LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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Lord Byron and His Contemporaries [Part II].
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 5  (29 January 1828)  70-71.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 5 LONDON, Tuesday, JANUARY  29.—1828 Price 8d.


Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author's Life, and of his Visit to Italy. By Leigh Hunt. 1 vol. 4to., pp. 513. London, 1828. Coulburn.

‘It is for slaves to lie, and for freemen to speak truth.’

About as much of this work as is devoted to Lord Byron, is assigned to all the other literary men together who are noticed by the author. Of these papers the most important relate to Mr. Moore, Mr. Shelley, Mr. Keats, Mr. Charles Lamb, and Mr. Coleridge. Of Mr. Moore there is a very lively, pleasant, and characteristic description. Mr. Hunt’s anecdotes about the writer of ‘Lalla Rookh’ are, in general, good-humoured enough; and we scarcely understand why Mr. Hunt should have quarrelled with so distinguished and amiable a person, for saying that there was ‘a taint in the Liberal,’ especially as he himself expresses the same thing in other words, when he talks of his objections to the publication of the parody on ‘The Vision of Judgment.’ Moreover, his reasoning as to Mr. Moore’s conduct with regard to Lord Byron’s Memoirs, seems to us to be at once vague and inapplicable. What Mr. Hunt seems to aim at, is to make out an inconsistency in Mr. Moore’s conduct, because he accepted 2000 guineas’ worth from Lord Byron, but would not accept the same sum in money from Lord Byron’s family. The difference is obvious. In the one case the present was a mark of friendship; in the other it was a payment, and might have been thought and called a bribe. Suppose Mr. Shelley, when he dedicated ‘The Cenci’ to Mr. Hunt, had given him the copyright; and that, if the Tragedy had not been already published, our author had seen fit, after his friend’s death, to throw it into the fire, would he have accepted 200l. or 200 pence from the Society for the Suppression of Vice as a reward for his conduct? Mr. Hunt almost always makes blunders when he talks about money-matters. He says himself that he has no head for them; and he really ought to leave the discussion of them to calculating stockbrokers or cool reviewers, while he writes (we hope) another ‘Rimini.’

On Shelley there is a long and most interesting article. He was the greatest man of all those who are mentioned by Mr. Hunt; he was also his most intimate friend; and the notices we have of him are proportionally valuable. Mr. Hunt’s book, from bearing the name of Lord Byron on its title-page, will probably go into the hands of many persons who know nothing of Shelley but the name. We trust that the delightful, and we are sure, most accurate portrait drawn by our author in the book before us, and the exquisite specimens of poetry which he has extracted from Mr. Shelley’s works, will induce a more detailed acquaintance with the writings of one of the most benevolent men and powerful poets that have lived in any age or country. Of the errors of some of his opinions, taken in their broad and obvious import, few men have had the boldness to profess themselves apologists, and fewer still have had the charity to seek among those errors for precious, though sometimes latent, germs of truth. We will venture to assert, that those of his doctrines which are at first sight the most awfully pernicious, are uniformly objectionable for the form rather than the spirit, the phrase more than the feeling. It is, on the other hand, undeniable, that his sympathies are the fondest and the best, his aspirations the purest and most lofty. He has never attempted to oppose, by reasoning, any of those eternal first principles of our consciousness, the foundations of our moral and spiritual being. Where is the age of human history, the epoch of uninspired thought, in which this would not have been a rare and holy distinction? He describes the human soul in a state of greater power and purity than it almost ever has existed in: he views it tried and exercised into a superhuman strength, softened into delight, regenerated into glory.

