The Spirit of the Age/Mr. T. Moore.-Mr. Leigh Hunt

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40145The Spirit of the Age — Mr. T. Moore.-Mr. Leigh HuntWilliam Hazlitt


"Or winglet of the fairy humming-bird,
 Like atoms of the rainbow fluttering round."

The lines placed at the head of this sketch, from a contemporary writer, appear to us very descriptive of Mr. Moore's poetry. His verse is like a shower of beauty; a dance of images; a stream of music; or like the spray of the water-fall, tinged by the morning-beam with rosy light. The characteristic distinction of our author's style is this continuous and incessant flow of voluptuous thoughts and shining-allusions. He ought to write with a crystal pen on silver paper. His subject is set off by a dazzling veil of poetic diction, like a wreath of flowers gemmed with innumerous dewdrops, that weep, tremble, and glitter in liquid softness and pearly light, while the song of birds ravishes the ear, and languid odours breathe around, and Aurora opens Heaven's smiling portals. Peris and nymphs peep through the golden glades, and an Angel's wing glances over the glossy scene.

"No dainty flower or herb that grows on ground,
 No arboret with painted blossoms drest,
 And smelling sweet, but there it might be found
 To bud out fair, and its sweet smells throw all around.

 No tree, whose branches did not bravely spring;
 No branch, whereon a fine bird did not sit;
 No bird, but did her shrill notes sweetly sing;
 No song, but did contain a lovely dit:
 Trees, branches, birds, and songs were framed fit
 For to allure frail minds to careless ease." . . . .

Mr. Campbell's imagination is fastidious and select; and hence, though we meet with more exquisite beauties in his writings, we meet with them more rarely: there is comparatively a dearth of ornament. But Mr. Moore's strictest economy is "wasteful and superfluous excess:" he is always liberal, and never at a loss; for sooner than not stimulate and delight the reader, he is willing to be tawdry, or superficial, or common-place. His Muse must be fine at any rate, though she should paint, and wear cast-off decorations. Rather than have any lack of excitement, he repeats himself; and "Eden, and Eblis, and cherub-smiles" fill up the pauses of the sentiment with a sickly monotony.—It has been too much our author's object to pander to the artificial taste of the age; and his productions, however brilliant and agreeable, are in consequence somewhat meretricious and effeminate. It was thought formerly enough to have an occasionally fine passage in the progress of a story or a poem, and an occasionally striking image or expression in a fine passage or description. But this style, it seems, was to be exploded as rude, Gothic, meagre, and dry. Now all must be raised to the same tantalising and preposterous level. There must be no pause, no interval, no repose, no gradation. Simplicity and truth yield up the palm to affectation and grimace. The craving of the public mind after novelty and effect is a false and uneasy appetite that must be pampered with fine words at every step—we must be tickled with sound, startled with shew, and relieved by the importunate, uninterrupted display of fancy and verbal tinsel as much as possible from the fatigue of thought or shock of feeling. A poem is to resemble an exhibition of fireworks, with a continual explosion of quaint figures and devices, flash after flash, that surprise for the moment, and leave no trace of light or warmth behind them. Or modern poetry in its retrograde progress comes at last to be constructed on the principles of the modern Opera, where an attempt is made to gratify every sense at every instant, and where the understanding alone is insulted and the heart mocked. It is in this view only that we can discover that Mr. Moore's poetry is vitiated or immoral,—it seduces the taste and enervates the imagination. It creates a false standard of reference, and inverts or decompounds the natural order of association, in which objects strike the thoughts and feelings. His is the poetry of the bath, of the toilette, of the saloon, of the fashionable world; not the poetry of nature, of the heart, or of human life. He stunts and enfeebles equally the growth of the imagination and the affections, by not taking the seed of poetry and sowing it in the ground of truth, and letting it expand in the dew and rain, and shoot up to heaven,

