Here we have another and perhaps the most charming of Hunt’s volumes. His varied accomplishments, his lively sense of individuality in character, his delicate perception as a critic, his power of apt and familiar illustration sparkle in little points of light from every page of the book.
Here, just on first opening the volume we find p. 6, half a sentence, how happily characteristic of Hunt’s peculiar powers! “Ariosto, whose mind could fly out of its nest over all nature.” How simple, yet exact is the image! how fully descriptive of the nature spoken of! how pleasing and numerous the suggestions it affords! Hunt is a far better Indicator than Hazlitt. His mind is far fairer, freer from personal prejudice. It is, indeed, a mind of uncommon openness and kindliness.
We must own, however, that there is in Hunt a quality to ourselves uncongenial. Of the Cockney school he seems to us the only genuine Cockney (though in Keats we find a slight taint of the same kind, but no more of that to-day.) The quality we allude to was, no doubt, what excited the disgust of Byron. We have taken great pleasure in Hunt’s poetry, yet we understand why Byron was never weary of nicknaming his poems Rimini Pimini and Folly age.
The taint we speak of consists in a certain vulgar personal familiarity, a sort of cuddling way we may call it, of getting close to his subjects. He does not know his distance from gods and heroes. He cannot keep in his proper place, cool and graceful. His warm hands and breath are on them, and the closeness of his scrutiny and the pettiness of detail to which it leads are, at times, quite sickening.
Cockneyism is shown in that habit of mind which a person acquires from being brought up more among objects to use in the house, to wear, and especially to eat, than those which appeal to the higher faculties. The children of the city begin life in too close intimacy with tea-kettles, ice-cream, and blacking, and will never let us forget them. We once heard a lady attempting to give her idea of the sublime appearance of the White Hills when shrouded in their winter vestments. “They looked,” said she, “so shining, and as white, like, like—isinglass.” Just so Leigh Hunt, as he is borne upon the Mediterranean to Byron, finds in the foam of its waves a delightful resemblance to whipped syllabub.
We say we would wish the critic or narrator to keep his distance: we would wish him to be cool that he may be graceful and pure. This coolness is the farthest in the world from coldness. No! it is the deep glow of enthusiasm in the inmost heart that dictates the soft and reverent touch, the observation of spiritual distances.
We say spiritual distances, for it is the want of perception as to these that offends in Hunt and those of his class. Were these observed, neither close contact of bodies nor great freedom of treatment would offend.
We may not, perhaps, make clear what we mean. Indeed, we have often heard Hunt praised as genial, and we suppose many may esteem just this familiarity genial, as we have heard persons spoken of as “sociable” who had an impertinent familiarity of manner that put an end to all beautiful intercourse.
The quality we refer to is a subtle one, but, as far as we can indicate it in words, we may by saying that he who is familiar differs from him who is gracefully free, just as the rude touch of an outlaw does from the soft clinging of a child. The perfect medium between coldness and vulgar freedom may be seen in great works of art. Look at a picture by Raphael! However closely the figures may be grouped they never intrude upon, never heat, never push one another. It is this which makes the pressure in a crowd of refined so very different from that in a crowd of unrefined persons. The mutual respect of minds has great power to take away its ill effects from the weight of bodies, and “the soft crush of aristocracy” is no mere figure of speech, where that aristocracy is of the mind. The difference between persons is very perceptible in the crush of omnibuses. We do not always like to ride in the same omnibus with Hunt though the City of the Great Dead, and, full of beauties as is the Story of Rimini, we are sorry for Paolo and Francesca, that he had a chance to write about the secrets of their hearts and the manner of their lives.
Having said this, we have scolded out all our ire against our Cockney friend, so accomplished, so brilliant, so good-natured, and so unable to understand why he should ever displease. His books are excellent companions, and will be read till all their substance has been taken into the life of the age. In their own way, none are better. He has Anglicized or modernized many charming stories, all of a large and truly human interest. Such an one is “The Tale for a Chimney Corner,” most gracefully told and of great moral beauty.—We think the following the most romantic little story extant:
“Thomas à Becket may have inherited a romantic turn of mind from his mother, whose story is a singular one. His father, Gilbert Becket, a flourishing citizen, had been in his youth a soldier in the crusades, and being taken prisoner, became slave to an Emir, or Saracen prince. By degrees he obtained the confidence of his master, and was admitted to his company, where he met a person who became more attached to him. This was the Emir’s daughter. Whether, by her means or not does not appear, but after some time he contrived to escape. The lady with her loving heart followed him. She knew, they say, but two words of his language, London and Gilbert, and by repeating the former, she obtained a passage in a vessel, arrived in England and found her trusting way to the metropolis. She then took to her other talisman and went from street to street, pronouncing “Gilbert”. A crowd collected about her wherever she went, asking of course a thousand questions, and to all she had but one answer—“Gilbert! Gilbert!” She found her faith in it sufficient. Chance, or her determination to go through every street, brought her at last to the home in which he who had won her heart in misery was living in good condition. The crowd drew the family to the window; his servant recognized her; and Gilbert à Becket took to his arms and his bridal bed, his far-come princess with her solitary fond word.”*
“The Indicator; by Leigh Hunt . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 11 July 1845, p. 1.