After speaking of his story, Leigh Hunt makes the claim that "Pope and the French school of versification have known the least of the subject, of any poets perhaps that ever wrote." By contrast, "The great masters of modern versification are, Dryden for common narrative, though he wanted sentiment, and his style in some respects was apt to be artificial, — Spenser, who was musical from pure taste, — Milton, who was learnedly so, — Ariosto, whose fine ear and animal spirits gave so frank and exquisite a tone to all he said, — Shakspeare, whose versification escapes us, only because he over-informed it with knowledge and sentiment" p. xiv.
Of the diction of poetry, Hunt recommends that "The poet therefore should do as Chaucer or Shakspeare did, — not copy what is obsolete or peculiar in either, any more than they copied from their predecessors, — but use as much as possible an actual, existing language" p. xvi. One wonders what actual, existing language Hunt had in mind for the Story of Rimini, with its "tip-toe looks," "snorting turbulence," and "hushing paths."
Lord Byron to Leigh Hunt: "I am glad to see you have tracked Gray among the Italians. You will perhaps find a friend or two of yours there also, though not to the same extent; but I have always thought the Italians the most poetical moderns; our Milton and Spenser and Shakespeare (the last through translations of their Tales) are very Tuscan, and surely it is far superior to the French school" 9 February 1814; Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 3:29.
J. W. Croker: "These canons Mr. Hunt endeavours to explain and establish in a long preface, written in a style which, though Mr. Hunt implies that it is meant to be perfectly natural and unaffected, appears to us the most strange, laboured, uncouth, and unintelligible species of prose that we ever read, only indeed to be exceeded in these qualities by some of the subsequent verses; and both the prose and the verse are the first eruptions of this disease with which Mr. Leigh Hunt insists upon inoculating mankind. Mr. Hunt's first canon is that there should be a great freedom of versification — this is a proposition to which we should have readily assented; but when Mr. Hunt goes on to say that by freedom of versification he means something which neither Pope nor Johnson possessed, and of which even "they knew less than any poets perhaps who ever wrote," we check our confidence; and, after a little consideration, find that by freedom Mr. Hunt means only an inaccurate, negligent, and harsh style of versification, which our early poets fell into from want of polish, and such poets as Mr. Hunt still practise from want of ease, of expression, and of taste. 'License he means, when he cries liberty.' Mr. Hunt tells us that Dryden, Spenser and Ariosto, Shakepeare and Chaucer, (so he arranges them,) are the greatest masters of modern versification; but he, in the next few sentences, leads us to suspect that he really does not think much more reverently of these great names than of Pope and of Johnson; and that, if the whole truth were told, he is decidedly of opinion that the only good master of versification, in modern times, is — Mr. Leigh Hunt" Quarterly Review 14 (January 1816) 474.
Francis Jeffrey: "It reminds us, in many respects, of that pure and glorious style that prevailed among us before French models and French rules of criticism were known in this country, and to which we are delighted to see there is now so general a disposition to recur. Yet its more immediate prototypes, perhaps, are to be looked for rather in Italy than in England: at least, if it he copied from any thing English, it is from something much older than Shakespeare; and it unquestionably bears a still stronger resemblance to Chaucer than to his immediate followers in Italy. The same fresh, lively and artless pictures of external objects, — the same profusion of gorgeous but redundant and needless description, — the same familiarity and even homeliness of diction — and, above all, the same simplicity and directness in representing actions and passions in colours true to nature, but without any apparent attention to their effect, or any ostentation, or even visible impression as to their moral operation or tendency. The great distinction between the modern poets and their predecessors, is, that the latter painted more from the eye and less from the mind than the former. They described things and actions as they saw them, without expressing, or at any rate without dwelling on the deep-seated emotions from which the objects derived their interest, or the actions their character. The moderns, on the contrary, have brought these most prominently forward, and explained and enlarged upon them perhaps at excessive length. Mr. Hunt, in the piece before us, has followed the antient school; and though he has necessarily gone something beyond the naked notices that would have suited the age of Chaucer, he has kept himself far more to the delineation of visible, physical realities, than any other modern poet on such a subject" Edinburgh Review 26 (June 1816) 476--77.
Leigh Hunt: "Dryden, at that time, in spite of my sense of Milton's superiority, and my early love of Spenser, was the most delightful name to me in English poetry. I had found in him more vigor, and music too, than in Pope, who had been my closest poetical acquaintance; and I could not rest till I had played upon his instrument" Autobiography (1850) 15-16.
Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "The poem of 'Rimini' was dedicated to Byron, by Leigh Hunt, who commenced what he had to say in prose with the words, 'My dear Byron.' Many years after, when Byron's books came to be examined, after his death, it was found that the words 'My dear Byron' had been marked out, with ink, and 'impudent Varlet,' in his Lordship's own hand-writing, written opposite!" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 1:201n.