"And spread its sweet leaves to the air,
 Or dedicate its beauty to the sun,"—

instead of which he anticipates and defeats his own object, by plucking flowers and blossoms from the stem, and setting them in the ground of idleness and folly—or in the cap of his own vanity, where they soon wither and disappear, "dying or ere they sicken!" This is but a sort of child's play, a short-sighted ambition. In Milton we meet with many prosaic lines, either because the subject does not require raising or because they are necessary to connect the story, or serve as a relief to other passages—there is not such a thing to be found in all Mr. Moore's writings. His volumes present us with "a perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets"—but we cannot add,—"where no crude surfeit reigns," He indeed cloys with sweetness; he obscures with splendour; he fatigues with gaiety. We are stifled on beds of roses—we literally lie "on the rack of restless ecstacy." His flowery fancy "looks so fair and smells so sweet, that the sense aches at it." His verse droops and languishes under a load of beauty, like a bough laden with fruit. His gorgeous style is like "another morn risen on mid-noon." There is no passage that is not made up of blushing lines, no line that is not enriched with a sparkling metaphor, no image that is left unadorned with a double epithet—all his verbs, nouns, adjectives, are equally glossy, smooth, and beautiful. Every stanza is transparent with light, perfumed with odours, floating in liquid harmony, melting in luxurious, evanescent delights. His Muse is never contented with an offering from one sense alone, but brings another rifled charm to match it, and revels in a fairy round of pleasure. The interest is not dramatic, but melo-dramatic—it is a mixture of painting, poetry, and music, of the natural and preternatural, of obvious sentiment and romantic costume, A rose is a Gul, a nightingale a Bulbul. We might fancy ourselves in an eastern harem, amidst Ottomans, and otto of roses, and veils and spangles, and marble pillars, and cool fountains, and Arab maids and Genii, and magicians, and Peris, and cherubs, and what not? Mr. Moore has a little mistaken the art of poetry for the cosmetic art. He does not compose an historic group, or work out a single figure; but throws a variety of elementary sensations, of vivid impressions together, and calls it a description. He makes out an inventory of beauty—the smile on the lips, the dimple on the cheeks, item, golden locks, item, a pair of blue wings, item, a silver sound, with breathing fragrance and radiant light, and thinks it a character or a story. He gets together a number of fine things and fine names, and thinks that, flung on heaps, they make up a fine poem. This dissipated, fulsome, painted, patch-work style may succeed in the levity and languor of the boudoir, or might have been adapted to the Pavilions of royalty, but it is not the style of Parnassus, nor a passport to Immortality. It is not the taste of the ancients, "'tis not classical lore"——nor the fashion of Tibullus, or Theocritus, or Anacreon, or Virgil, or Ariosto, or Pope, or Byron, or any great writer among the living or the dead, but it is the style of our English Anacreon, and it is (or was) the fashion of the day! Let one example (and that an admired one) taken from Lalla Rookh, suffice to explain the mystery and soften the harshness of the foregoing criticism.

"Now upon Syria's land of roses
 Softly the light of eve reposes,
 And like a glory, the broad sun
 Hangs over sainted Lebanon:
 Whose head in wintry grandeur towers,
 And whitens with eternal sleet,
 While summer, in a vale of flowers,
 Is sleeping rosy at his feet.
To one who look'd from upper air,
 O'er all th' enchanted regions there,
 How beauteous must have been the glow,
 The life, the sparkling from below!
 Fair gardens, shining streams, with ranks
 Of golden melons on their banks,
 iMore golden where the sun-light falls,—
 Gay lizards, glittering on the walls
 Of ruin'd shrines, busy and bright
 As they were all alive with light;—
 And yet more splendid, numerous flocks
 Of pigeons, settling on the rocks,
 With their rich, restless wings, that gleam
 Variously in the crimson beam
 Of the warm west, as if inlaid
 With brilliants from the mine, or made
 Of tearless rainbows, such as span
 The unclouded skies of Peristan!
 And then, the mingling sounds that come
 Of shepherd's ancient reed, with hum
 Of the wild bees of Palestine,
 Banquetting through the flowery vales—
 And, Jordan, those sweet banks of thine,
 And woods, so full of nightingales."—

The following lines are the very perfection of Della Cruscan sentiment, and affected orientalism of style. The Peri exclaims on finding that old talisman and hackneyed poetical machine, "a penitent tear"—

"Joy, joy forevery task is done—
 The gates are pass'd, and Heaven is won!
 Oh! am I not happy? I am, I am—
 To thee, sweet Eden! how dark and sad
 Are the diamond turrets of Shadukiam,
 And the fragrant bowers of Araberabad."

There is in all this a play of fancy, a glitter of words, a shallowness of thought, and a want of truth and solidity that is wonderful, and that nothing but the heedless, rapid glide of the verse could render tolerable:——it seems that the poet, as well as the lover,

"May bestride the Gossamer,
 That wantons in the idle, summer air,
 And yet not fall, so light is vanity!"

Mr. Moore ought not to contend with serious difficulties or with entire subjects. He can write verses, not a poem. There is no principle of massing or of continuity in his productions—neither height nor breadth nor depth of capacity. There is no truth of representation, no strong internal feeling—but a continual flutter and display of affected airs and graces, like a finished coquette, who hides the want of symmetry by extravagance of dress, and the want of passion by flippant forwardness and unmeaning sentimentality. All is flimsy, all is florid to excess. His imagination may dally with insect beauties, with Rosicrucian spells; may describe a butterfly's wing, a flower-pot, a fan: but it should not attempt to span the great outlines of nature, or keep pace with the sounding march of events, or grapple with the strong fibres of the human heart. The great becomes turgid in his hands, the pathetic insipid. If Mr. Moore were to describe the heights of Chimboraco, instead of the loneliness, the vastness and the shadowy might, he would only think of adorning it with roseate tints, like a strawberry-ice, and would transform a magician's fortress in the Himmalaya (stripped of its mysterious gloom and frowning horrors) into a jeweller's toy, to be set upon a lady's toilette. In proof of this, see above "the diamond turrets of Shadukiam," &c. The description of Mokanna in the fight, though it has spirit and grandeur of effect, has still a great alloy of the mock-heroic in it. The route of blood and death, which is otherwise well marked, is infested with a swarm of "fire-fly" fancies.

