Dedicated to Byron, Leigh Hunt's adaptation of Dante's story of Paulo and Francesca provoked a fire-storm of criticism for the laxity of its morality and the prolixity of its diction. Hunt's decorative manner was emulated by several London poets, notably Keats, derisively labeled "Cockneys" by their critics. The Story of Rimini provided Blackwood's Magazine with the occasion for its infamous series of articles on "The Cockney School of Poets" which overwent the abuse William Gifford had previously heaped on Robert Merry and the Della Cruscans. The parallel between the school of Merry and the school of Hunt extended beyond admiration for Italian poetry to an enthusiasm for liberty and opposition politics. Hunt wrote The Story of Rimini while in prison for slandering the Prince Regent, a fact noticed in the proem to Canto III. The passage was later excised when Hunt made considerable revisions to the poem.
If The Story of Rimini damaged the career of John Keats, in more subtle ways it also marked a turning away from Spenser. Hunt emulates medieval poetry, but it is to the Italians that he turns, avoiding not only Spenser's archaisms but his allegory and moral seriousness. Fashionable taste was already shifting from Spenser to lesser lights like Browne of Tavistock and Robert Herrick; Dante, more than Spenser, would preoccupy the attention of serious nineteenth-century readers. Interest in Italian poets, previously confined largely to scholars, became much more wide-spread after the publication of Byron's Beppo and Don Juan. While the number of poems written in Spenserian stanzas would only increase, interest in Spenser slackened as interest in Italian poets, Chaucer, and minor Elizabethans grew. Hunt, as much as he loved Spenser and as often as he praised him, probably had not a little to do with this.
Lord Byron to John Murray: "I have written to Mr. Lh. Hunt, stating your willingness to treat with him, which, when I saw you, I understood you to be. Terms and time, I leave to his pleasure and your discernment; but this I will say, that I think it the safest thing you ever engaged in. I speak to you as a man of business; were I to talk to you as a reader or a critic, I should say it was a very wonderful and beautiful performance, with just enough of fault to make its beauties more remarked and remarkable" 4 November 1815; Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 3:246.
Monthly Review: "We remark something original in the execution of this little poem. It presents us with a free copy of the language of our older dramatists (for Dryden is laboured and adorned in comparison) introduced into narrative rhyme; and, although such an introduction occasions a frequent quaintness and air of pedantry in the phrases, the expression possesses, on the whole, a refreshing vigour, while the versification displays a facility and variety that are not inharmonious. If this facility will often run into the very familiarity of conversation, and this variety will degenerate into a ruggedness indefensible by any example, still we commend the genuine force and animation of the present candidate for the laurel, we mean, bestowed by popular approbation; for, as to more courtly favour, we are far from insinuating that Mr. Hunt has even yet been taught to solicit a distinction so envied by many of his rivals of the quill" NS 80 (June 1816) 138.
Eclectic Review: "We are very glad to see the style revived by one so fitted to excel in it as Mr. Hunt. We wish indeed that the story had moved on a little more rapidly; but we are not unwilling to loiter among the beautiful descriptions, and enjoy the fresh diction of Mr. Hunt" S2 5 (April 1816) 380-81.
The first canto of The Story of Rimini describes the arrival of Paulo in Ravenna with his splendid retinue; Francesca, the destined bride, looks on at first fearfully, but is won over by the stranger's gallant bearing.
Argument: "This poem is founded on the beautiful episode of Paulo and Francesca in the fifth book of the Inferno, where it stands like a lily in the mouth of Tartarus. The substance of what Dante tells us of the history of the two lovers is to be found at the end of the third Canto. The rest has been gathered from the commentators. They differ in their accounts of it, but all agree that the lady was, in some measure, beguiled into the match with the elder and less attractive Malatesta, — Boccaccio says, by having the younger brother pointed out to her as her destined husband, as he was passing over a square. Francesca of Ravenna was the daughter of Guido Novello da Polenta, lord of that city, and was married to Giovanni, or, as others call him, Launcelot Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, under circumstances that had given her an innocent predilection for Paulo, his younger brother. The falsehood thus practised upon her had fatal consequences. In the Poem before the reader, the Duke her father, a weak, though not ill-disposed man, desirous, on a political account of marrying her to the Prince of Rimini, and dreading her objections in case she sees him and becomes acquainted with his unamiable manners, contrives that he shall send his brother as his proxy, and that the poor girl shall believe the one prince to be the sample of the other. Experience undeceives her; Paulo has been told the perilous secret of her preference for him; and in both of them a struggle with their sense of duty takes place, for which the insincere and selfish morals of others had not prepared them. Giovanni discovers the secret, from words uttered by his wife in her sleep: he forces Paulo to meet him in single combat, and slays him, not without sorrow for both, and great indignation against the father: Francesca dies of a broken heart; and the two lovers, who had come to Ravenna in the midst of a gay cavalcade, are sent back to Ravenna, dead, in order that he who first helped to unite them with his falsehood, should bury them in one grave for his repentance" Stories in Verse (1855) 55-56.