Herbert E. Cory: "His epicurean Story of Rimini (1816), so important in the history of nineteenth century romanticism, shows the influence of Spenser, the sensuous builder of the Bower of Bliss, both for better and for worse. But in his beautiful essay, Imagination and Fancy, we find the key-note of Hunt's attitude toward Spenser. Here he furnishes a wonderful picture-gallery. He compares scene after scene of concentrated loveliness with some appropriate picture which hangs in the great galleries of Europe. No book could be more perfect to teach both youth and crabbed age to love Spenser. Yet I must be ungracious enough to charge Hunt with a good deal of responsibility for the common conception current today of Spenser as a pictorial poet and nothing more. Spenser's pictures have been admired till he is given absolutely no credit as a writer of narrative. This is absurd extreme. Had Hunt appreciated some of Spenser's larger qualities, his own verse would doubtless have been less saccharine and spineless. But it seems almost sacrilegious to quarrel with this charming old literary epicurean" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 179-80.
The following story is founded on a passage in Dante, the substance of which is contained in the concluding paragraph of the second canto. For the rest of the incidents, generally speaking, the praise or blame remains with myself. The passage in question — the episode of Paulo and Francesca — has long been admired by the readers of Italian poetry, and is indeed the most cordial and refreshing one in the whole of that singular poem the Inferno, which some call a satire, and some an epic, and which, I confess, has always appeared to me a kind of sublime night-mare. We even lose sight of the place, in which the saturnine poet, according to his summary way of disposing both of friends and enemies, has thought proper to put the sufferers; and see the whole melancholy absurdity of his theology, in spite of itself, falling to nothing before one genuine impulse of the affections.
The interest of the passage is greatly increased by its being founded on acknowledged matter of fact. Even the particular circumstance which Dante describes as having hastened the fall of the lovers, — the perusal of Launcelot of the Lake, — is most likely a true anecdote; for he himself, not long after the event, was living at the court of Guido Novello da Polenta, the heroine's father; and indeed the very circumstance of his having related it at all, considering its nature, is a warrant of its authenticity.
The commentators differ in their accounts of the rest of the story; but all agree that the lady was in some measure beguiled into the match with the elder Malatesta, — Boccaccio says, by being shewn the younger brother once, as he passed over a square, and told that that was her intended husband. I have accordingly turned this artifice to account, though in a different manner. I have also omitted the lameness attributed to the husband; and of two different names by which he is called, Giovanni and Launcelot, have chosen the former, as not interfering with the hero's appellation, whose story the lovers were reading.
The Italians have been very fond of this little piece of private history, and I used to wonder that I could meet with it in none of the books of novels, for which they have been so famous; till I reflected, that it was perhaps owing to the nature of the books themselves, which such a story might have been no means of recommending. The historians of Ravenna, however, have taken care to record it; and besides Dante's episode, it is alluded to by Petrarch and by Tassoni. The former mentions the lovers among his examples of calamitous passion, in the Trionfo d'Amore, cap. 3. Tassoni, in his tragi-comic war, introduces Paulo Malatesta, as leading the troops of Rimini, and paints him in a very lively manner, as contemplating, while he rides, a golden sword-chain, which Francesca had given him, and which he addresses with melancholy enthusiasm as he goes. See the Secchia Rapita: canto 5. st. 43. &c. and canto 7. st. 29. &c.
The romance of Launcelot of the Lake, upon the perusal of which the principal incident turns, is little known at present, but was a great favorite all over Europe, up to a late period. Chaucer, no long time after the event itself, mentions it, in his significant way, as a work held in great estimation by the ladies. The Nun's Priest, speaking of the tale of the Cock and the Fox, which he is relating, says to his hearers,
This story is al so trewe, I undertake,
As is the book of Launcelot du Lake,
That women holde in ful gret reverence.
Canterbury Tales: V. 15147.
The great father of our poetry, by the way, is a little ungrateful with his jokes upon chivalrous stories, of which he has left such noble specimens in the Palamon and Arcite, and in the unfinished story of Cambuscan, which Milton delighted to remember; but both he and the Italian poets appears to have laughed at them occasionally, as lovers affect to do at their mistresses. I have in my possession an imperfect copy of Launcelot of the Lake in Italian, and have taken occasion of my story, to give an abstract of the beginning of it, which appears to me as fine as any thing in Amadis de Gaul or Tristan de Leonois.