The other master poets of our day, have seen in man a being of admirable powers and delightful affections, but whose chiefest glory is an heavenward aspiration, and an immortal hope to be realized in a far, though certain futurity. Shelley wished to bring within our fleshly grasp, and to substantiate between the cradle and the grave, instead of beyond the valley and shadow of death, that revealed and prophetic intimation; but amid a social system, founded on, and moved by, selfishness alone, the organs and frailties of air imperfect humanity refused themselves to the overpowering task; they clung to their native dust, while the fond and visionary longing of the poet soared to the Empyrean. A spirit, which teemed with the fairest phantoms and the sweetest affections, was thus steeped in an over-portion of that bitterness which is mingled with the life-blood and heart-strings of every human breast. Judging of his mind as displayed in his poetry, his hopes are fierce and rushing longings; his dislike, a curse; his sympathies, an absorbing passion; the habitual pulses of his frame are the shocks of an earthquake. Such was the spirit, clothing in the most glorious forms of beauty the one purpose of purifying and ennobling its kind, on which were poured out all the vials of muddy wrath in the power of the ‘Quarterly Review.’ Such was the spirit
which, in all but its productions, is absolutely unknown to us, except through the short notice, at the beginning of a volume of posthumous poems, and a part of the book with which
Mr. Hunt has just enlivened society and enriched literature. His information is full and consolatory, and we find in every line the authoritative verification of those conclusions, as to Mr. Shelley’s reverence and practice of all excellence, and habitual belief in the goodness of the Great Spirit that pervades the universe, which are at once a triumph of candour and charity, and an utter confusion and prostration to the whole herd of selfish bigots.

Of the remaining notices, we are most obliged to the author for that on Mr. Keats. The names of Coleridge and of Lamb call up to us so much more vivid ideas of the persons in question, that we learn comparatively little about them even from Mr. Hunt’s very pleasant sketches. But Mr. Keats’s reputation is at present but the shadow of a glory,—and it is also plain enough to be seen that his works, beautiful as they are, are yet but the faint shadow of his mind. His friend has commemorated his high genius, melancholy fate, and unmerited contumelies, in a fitting tone of feeling. His was another of the bright minds at which a part of the public looked, for a time, only through the smoky glass of the Quarterly Reviewers. But by a just and necessary retribution, the abuse of power has destroyed itself, and we doubt whether two hundred persons in the kingdom would now attach the slightest importance to the most violent lucubrations of Mr. Murray’s critics. In the case of poor Keats, the mischief was irreparable; for it is clear, that whatever predisposition to disease may have existed, the brutality of the extra-orthodox Reviewers was the proximate cause of the death of an amiable man and a great poet, at an age when most of his contemporaries were thinking of nothing but pounds and shillings, or the excitements of ballrooms and burgundy, or the pleasure of covering the world with floods of anonymous calumny.

We have neither space nor inclination to follow Mr. Hunt in his recollections of some dozen of persons, most of whom he despatches with three or four sentences. These matters are not the least amusing of the book, but they are nuts which we must leave it to our readers to crack for themselves. The 200 concluding pages are devoted by the author to his own memoirs. These are sparkling and interesting, and exhibit no falling off of talent, or lack of matter. But the entertainment to be drawn from them is of so different a kind from that of the previous notices, and so much less concentrated and engrossing, that Mr. Hunt certainly judged rightly in his original plan of opening the volume with that which is personal to himself; and thus giving us a ‘diapason ending full’ in Byron and Shelley. Indeed, we would advise the readers of the book to proceed after this fashion; and, beginning with the last division of work, to travel regularly backwards. To be sure, he will thus treat Mr. Hunt pretty much after the manner of the general who contrives to get into his enemy’s rear, and thus marches against the open side of all his successive entrenchments; but we can promise him the perusal of a much more amusing and philosophical treatise, than if he were to follow Mr. Colburn’s arrangement. He would thus first arrive at the history of the author’s mind, and then come in contact with the produce of its maturity. Yet read Mr Hunt’s history of himself when and how we will, it is a curious, amusing, and valuable document. The account of his boyhood is peculiarly picturesque and simple; the subsequent years are made of sterner stuff, and carry with them a deeper interest; and the book is not tiresome, for a page, until he takes us to sea with him; when the narrative will, we fear, be thought by many to display a little of the usual tediousness of a voyage.

