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Leigh Hunt Essays On Success

23 NOVEMBER 1844, Page 16


Tuts volume consists of a selection of specimens from SPENSER, MARLOWE, SHAKSpERE and his principal dramatic contemporaries or successors, MILTON, COLERIDGE, SHELLEY, and KEATs; the selec- tions, according to the critic, affording examples where "Imagina- tion and Fancy" predominate over what may be termed reflection or passion, as well as over all the lighter qualities of the poetical art. The passages which, in the estimation of Mr. HUNT, more strikingly illustrate his object of presenting "poetry in its essence," are marked with Italics, often really giving, as he designed, the -effect of emphasis in reading. A general notice of each author's genius is prefixed to the selections, with annotations upon particular 'passages; and the whole is introduced by an Essay in answer to the question "What is Poetry ? "

The volume will be found much more interesting, and assuredly of a far higher range of intellect, than this account of it might induce one to suppose. The unity of purpose in Mr. Hour's ob- ject gives a unity to the specimens rarely attained in collections. They have also very often a completeness in themselves, which is still more rarely compassed : the scenes from the Tempest, the Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and almost all the larger extracts, forming a whole which is not only surprising, but a curious instance of the completeness with which great genius endows its parts. It may indeed be objected to the longer ex- tracts from SFENsER, SHAKSPERE, MILTON, and even COLERIDGE, that, strictly speaking, they do not illustrate the avowed pur- pose of the critic—" to show, throughout the greater part of the volume, what sort of poetry is to be considered as poetry of the 'most poetical kind, or such as exhibits the imagination and fancy In It State of predominance, undisputed by interests of another sort. Poetry, therefore, is not here in its compound state, great or otherwise, but in its element, like an essence distilled. All the great- est poetry includes that essence, but the essence does not present itself in combination with the greatest form of poetry." In other words, Mr. HUNT'S object appears to have been to carry out the idea of FRANCIS JEFFREY touching poetry, as something apart from "the interest of the stories poets tell—the vivacity of the characters they delineate—the weight and force of the maxims and sentiments in which they abound—the very pathos and wit and humour they display " : but he has not contrived to esta- blish either his own view (if we understand it rightly) or the theory of JEFFREY. The three scenes from SHAKSPERE exhibit imagination of a most wonderful if not of a most unexampled kind. But they possess, even in their amputated shape, the interest of a story ; they are distinguished by the vivacity of the characters they delineate, (and by more qualities than vivacity); if they do not " abound " in maxims of "weight and force," they possess wit and humour ; and the incantation-scene of Macbeth rises to the very highest passion of tragedy—terror. Throughout the three wonderful specimens quoted by Mr. HUNT, though man is shown under circumstances physically impossible, and beings are pre- sented that have no existence whatever, there is nothing exagge- rated, nothing fine, nothing dreamy or mystical, nothing in- vented. The Fairies, the Witches, even the brutish and malignant Caliban, have their prototypes, not in nature, but in the popular Mind. They are supernatural not unnatural ; not human, often not even akin to humanity, but beings endowed with some qualities of loan; the creations of a lively and an intense but a believing super- Salon. And they are presented by the poet with more truth, perhaps

with more of matter-of-fact truth, than in works expressly devoted to the subjects. But it is truth animated and exalted by the highest poetry, and connected by the profoundest art with the sympathy of

human creatures, or, as in the case of Oberon and 'Titania, with hu- man feelings. Without wandering from the incantation-scene, (all that is contained in the volume before us,) let the reader analyze the following invocation of Macbeth. All the most terrible effects of their powers are condensed into the address, but nothing more. The Witches could injure or destroy individuals by dint of charms; but their power over large general results seemed to be limited to the elements in the old sense of the weather. Excepting the corn-

prehensiveness of the closing passage, there is nothing but what any humble believer might in substance have addressed to hags.

Enter MAcRETH.

Mac. How row, you secret, black, and midnight hags,

What is% you do?

All. A deed without a name.

Mae. I conjure you, by that which you profess, (Howe'er you come to know it,) answer me : Though you untie the winds, and let them fight Against the churches ; though the yesty waves Confound and swallow navigation up;

Though bladed corn be lodg'd, and trees blown down ; Though castles topple on their warderetheads; Though palaces and pyramids do slope Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure Of nature's germins tumble altogether, Even till destruction sicken, answer me To what I ask you.

