The Poetry Oe Leigh Hunt
THE poetry of Leigh Hunt has more importance historically than actually. Historically, it has its place in the romantic movement, where Leigh Hunt is seen fighting, though under alien colors, by the side of Wordsworth. His chief aim was to bring about an emancipation of the speech and metre of poetry, and he had his share in doing so. The early style of Keats owes much of its looseness and lusciousness to an almost deliberate modeling himself upon the practice and teaching of Hunt. “I have something in common with Hunt,” Keats admitted, in a letter written in 1818; and the Quarterly, in its review of Endymion, defined Keats as a “simple neophyte of the writer of The Story of Rimini.” That poem had only been published two years, but had already made a small revolutionary fame of its own.
For its actual qualities, this poetry, which seems now to have so slight an existence by the side of the still almost popular prose-writings, is not so easily valued. Infinite tiny sparks flicker throughout, but are rarely alight long enough to set a steady fire burning. One lyric, a few sonnets, an anecdote or two, a few passages of description or of dialogue,— can we reckon up more than these in a final estimate of the value of this poetry as a whole ? Yet are not these few successful things, each rare of its kind, themselves sufficient to make the reputation of one who was content to be remembered in whatever “humble category of poet, or in what humblest corner of the category,” it remained for “another and wholly dispassionate generation” to place him?
The Story of Rimini as it was published in 1816 is a very different thing from the revised version of 1832, with its “rejection of superfluities,” its correction of “mistakes of all kinds.” It may be quite true, as the author protested, that the first edition contained weak lines, together with “certain conventionalities of structure, originating in his having had his studies too early directed towards the artificial instead of the natural poets.” Yet, in fact, the second version is much more artificial than the first, and what was young, spontaneous, really new at the time, has given way to a firmer but less felicitous style of speech and versification. Such puerilities, of the kind which Hunt very nearly taught to Keats, as, —
A clipsome waist, and bosom’s balmy rise ?
are indeed partly, though not wholly obliterated, and for the better; and the terrible line, revealing all Hunt’s vulgarities at a stroke, —
disappears into the discreet —
Yet what goes, and is ill supplied, is such frank bright speech as, —
Firm and at once, a silver answer calls, —
which turns into the droning, —
A lordly blast gives welcome to the call.
The simple country landscape is changed, because the author has seen Italy, to the due citrons and pine-trees; but such evocations of the fancy cannot be done twice over, and the freshness goes as the “local color ” comes on. Even more inexcusable are the moral interpositions, such as the tears and explanations of Francesca at the fatal moment, by which Dante and the picture are spoiled. “The mode of treatment still remains rather material than spiritual,” Hunt admits, without fully realizing how much he is losing in material beauty, and how incapable he is of replacing it by any kind of spiritual beauty.
Byron, to whom The Story of Rimini is dedicated, said of it in a letter, “Leigh Hunt’s poem is a devilish good one — quaint here and there, but with the substratum of originality, and with poetry about it that will stand the test.” It has not stood the test, and is now quoted nowhere but in the footnotes to Keats; but it is full of those suggestions which lesser men are often at the pains of making for the benefit of their betters. All its “leafy” and rejoicing quality, its woodlands and painted “luxuries,” were to have their influence, direct or reflected, on much of the romantic poetry of the century.