North American Review: "Guido, Duke of Ravenna, had an only daughter, perfect, of course; he has concluded to marry her to Giovanni, Prince of Rimini. This Prince, however, though very accomplished, is of a haughty, morose character, but has a younger brother, Paulo, who is the very flower of courtesy and chivalry. The old man, fond of intrigue, and thinking that the first impression of the destined husband on his daughter, who had 'stout notions on the marrying score,' might not be favourable, suggests to him that he had better send his brother to receive her hand by proxy. He consents to this, and the arrangement is unknown by Francesca, the daughter of Guido. The day is appointed, all Ravenna is on tiptoe to see the fortunate Prince, who is to receive the hand of the beautiful Francesca. Every preparation is made to receive him; the description of this festival, the retinue of Paulo, and their first sight of each other, occupies the first Canto. Francesca is most favourably struck with the first appearance of Paulo, and thinks her fate is not a hard one; then it is explained to her, that he is not the person who is to be her husband, that he comes to represent her brother; and her father tells her they are so much alike that seeing the one, she beholds the other; Paulo relieves her embarrassment by his frank and graceful address, and in the hurry and confusion of her feelings she consents to wed Giovanni, and Paulo receives her as his proxy, and takes her home to the Castle of Rimini. This occupies the second canto. She soon begins to perceive the different character of the two brothers. The first impression made by Paulo, is strengthened every day; constantly together, and left to themselves by the elder brother, their mutual passion increases, and after long struggling their crime is consummated, which reduces them both to irretrievable wretchedness. This narration, by no means an easy one, is given with great skill and delicacy; and if the moral be questionable, there is nothing in the manner to offend. This takes up the third canto. Paulo and Francesca avoid each other as much as possible; their fatal passion and the remorse it occasions, gradually undermines their spirits and health. Giovanni at last receives a hint of what has taken place; and the distress of his wife in her sleep, uttered in some broken expressions, confirms his suspicion. He rises, and at the point of day calls his brother to the tilt yard, asks him to deny the fact that in one single word; or, drawing his sword, to 'meet him thus' —they skirmish, and Paulo watches an opportunity to rush on his brother's sword, and falls. A few words from him, and a squeeze of the hand from Giovanni, is the token of pardon, at the moment of death. Francesca, reduced to extreme weakness, on being informed of this event, which is communicated by the Squire of Paulo in a last message from his master, is convulsed and expires. Giovanni, on being informed how all this misfortunes had originated, writes a letter to old Guido, spares him any reproaches, tells him it is fit that the two bodies should not be separated, but that it cannot be where he resides, and sends them on a princely hearse to Ravenna. The wretched old man, when he sees it approach, loses his senses, and is heard of no more, and the unfortunate pair are buried in one grave, which concludes the poem" 3 (July 1816) 275-77.
Oliver Elton: "We must forget Dante, if we can, when we open The Story of Rimini (1816), and it is best to forget Chaucer also, if justice is to be done to Hunt. Hardly a page but is stained by vulgarity, or by something that no artist should print. The whooping backwoodsmen tomahawked these errors nearly a century ago, and repetition is needless. Enough that Paolo knocks at the bower of Francesca, asking 'May I come in?' and the reply is 'O yes, certainly.' And yet this poem, preceding by a year the first volume of Keats, is in the true line — when so many better poems are out of the true line — of romantic inspiration: the line that comes down from Chatterton and Coleridge to Keats and William Morris. It is a tale in verse, and, with whatever stumbles and disgraces, as a tale it moves; it has the spirit of beauty, intermittent but undeniable; it is full of natural imagery, luxuriously felt and rendered; it has no purpose except the story, and the imagery, and the expression of beauty; and, amidst the most desperate lapses, it has style" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:225-26.
The 1816 Preface mentions Spenser "who was musical from pure taste" as one of the "great masters" of versification, along with Dryden, Milton, Ariosto, Shakespeare, and Chaucer, p. xiv.
THE COMING TO FETCH THE BRIDE FROM RAVENNA.
