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    Leigh Hunt and Barry Cornwall

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    IT has recently become the fashion to speak disparagingly of Leigh Hunt as a poet, to class him as a sort of pursuivant or shield-bearer to Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. Truth to tell, Hunt was not a Keats nor a Shelley nor a Coleridge, but he was a most excellent Hunt. He was a delightful essayist--quite unsurpassed, indeed, in his blithe, optimistic way--and as a poet deserves to rank high among the lesser singers of his time. I should place him far above Barry Cornwall, who has not half the freshness, variety, and originality of his compeer.

    I instance Barry Cornwall because there has seemed a disposition since his death to praise him unduly. Barry Cornwall has always struck me as extremely artificial, especially in his dramatic sketches. His verses in this line are mostly soft Elizabethan echoes. Of course a dramatist may find it to his profit to go out of his own age and atmosphere for inspiration; but in order successfully to do so he must be a dramatist. Barry Cornwall fell short of filling the role; he got no further than the composing of brief disconnected scenes and scraps of soliloquies, and a tragedy entitled Mirandola, for which the stage had no use. His chief claim to recognition lies in his lyrics. Here, as in the dramatic studies, his attitude is nearly always affected. He studiously strives to reproduce the form and spirit of the early poets. Being a Londoner, he naturally sings much of rural English life, but his England is the England of two or three centuries ago. He has a great deal to say about the "falcon," but the poor bird has the air of beating fatigued wings against the bookshelves of a well-furnished library! This well-furnished library was--if I may be pardoned a mixed image--the rock on which Barry Cornwall split. He did not look into his own heart, and write: he looked into his books.

    A poet need not confine himself to his individual experiences; the world is all before him where to choose; but there are subjects which he had better not handle unless he have some personal knowledge of them. The sea is one of these. The man who sang,

    The sea! the sea! the open sea! The blue, the fresh, the ever free!

    (a couplet which the Gifted Hopkins might have penned), should never have permitted himself to sing of the ocean. I am quoting from one of Barry Cornwall's most popular lyrics. When I first read this singularly vapid poem years ago, in mid-Atlantic, I wondered if the author had ever laid eyes on any piece of water wider than the Thames at Greenwich, and in looking over Barry Cornwall's "Life and Letters" I am not so much surprised as amused to learn that he was never out of sight of land in the whole course of his existence. It is to be said of him more positively than the captain of the Pinafore said it of himself, that he was hardly ever sick at sea.

    Imagine Byron or Shelley, who knew the ocean in all its protean moods, piping such thin feebleness as

    "The blue, the fresh, the ever free!"

    To do that required a man whose acquaintance with the deep was limited to a view of it from an upper window at Margate or Scarborough. Even frequent dinners of turbot and whitebait at the sign of The Ship and Turtle will not enable one to write sea poetry.

    Considering the actual facts, there is something weird in the statement,

    I 'm on the sea! I 'm on the sea! I am where I would ever be.

    The words, to be sure, are placed in the mouth of an imagined sailor, but they are none the less diverting. The stanza containing the distich ends with a striking piece of realism:

    If a storm should come and awake the deep, What matter? I shall ride and sleep.

    This is the course of action usually pursued by sailors during a gale. The first or second mate goes around and tucks them up comfortably, each in his hammock, and serves them out an extra ration of grog after the storm is over.

    Barry Cornwall must have had an exceptionally winning personality, for he drew to him the friendship of men as differently constituted as Thackeray, Carlyle, Browning, and Forster. He was liked by the best of his time, from Charles Lamb down to Algernon Swinburne, who caught a glimpse of the aged poet in his vanishing. The personal magnetism of an author does not extend far beyond the orbit of his contemporaries. It is of the lyrist and not of the man I am speaking here. One could wish he had written more prose like his admirable "Recollections of Elia."

    Barry Cornwall seldom sounds a natural note, but when he does it is extremely sweet. That little ballad in the minor key beginning,

    Touch us gently, Time! Let us glide adown thy stream,

    was written in one of his rare moments. Leigh Hunt, though not without questionable mannerisms, was rich in the inspiration that came but infrequently to his friend. Hunt's verse is full of natural felicities. He also was a bookman, but, unlike Barry Cornwall, he generally knew how to mint his gathered gold, and to stamp the coinage with his own head. In "Hero and Leander" there is one line which, at my valuing, is worth any twenty stanzas that Barry Cornwall has written:

    So might they now have lived, and so have died; The story's heart, to me, still beats against its side.

    Hunt's fortunate verse about the kiss Jane Carlyle gave him lingers on everybody's lip. That and the rhyme of "Abou Ben Adhem and the Angel" are spice enough to embalm a man's memory. After all, it takes only a handful.
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