Leigh Hunt’s Italian Poets

LEIGH HUNT’S ITALIAN POETS—(in Three Parts.) No LII. Wiley & Putnam’s Library of Choice Reading.

  These volumes were new to us, and taken up with that feeling of distaste which an attempt so seemingly, at first blush, absurd as that of writing poetry into prose, and above all, Italian poetry into English prose, must naturally induce. We find it, however, a very entertaining book, and its vivacity and general fidelity make it no valueless representation of Italian literature to those who have never entered that most beautiful, grand and fertile region. The book is, beyond measure, Leigh Huntish; none of his writings have so fully expressed the great talent, good feeling, and pervasive vulgarity of the author’s mind. In boldest relief these attributes are seen in the critical and biographical sketch of Dante. Suppose a Medea to have an acute and lively English Abigail, who described her exploits, magical and tragical, for the edification of the kitchen, with perfect accuracy as to facts and a kind of frightened, strutting admiration at the greatness of her subject, interlarded with such remarks as a reference of Medean conduct to the Abigail standard might call forth, and you will have an idea of this commentary of the author of “Nimini Pimini” upon him whom he aply characterizes as “that lonely lion of a man.” Never was a more complete illustration of the way talent naturally looks at genius, admiring the results, unable to appreciate the conditions under which they must be produced.

  The great mixture of truth in all the criticisms of Mr. Leigh Hunt, his fineness of perception and sympathy in details, only make more palpable his entire want of spiritual insight, poetic dignity and that holiness of heart without which there can be no full description, far less mathematic measurement, of the works of great souls.

  Hunt’s attempts to take measure of Dante and to enforce blame where he thinks the moral well-being of the world calls for his guardian care, are simply ludicrous. It is the fly buzzing round the lion and blaming him for eating up the great “wild beastesses” and other atrocities, for which his flyship has no taste, as not being in his line. The truer what he says, is the more funny in him to say it, as he does, and his patronizing limitations of the influence and prerogatives of Dante only serve to show more inevitably the pettiness of his own proportions and mincing gait.

  With what face shall the pupil of Dante listen to the sapient Cockney who informs him that “the Vita Nuova is a most engaging history of a boyish passion, evidently as real and true on his own side as love and truth can be, whatever might be its mistake as to its object,” or the grave tea-drinking censure passed upon the Florentine for his bad temper and probable carelessness of his duties as “a family man.” Verily, the reason why no man is a hero to his valet de chambre is likely to be the opposite of what is commonly supposed by the sneering quoters of the saying.

  In the same style is the following passage, one of the most glaring instances of the follies consequent upon want of spiritual development in any proportion to mere taste and talent that will be found throughout Hunt’s statement:

  “As to our Florentine’s heaven, it is full of beauties also, though sometimes of a more questionable and pantomimical sort than is to be found in either of the other books. The general impression of the place is that it is no Heaven at all. He says it is, and talks much of its smiles and its beatitude; but always excepting the poetry, especially the smiles brought from the more heavenly earth. We realize little but an assemblage of doctors and doubtful characters, far more angry and theological than celestial; giddy raptures of monks and inquisitors dancing in circles, and saints denouncing popes and Florentines; in short, a Heaven libeling itself with invectives against earth, and terminating in a great presumption.”

  The following extract gives a fair idea of what is good and what is miserable in Hunt’s buzzing representation of Dante. Let the simple-minded reader who is not straining after self consequence, read it and see whether he can spare time to think of the critic’s objections in face of the poetic magnificence and ineffable loveliness revealed to him in these passages, even though the divine forms be veiled in slipshod prose:

  “His angels, however, are another matter. Belief was prepared for those winged human forms, and they furnished him with some of the most beautiful combinations of the natural with the supernatural. Ginguéné has remarked the singular variety as well as beauty of Dante’s angels. Milton’s, indeed, are commonplace in the comparison. In the eighth canto of the Inferno, the devils insolently refuse the poet and his guide an entrance into the city of Dis: an angel comes sweeping over the Stygian lake to enforce it as the noise of his wings makes shores tremble, and it is like a crashing whirlwind such as beats down trees and sends the peasants and their herds flying before it. The heavenly messenger, after rebuking the devils, touches the portals of the city with his wand; they fly open; and he returns the way he came, without uttering a word to the two companions. His face was that of one occupied with other thoughts. This angel is announced by a tempest. Another, who brings the souls of the departed to Purgatory, is first discovered at a distance, gradually disclosing white splendors, which are his wings and garments. He comes in a boat, of which his wings are the sails; and as he approaches, it is impossible to look him in the face for his brightness. Two other angels have green wings and green garments, and the drapery is kept in motion like a flag by the vehement action of the wings. A fifth has a face like the morning star, casting forth quivering beams. A sixth is of a lustre so oppressive, that the poet feels a weight on his eyes before he knows what is coming. Another’s presence affects the senses like the fragrance of a May-morning; and another is in garments dark as cinders, but has a sword in his hand too sparkling to be gazed at. Dante’s occasional pictures of the beauties of external nature are worthy of these angelic creations, and to the last degree fresh and lovely. You long to bathe your eyes, smarting with the fumes of hell, in his dews. You are enchanted on his green fields and his celestial blue skies, the more so from the pain and sorrow in the midst of which the visions are created.

  Dante’s grandeur of every kind is proportionate to that of his angels, almost to his ferocity; and that is saying every thing. It is not always the spiritual grandeur of Milton, the subjection of the material impression to the moral; but it equally such when he chooses, and far more abundant. His infernal precipices—his black whirlwinds—his innumerable cries and claspings of hands—his very odors of huge loathsomeness—his ghosts at twilight standing up to the middle in pits, like towers, and causing earthquakes when they move—earthquake of the mountain in Purgatory, when a spirit is not free for Heaven—his dignified Mantuan Sordello, silently regarding him and his guide as they go by “like a lion on his watch”—his blasphemer, Capaneus, lying in unconquered rage and sullenness under an eternal rain of flakes of fire (human precursor of Milton’s Satan)—his aspect of Paradise, “as if the universe had smiled”—his inhabitants of the whole planet Saturn crying out as loud, in accordance with the anti-Papal indignation of St. Pietro Damiano, that the poet, though among them, could not hear what they said—and the blushing eclipse, like red clouds at sunset, which takes place at the apostle Peter’s denunciation of the sanguinary filth of the court of Rome—all those sublimities, and many more, make us not know whether to be more astonished at the greatness of the poet or the raging littleness of the man.”

  Hunt’s prose is even more slovenly than usual in these books. He talks of “heaps of wine” and other liquids, and uses other such huddling “cuddling” expressions in profusion.

  The strictures on Tasso are even more offensive than those on Dante, because it seems as if they might do harm and grieve and disgust the poet if he knew them, while we feel that Dante would crush him at once as Tieck represents him to do with the modern critic in the “Garden of Poetry.” He did not address him directly, but only turned his head at the sharp, flippant sounds that jarred his mood with,

“What says the Worm?”

  But it seems as if the sensitive and tender Tasso might shrink behind the bars of his prison at the want of poetic sympathy and beautiful reverence with which he is approached.

  In treating of Boiardo and Ariosto, Hunt is more happy. They are minds less remote from his orbit, and his free ungloved personalities seem less inappropriate. His manner of writing out the episodes in their poems is oftentimes charming. We had forgotten that Ariosto was chained in early youth to the care and nurture of a family of brothers amidst the difficulties of poverty, and a great part of his after life doomed to service of a rude and stupid master. His mind, as one so rich and buoyant will, preserved its elasticity and play uninjured, and like generous wine, gained only brilliancy and richness from the passage of years and the detentions of long stormy voyages.

  And so farewell, thou piece of shining and variegated halfness, friend scarce worthy the celestial love of Shelley, inevitable butt of Byron and all others of the Dantesque, Beethovensque race. Shut thy beak, sprightly mocking-bird, and strive not to imitate the thunder—neither let thy civic education lure thee into fancying thou canst measure lightning with the yard-stick. After all, thou are very brilliant, very entertaining, canst do little harm and some good which a nobler man might not remember to do.—Even in the case of Dante, “the Italian Pilgrim’s Progress” will be found not without use to the student. Hunt gives a good account of the mechanism of the “Divine Comedy” and shows acuteness and ingenuity in the examination of details.*

“Leigh Hunt’s Italian Poets,” New-York Daily Tribune, 18 February 1846, p. 1.