The sun is up, and 'tis a morn of May
Round old Ravenna's clear-shewn towers and bay,
A morn, the loveliest which the year has seen,
Last of the spring, yet fresh with all its green;
For a warm eve, and gentle rains at night,
Have left a sparkling welcome for the light,
And there's a crystal clearness all about;
The leaves are sharp, the distant hills look out;
A balmy briskness comes upon the breeze;
The smoke goes dancing from the cottage trees;
And when you listen, you may hear a coil
Of bubbling springs about the grassier soil;
And all the scene in short, — sky, earth, and sea,
Breathes like a bright-eyed face, that laughs out openly.
'Tis nature, full of spirits, waked and springing:—
The birds to the delightful time are singing,
Darting with freaks and snatches up and down,
Where the light woods go seaward from the town;
While happy faces, striking through the green
Of leafy roads, at every turn are seen;
And the far ships, lifting their sails of white
Like joyful hands, come up with scattery light;
Come gleaming up, true to the wished-for day,
And chase the whistling brine, and swirl into the bay.
And well may all who can, come crowding there,
Where peace returning, and processions rare,
And to crown all, a marriage in May-weather
Have aught to bring enjoying hearts together:
For on this sparkling day, Ravenna's pride,
The daughter of their prince, becomes a bride,
A bride, to crown the comfort of the land:
And he, whose victories have obtain'd her hand,
Has taken with the dawn, so flies report,
His promised journey to the expecting court
With hasting pomp, and squires of high degree,
The bold Giovanni, lord of Rimini.
Already in the streets the stir grows loud
Of expectation and a bustling crowd.
With feet and voice the gathering hum contends,
The deep talk heaves, the ready laugh ascends;
Callings, and clapping doors, and curs unite,
And shouts from mere exuberance of delight,
And armed bands, making important way,
Gallant and grave, the lords of holiday,
And nodding neighbours, greeting as they run,
And pilgrims, chanting in the morning sun.
With heaved-out tapestry the windows glow,
By lovely faces brought, that come and go;
Till, the work smoothed, and all the street attired,
They take their seats, with upward gaze admired;
Some looking down, some forwards or aside,
As suits the conscious charm in which they pride;
Some turning a trim waist, or o'er the flow
Of crimson cloths hanging a hand of snow;
But all with smiles prepared, and garlands green,
And all in fluttering talk, impatient for the scene.
And hark! the approaching trumpets, with a start
On the smooth wind come dancing to the heart.
A moment's hush succeeds; and from the walls,
Firm and at once, a silver answer calls.
Then press the crowd; and all who best can strive
In shuffling struggle, tow'rd the palace drive,
Where balconied and broad, of marble fair,
On pillars it o'erlooks the public square;
For there Duke Guido is to hold his state
With his fair daughter, seated o'er the gate:—
But the full place rejects the invading tide;
And after a rude heave from side to side,
With angry faces turned, and feet regained,
The peaceful press with order is maintained,
Leaving the door-ways only for the crowd,
The space within for the procession proud.
For in this manner is the square set out:—
The sides, path-deep, are crowded round about,
And faced with guards, who keep the road entire;
And opposite to these, a brilliant quire
Of knights and ladies hold the central spot,
Seated in groups upon a grassy plot;
The seats with boughs are shaded from above
Of early trees transplanted from a grove,
And in the midst, fresh whistling through the scene,
A lightsome fountain starts from out the green,
Clear and compact, till, at its height o'er-run,
It shakes its loosening silver in the sun.
There, talking with the ladies, you may see,
Standing about, or seated, frank and free,
Some of the finest warriors of the court,—
Baptist, and Hugo of the princely port,
And Azo, and Obizo, and the grace
Of frank Esmeriald with his open face,
And Felix the Fine Arm, and him who well
Repays his lavish honours, Lionel,
Besides a host of spirits, nursed in glory,
Fit for sweet women's love and for the poet's story.
There too, in thickest of the bright-eyed throng,
Stands a young father of Italian song,
Guy Cavalcanti, of a knightly race;
The poet looks out in his earnest face;
He with the pheasant's plume — there — bending now,
Something he speaks around him with a bow,
And all the listening looks, with nods and flushes,
Break round him into smiles and grateful blushes.
Another start of trumpets, with reply;
And o'er the gate a sudden canopy
Raises, on ivory shafts, a crimson shade,
And Guido issues with the princely maid,
And sits; — the courtiers fall on either side;
But every look is fixed upon the bride,
Who pensive comes at first, and hardly hears
The enormous shout that springs as she appears,
Till, as she views the countless gaze below,
And faces that with grateful homage glow,
A home to leave, and husband yet to see,
Fade in the warmth of that great charity;
And hard it is, she thinks, to have no will;
But not to bless these thousands, harder still:
With that, a keen and quivering glance of tears
Scarce moves her patient mouth, and disappears;
A smile is underneath, and breaks away,
And round she looks and breathes, as best befits the day.
