

William Hazlitt: "There is no man now living who at the same time writes prose and verse so well, with the exception of Mr. Southey (an exception, we fear, that will be little palatable to either of these gentlemen)" Spirit of the Age (1825) 404.

This volume was expanded into Leigh Hunt's Autobiography (1850).




Few of us cared for any of the books that were taught; and no pains were taken to make us do so. The boys had no helps to information, bad or good, except what the master afforded them respecting manufactures; — a branch of knowledge, to which, as I have before observed, he had a great tendency, and which was the only point on which he was enthusiastic and gratuitous. I do not blame him for what he taught us of this kind; there was a use in it, beyond what he was aware of: but it was the only one on which he volunteered any assistance. In this he took evident delight. I remember, in explaining pigs of iron or lead to us, he made a point of crossing one of his legs with the other, and, cherishing it up and down with great satisfaction, and saying, "A pig, children, is about the thickness of my leg." Upon which, with a slavish presence of novelty, we all looked at it, as if he had not told us so a hundred times. In every thing else, we had to hunt out our own knowledge. He would not help us with a word, till he had ascertained that we had done all we could to learn the meaning of it ourselves. This discipline was useful; and, in this and every other respect, we had all the advantages which a mechanical sense of right, and a rigid exaction of duty, could afford us; but no farther. The only superfluous grace that he was guilty of, was the keeping a manuscript book, in which, by a rare luck, the best exercise in English verse was occasionally copied out for immortality! To have verses in "the Book" was the rarest and highest honour conceivable to our imaginations. I did not care for Ovid at that time. I read and knew nothing of Horace; though I had got somehow a liking for his character. Cicero I disliked, as I cannot help doing still. Demosthenes I was inclined to admire, but did not know why, and would very willingly have given up him and his difficulties together. Homer I regarded with horror, as a series of lessons, which I had to learn by heart before I understood him. When I had to conquer, in this way, lines which I had not construed, I had recourse to a sort of artificial memory, by which I associated the Greek words with sounds that had a meaning in English. Thus, a passage about Thetis I made to bear on some circumstance that had taken place in the school. An account of a battle was converted into a series of jokes; and the master, while I was saying my lesson to him in trepidation, little suspected what a figure he was often cutting in the text. The only classic I remember having any love for, was Virgil; and that was for the episode of Nisus and Euryalus. But there were three books I read in whenever I could, and that have often got me into trouble. These were Tooke's "Pantheon," Lempriere's "Classical Dictionary," and Spence's "Polymetis," the great folio edition with plates. Tooke was a prodigious favourite with us. I see before me, as vividly now as ever, his Mars and Apollo, his Venus and Aurora, which I was continually trying to copy; the Mars, coming on furiously in his car; Apollo, with his radiant head, in the midst of shades and fountains; Aurora with her's, a golden dawn; and Venus, very handsome, we thought, and not looking too modest, in "a slight cymar." It is curious how completely the graces of the Pagan theology overcame with us the wise cautions and reproofs that were set against it in the pages of Mr. Tooke. Some years after my departure from school, happening to look at the work in question, I was surprised to find so much of that matter in him. When I came to reflect, I had a sort of recollection that we used occasionally to notice it, as something inconsistent with the rest of the text, — strange, and odd, and like the interference of some pedantic old gentleman. This, indeed, is pretty nearly the case. The author has also made a strange mistake about Bacchus, whom he represents, both in his text and his print, as a mere belly-god; a corpulent child, like the Bacchus bestriding a tun. This is any thing but classical. The truth is, it was a sort of pious fraud, like many other things palmed upon antiquity. Tooke's "Pantheon" was written originally in Latin by the Jesuits. Our Lempriere was a fund of entertainment. Spence's "Polymetis" was not so easily got at. There was also something in the text that did not invite us; but we admired the fine large prints. However, Tooke was the favourite. I cannot divest myself of a notion, to this day, that there is something really clever in the picture of Apollo. The Minerva we "could not abide;" Juno was no favourite, for all her throne and her peacock; and we thought Diana too pretty. The instinct against these three goddesses begins early. I used to wonder how Juno and Minerva could have the insolence to dispute the apple with Venus.