Before writing The Story of Rimini, Hunt had published a satire in verse, called The Feast of the Poets, which he was to rewrite and republish at intervals during his life. It was the first of what was to be a series of bookish poems, in which he expressed the most personal part of himself, but that part which was best fitted perhaps for poetry. Few men have loved literature more passionately and more humbly than Leigh Hunt, or with a generosity more disinterested. Books were nearer to him than men, though he sought in books chiefly their human or pleasing qualities. But his poetry about books never passes from criticism to creation, as when Drayton writes his letter to H. Reynolds, and Shelley his letter to Maria Gisborne. We shall find no “brave translunary things ” and no “hooded eagle among blinking owls.” He tells us that what the public approved of in The Feast of the Poets was a “mixture of fancy and familiarity; ” but the savor has only gone out of it. The criticism in the twentyfive pages of the poem is superficial and obvious, and the verse jingles like the bells on a fool’s bauble. The criticism in the one hundred and twenty-five pages of the notes has still interest for us, if not value. There is always, in Leigh Hunt’s criticism, something of haste and temporariness, and it is generally revised in every new edition. Here, the recognition, on second thoughts, that Wordsworth is the chief poet of the age, together with the good-natured, superior, and impertinent advice which he gives him for the bettering of his poetry, has something more than curiosity as coming from Leigh Hunt, and in 1814. Thescorn of Southey, who “naturally borrows his language from those who have thought for him,” remains good criticism, and there are phrases in a somewhat unjust estimate of Scott which are not without relevance; as when we are told that “he talks the language of no times and of no feelings, for his style is too flowing to be ancient, too antique to be modern, and too artificial in every respect to be the result of his own first impressions.” He is reasonably fair to Crabbe, though with evident effort, and sees through Rogers without effort. But the accidental qualities of his taste betray themselves in the sympathetic praise of Moore, in the preference for “ Gertrude of Wyoming,” as “the finest narrative poem that has been produced in the present day,” in the contemptuous reference to Landor as “a very worthy person,” and to “ Gebir” as “an epic piece of gossiping,” and in the uncertainty and apparent distaste of what is meant to be said not unfavorably of Coleridge. In the final edition, nearly fifty years later, Coleridge, “whose poetry ’s poetry’s self,” is promoted to the place of Wordsworth.
Hunt’s miscellaneous mind was active, sympathetic, foraging; he made discoveries by some ready instinct which had none of the certainty of the divining rod; he was a freebooter, who captured various tracts of the enemy, but could not guard or retain them. He was among the first to help in breaking down the eighteenth-century formalism in verse, in letting loose a free and natural speech; but his influence was not always a safe one. In 1829 Shelley writes to him, in sending the manuscript of “ Julian and Maddalo:” “You will find the little piece, I think, in some degree consistent with your own ideas of the manner in which poetry ought to be written. I have employed a certain familiar style of language to express the actual way in which people talk with each other, whom education and a certain refinement of sentiment have placed above the use of vulgar idioms.”
It was just that proviso that Leigh Hunt neglected. What he really brings into poetry is a tone of chatty colloquialism, meant to give ease, from which, however, the vulgar idioms are not excluded. He introduces a new manner, smooth, free, and easy, a melting cadence, which he may have thought he found in Spenser, whom he chooses among poets “for luxury.” The least lofty of English poets, he went to the loftiest among them only for his sensitiveness to physical delight. His own verse is always feminine, luscious, with a luxury which is Creole, and was perhaps in his blood. He would go back to such dainty Elizabethans as Lodge, but his languid pleasures have no edge of rapture; the lines trot and amble, never fly.
Hunt mastered many separate tricks and even felicities in verse, and acquired a certain lightness and deftness which is occasionally almost wholly successful, as in an actual masterpiece of the trifling, like “Jenny kissed me.” But he did not realize that lightness cannot be employed in dealing with tragic material, unless it is sharpened to so deadly a point as Byron and Heine could give to it. It is difficult to realize that it is the same hand which writes the line that delighted Keats, —
and, not far off, these dreadful lines, —
A lovely woman in a rural spot.
The ignoble quality of jauntiness mars almost the whole of Hunt’s work, in which liberty cannot withhold itself from license. The man who can wish a beloved woman
To haunt his eye, like taste personified, cannot be aware of what taste really is; and, with a power of rendering sensation, external delicacies of sight and hearing, which is to be envied and outdone by Keats, he is never quite certain in his choice between beauty and prettiness, sentiment and sentimentality.
In his later works Hunt learned something of restraint, and when he came to attempt the drama, though he tried to be at the same time realistic and romantic, was more able to suit his manner to his material. The Legend of Florence has his ripest feeling and his most chastened style, and more than anything else he did in verse reflects him to us as, in Shelley’s phrase, “one of those happy souls Which are the salt of the earth.”
The gentle Elizabethan manner is caught up and revived for a moment, and there is a human tenderness which may well remind us of such more masterly work as “A Woman killed with Kindness.”