What need I tell of lovely lips and eyes,
A clipsome waist, and bosom's balmy rise,
The dress of bridal white, and the dark curls
Bedding an airy coronet of pearls?
There's not in all that crowd one gallant being,
Whom if his heart were whole, and rank agreeing,
It would not fire to twice of what he is,
To clasp her to his heart, and call her his.
While thus with tip-toe looks the people gaze,
Another shout the neighb'ring quarters raise:
The train are in the town, and gathering near
With noise of cavalry, and trumpets clear;
A princely music, unbedinned with drums:
The mighty brass seems opening as it comes,
And now it fills, and now it shakes the air,
And now it bursts into the sounding square;
At which the crowd with such a shout rejoice,
Each thinks he's deafened with his neighbour's voice.
Then, with a long-drawn breath, the clangours die;
The palace trumpets give a last reply,
And clustering hoofs succeed, with stately stir
Of snortings proud and clinking furniture:
It seems as if the harnessed war were near;
But in their garb of peace the train appear,
Their swords alone reserved, but idly hung,
And the chains freed by which their shields were slung.
First come the trumpeters, clad all in white
Except the breast, which wears a scutcheon bright.
By four and four they ride, on horses grey;
And as they sit along their easy way,
Stately and heaving to the sway below,
Each plants his trumpet on his saddle-bow.
The heralds next appear, in vests attired
Of stiffening gold with radiant colours fired;
And then the pursuivants, who wait on these,
All dressed in painted richness to the knees:
Each rides a dappled horse, and bears a shield,
Charged with three heads upon a golden field.
Twelve ranks of squires come after, twelve in one,
With forked pennons lifted in the sun,
Which tell, as they look backward in the wind,
The bearings of the knights that ride behind.
Their steeds are ruddy bay; and every squire
His master's colour shews in his attire.
These past, and at a lordly distance, come
The knights themselves, and fill the quickening hum,
The flower of Rimini. Apart they ride,
Six in a row, and with a various pride;
But all as fresh as fancy could desire,
All shapes of gallantry on steeds of fire.
Differing in colours is the knights' array,
The horses, black and chesnut, roan and bay;—
The horsemen, crimson vested, purple, and white,—
All but the scarlet cloak for every knight,
Which thrown apart, and hanging loose behind,
Rests on the steed, and ruffles in the wind.
Their caps of velvet have a lightsome fit,
Each with a dancing feather sweeping it,
Tumbling its white against their short dark hair;
But what is of the most accomplished air,
All wear memorials of their lady's love,
A ribbon, or a scarf, or silken glove,
Some tied about the arm, some at the breast,
Some, with a drag, dangling from the cap's crest.
A suitable attire the horses shew;
The golden bits keep wrangling as they go;
The bridles glance about with gold and gems;
And the rich housing-cloths, above the hems
Which comb along the ground with golden pegs,
Are half of net, to shew the hinder legs.
Some of the cloths themselves are golden thread
With silk enwoven, azure, green, or red;
Some spotted on a ground of different hue,
As burning stars upon a cloth of blue,—
Or purple smearings, with a velvet light
Rich from the glary yellow thickening bright,—
Or a spring green, powdered with April posies,—
Or flush vermilion, set with silver roses:
But all are wide and large, and with the wind,
When it comes forth, go sweeping on behind.
With various earnestness the crowd admire
Horsemen and horse, the motion and the attire.
Some watch, as they go by, the riders' faces
Looking composure, and their knightly graces;
The life, the carelessness, the sudden heed,
The body curving to the rearing steed,
The patting hand, that best persuades the check,
And makes the quarrel up with a proud neck;
The thigh broad-pressed, the spanning palm upon it,
And the jerked feather swaling in the bonnet.
Others the horses and their pride explore,
Their jauntiness behind and strength before;
The flowing back, firm chest, and fetlocks clean;
The branching veins ridging the glossy lean;
The mane hung sleekly; the projecting eye
That to the stander near looks awfully,
The finished head, in its compactness free,
Small, and o'erarching to the lifted knee,
The start and snatch, as if they felt the comb,
With mouths that fling about the creamy foam;
The snorting turbulence, the nod, the champing,
The shift, the tossing, and the fiery tramping.
