“License he means, when he cries liberty.”
Mr. Hunt tells us that Dryden, Spenser and Ariosto, Shakespeare and Chaucer (so he arranges them), are the greatest masters of modern versification; but he, in the next few sentences, leads us to suspect that he really does not think much more reverently of these great names than of Pope and of Johnson; and that, if the whole truth were told, he is decidedly of opinion that the only good master of versification, in modern times, is—Mr. Leigh Hunt.
Dryden, Mr. Hunt thinks, is apt to be artificial in his style; or, in other words, he has improved the harmony of our language from the rudeness of Chaucer, whom Mr. Hunt (in a sentence which is not grammar, p. xv) says that Dryden (though he spoke of and borrowed from him) neither relished nor understood. Spenser, he admits, was musical from pure taste, but Milton was only, as he elegantly expresses it, “learnedly so.” Being learned in music, is intelligible, and, of Milton, true; but what can Mr. Hunt mean by saying that Milton had “learnedly a musical ear”? “Ariosto’s fine ear and animal spirits gave a frank and exquisite tone to all he said”—what does this mean?— a fine ear may, perhaps, be said to give, as it contributes to, an exquisite tone; but what have animal spirits to do here? and what, in the matter of tones and sounds, is the effect of frankness? We shrewdly suspect that Mr. Hunt, with all his affectation of Italian literature, knows very little of Ariosto; it is clear that he knows nothing of Tasso. Of Shakespeare he tells us, “that his versification escapes us because he over-informed it with knowledge and sentiment,” by which it appears (as well, indeed, as by his own verses), that this new Stagyrite thinks that good versification runs a risk of being spoiled by having too much meaning included in its lines.
To wind up the whole of this admirable, precise, and useful criticism by a recapitulation as useful and precise, he says, “all these are about as different from Pope as the church organ is from the bell in the steeple, or, to give him a more decorous comparison, the song of the nightingale from that of the cuckoo.”—p. xv.
Now we own that what there is so indecorous in the first comparison, or so especially decorous in the second, we cannot discover; neither can we make out whether Pope is the organ or the bell—the nightingale or the cuckoo; we suppose that Mr. Hunt knows that Pope was called by his contemporaries the nightingale, but we never heard Milton and Dryden called cuckoos; or, if the comparison is to be taken the other way, we apprehend that, though Chaucer may be to Mr. Hunt’s ears a church organ, Pope cannot, to any ear, sound like the church bell.
But all this theory, absurd and ignorant as it is, is really nothing to the practice of which it effects to be the defence.