In the passages from Paradise Lost, though the poet's imagina- tion carries us "beyond the visible diurnal sphere, and sustains us there by a sublimity and dignity before which all other human efforts fade away, yet action, purpose, character, and passion, are the predominating traits, and the means of interest. The alle- gories of SpENsER have a story, and vivacity of character ; his allegorical beings are not mere abstractions, but very often liv- ing creatures. Even COLERIDGE, though he fell rather into Ger- man diablerie than represented popular superstition, still has story and character.

These objections are of a specalative kind, applying only to Mr. HUNT'S notion, without any diminishing effect upon the selections,

but the reverse. The volume would have had much less value in our eyes had it really consisted of what JEFFREY, in his idea of poetry, calls "a number of bright pictures presented to the imagina- tion, and a fine feeling expressed of those mysterious relations by which visible external things are assimilated with inward thoughts and emotions."

There is no pervading mistake of this kind in the general Essay oh the question "What is Poetry ? " or in the preliminary noticespf each poet. They are agreeable in their style, pleasantly convincing in their instances, generally sound and catholic in view, and animated by a kindly feeling, which often is and always intends to be as wide as humanity itself. The Essay, in particular, is one of the most complete, acuminated, and agreeable pieces of criticism that has appeared for many a day ; alike distinguished for its easy strength of diction, its comprehension without vagueness, and its refinement without minuteness. There is much less too, of this writer's pe- culiar faults—of his affectation of nature and simplicity, and of that mannerism which gave rise to the term Leigh-Huntish. At the same time, there are macula to be discovered by "the critic eye, that microscope of wit." Some of his definitions may be objected to as partial, or incomplete, or as if he mistook the true meaning of the thing ; which, however, may arise, as he intimates in the case of Imagination, from the word not exactly expressing the idea criticism requires or intends. Sometimes objection might be raised to his opinions; and we think his old fault peeps out in the inci- dental specimens, which often seem insufficient to support the in- stance, and unworthy of the praise he bestows. Personal predilec- tions, the halo of the tomb, and some bias of the school, have in- clined him to exaggerate the powers of COLERIDGE, SHELLEY, and KEATS, especially the last. These kind of things, however, are mere specks, not at all affecting the main character; and even these a little pruning could altogether remove. Mr. HUNT commences his Essay by a definition, which, in its comprehensive largeness, almost contradicts JOHNSON'S dogma that any attempt to circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer ; unless it be held that beauty of subject is by no means necessary to poetry, and that consequently large classes seem excluded by Mr. HUNT, or at least not embraced. It is, however, less a definition than a description, telling not what poetry is in its essence, but what are its effects.

"Poetry, strictly aud artistically so called—that is to say, considered not merely as poetic feeling, which is more or less shared by all the world, but as the operation of that feeling, such as we see it in the poet's book—is the utter- ance of a passion for truth, beauty, and power, embodying and illustrating its conceptions by imagination and fancy, and modulating its language on the principle of variety in uniformity. Its means are whatever the universe con- tains; and its ends, pleasure and exaltation. Poetry stands between nature and convention, keeping alive among us the enjoyment of the external and the spiritual world; it has constituted the most enduring fame of nations ; and, next to Love and Beauty, which are its parents, is the greatest proof to man of the pleasure to be found in all things, and of the probable riches of in- finitude."

The following passage, on a vice of all times' but one which is now overwhelming us in prose as well as poetry, deserves attention from every one who wields a gray goose-quill. Unsuperfluousness is rather a matter of style in general, than of the sound and order of words: and yet versification is so much strengthened by it, and so much weakened by its opposite, that it could not but come within the category of its requisites. When superfluousness of words is not occasioned by over- flowing animal spirits as in Beaumont and Fletcher, or by the very grains of luxury, im in Spenser, (in which cases it is enrichment as well as overflow,) there is no worse sign for a poet altogether, except pure barrenness. Every word that could be taken away from a poem, unreferable to either of the above reasons for it, is a damage; and many such are death ; for there is nothing that posterity seems so determined to resent as this want of respect for its time and trouble. The world is too rich in books to endure it. Even true poets have died of this writer's evil. Trifling ones have survived, with scarcely any pre- tensions but the terseness of their trifles. What hope can remain for wordy mediocrity ? Let the discerning reader take up any poem, pen in Land, for the purpose of discovering how many words he can strike out of it that give him no requisite ideas, no relevant ones that he cares for, and no reasons for the rhyme beyond its necessity ; and he will see what blot and havoc he will make in many an admired production of its day—what marks of its in- evitable fate. Bulky authors in particular, hoe ever safe they may think themselves, would do well to consider what parts of their cargo they might dispense with in their proposed voyage down the gulfs of time ; for many a gallant vessel, though indestructible in its age, has perished; many a load of words, expected to be in eternal demand, gone to join the wrecks of self-love, or rotted in the warehouses of change and vicissitude. I have said the more on this point, because in an age when the true inspiration has undoubtedly been reawakened by Coleridge and his fellows, and we have so many new poets coming forward, it may be as well to give a general warning against that tendency to an accumulation and ostentation of thoughts, which is meant to be a refutation in full of the pretensions of all poetry less cagitabund, whatever may be the requirements of its class. Young writers should bear in mind, that even some of the very best materials for poetry are not poetry built ; and that the smallest marble shrine, of exquisite workmanship, outvalues all that architect ever chipped away. Whatever can be so dispensed with is rubbish."


