ON LEIGH HUNT
[From The Quarterly Review, January, 1816]
The Story of Rimini, a Poem. By LEIGH HUNT. fc. 8vo. pp. 111. London, 1816.
A considerable part of this poem was written in Newgate, where the author was some time confined, we believe for a libel which appeared in a newspaper, of which he is said to be the conductor. Such an introduction is not calculated to make a very favourable impression. Fortunately, however, we are as little prejudiced as possible on this subject: we have never seen Mr. Hunt’s newspaper; we have never heard any particulars of his offence; nor should we have known that he had been imprisoned but for his own confession. We have not, indeed, ever read one line that he has written, and are alike remote from the knowledge of his errors or the influence of his private character. We are to judge him solely from the work now before us; and our criticism would be worse than uncandid if it were swayed by any other consideration.
The poem is not destitute of merit; but—and this, we confess, was our main inducement to notice it—it is written on certain pretended principles, and put forth as a pattern for imitation, with a degree of arrogance which imposes on us the duty of making some observations on this new theory, which Mr. Leigh Hunt, with the weight and authority of his venerable name, has issued, ex cathedra, as the canons of poetry and criticism.
These canons Mr. Hunt endeavours to explain and establish in a long preface, written in a style which, though Mr. Hunt implies that it is meant to be perfectly natural and unaffected, appears to us the most strange, laboured, uncouth, and unintelligible species of prose that we ever read, only indeed to be exceeded in these qualities by some of the subsequent verses; and both the prose and the verse are the first eruptions of this disease with which Mr. Leigh Hunt insists upon inoculating mankind.
Mr. Hunt’s first canon is that there should be a great freedom of versification—this is a proposition to which we should have readily assented; but when Mr. Hunt goes on to say that by freedom of versification he means something which neither Pope nor Johnson possessed, and of which even “they knew less than any poets perhaps who ever wrote,” we check our confidence; and, after a little consideration, find that by freedom Mr. Hunt means only an inaccurate, negligent, and harsh style of versification, which our early poets fell into from want of polish, and such poets as Mr. Hunt still practise from want of ease, of expression, and of taste.