"In vain Mokanna, 'midst the general flight,
 Stands, like the red moon, in some stormy night,
 Among the fugitive clouds, that hurrying by,
 Leave only her unshaken in the sky."

This simile is fine, and would have been perfect, but that the moon is not red, and that she seems to hurry by the clouds, not they by her.

The description of the warrior's youthful adversary,

——"Whose coming seems
 A light, a glory, such as breaks in dreams."—

is fantastic and enervated—a field of battle has nothing to do with dreams:—and again, the two lines immediately after,

"And every sword, true as o'er billows dim
 The needle tracks the load-star, following him"—

are a mere piece of enigmatical ingenuity and scientific mimminee-pimminee.

We cannot except the Irish Melodies from the same censure. If these national airs do indeed express the soul of impassioned feeling in his countrymen, the case of Ireland is hopeless. If these prettinesses pass for patriotism, if a country can heave from its heart's core only these vapid, varnished sentiments, lip-deep, and let its tears of blood evaporate in an empty conceit, let it be governed as it has been. There are here no tones to waken Liberty, to console Humanity. Mr. Moore converts the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff-box[1]!—We do except from this censure the author's political squibs, and the "Two-penny Post-bag." These are essences, are "nests of spicery," bitter and sweet, honey and gall together. No one can so well describe the set speech of a dull formalist[2], or the flowing locks of a Dowager,

"In the manner of Ackermann's dresses for May."

His light, agreeable, polished style pierces through the body of the court—hits off the faded graces of "an Adonis of fifty," weighs the vanity of fashion in tremulous scales, mimics the grimace of affectation and folly, shews up the littleness of the great, and spears a phalanx of statesmen with its glittering point as with a diamond broach.

"In choosing songs the Regent named
 'Had I a heart for falsehood fram'd:'
 While gentle Hertford begg'd and pray'd
 For 'Young I am, and sore afraid.'"

Nothing in Pope or Prior ever surpassed the delicate insinuation and adroit satire of these lines, and hundreds more of our author's composition. We wish he would not take pains to make us think of them with less pleasure than formerly.—The "Fudge Family" is in the same spirit, but with a little falling-off. There is too great a mixture of undisguised Jacobinism and fashionable slang. The "divine Fanny Bias" and "the mountains à la Russe" figure in somewhat quaintly with Buonaparte and the Bourbons. The poet also launches the lightning of political indignation; but it rather plays round and illumines his own pen than reaches the devoted heads at which it is aimed!

Mr. Moore is in private life an amiable and estimable man. The embellished and voluptuous style of his poetry, his unpretending origin, and his mignon figure soon introduced him to the notice of the great, and his gaiety, his wit, his good-humour, and many agreeable accomplishments fixed him there, the darling of his friends and the idol of fashion. If he is no longer familiar with Royalty as with his garter, the fault is not his—his adherence to his principles caused the separation—his love of his country was the cloud that intercepted the sunshine of court-favour. This is so far well. Mr. Moore vindicates his own dignity; but the sense of intrinsic worth, of wide-spread fame, and of the intimacy of the great makes him perhaps a little too fastidious and exigeant as to the pretensions of others. He has been so long accustomed to the society of Whig Lords, and so enchanted by the smile of beauty and fashion, that he really fancies himself one of the set, to which he is admitted on sufferance, and tries very unnecessarily to keep others out of it. He talks familiarly of works that are or are not read "in our circle;" and seated smiling and at his ease in a coronet-coach, enlivening the owner by his brisk sallies and Attic conceits, is shocked, as he passes, to see a Peer of the realm shake hands with a poet. There is a little indulgence of spleen and envy, a little servility and pandering to aristocratic pride in this proceeding. Is Mr, Moore bound to advise a Noble Poet to get as fast as possible out of a certain publication, lest he should not be able to give an account at Holland or at Lansdown House, how his friend Lord B—— had associated himself with his friend L. H——? Is he afraid that the "Spirit of Monarchy" will eclipse the "Fables for the Holy Alliance" in virulence and plain speaking? Or are the members of the "Fudge Family" to secure a monopoly for the abuse of the Bourbons and the doctrine of Divine Right? Because he is genteel and sarcastic, may not others be paradoxical and argumentative? Or must no one bark at a Minister or General, unless they have been first dandled, like a little French pug-dog, in the lap of a lady of quality? Does Mr. Moore insist on the double claim of birth and genius as a title to respectability in all advocates of the popular side—but himself? Or is he anxious to keep the pretensions of his patrician and plebeian friends quite separate, so as to be himself the only point of union, a sort of double meaning, between the two? It is idle to think of setting bounds to the weakness and illusions of self-love as long as it is confined to a man's own breast; but it ought not to be made a plea for holding back the powerful hand that is stretched out to save another struggling with the tide of popular prejudice, who has suffered shipwreck of health, fame and fortune in a common cause, and who has deserved the aid and the good wishes of all who are (on principle) embarked in the same cause by equal zeal and honesty, if not by equal talents to support and to adorn it!