There are no notes to the present poem. I have done my best, as every writer should, to be true to costume and manners, to time and place; and if the reader understands me as he goes, and feels touched where I am most ambitious he should be, I can be content that he shall miss an occasional nicety or so in other matters, and not be quite sensible of the mighty extent of my information. If the poem reach posterity, curiosity may find commentators enough for it, and the sanction of time give interest to whatever they may trace after me. If the case be otherwise, to write notes is only to shew to how little purpose has been one's reading. I shall merely observe, that of the direct obligations, of which I am conscious, and which perhaps, after all, I have not handled well enough to make worth the acknowledgment, — the simile of the patches of moss to sunshine, in the second canto, was borrowed from Gilpin's Forest Scenery; — that of unfortunate poets to crushed perfumes, in the fourth, from one about good men in adversity in Bacon's Apophthegms; — Giovanni's praise of his dead brother, front the panegyric pronounced over Launcelot of the Lake, which the reader may find in Ellis's Specimens of Early Romances; — and part of the description of the nymphs, in the third canto, from Poussin's exquisite picture of Polyphemus piping on the mountain.
For the same reason, I suppress a good deal which I had intended to say on the versification of the poem, — or of that part of it, at least, where, in coming upon household matters calculated to touch us nearest, it takes leave, as it were, of a more visible march and accompaniment. I do not hesitate to say however, that Pope and the French school of versification have known the least on the subject, of any poets perhaps that ever wrote. They have mistaken mere smoothness for harmony; and, in fact, wrote as they did, because their ears were only sensible of a marked and uniform regularity. One of the most successful of Pope's imitators, Dr. Johnson, was confessedly insensible to music. In speaking of such men, I allude, of course, only to their style in poetry, and not to their undisputed excellence in other matters. The great masters of modern versification are, Dryden for common narrative, though he wanted sentiment, and his style in some respects was apt to be artificial, — Spenser, who was musical from pure taste, — Milton, who was learnedly so, — Ariosto, whose fine ear and animal spirits gave so frank and exquisite a tone to all he said, — Shakspeare, whose versification escapes us, only because he over-informed it with knowledge and sentiment; — and, though the name may appear singular to those who have not read him with due attention to the nature of the language then existing, — Chaucer, — to whom it sometimes appears to me, that I can trace Dryden himself, though the latter spoke on the subject without much relish, or, in fact, knowledge of it. All these are about as different from Pope, as the church organ is from the bell in the steeple, or, to give him a more decorous comparison, the song of the nightingale, from that of the cuckoo.
With the endeavour to recur to a freer spirit of versification, I have joined one of still greater importance, — that of having a free and idiomatic cast of language. There is a cant of art as well as of nature, though the former is not so unpleasant as the latter, which affects non-affectation. But the proper language of poetry is in fact nothing different from that of real life, and depends for its dignity upon the strength and sentiment of what it speaks. It is only adding musical modulation to what a fine understanding might actually utter in the midst of its griefs or enjoyments. The poet therefore should do as Chaucer or Shakspeare did, — not copy what is obsolete or peculiar in either, any more than they copied from their predecessors, — but use as much as possible an actual, existing language, — omitting of course mere vulgarisms and fugitive phrases, which are the cant of ordinary discourse, just as tragedy phrases, dead idioms, and exaggerations of dignity, are of the artificial style, and yeas, verilys, and exaggerations of simplicity, are of the natural. The artificial style, it is true, has its beauties, as some great poets have proved; but I am here speaking of the style that is most beautiful; and those poets, it is to be observed, were not the greatest. Of the style, to which I allude, exquisite specimens, making allowances for what is obsolete, are to be found in the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, and his Troilus and Cressida; and you have only to open the first books of Pulci and Ariosto to meet with two charming ones, the interview of Orlando with the Abbot, in the Morgante Maggiore (canto I. towards the conclusion), and the flight of Angelica, her meeting with Rinaldo's horse, &c. in the Orlando Furisoso. Homer abounds with them, though, by the way, not in the translation; and I need not, of course, warn my reader of taste against trusting Mr. Hoole for a proper representation of the delightful Italian. Such versions, more or less, resemble bad engravings, in which all the substances, whether flesh, wood, or cloth, are made of one texture, and that a bad one. With the Greek dramatists I am ashamed to say I am unacquainted; and of the Latin writers, though Horace, for his delightful companionship, is my favourite, Catullus appears to me to have the truest taste for nature. But an Englishman need go no father than Shakspeare. Take a single speech of Lear's, such for instance as that heart-rending one,
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, &c.
and you have all that criticism can say, or poetry can do.
In making these observations, I do not demand the reader to conclude that I have succeeded in my object, whatever may be my own opinion of the matter. All the merit I claim is that of having made an attempt to describe natural things in a language becoming them, and to do something towards the revival of what appears to me a proper English versification. There are narrative poets now living who have fine eyes for the truth of things, and it remains with them perhaps to perfect what I may suggest. If I have succeeded at all, the lovers of nature have still to judge in what proportion the success may be; — but let me take them with me a while, whether in doors or out of doors, whether in the room or the green fields, — let my verses, in short, come under the perusal of ingenuous eyes, and be felt a little by the hearts that look out of them, and I am satisfied.