Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 8. Leigh Hunt’s influence

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IX. The Landors, Leigh Hunt, De Quincey

§ 8. Leigh Hunt’s influence

But, if Landor only occasionally escaped the charge of being an insufficient Prospero, the title “Ariel of criticism,” which has actually been applied to Leigh Hunt, is far more unfortunate. This excess of honour seems to have been suggested by a certain lightness (which he undoubtedly possessed, but which is an ambiguous term) and by his unquestionable habit of flitting from subject to subject. But Hunt, in more ways than one, was by no means a “delicate” spirit, if he was a spirit at all, and he was frequently trivial, which Ariel never was. He had, however, gifts much above those of the average man-of-letters-of-all-work to whose class he undoubtedly belongs; he managed to do some things, both in verse and in prose, which have a curious attraction in their own way; he was a great benefactor by opening walks of delight in the lower but quite respectable paradises of miscellaneous literature; and, as an origin, or at least a marker of fresh starts, in more than one literary department and fashion, he has historical interest, superior to that possessed by some greater executants, and never, perhaps, yet quite fairly allowed him. To no single man is the praise of having transformed the eighteenth century magazine, or collection of light miscellaneous essays, into its subsequent form due so much as to Hunt. Allowing for the undeniable truth that if a certain thing has to be done, evolutionary fate always finds some one to do it, it may still be said that, without Hunt, Sketches by Boz would have been a kind of Melchisedec, and Household Words improbable. His very enemies in Blackwood owed him royalty a hundred years ago, and it is doubtful whether even the most infallible and self-reliant youth of the twentieth century, when it writes articles of the “middle” style, and even, sometimes, of the purely critical, is not similarly, though less directly, indebted to Hunt.

His influence on pure criticism and on poetry was not very great, but in neither was it negligible. In verse, he had, beyond doubt, the credit of being the first deliberately to desert the stopped decasyllabic couplet which had reigned over the whole eighteenth century and the latter part of the seventeenth, revising the overrun of the Jacobeans and first Carolines. Keats may not have learnt the change from Hunt only, but from the originals as well; yet this does not lessen Hunt’s importance. Hunt himself may have been open to censure in his enjoyment of the revival, but that is another question. In criticism, he has the merit, which Macaulay long ago assigned to him, of a most unusual and, at the time, almost unique catholicity, which was not alloyed (as, to some extent, perhaps, it was in Lamb) by the presence of mere caprice, and (as it still more certainly was in that admirable critic) by a sort of complementary exclusiveness. Hunt could not only like both Spenser and Dryden, both Addison and the great early seventeenth century dramatists, he could also expatiate into those foreign literatures which, at the time (putting aside the new fashion for German), were much less known than they had been. Except Dante, who, for the most part, flew over his head, and who, when he came nearer, brushed, as by wings, Hunt’s prejudices in positive religion heavily, it is difficult to name any great, or even good, writer whom he did not, so far as he could, appreciate, and his famous recognition of the greatness of the Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores part of Middleton’s Changeling, is only the best known of numerous good hits, where others, even Lamb, had missed. Even the prejudices just mentioned did not mislead him to the same extent as that to which they misled others of his contemporaries on both sides, and, here again, he may be said to have been almost more important as an influence than as a practitioner. But his actual practice in all three directions—as poet, as critic and as “miscellanist”—has merit, and, in the latter two cases, volume, which demand less general and more particular examination.