In those times, Cooke's edition of the British Poets came up. I had got an odd volume of Spenser; and I fell passionately in love with Collins and Gray. How I loved those little sixpenny numbers containing whole poets! I doated on their size; I doated on their type, on their ornaments, on their wrappers containing lists of other poets, and on the engravings from Kirk. I bought them over and over again, and used to get up select sets, which disappeared like buttered crumpets; for I could resist neither giving them away, nor possessing them. When the master tormented me, when I used to hate and loathe the sight of Homer, and Demosthenes, and Cicero, I would comfort myself with thinking of the sixpence in my pocket, with which I should go out to Paternoster-row, when school was over, and buy another number of an English poet. I was already fond of verses. The first I remember writing were in honour of the Duke of York's "Victory at Dunkirk;" which victory, to my great mortification, turned out to be a defeat. I compared him with Achilles and Alexander; or should rather say, trampled upon those heroes in the comparison. I fancied him riding through the field, and shooting right and left of him! Afterwards, when in Great Erasmus, I wrote a poem called "Winter," in consequence of reading Thomson; and when Deputy Grecian, I completed some hundred stanzas of another, called the "Fairy King," which was to be in emulation of Spenser! I also wrote a long poem in irregular Latin verses, (such as they were,) entitled "Thor;" the consequence of reading Gray's Odes, and Mallett's Northern Antiquities. English verses were the only exercise I performed with satisfaction. Themes, or prose essays, I wrote so badly, that the master was ill the habit of contemptuously crumpling them up in his hand and calling out, "Here, children, there is something to amuse you." Upon which the servile part of the boys would jump up, and seize the paper; and be amused accordingly. The essays must have been very absurd, no doubt; but those who would have tasted the ridicule best, were the last to move. There was an absurdity in giving us such essays to write. They were upon a given subject, generally a moral one, such as ambition, or the love of money: and the regular process in the manufacture was this. You wrote out the subject very fairly at top, Quid non mortalia, &c. or Crescit amor nummi. Then the ingenious thing was to repeat this apothegm in as many words and round-about phrases, as possible; which took up a good bit of the paper. Then you attempted to give a reason or two, why "amor nummi" was bad; or on what accounts heroes ought to eschew ambition; — after which naturally came a few examples, got out of "Plutarch," or the "Selectae Profanis;" and the happy moralist concluded with signing his name. Somebody speaks of schoolboys going about to one another on these occasions, and asking for "a little sense." That was not the phrase with us: it was "a thought;" — "P— can you give me a thought?" — "C—, for God's sake, help me to a thought, for it only wants ten minutes to eleven." It was a joke with P— who knew my hatred of themes, and how I used to hurry over them, to come to me at a quarter to eleven, and say, "Hunt, have you begun your theme ?" — "Yes, P—." He then, when the quarter of an hour had expired and the bell tolled, came again, and, with a sort of rhyming formula to the other question, said, "Hunt, have you done your theme?" — "Yes, P—." How I dared to trespass in this way upon the patience of the master, I cannot conceive. I suspect, that the themes appeared to him more absurd than careless. Perhaps another thing perplexed him. The master was rigidly orthodox; the school-establishment also was orthodox and high tory; and there was just then a little perplexity, arising from the free doctrines inculcated by the books we learnt, and the new and alarming echo of them struck on the ears of power by the French Revolution. My father was in the habit of expressing his opinions. He did not conceal the new tendency which he felt to modify those which he entertained respecting both Church and State. His unconscious son at school, nothing doubting or suspecting, repeated his eulogies of Timoleon and the Gracchi, with all a schoolboy's enthusiasm; and the master's mind was not of a pitch to be superior to this unwitting annoyance. It was on these occasions, I suspect, that he crumpled up my themes with a double contempt, and an equal degree of perplexity. There was a better exercise, consisting of an abridgement of some paper in the "Spectator." We made, however, little of it, and thought it very difficult and perplexing. In fact, it was a hard task for boys, utterly unacquainted with the world, to seize the best points out of the writings of masters in experience. It only gave the "Spectator" an unnatural gravity in our eyes. A common paper for selection, because reckoned one of the easiest, was the one beginning, "I have always preferred cheerfulness to mirth." I had heard this paper so often, and was so tired with it, that it gave me a great inclination to prefer mirth to cheerfulness.

My books were a never-ceasing consolation to me, and such they have never ceased to be. My favourites, out of school, were Spenser, Collins, Gray, and the "Arabian Nights." Pope I admired more than loved; Milton was above me; and the only play of Shakspeare's with which I was conversant was Hamlet, of which I had a delighted awe. Neither then, however, nor at any time, have I been as fond of the drama as of any other species of writing, though I have privately tried my hand several times — farce, comedy, and tragedy; and egregiously failed in all. Chaucer, one of my best friends, I was not acquainted with till long afterwards. Hudibras I remember reading through at one desperate plunge, while I lay incapable of moving, with two scalded legs. I did it as a sort of achievement, driving on through the verses without understanding a twentieth part of them, but now and then laughing immoderately at the rhymes and similes, and catching a bit of knowledge unawares. I had a schoolfellow of the name of Brooke, afterwards an officer in the East India service, — a grave, quiet boy, with a fund of manliness and good-humour at bottom. He would pick out the ludicrous couplets, like plums; — such as those on the astrologer,

Who deals in destiny's dark counsels,
And sage opinions of the moon sells;

And on the apothecary's shop—

With stores of deleterious med'cines,
Which whosoever took is dead since.

He had the little thick duodecimo edition, with Hogarth's plates, — dirty, and well read, looking like Hudibras himself. I read through, at the same time, and with little less sense of it as a task, Milton's "Paradise Lost." The divinity of it was so much "Heathen Greek" to us. Unluckily, I could not taste the beautiful "Heathen Greek" of the style.

Milton's heaven made no impression; nor could I enter even into the earthly catastrophe of his man and woman. The only two things I thought of were their happiness in Paradise, where (to me) they eternally remained; and the strange malignity of the devil, who instead of getting them out of it, as the poet represents, only served to bind them closer. He seemed an odd shade to the picture. The figure he cut in the engravings was more in my thoughts, than any thing said of him in the poem. He was a sort of human wild beast, lurking about the garden in which they lived; though, in consequence of the dress given him in some of the plates, this man with a tail occasionally confused himself in my imagination with a Roman general. I could make little of it. I believe the plates impressed me altogether much more than the poem. Perhaps they were the reason why I thought of Adam and Eve as I did, the pictures of them in their paradisaical state being more numerous than those in which they appear exiled: besides, in their exile they were together; and this constituting the best thing in their paradise, I suppose I could not so easily get miserable with them when out of it.


[pp. 370-77]