We shall conclude the present article with a short notice of an individual who, in the cast of his mind and in political principle, bears no very remote resemblance to the patriot and wit just spoken of, and on whose merits we should descant at greater length, but that personal intimacy might be supposed to render us partial. It is well when personal intimacy produces this effect; and when the light, that dazzled us at a distance, does not on a closer inspection turn out an opaque substance. This is a charge that none of his friends will bring against Mr. Leigh Hunt. He improves upon acquaintance. The author translates admirably into the man. Indeed the very faults of his style are virtues in the individual. His natural gaiety and sprightliness of manner, his high animal spirits, and the vinous quality of his mind, produce an immediate fascination and intoxication in those who come in contact with him, and carry off in society whatever in his writings may to some seem flat and impertinent. From great sanguineness of temper, from great quickness and unsuspecting simplicity, he runs on to the public as he does at his own fire-side, and talks about himself, forgetting that he is not always among friends. His look, his tone are required to point many things that he says: his frank, cordial manner reconciles you instantly to a little over-bearing, over-weening self-complacency. "To be admired, he needs but to be seen:" but perhaps he ought to be seen to be fully appreciated. No one ever sought his society who did not come away with a more favourable opinion of him: no one was ever disappointed, except those who had entertained idle prejudices against him. He sometimes trifles with his readers, or tires of a subject (from not being urged on by the stimulus of immediate sympathy)—but in conversation he is all life and animation, combining the vivacity of the school-boy with the resources of the wit and the taste of the scholar. The personal character, the spontaneous impulses, do not appear to excuse the author, unless you are acquainted with his situation and habits—like some proud beauty who gives herself what we think strange airs and graces under a mask, but who is instantly forgiven when she shews her face. We have said that Lord Byron is a sublime coxcomb: why should we not say that Mr. Hunt is a delightful one? There is certainly an exuberance of satisfaction in his manner which is more than the strict logical premises warrant, and which dull and phlegmatic constitutions know nothing of, and cannot understand till they see it. He is the only poet or literary man we ever knew who puts us in mind of Sir John Suckling or Killigrew or Carew; or who united rare intellectual acquirements with outward grace and natural gentility. Mr. Hunt ought to have been a gentleman born, and to have patronised men of letters. He might then have played, and sung, and laughed, and talked his life away; have written manly prose, elegant verse; and his Story of Rimini would have been praised by Mr. Blackwood. As it is, there is no man now living who at the same time writes prose and verse so well, with the exception of Mr. Southey (an exception, we fear, that will be little palatable to either of these gentlemen). His prose writings, however, display more consistency of principle than the laureate's: his verses more taste. We will venture to oppose his Third Canto of the Story of Rimini for classic elegance and natural feeling to any equal number of lines from Mr. Southey's Epics or from Mr. Moore's Lalla Rookh. In a more gay and conversational style of writing, we think, his Epistle to Lord Byron on his going abroad, is a masterpiece;—and the Feast of the Poets has run through several editions. A light, familiar grace, and mild unpretending pathos are the characteristics of his more sportive or serious writings, whether in poetry or prose. A smile plays round the features of the one; a tear is ready to start from the thoughtful gaze of the other. He perhaps takes too little pains, and indulges in too much wayward caprice in both. A wit and a poet, Mr. Hunt is also distinguished by fineness of tact and sterling sense: he has only been a visionary in humanity, the fool of virtue. What then is the drawback to so many shining qualities, that has made them useless, or even hurtful to their owner? His crime is, to have been Editor of the Examiner ten years ago, when some allusion was made in it to the age of the present king, and that, though his Majesty has grown older, our luckless politician is no wiser than he was then!

  1. Compare his songs with Burns's.
  2. "There was a little man, and he had a little soul,
     And he said, Little soul, let us try," &c.—

    Parody on

    "There was a little man, and he had a little gun."—

    One should think this exquisite ridicule of a pedantic effusion might have silenced for ever the automaton that delivered it: but the official personage in question at the close of the Session addressed an extra-official congratulation to the Prince Regent on a bill that had not passed—as if to repeat and insist upon our errors were to justify them.