Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 9. His merits and defects

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

§ 9. His merits and defects

Hunt’s poetical production, considering the length of his life and the fluency of his pen, was not very extensive. When, some dozen years before his death, he was asked or permitted by Moxon to issue his Poetical Works in a small pocket volume, he got together rather less than three hundred pages, but closely printed and containing, perhaps, nine or ten thousand lines. It does not, indeed, include one of his very best things—the fine sonnet with at least one magnificent line,

  • The laughing queen that caught the world’s great hands,
  • which he wrote in competition with Keats and Shelley and by which he beat both these, his otherwise immeasurable betters. But everything else by which he is best known and to be known is here, The Story of Rimini, re-written but by no means improved; Abou ben Adhem, which, in the milder form of “high seriousness,” has few superiors of its scale, and the delightful rondeau, Jenny kissed me, of which the same may be said in respect of graceful mixture of sentiment and jest; the unequal but, in part, excellent Man, Fish and Spirit, and perhaps, a few more.

    It must, however, be a somewhat exceptional taste or, rather, appetite which would desiderate a larger body of Leigh Hunt’s verse. The few things highly praised above are very few, and, taken with their company, they have a singular air of being out of it—of having come there by some caprice of the muses. Rimini has the historical value already assigned to it and more; for, besides its versification, it gives other “patterning” to easy verse-narrative. But the tone of it—if not, as was pretended at the time, immoral—is mawkishly sentimental, the language trivial and slipshod and the whole style what Persius meant by delumbe and in labris natans. The choice of subject, after Dante, could hardly have been more unfortunate, and Hunt showed the same insensibility to an almost equal danger in choosing that of Hero and Leander. The Palfrey is a pleasant enough variation, in the lighter octosyllable revived by Coleridge and Scott, of the old fabliau, and it is, perhaps, unfair to The Glove that its triviality should have provoked, and have been exposed by, Browning’s opposition piece. But this same triviality is everywhere in Hunt; and, in The Feast of the Poets and that of the Violets [poetesses], it unfortunately comes very near to vulgarity. It is, however, lifted out of this by the serious purpose of Captain Sword and Captain Pen. Some, especially those who share its anti-militarist spirit, have held this to be the best thing for combined quantity and quality that Hunt did in verse. Others differ; not merely antipathetically.

    But actual triviality—not mere lightness of subject and treatment as in the pseudo-Anacreon; and in some of the medieval poets, especially Latin; or, again, in Johannes Secundus and Herrick and Prior and Moore and many later poets but—triviality in the proper sense, the triviality of the rags and straws that flit about the common objects of literature, is fatal to poetry; and there is, let it be repeated for the last time, far too much of this in Hunt’s verse. It is not absent from his prose; but it is much less essentially fatal there, and, though he has in prose, perhaps, nothing quite so good as the few best things of his verse, he has an immensely larger proportion comparatively, and a very considerable bulk positively, of good and pleasant matter. The above-mentioned merit of teaching the miscellaneous essay to cast the once bright and graceful, but now wrinkled, faded and shabby, skin of The Spectator form can hardly be exaggerated. He was not so fortunate or so wise in adopting, in common with most of his contemporaries, the abuse of the editorial “we”—a thing not, indeed, unsuitable to formal, and rather solemn, discussion, but frequently irritating, if not absurd, in light discursive writing. Of this same light discursive writing, however, Hunt was really a master and even—in virtue of his precursorship especially, but not solely— a great master. Nothing is easier than to show that Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb, Landor, De Quincey and others, had qualities which Hunt had not; but it may be questioned whether any one of them had quite his faculty—the faculty of the born journalist and book maker—of tackling almost any subject that presented itself in a fairly adequate, and not seldom quite attractive, fashion. He showed it in dozens (literally) of papers and books, from The Reflector to The Old Court Suburb, the list of his achievements including some remarkable tours de force such as that New Tatler which he wrote single-handed for some eighteen months. It is, again, easy to say that of this facile, gossipy, superficial way of writing we have had enough and too much; that it underlies Ben Jonson’s sentence on its first examples three hundred years ago as being a “flashy thing”; that the two hundred years which saw comparatively little of it were happier than the succeeding hundred which has seen a great deal. Yet it is certain that, as Hunt restarted and refashioned the style, it has done very little harm. It has, perhaps, done some good; and, beyond all question, it has brought about a good deal of not disgraceful pleasure. The man whose name can be put in such a sentence deserves that the sentence should be recorded in history.