We hope, and doubt not, that Mr. Hunt is as fond of hearing as of telling the truth. If so, he will have no objection to let us give him our opinion of his work, and of himself more especially, as the greater number of the few words we intend to use, will express nothing but approbation. ‘Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries,’ will receive a good deal of abuse, and give a great deal of amusement. It is written in a remarkably pleasant and lively style, without much pretension to dignity,—but with rather an uncommon share of ease, wit, fancy, and heartiness. We run on in Mr. Hunt’s company after so agreeable a fashion, that we never think of pausing to yawn, and seldom even to criticise. The only decided fault of his composition, for a certain fanciful quaintness is in our eyes any thing but a fault, is a proneness to employ common words in other than common meanings. The word ‘incontinence,’ for instance, is used over and over by our author, and never in the only sense which modern custom attaches to it. These things, however, do not occur so often as materially to impede our enjoyment of the many very amiable and admirable excellences which are spread over the whole of Mr. Hunt’s volume. His eagerness to promote the goodness and the happiness of mankind, his enthusiasm for the beautiful, his reverence for truth, his willingness to sacrifise those merely personal objects of popularity and wealth which his talents certainly put within his power, for the sake of battling against all constituted oppression, and overthrowing every popular prejudice; these are qualities of no ordinary nobility, which break out in every page of his book with a brightness that would well compensate us for ten thousand times more inconsistency and affectation than even a ‘Quarterly Reviewer’ would dare to charge him with. These are merits which belong to Mr. Hunt himself, and which would probably display themselves with equal vigour, whatever he might publish upon any subject. But this volume brings to its recommendations of its own, of which we would wish to say a word or two. Its peculiar and distinctive value consists in this, that it brings its nearer to several of the master spirits of our time, and gives us a fairer view of their stature and proportions, than any other book we are acquainted with. Mr. Hazlitt shews himself, in his volume of portraits, as in too many of his other writings, an intellectual harlequin, or literary posture-master, putting himself into attitudes for the amusement of his readers, now leaping through the fiery hoop of a paradox, now tumbling on the slack rope of a truism. Our own sketches of Contemporary Authors, will aim at scarcely any thing more than to exhibit and explain as clearly as we can the characteristics of celebrated writers, in so far as they are developed in their works. The author, whose volume we have just attempted to analyse, brings us into immediate personal intercourse with the celebrated men whom he describes, neither merging all sense of their individuality in the consideration of those general powers which they display in their works, nor looking at their domestic and social habits, and their minute external peculiarities, without a perpetual reference to the all-embracing sympathies, and all-penetrating intellects of which these are slighter and more familiar, though not less certain symptoms.

Mr. Hunt, we imagine, is not a person to mis-interpret the feeling in which we are about to address to him a very little advice. We would request him to consider, whether, differing so largely and decidedly as he does from society in general, on many most important subjects, it be wise in him to lay himself open to attack on points of no real importance to the world; to expose his own feelings to annoyance, and his own reputation to injury, by little follies and affectations which cannot possibly do good to any one. Surely he is certain of enough of fierce and brutal opposition for the weighty matters on which he is at outrance with established, and, we are willing to allow, corrupt feelings and opinions; without giving additional hold to the gripe of the adversary by petty egotism, and a liking for bringing on the scene all the lightest peculiarities of himself and his family. The prophet, who exposed himself to ravening beasts for his religion, encountered an honourable peril and won a holy renown; but the brahmin, who yields his limbs a feast and prey to vermin, gains nothing but the fretfulness of a disgusting irritation, and the name of knave, or fool, or madman. Mr. Hunt is none of these. We believe him to be a man of warm benevolence and strong principle; that he has considerable acquirements and extraordinary abilities is abundantly clear; who then but himself could possibly render him ridiculous?