And now the Princess, pale and with fixed eye,
Perceives the last of those precursors nigh,
Each rank uncovering, as they pass in state,
Both to the courtly fountain and the gate;
And then a second interval succeeds
Of stately length, and then a troop of steeds
Milkwhite and unattired, Arabian bred,
Each by a blooming boy lightsomely led:
They too themselves seem young, and meet the sight
With freshness, after all those colours bright:
In every limb is seen their faultless race,
A fire well tempered, and a free-left grace:
Slender their spotless shapes, and meet the sight
With freshness, after all those colours bright:
And as with quoit-like drop their steps they bear,
They lend their streaming tails to the fond air.
These for a princely present are divined,
And shew the giver is not far behind.
The talk increases now, and now advance,
Space after space, with many a sprightly prance,
The pages of the court, in rows of three;
Of white and crimson is their livery.
Space after space, — and yet the attendants come,—
And deeper goes about the impatient hum—
Ah — yes — no — 'tis not he — but 'tis the squires
Who go before him when his pomp requires;
And now his huntsman shews the lessening train,
Now the squire-carver, and the chamberlain,—
And now his banner comes, and now his shield
Borne by the squire that waits him to the field,—
And then an interval, — a lordly space;—
A pin-drop silence strikes o'er all the place:
The princess, from a distance, scarcely knows
Which way to look; her colour comes and goes;
And, with an impulse and affection free,
She lays her hand upon her father's knee,
Who looks upon her with a laboured smile,
Gathering it up into his own the while,
When some one's voice, as if it knew not how
To check itself, exclaims, "the prince! now — now!"
And on a milk-white courser, like the air,
A glorious figure springs into the square;
Up, with a burst of thunder, goes the shout,
And rolls the echoing walls and peopled roofs about.
Never was nobler finish of fine sight;
'Twas like the coming of a shape of light;
And many a lovely gazer, with a start,
Felt the quick pleasure smite across her heart:—
The princess, who at first could scarcely see,
Though looking still that way from dignity,
Gathers new courage as the praise goes round,
And bends her eyes to learn what they have found.
And see, — his horse obeys the check unseen;
And with an air 'twixt ardent and serene,
Letting a fall of curls about his brow,
He takes his cap off with a gallant bow;
Then for another and a deafening shout,
And scarfs are waved, and flowers come fluttering out;
And, shaken by the noise, the reeling air
Sweeps with a giddy whirl among the fair,
And whisks their garments, and their shining hair.
With busy interchange of wonder glows
The crowd, and loves his brilliance as he goes,—
The golden-fretted cap, the downward feather,—
The crimson vest fitting with pearls together,—
The rest in snowy white from the mid thight:
These catch the extrinsic and the common eye:
But on his shape the gentler sight attends,
Moves as he passes, — as he bends him, bends,—
Watches his air, his gesture, and his face,
And thinks it never saw such manly grace,
So fine are his bare throat and curls of black,—
So lightsomely dropt in, his lordly back—
His thigh so fitted for the tilt or dance,
So heaped with strength, and turned with elegance;
But above all, so meaning is his look,
As easy to be read as open book;
And so much easy dignity there lies
In the frank lifting of his cordial eyes.
His haughty steed, who seems by turns to be
Vexed and made proud by that cool mastery,
Shakes at his bit, and rolls his eyes with care,
Reaching with stately step at the fine air;
And now and then, sideling his restless pace,
Drops with his hinder legs, and shifts his place,
And feels through all his frame a fiery thrill:
The princely rider on his back sits still,
And looks where'er he likes, and sways him at his will.
Surprise, relief, a joy scarce understood,
Something perhaps of very gratitude,
And fifty feelings, undefin'd and new,
Dance through the bride, and flush her faded hue.
"Could I but once," she thinks, "securely place
A trust for the contents on such a case,
And know the spirit that should fill that dwelling,
This chance of mine were hardly called compelling."
Just then, the stranger, looking slowly round
By the clear fountain and the brilliant ground,
And bending, as he goes, with frequent thanks,
Beckons a follower to him from the ranks.
And loosening, as he speaks, from its light hold
A dropping jewel with its chain of gold,
Sends it, in token he had lov'd him long,
To the young father of Italian song:
The youth smiles up, and with lowly grace
Bending his lifted eyes and blushing face,
Looks after his new friend, who, scarcely gone
In the wide turning, nods and passes on.
This is sufficient for the destined bride;
She took an interest first, but now a pride;
And as the prince comes riding to the place,
Baring his head, and raising his fine face,
She meets his full obeisance with an eye
Of self-permission and sweet gravity;
He looks with touched respect, and gazes, and goes by.