Imagination, teeming:with action and character, makes the greatest ports' feeling and thought the next; fancy (by itself) the next ; cit the last' Thought by itself makes no poet at all; for the mere conclusions of the under- standing can at best be only so many intellectual matters of fact. Feeling, even destitute of conscious thought, stands a far better poetical chance ; feeling being a sort of thought without the process of thinking—a grasper of the truth without seeing it. And what is very remarkable, feeling seldom makes the blunders that thought does.


Has anybody discovered the reason why he never noticed a living contempo- rary, and but one who was dead ? and this, too, in an age of great men, and when they were in the habit of acknowledging the pretensions of one another. It could not have been jealousy, or formality, or inability to perceive merits which his own included; and one can almost as little believe it possible to have been owing to a fear of disconcerting his aristocratic friends, for they too were among the eulogizers: neither can it be attributed to his having so mooted all points as to end in caring for none; for in so great and wise a nature, good nature must surely survive everything, both as a pleasure and a duty. I have made up my mind to think that his theatrical managership was the cause. It naturally produced a dislike of pronouncing judgments and incurring responsi- bilities. And yet he was not always a manager ; nor were all his literary friends playwrights. I think it probable, from the style, that he wrote the sonnet in which Spenser is eulogized-

" If music and sweet poetry agree," &e.

But this is doubtful ; and Spenser was not one of his dramatic fellows. Did be MC too many faults in them all to praise them ! Certainly the one great dif- ference between him and them, next to superiority of genius, is the prevailing relevancy of all he wrote; its freedom, however superabundant, from incon- sistency and caprice. But could he find nothing to praise? Nothing in the whole contemporary drama ? Nothing in all the effusions of his friends and brother clubbists of the Mermaid and the Triple Tun ?

The following remarks will be a heresy in the eyes of Mr. CHARLES KNIGHT; and, though they are partly true in a strict sense, and many passages might perhaps be omitted, yet if we are to get rid of such as the lines on sleep after the murder- scene in Macbeth, what are we to do with the whole of most other people's productions ?


r If Shakspeare's poetry has any fault, it is that of being too learned, too over-informed with thought and allusion. His wood-notes wild surpass Haydn and Bach. Bis wild roses were all twenty times double. He thinks twenty times to another man's once, and makes all his serious characters talk as well as he could himself—with a superabundance of wit and intelligence. He knew, however, that Fairies must have a language of their own; and hence, perhaps, his poetry never runs in a more purely poetical vein than when he is speaking in their persons : I mean, it is less mixed up with those heaps of comments and reflections which, however the wilful or metaphysical critic may think them suitable on all occasions, or succeed in persuading us not to wish them absent, by reason of their atimulancy to one's mental activity, are assuredly neither always proper to dramatic, still less to narrative poetry, nor yet so opposed to all idiosyncrasy on the writer's part as Mr. Coleridge would have us believe It is pretty manifest, on the contrary, that the ever-informing intellect which Shakspeare thus carried into all his writings must have been a personal as well as literary peculiarity ; and as the events he speaks of are sometimes more in- teresting in their nature than even a superabundance of his comments can make them, readers may be pardoned in sometimes wishing that he had let them speak a little more briefly for themselves. Most people would prefer Ariosto's and Chaucer's narrative poetry to his; the Griselda, fur instance, and the story of Isabel—to the Rape of Lucrece. The intense passion is enough. The misery is enough. We do not want even the divinest talk about what Nature herself tends to petrify into silence. Curse ingentes stupent. Our divine poet had not quite outlived the times when it was thought proper for a writer to say everything that came into his head. Ile was a student of Chaucer; he beheld the living fame of Spenser; and his fellow-dramatists did not help to restrain him. The players told Ben Janson that Shakspeare never blotted a line ; and Ben says he was thought invidious for observing, that he wished be had blotted a thousand. He sometimes, he says, required stopping. (Aliquando sufflaminandos (rat.) 'Was this meant to apply to his conversa- tion as well as writing ? Did he manifest a like exuberance in company ? Perhaps he would Lave done so, but for modesty and self-knowledge. To keep his eloquence altogether within bounds was hardly loss bl:.; and who could have wished it had been ? Would that he had had a Boswell a hundred times as voluminous as Dr. Johnson's, to take all down Bacon's Essays would have seemed like a drop out of his ocean. He would have swallowed dozens of Ilobbeses by anticipation, like larks for his supper. This volume is handsomely printed, and beautifully bound in a new style of exquisite delicacy and richness. To institute a com- parison with the contents of the Annuals would be absurd, at any degree of distance—there is no more relation between them than between a street-lamp and a fixed star : but in external beauty Imagination and Fancy equals any gift-books that have appeared, and it will form a more enduring memorial than any other volume that might be selected as a gift tor the coming season.