Hunt was convinced that “we are more likely to get at a real poetical taste through the Italian than through the French school,” and he names together Spenser, Milton, and Ariosto, thinking that these in common would “teach us to vary our music and to address ourselves more directly to nature.” Naming his favorite poets, he begins with “Pulci, for spirits and a fine free way.” To acquaint English taste with Italian models he did many brilliant translations, Dante being less perfectly within his means than Ariosto or Tasso. He was best and most at his ease in rendering the irregular lines of Redi, whose “Bacchus in Tuscany ” he translated in full. In this, and in the version from the Latin of Walter de Mapes, there is a blithe skill which few translators have attained. It was through his fancy for Italian burlesque that Hunt came to do a number of his characteristic and least English things, like the laughing and lilting verses which sometimes, as in “The Fairy Concert,” attain a kind of glittering gayety, hardly mere paste, though with no hardness of the diamond. There is some relationship between this verse and what we call vers de société ; but it is more critical, and has something of the epigram set to a jig. So far as it is meant for political satire, it is only necessary to compare even so brilliant a squib as the “Coronation Soliloquy of George IV ” with Coleridge’s “Fire, Famine, and Slaughter,” to realize how what in Hunt remains buffoonery and perhaps argument, can be carried to a point of imagination at which it becomes poetry.
Hunt has a special talent, connected with his feeling for whatever approached the form of the epigram, for the writing of brief narrative poems. Can it be denied that so masterly an anecdote as “Abou ben Adhem ” has in it some of the qualities, as it seems to have some of the results, of poetry ? Head the same story in the French prose of the original: nothing is changed, nothing added; only the form of the verse, barely existent as it is, has given a certain point and finish to the prose matter. Here and in the two or three other stories there is a very precise and ingenious grasp on story-telling, worthy of Maupassant; and there is a kernel of just, at times of profound, thought, which suggests something of the quality of an Eastern apologue. Was it the more than half prose talent of Hunt that gave him, when he concentrated so tightly his generally diffuse and wandering verse, this particular, unusual kind of success ? When, as in blank verse pieces such as “ Paganini,” he tried to get a purely emotional effect, not by narrative but in the form of confession, his failure was complete; all is restlessness and perturbation. But, once at least, in a little piece called “Ariadne Walking,” there is something of the same happy concentration, the same clean outlines; and the poem may be paralleled with a lovely poem of Alfred de Vigny. The technique, as in almost, or, perhaps, everything of Hunt, is not perfect; and there are words of mere prose, like “the feel of sleep.” How was it that a man, really poetically minded, and with so much knowledge of all the forms of verse, was never quite safe when he wrote in metre ?
A stanza in a poem on poppies may be compared, almost in detail, with a corresponding sentence in prose, which occurs in a rambling essay. They both say the same thing, but the verse says, —
Lords of Lethe downs,
Some awake and some asleep,
Sleeping in our crowns.
What perchance our dreams may know,
Let our serious beauty show.
And the prose says, “They look as if they held a mystery at their hearts, like sleeping kings of Lethe,” and comes nearer to poetry.
From the epigram to the sonnet there is but one step, and Leigh Hunt’s finest and most famous line, —
is found in a sonnet on the Nile, written impromptu in rivalry with Keats and Shelley, and more successful, within its limits, than its competitors. And the sonnet, written against Keats, on the subject of “The Grasshopper and the Cricket,” would be good as well as characteristic if it were not flawed by words like “feel” and “class” and “nick,” used to give the pleasant charm of talk, but resulting only in a degradation of refined and dignified speech. Three sonnets called “The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit,” which might easily have been no more than one of Hunt’s clever burlesques, seem to me for once to touch and seize and communicate a strange, cold, inhuman imagination, as if the very element of water entered into chill communion with the mind. Lamb might have shared the feeling, the epithets are like the best comic Greek compounds; the poetry, which begins with a strange familiarity, ends with a strangeness wholly of elemental wonder: —
Boundless in hope, honoured with pangs austere,
Heaven-gazing; and his angel-wings he craves:
The fish is swift, small-needing, vague yet clear,
A cold, sweet, silver life, wrapped round in waves,
Quickened with touches of transporting fear.
There, at least, Leigh Hunt speaks the language of poetry, and with a personal accent.