Leigh Hunt’s three-volume The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt has remained the single most important source of information on both the facts of his life and those personal attributes that influenced his writings. There is, in fact, comparatively little in The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt dealing exclusively with Hunt; it is more a series of recollections and examinations of his many literary friends. This fact is of some importance in understanding Hunt the man, for it reflects a total lack of selfishness and a genuine sympathetic concern for the many fortunate people who won his friendship. These friendships were treasured by Hunt, and in the accounts of his youthful infatuations is reflected the simple kindheartedness and romantic idealism that were noted by his contemporaries and by later critics. The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt does not follow a strict chronology but is rather a series of units. For example, he describes his parents’ lives until their deaths before he discusses his own early years. In fact, Hunt’s father lived to see his son a successful editor. This organizational method may well be a result of Hunt’s reliance on personal taste. His taste of course was selective; he extracted from his experience what he considered excellent and showed little regard for the organizational coherence of the whole. His literary criticism, indeed even his poetry, displays the same fondness for selection found in his autobiography.

Most critics agree that Hunt’s greatest contribution to poetry was not the poetry he himself wrote but rather his fine criticism of the poetry of others. Again, Hunt’s criticism is based on his own excellent taste, but his taste was far more useful in recognizing good literature than in distinguishing what was specifically bad and forming a thoughtful critical opinion as to the nature of the faults. In practice, Hunt the critic was a selector; he chose those passages from a work that especially appealed to his taste and quoted them at length. Thus, he assumed that the works would speak for themselves. He did not conceive of a critic as one who thinks for the reader and locks literature into a single interpretation. If Hunt has survived as a critic, it is because his personal taste was so good. At the same time, his natural sensitivity to what is fine in literature may be said to have worked against his ever achieving a place among the very greatest critics. He had no need for detailed analysis to tell him what was fine in art, and he created no aesthetic concepts approaching the sophistication of some of his contemporaries, notably Coleridge. Thus, Hunt cannot be numbered among the important literary theoreticians. His reputation as a quite respectable critic is dependent on the fact that he was perhaps the greatest appreciator of literature in the history of English letters.

The same quality of taste that enabled Hunt to select what was best in the writings of others also influenced his own poetic compositions. That selective talent, however, did not serve Hunt the poet quite so well. In the composition of his own verse, he was inclined to combine lines and passages reflective of specific poetic principles without a view to the appropriateness of the principle in relation to the poem as a whole. For example, Hunt as the great popularizer of Romantic literary ideas did more than William Wordsworth to bring home to the nineteenth century reader the notion that poetry should reflect the language really used by people. Another aim of the Romantics was to make a place in literature for the experiences of the lower classes, comprising that whole stratum of society that neoclassical writers generally ignored. Hunt’s conviction that it was the business of poetry to do these things led him, much more than Wordsworth, Coleridge, and his other illustrious contemporaries who shared these ideas, to overlook yet another major principle of composition that had so concerned the neoclassicist: decorum.

Decorum demanded that all the various elements of a work of art contribute to the unified effect of the work as a whole. Thus, diction must be appropriate to character and action; a king suffering tragedy should not speak like the common man in the street. Decorum made the poet responsible to the propriety of the particular work. Hunt too often forced the work to comply...

(The entire section is 1775 words.)